Given that it’s international week and the transfer window has just closed, it’s only natural that the knives are out on Fleet Street.
Newspapers and websites can’t sell copies or harvest clicks with the usual fill of club match reports and transfer rumours, so instead we’ve had a week of attention-seeking columns bemoaning the state of the England team, deriding the Premier League’s poisonous impact on the game and calling for Roy Hodgson’s head on a plate.
It can’t be denied that the English national game is a shambles or that the Three Lions are a joke. The World Cup wasn’t as bad as many made out, but the fact remains that they generally play turgid, unimaginative football and have done for as long as memory serves. Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and, if we are feeling extremely generous, Jack Wilshere aside, there are no English players one can imagine playing with distinction for any of international football’s leading sides.
The Premier League is more concerned with making itself football’s NBA to allow any of its billions of pounds trickle down into the Football League, and the world-famous clubs that populate its upper echelons have too much money at stake to offer more than two or three places in their squads to English kids who will inevitably make youthful mistakes that cost them points. Due to the Premier League’s avarice, the Football League is light-years away from being able to develop these youngsters into top-level international footballers.
These truths are self-evident and it is only right that they are written about and reported on. However, the clamour for the removal of Roy Hodgson is nonsense. As far as I can tell, it based on nothing but nationalistic hubris and fuelled by the need to fill column inches with something eye-catching and controversial.
This is not to say that Hodgson is perfect. He isn’t. It was obvious when he was parachuted in with Euro 2012 looming large that his reign would be divisive and that there would be a time when the esteemed gentlemen of the English press wanted him gone.
After all, Hodgson stands at odds with everything the Premier League and its marketing have conditioned us to want. He is a quiet, awkward and avuncular man with bizarre tics and pragmatic ideas about how football should be played. His career has been a slow-burner; his eventual success the result of the experience gained as an itinerant manager of middling sides, often in unheralded, faraway leagues.
He was never going to be the messianic ideologue that marched into St George’s Park, tore up the FA’s player development manual and started again from scratch, Cruyff-style. Nor was he going to sit in a room full of journalists and give them the jingoistic, delusional quotes they needed to make a saleable story. No-one is disputing either of those facts, though the relevance of the second is questionable.
What is up for discussion is whether or not these mean he should be immediately dismissed after Monday night’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Switzerland.
Even if England lose – and there is every chance they will, especially if the increasingly pointless Wayne Rooney plays instead of Raheem Sterling in the number ten position – Hodgson should remain in charge. There are two obvious and irrefutable reasons why.
The first is that there is no other candidate to do the job. The current bookies’ favourite to replace Hodgson is Gary Neville. His popularity comes from speaking knowledgeably and convincingly on Sky Sports’ football coverage, but he has no management experience and has only coached twice: first for a few months at Bury while studying for his UEFA licences, and then as part of Hodgson’s current regime. There is no evidence to suggest Neville is yet ready to stand on his own two feet as a manager, let alone oversee the root-and-branch reform of English coaching.
Behind Neville in the minds of the bookies are José Mourinho, Gareth Southgate, Glenn Hoddle, Alan Pardew, and Harry Redknapp. Setting Mourinho aside as obviously unattainable and patently unsuited to the task at hand anyway, we are left with a depressing list of hopeless has-beens and never-will-bes. For all his imperfections, Hodgson is obviously a better manager than all of them.
The second reason to keep Hodgson is that he’s perfectly suited to working with this generation of players. As previously stated, the Premier League has long since abandoned England’s youngsters. Talented players in academies all over the country hit a glass ceiling at 18 or 19 and their progression ends right there. Until we find a way to integrate these kids and get them playing every week, we won’t produce players capable of dominating games against the very best – the long-running trend of England players who can run all day but who play with their heads down and their brains disengaged will continue.
We can pretend we live in an ideal world in which a genius would come take the job and immediately unleash a Bielsista combination of tiki-taka and gegenpressing on an unsuspecting and helpless world, but in reality it makes perfect sense for England’s second-tier squad to have a manager who specialises in managing second-tier teams.
Put simply, there’s no English Pep Guardiola on standby, and even if there was, no good would come from giving him a squad as poor as England’s. That might not sound like much of an endorsement for Roy Hodgson, but the truth is no-one’s case is stronger – even now.