Amongst some idle speculation about players coming into the club, news emerged this week that Michael Appleton had been installed as favourite for the England Under-21 job. This picked up momentum in the echo-chamber of social media to the point of people dissecting his every word to try and figure out the truth. However, if you step out of the Oxford United hashtag, there is very little coverage of the story.
Being a bookies’ favourite is often seen as a sign of increased certainty, but in fact it’s a reflection of the betting market. If a few people start putting money on a particular option, the odds narrow to reduce the betting company’s risk of having to pay out big money. If an option is being ignored, the odds widen to encourage people to take a punt in the event of a big pay-out. It’s just maths with a tangential relationship to reality. In a small market, which this is, it doesn’t take much to tip the odds.
The reality is that in many ways a progressive young coach like Appleton being England Under-21 manager seems to make sense. You can see how it fits. On paper it’s a role that develops the best talent in England, but only a few times a year and only for a few days at a time.
In an interview with Appleton he said that, in principle, he would be interested in a senior role with England, but that no approach had been made. That was re-edited by paranoid Oxford fans into a message that he would go, all the FA had to do was call.
You’re 40 years old and have (theoretically) the opportunity to take a significant coaching role with the national team. Regardless of the likelihood of it happening, why would you risk putting them off by saying you weren’t interested? What Appleton said was hardly him flashing his pretty ankles to catch the eye of his potential suitors, it was him answering a broadly hypothetical question. If he’d said no comment he’d have set more hares running, if he said he wanted it, he would have been seen as being presumptive and arrogant. Saying ‘maybe’ was his only option.
All of this combined to legitimise the story, although it was triggered by Bet Victor, the only company actually taking money on this. You would think that if there was money to be made, others would be on it, but no.
Regardless of the legitimacy of the story, would Michael Appleton want the job? Well, if you look at people like Gareth Southgate, Stuart Pearce and Roy Hodgson, a job with the FA offers significant job security. If you don’t do a Sam Allardyce and you keep your nose clean, you can expect a lucrative job which, on average, lasts about 3 years (Pearce stayed for 6 years without any obvious glory). A club manager’s life expectancy is just 1.2 years. Also, the money is good, Gareth Southgate was on £500,000 a year, significantly more than Appleton will be earning at Oxford. I imagine, given the governance surrounding the FA, the terms of the contract are likely to be pretty favourable in comparison to more punitive club arrangements with pay-outs and the like.
But there is a consequence; Southgate may have fallen on his feet getting the England job, although this is more by default than anything and I don’t think anyone is expecting him to drive the country to World Cup glory. But, otherwise, England Under 21 manager is a dead-end job. Stuart Pearce, Peter Taylor and David Platt followed up their stints in the lukewarm seat, with bumbling careers in the Football League before disappearing into some backroom or other. Most former managers end up taking up short-term roles in football backwaters in India or Thailand, probably on reputation alone.
The problem is there’s no glory in the role. There is only one cup to win, the Under-21 European Championship, and we haven’t won that in over 30 years. If you do win it, then it’s celebrated in the context of what a future full squad might achieve (e.g. nothing). The Young Crop of Talented English Players are the product of the Premier League glory train not the England coaching set up. You get to work with young players, but only those not quite good enough for the full squad. And, of course, you’re not really working with them at all, you have them for a few days here and there before they disappear off to parade around Premier League substitute benches to impress girls. Nobody leaves the Under-21 job with their reputation enhanced, apart from amongst FA suits, who are broadly impressed by your ability to not cause too much bother. Naysayers will point to Gareth Southgate; who’s key redeeming feature is his politeness. His management career beyond England is to get Middlesborough relegated.
Also, the general stock of international football falls by each passing year; it’s hardly on its knees, but the World Cup’s reputation is gently falling apart and we’ve got five more years of the stench of FIFA corruption to pass before it might begin to redeem itself. Who knows how much people will really care, particularly in England, by the time the 2026 World Cup comes around?
We can’t offer Appleton the money that he might get with England, and although he’s at a club which offers much greater job security than average, it’s not likely to be as safe as a job nobody really cares about.
Appleton’s stock has risen significantly in the last year at Oxford – the glories of promotion, Wembley, derby wins and cup upsets have seen to that. He may get us into the Championship, or perhaps attract a club from a higher division to take a punt on him in which case his salary is likely to jump towards what he might earn with the Under 21s. There’s little doubt, however that the England job though safe, would be a cul-de-sac for someone with a bit of ambition.