Michael Appleton – England Manager?

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.

A lesson from England?

Two years ago, after their exit from the World Cup, I wrote a post about how England’s litany of failure drew me closer to Oxford. The club were on the up; promoted at Wembley a month before, while the inflated arrogance of the England team had been finally exposed. Then, I believed that England could learn from the journey that the club had been on; now, the situation has reversed.

I don’t think I was alone in failing to get excited about the quarter-final against Italy. My Facebook timeline suggested that the masochistic excitement that comes with epic and heroic failure is now reserved only for those who otherwise don’t care about football. It will probably be another couple of tournaments before those people realise that, actually these defeats are due to inability, not bad luck. Those who follow the game knew that England’s demise was inevitable and that it was not a question of if, but when, they would be put to the sword.

It wasn’t Roy Hodgson’s fault; the European Championships is the best international tournament in the world; it’s compact and high quality, there is no time for innovation and experimentation. You arrive and have to perform. At 64, Hodgon’s management career is unlikely to stretch beyond the next World Cup, he knows he won’t be around when a crock of technically gifted, tactically aware, creative English players arrive to rival the game’s elite.

Hodgson played England to their strengths – agricultural, lion hearted, purple faced, bulging veined football. In that sense, the campaign was a success because, finally, England have a manager who understand what he’s dealing with. He also knows that England’s problem run deeper than he can influence.

Just how deep? Just before extra-time, Gary Linekar asked his panel of experts what England needed to do now, the response was ‘dig in’, ‘believe’ and ‘stick at it’. During the commentary Mark Lawrenson said that Andrea Pirlo was ‘playing in his slippers’ and that his chipped penalty ‘took bottle’. Pirlo was playing out of his skin; the product of intensive coaching and a regimented fitness regime, his penalty was a product of highly developed technique. Until we stop talking about football like it’s an act of sorcery, there is no hope.

Failure is engrained deep in the psychological muscle memory of English football. We focus on ‘dreaded penalties’ with extra-time just an incidental preamble. We ignore that we haven’t beaten one of the elite nations (Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, Spain or France) in a tournament for 30 years, or that we’ve scored just once in extra-time in 23. What is needed is a structured analysis of the whole match process; not just what it feels like to walk from the centre circle to the penalty spot. If penalties are such a psychological block, then why not look at what can be achieved in extra time? What if we threw a bit of pace at the issue and went for glory? England’s failure was not to experiment while they could.

To see how far you can fall, you only have to look north to the disintegration of the Scottish game. That story is only partly about tax evasion. Scotland is the unlikely genesis of the modern game. If you read Inverting the Pyramid – A History of Football Tactics (not a title that impresses girls); it was the Scottish that invented passing (the English believed it effete). The lineage passes through Jock Stein and the Lisbon Lions, through Bill Shankly, Kenny Dalglish and Sir Alex Ferguson. Innumerable unknown Scots took their game all over the world.

Celtic and Rangers became monsters sitting on a brittle infrastructure; weakened by a lack of investment and anti-competitive tactics. First to go was the national team – England beware – then the corruption of competition through TV rights – England beware – then, when that wasn’t enough, debt accumulation and finally tax evasion. It has taken the whole Scottish game back to the dark ages. The likely rejection of Rangers’ ‘newco’ into the SPL is not what Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s chairman poetically refers to as ‘maintaining sporting integrity’, it allows Scotland, to use footballing parlance, to rebuild from the back.

When the Premier League billionaires get move on or subvert the game towards the illegal or cripplingly boring; the English game could easily drop to a level that would make a Euro quarter-final seem like putting a man on the moon.

But what does this teach Oxford? Well, our Conference days might remind us that there is no bottom to which we could fall. But England’s plight and the casual language we use shows that complacency is often deeper than we think.

Towards the end of last season, we reverted to back to our bad old ways – our entitlement to success, the oversimplification of the solution into spending money, the assessment that anything that wasn’t good was crap. Over the last three years we have built ourselves some solid foundations – from a midfield marshalled by Phil Trainer to one marshalled by Peter Leven – from Gary Twigg to James Constable. This close season has been quiet, because those foundations remain sound and possibly because of the £300k charge from Firoka which took us into the red last year. That charge may knock back the development plan a little; we need to manage it, not ignore it. 

Those who believe that future success is inevitable would do well to look towards the Scottish game and its collapse in chasing something unattainable, those who believe that the solution is easy, might look at the state of the English national team and how in two years nothing has changed, those who think it’s someone else’s fault, would do well to look at themselves.

Comment: Why it’s yellow and blue all the way

Why should I comment on England in a blog about Oxford United?

I struggle with my national identity; I’m half Scottish by blood, but almost entirely English by culture. However, I have always been drawn to the underdog over the dominant empire. Until about 15 years ago, I admired England for its dogged Englishness. Now, I am influenced by Oxford United and the joy of fleeting success and by this token I feel more affinity towards Scotland.

I don’t own any English merchandise, I don’t appreciate the modern English malaise of its right to success. On the other hand, I can’t deny that I enjoy the enhanced sense of national consciousness brought on by a major tournament campaign.

But, with England being ignominiously pulled to bits by Germany the reality of the Premier League’s influence has been fully revealed. The circus has airbrushed English football until it is barely recognisable. It has distanced the players from the fans; we are consumers to be entertained, not participants in some glorious mission. According to Wayne Rooney, we are there to consume without question. This is fine when it is entertaining but when it goes wrong it is difficult to grab hold of anything to care about.

Amidst all the recriminations, nobody seems able to admit that this group of players just isn’t very good. This is no ‘golden generation’, if it ever existed it blossomed but failed in 2006. Capello was handed the remnants of its edifice.

But what has this got to do with Oxford? Well, it’s about identity and affinity. The Premier League and its participants have destroyed England football’s national identity through its voracious appetite for global recognition. The profile of JT, Stevie G, Lamps, Cashley and Wazza have not only failed to meet their self-proclaimed world-class billing, they’ve succeeded in suffocating the development the next wave of talent, because it’s cheaper to buy it in then grow it yourself.

I don’t blame the players per se, but the Premier League has much to answer for. Not that Sky, the BBC or any major media outlet will ever take them to task. England, in the meantime, will just keep firing perfectly good managers with two-dimensional reasons of blame (Sven – promiscuous, Mclaren – dull. Capello – tactically inept).

As its relevance to me disappears over the horizon, I gravitate more towards the homely surrounds of the Kassam Stadium. Our aspirations aren’t global domination; they’re about working together to succeed – and celebrating together when we do.

So, introduce goal line technology, as if that will change anything at all about your relative global standing. Me, I prefer watching Damien Batt overrunning the ball into touch. At least I know he’s trying and that any success – modest as it may be – is well deserved.

Altrincham 1 Us 3

Like losing weight or getting fit, being a football fan is not a transient thing; it’s a lifestyle choice. Fundamentally, it’s about routine. I, like many others, live their supporting lives by a set of arcane rules. Some culturally programmed; like picking a team and sticking with them, some entirely individualistic.

For example, I only miss home games for three reasons; work commitments (occasionally), pre-planned holidays and weddings. When I am at a game, I don’t leave until after the final whistle (although I can be moving at the first blast of the referees whistle). I was there when Dean Windass nodded home our consolation in the annihilation by Birmingham in 1998. I’m also one of those standing waiting for the pain to end whilst others head off to queue for cup tickets or catch the kick-off of some international.

It is this compliance that means clubs are chosen over countries every time. Breaking the routine for you country takes you outside your comfort zone. On Saturday I was at a wedding with no signal on my phone. I was, therefore, out of touch with Saturday’s comforting win over Altrincham. I didn’t find out the result until Sunday morning, although I was kept intimately informed of the progress of the England game.

This, however, was of little interest. For one, I am half Scottish, and I suppose the purgatory of supporting Oxford means I am naturally more aligned to supporting the underdog. I am not interested in the self styled ‘best in the world’ English who persistently prove they are nothing but.

It’s not always been like this; I used to take a keen interest in the progress of the England team. But the marketing of the team and the league from which it derives (the best in the world) has eroded my interest to nothing. Take Frank Lampard, no JJB Sports is complete without a brooding shot of him staring into the middle-distance in the latest incarnation of the national uniform. Yet, Lamps’ exalted status is not as a result of his performances. It is because he is a ‘superstar’ and superstars play for their country – regardless of how well he does it. Blame it all on Gazza, but in some ways, it seems to enhance his status if they lose; then he can show how real his pain is. Wadda guy.

England games become more of a brand awareness campaign than a sporting contest. I simply can’t get excited by an advert; especially one which lacks imagination and ends in disappointment. Supporting Oxford may be a chore, but at least it has some meaning.

My relationship with top flight football is getting increasingly strained; the chances of Oxford ever achieving such status again is increasingly remote and, even if we were to achieve it, all likelihood is that we’ll end up with a foreign billionaire owner and a bunch of players from some obscure North African feeder team. This isn’t how I understand supporting a football club. I’m not particularly happy about where we are currently; but I’m not overwhelmed by the prospect of where we’re planning to go. Which makes my OCD routines of fandom all the more comforting.