As Sam Allardyce fell on his sword just 67 days into his tenure as manager of the England national football team, it became hard to countenance that the bottom of the barrel hadn’t finally been reached.
Widely seen as a poisoned chalice, the role of England manager has long since arrived as a gift which is wrapped in barbed wire. A form of footballing bomb disposal, it is an increasingly lucrative position, with a financial reward which reflects the uncertain and volatile nature of the job. It certainly proved explosive for Allardyce.
Allardyce appointment as successor to Roy Hodgson, in the wake of Euro 2016 elimination at the hands of Iceland, was viewed as a largely underwhelming one – another structurally limited one. Another instance when the Football Association opted for aEnglish-born coach ahead of a foreign one, thus narrowing the field of viable contenders.
Allardyce came to his elevated office as yet another England manager without a major English domestic club honour to show on his CV. An anomaly which was matched by Graham Taylor, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and Hodgson, while Steve McClaren had one League Cup success to show when he got the job. The position of England manager might well be the highest paid job in world football, but it is hard to suggest that it is one which is routinely filled by a man with a track-record that befits the position.
You could argue that many of England’s managers over the last quarter of a century have just as much poisoned the chalice themselves, as they have received it in that condition.
The baton that Bobby Robson handed over to Taylor in 1990 was a healthy one, but one which came with an aura of a responsibility of moving an under-performing nation forward via a slow dance, with steps which more often than not went; two steps forward, one to the side and one back. Giant leaps of progression have never really been an English thing when it comes to the international stage.
There was no such position as the England national manager until 1946, when Walter Winterbottom stepped forward from what was at the time the FA’s International Selection Committee to become the new focal point of ‘team manager’.
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Although he succeeding in gradually releasing the once vice-like grip on potential managerial autonomy for the role of England manager, Winterbottom found himself restrained and bound by the conditions of continuing to work alongside the selection committee throughout his 16 years at the helm.
Just as with their reticence and delays in joining FIFA, just as with their refusal to take part in the 1930, ’34 and ’38 World Cups, the FA’s reluctance to embrace the new and instead cling to the old went a long way in setting the tone at international levels, a tone in which England and its footballing governing body is still outwardly seen to this day in many respects.
The FA widely remains an entity perceived as one which looks inward upon itself, rather than one which faces outward. Appointments such as Allardyce and his predecessor Hodgson have gone a long way in validating this view, whether it is a view which is correct or not.
Alf Ramsey was the man who benefitted from Winterbottom’s painstaking foundation-laying work. Ramsey became the first England manager who was handed clear autonomy in coaching and selecting the players he wanted, yet the FA only really ceded to these terms and conditions as the shadow of a World Cup on home soil loomed ominously on the horizon.
Ramsey was still very much treated by FA board members as an underling, or a hired servant, even within the wake of winning the 1966 World Cup, even when Ramsey was awarded his knighthood in 1967, a full year before Harold Thompson, the chairman of the FA, got his.
Within the freedoms allotted to Ramsey in 1962 and the subsequent success he delivered in 1966, there was no turning back to the old ways for the FA. This brought a new element to the role, however, as internal politicking and jockeying for position of influence came to the fore.
Rivalry and resentment between Ramsey and Thompson were allowed to foster, and failure to reach the 1974 World Cup finals enabled Thompson to play the last card, in administering Ramsey’s belated sacking in April 1974, some six months after that fateful evening at Wembley against Poland. Even Ramsey’s biggest critics in the media viewed Thompson’s end treatment of him as brutal.
Ramsey’s chalice, once gleaming in the sunshine of 1966, had gradually poisoned over time. Clashing antlers with Thompson was hard enough but manageable, yet dealing with an increasingly invasive and invective media was something he couldn’t sufficiently handle. Ironically, having been the recipient of similar treatment from the FA himself, it was Ramsey’s often dismissive nature towards the press which helped cultivate the toxic journalism, that hounded him during his final few years in charge. The concept of ‘The Media vs The England Manager’ was born.
Read | Why Sir Alf Ramsey was English football’s great man of the people
This is a pattern which has very much remained in place for almost half a century now. While the pompous nature of those in charge of the FA was gradually diluted – eventually seeing the stereotypical brandy and cigar men succeeded around the boardroom table – by men with an eye for business, but not necessarily footballing visionaries, the public perception of all new England managers would be regulated by the way they were projected by the media.
Don Revie was the first man to go into this environment with his eyes wide open. It also blew up in his face. Despite a promising start to the new era, it soon went wrong and, finding the same dismissive nature from Thompson which Ramsey encountered, Revie took up a tactic of turning that dismissive nature back on his chairman. It was a dangerous game to play and one that, when coupled with deteriorating on-pitch results, seemed set to end with Thompson playing the last card in another antagonistic working relationship.
Revie, however, beat Thompson to it, when he controversially walked out of the job to take up the same role for the UAE. Revie simultaneously poisoned an already poisoned chalice.
While in modern-day football there are many managers who actively distance themselves from the England job, there was a time when it was the most coveted position in the game. Conversely, this was during an era when the club game offered greater monetary riches than the England job did. Now it is the opposite way around, but many candidates shy away from the position.
Brian Clough, billed as the people’s choice in 1977 was denied the job by Thompson, with Ron Greenwood seen as a similar safe pair of hands to the ones belonging to Joe Mercer, who the FA brushed aside in favour of Revie in 1974.
As the FA slowly evolved during the 1980s and ’90s, microscopic bit by microscopic bit, the class system in operation at Lancaster Gate began to erode. Sea-changes might have been indistinguishable to the naked eye, but the FA that Greenwood walked into in 1977 compared to the one that Taylor walked out of in 1993 were starkly different. No longer was there an inner fight between boardroom and dressing room over the privilege of whose back require slapping the most.
Greenwood, Robson and Taylor did, however, suffer far greater within the eye of the storm as far as media scrutiny went. Attacks from the press became shudderingly personal and the lines of journalistic professionalism were redrawn. Greenwood was talked out of resigning mid-flight between Basel and Budapest in June 1981 by members of his squad and backroom staff, after one particular savaging by the press in the wake of a World Cup qualifying defeat in Switzerland. Robson was almost buried under regular avalanches of criticism throughout his eight-year reign, while Taylor was caricatured as a root vegetable at one low-point.
Read | Joe Mercer: the England manager that never quite was
The dream job became the impossible job. Robson effectively saw the FA distance themselves from him on the basis of public projection. His near-miss on glory at Italia 90 came from a man who hindsight suggested should have been given another four years in charge. Terry Venables found himself in a similar, if somewhat more diluted situation in 1996. Just what Robson could have done with England post-Italia 90, and Venables post-Euro 96, is forever lost to the world of ‘what if’? They both had to prematurely hand the poisoned chalice back to a misguided FA.
Over the last 20 years the landscape has been re-sculptured. The FA generally backs their manager to the hilt, to the point of maybe even offering unnecessarily prolonged support in the case of Hodgson. Media scrutiny is still there but the personal abuse and open hostility of previous era’s is a thing of the past. As England sit half a century beyond their one success at senior international level, the expectation of success has diminished, and with it so has the demands and critical mass of the press. Eyes are rolled when England now fail. Lofted pitchforks and burning effigies are out of fashion.
Now there is a more modern game afoot. When Hoddle was brought down in late 1998 by a combination of airing some ill-advised opinions and the resultant media condemnation, it set a new precedent. Whether right or wrong, the unseating of an England manager for something other than on-pitch reasons became an unspoken holy grail.
Beyond Hoddle came Sven Göran-Eriksson and unsuccessful attempts by fake sheiks to directly bring him down, Fabio Capello and his backing for the captaincy of John Terry, and now we have the fate of Allardyce. The new biggest enemy of any prospective England manager isn’t his employers at the FA, nor is it a vilification centric media, it is actually themselves, their opinions and who they choose to share them with and for what reasons they do so. The chalice is undoubtedly tarnished, but it can now only be poisoned by the manager himself.
Combined with what appears to be a continued form of the same insularity which delayed the FA from embracing FIFA, the World Cup and full-time national managers, it’s hard to see how the pattern will change any time soon.
The FA once again stands at a crossroads – the same crossroads it stood at in July, in fact, with a young squad of bright and talented footballers who are under four years away from a European Championship which will culminate on home soil. A squad of players that are crying out for a successful, focused, tactically assured and outward looking individual to lead them.
Someone immersed within the English game, but maybe someone not English. The FA could go for enlightenment and expansion, or they could appoint more of the same once again. Either way, it could really do with being someone who won’t self-destruct within 67 days.
By Steven Scragg. Follow @Scraggy_74