England exited the European Under-21 Championships in the most familiar of circumstances – known well to those watching from abroad, or from the working men’s clubs across England, where the same situation occurs every two summers as England exit a tournament without impact. Like an overzealous boxer overcommitting to every hook and jab, it is always England on the end of a knockout blow, be it a Ronaldinho screamer, or the last-gasp theatrics of a penalty shootout.
Unfortunately, England do not seem to depart a tournament with much grace and for a number of years there has always been a scapegoat. Owen Hargreaves, Matthew Upson, goal-line technology, David Seaman, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and the metatarsal have all been on the end of stick from the press and the Three Lions following.
A flaw within English systems, English football, English coaching or even English tactics can never be found, because blame spread to these type of things would require work to fix, and not just that, but some serious cultural soul-searching. Certainly, you could find some credence in blaming cronyism for England’s latest upset on the world stage.
England’s recent history, both sporting and political, can be defined in the terms of nepotism and cronyism. A ‘jobs for the boys’ culture has emerged in both landscapes, and while one has serious impacts on the future of the nation, the other has large impacts on the future of the nation’s pastime.
The cabinets of the last few governments have been defined by the same faces – both Tory and Labour – and it would seem that actions are performed largely to appease old friends and acquaintances, rather than in the public interest. People like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson walk in and out of high-ranking positions and survive reshuffles, but it was the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, that seemed to benefit the most from cronyism, walking into a role as the head of the London Evening Standard despite owning only the most basic qualifications and experience in the field of journalism.
Osborne had made prior business deals and enjoyed a friendship with media mogul Evgeny Lebedev, and walked into the role at the Standard – only to take miserable potshots at the woman who sacked him, including current Prime Minister Theresa May. It’s perhaps Osborne that shows us the perfect working example of ‘jobs for the boys’ and indeed how it applies to football, because his appointment mirrors that of Tim Sherwood, another Londoner who has benefited hugely from his networking within the game, despite a clear lack of skills.
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Sherwood was a footballer who became one of the physical manifestations of the early Premier League years, not least when he lifted the trophy with Blackburn Rovers in 1995. He enjoyed a playing career that almost stretched to 20 years, but the contacts picked up in the game had ensured that he has been in a job long since his retirement from the pitch.
It was Sherwood’s relationship with Jamie Redknapp that proved the most fruitful. Certainly, the pair hooked up for a post-career role owning and operating a celebrity lifestyle magazine – aimed at those with fat wallets. The £15 cover price of the magazine and its limited audience led to its collapse.
This would have been the end for many but Sherwood proved resilient and walked into a role at Tottenham under Jamie’s dad, Harry. Sherwood’s first words after joining back up with Tottenham, a club he spent four years at in his playing days? “I’m not sure how I’m going to be involved,” It’s a phrase that hardly hints at any form of job description being issued – or any kind of application process at all.
Sherwood stayed on at Tottenham after Redknapp was sacked in role of Technical Director and helped lead Tottenham’s youth teams to success. Sherwood himself succeeded Redknapp’s successor at Tottenham, André Villas-Boas, in a blood and thunder five-month period defined more by Sherwood’s antics and ‘passion’ rather than the eventual sixth-placed finish.
Sherwood’s next role at Aston Villa ended in failure, however not much of it stuck to the Borehamwood boy, with the blame landing firmly at the feet of Randy Lerner, Villa’s owner, with Sherwood driving much of the knife in himself from a cushy seat as a media pundit. He wasn’t out of a job for long, though, as very much true to form, an old friend came calling.
Lee Power, one of Sherwood’s teammates during his 1990s Norwich City days, had tapped him up about taking up a role at Swindon. Many had thought that Sherwood would need to cut his teeth at a team in the lower reaches of the English Football League to unlock his talent, however that’s not what Power nor Sherwood had in mind.
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In the winter of 2016, Sherwood was appointed as Director of Football at Swindon and would oversee everything, including player selection, sidelining manager Luke Williams. Sherwood ran training, chose the players and the tactics, and left Williams to face the media. Sherwood’s longstanding connection with Power dragged Swindon into a relegation battle, and eventual relegation. Sherwood left, stating that his role at Swindon “wasn’t a proper job”.
Sherwood aside, what about England? Aidy Boothroyd’s close relationship with the Football Association and Dan Ashworth at the FA clearly held him in good stead for his appointment as England’s under-21 manager. While Boothroyd has been involved with the England setup for a number of years, he was hired despite his football philosophy centring around the exact opposite of what the FA wanted from their teams.
Boothroyd came into the role with a reputation for long-ball, direct football very much in the manner of ‘kick and run’, which failed the under-21 team in their match against Germany as their game plan fell apart. If the English game at club level is moving away from direct approaches to the sport, why was it used at the international level where future professionals are moulded?
The answer is Cronyism. Indeed, a report in Mirror Sport is very telling – not many applied for the job left open after Gareth Southgate ascended to the England manager role as they ‘always believed Boothroyd was getting the role’.
Cronyism in the English game is always going to be around in some form – the same faces will always get the same jobs. Tim Sherwood, Steve Bruce, Steve McClaren, Alan Pardew – when a role is open, it’s these men who will likely be at the top of the list. When a club ventures far and wide for a manager, even a known quantity like Marco Silva, it’s a decision picked apart by media figures like a set of vultures diving their beaks into old corpses.
While an English manager might be the safe bet, a safer bet would be that cronyism and the relationships fostered in the early days of the Premier League, is something that is holding a suffocating stranglehold on English football – and mainstream success won’t be found until it releases its grasp.
By James Rushton @jamorushton