Uniting Jack

I just caught up with the documentary, Finding Jack Charlton that aired on BBC 2 last week. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a butcher’s. The film recounts Charlton’s extraordinary contribution to Irish football (and Irish society in general), as well as providing previously unseen footage of Big Jack’s final months as he battled dementia.

It works well as a piece of nostalgia, but the film offers so much more than that. For, in modern Irish history, Charlton is a truly remarkable figure. Prior to his record breaking tenure, the Republic of Ireland had not qualified for a major tournament. Indeed, the 26-county team was the poor relation of the Irish football sides, Northern Ireland qualifying for the World Cup finals as recently as 1986.

By the time Charlton left the role, the Republic had qualified for two World Cup finals (famously reaching the quarter-finals in Italia ’90) and a European Championships. It’s an incredible turn of fortunes and testament to the sheer force of personality and charisma Charlton typified. It’s hard to imagine anyone else leading such an unlikely revolution.

Of course, Big Jack’s football was pragmatic and functional rather than a purist’s dream. The end justified the means, for sure, but any manager can only work with the resources at his disposal. The use of the ‘granny rule’ was equally controversial, albeit ahead of its time-rightly or wrongly-in international sport.

Charlton’s Ireland weren’t Brazil, but I think memory deceives us a little in that regard. Italia ’90 is the first major tournament I can remember as a kid. That Irish team was better than it ever got credit for.

But on-field progress was only a fraction of what Charlton brought to Irish football. He also provided (and this is clearly seen in the documentary) mentorship to a generation of Irish footballers. This is especially visible in Charlton’s relationship with the brilliant but troubled Paul McGrath. The most poignant part of the film shows Charlton, his memory now cruelly restricted by his condition, recognising McGrath in footage of Irish football’s golden era.

There’s also the intangible contribution those Irish sides made to the country at large. Without resorting to cliché, we know the sort of Ireland Big Jack came to when he took the reins in the 1980s. Rife unemployment, economic insularity and social conservatism were all still prevalent. The Troubles were at their height in the North. By the time Jack left, the country was transformed.

There’s much to explain the changes. So much happened. Internationalism, U2, secularisation of society, the peace process, and the genesis of the Celtic Tiger. Of course, we can over egg the pudding about how much Big Jack and his army contributed to any of that. But it’s equally wrong to underestimate the contribution. For Jack Charlton, and the football teams he created, undoubtedly helped change Ireland in a profoundly positive way.

It was remarked often after his death last year that Charlton was probably the first Englishman that the Irish really took to their hearts sincerely. A World Cup winner in 1966 that became an Irish institution. If he did nothing else, that’s a wonderful legacy. Actually, Big Jack Charlton was much more than that.

A unifying figure who brought hope to an island bereft of hope when he came. Someone who transcended national and geographical boundaries to deliver fantastic memories for the Irish people: sports fans and non sports fans alike. A Geordie who brought pleasure to a nation that his Irish peers could only dream of.

P.S. I’ve just finished James Haskell’s autobiography. I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I started but thoroughly enjoyed it. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but Haskell is that rarest of things in the modern game: a character. Through the years, rugby had its personalities. It’s one of the things that sets it out from other sports.

However, increasingly in the modern game, players come across as almost robotic; shorn of personalities or at least shielding their real personalities in favour of carefully constructed public images. You couldn’t accuse Haskell of that.

The book is a decent yarn that covers a good cross section of modern rugby history. And it’s hilarious. Without spoiling, he describes a bizarre photo shoot that took place after he signed for Stade Francais and his retelling of the episode had me literally laughing out loud!

The book is full of nice stories and anecdotes like that, although it’s not for the easily offended. Well worth a read for any rugby fans looking for a light hearted but interesting sports book.


Has luck of the Irish run out?

How to handle setback and disappointment. A very pertinent question after a sobering week for Irish sport. First of all, we had the acute of heartache of the football, as Martin O’Neill’s men suffered a near capitulation against a superb Denmark side. A couple of days earlier, their northern counterparts saw their own World Cup hopes go for a Burton against the Swiss. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there was confirmation that Ireland’s bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup has been unsuccessful, with the Irish coming three out of, er, three. Pretty disappointing.

With the rolling 24-hours news cycle we have nowadays, there’s been plenty of analysis and discussion of each of these events. Thus, I don’t feel the need to bore you with any further dissection of the defeats. What interests me more is the reaction to these setbacks. Vituperation and indignation everywhere. I think it tells us something about the modern Irish psyche. And the reflection isn’t necessarily positive.

Compared to the more phlegmatic and philosophical responses of days gone by, modern reaction to Irish setbacks borders on the hysterical. We’re either the best in the world or the worst. We’ve lost all sense of perspective. There’s little balance, no objectivity or logic anymore. In the midst of painful defeat, our players and administrators are castigated as hopeless, making the immediate and seamless transition from heroes to villains. In the battle for collective self-awareness, we’re in danger of losing the plot. You only have to read the column inches and listen to the phone-ins to tap into the anger and umbrage stemming from last week’s defeats. The reaction of fans to the Denmark loss, in particular, is extremely interesting.

Much of the public ire has been directed at Ireland boss, Martin O’Neill. Of course there’s nothing new about a manager incurring the wrath of fans following a heavy and bruising defeat. That’s football. Given the scale of Ireland’s reversal, surely it’s quite understandable that O’Neill should feel the heat? Maybe. But consider for a moment the rationale behind condemning a manager as consistently successful and overachieving as the former Celtic boss. In the overwhelming sense of grievance and injustice, it’s instantly forgotten that a less than vintage Ireland team wouldn’t have got anywhere near a World Cup play-off without the managerial talents of Martin O’Neill!

If anything, the reaction to the Rugby World Cup decision has been even more irrational. Granted, a lot of work has been put into a bid that was meant to finally deliver a World Cup on home soil. This was presumed to be our moment to shine; possibly Ireland’s only chance to stage a genuinely prestigious international sports event. Dignitaries as luminous as Dick Spring, Leo Varadkar and Brian O’Driscoll were drafted into an Irish dream team to woo our fellow rugby brethren to the cause. Therefore, the  confirmation on 15 November  that France had got the nod to host rugby’s showpiece event in 2023 was a profoundly bitter pill to swallow for the Irish delegation.  In the last few weeks, us Irish haven’t exactly covered ourselves in glory, though.

When World Rugby announced that its team of consultants were recommending South Africa for RWC 2023 a couple of weeks ago, the Irish rugby public became apoplectic with rage. Punters, fans and administrators alike were incredulous that Ireland’s bid wasn’t being championed, as if we deemed its rubber-stamping a fait accompli.

The IRFU wrote an uncharacteristically strongly worded letter to World Rugby on the back of South Africa’s recommendation, pointing out alleged defects in both South Africa’s bid and the consultancy process in general. World Rugby was (not so subtly) reminded that delegates weren’t compelled to go with the independent recommendation and that all three prospective hosts were capable of staging the tournament.

Perhaps there was an element of sour grapes in the Irish response. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of the IRFU’s concerns, I wonder if they would have been so vocal on the defects of the process if they’d secured the recommendation rather than South Africa? As it was, neither South Africa or Ireland were victorious in the end but one wonders if the tone of Ireland’s objections did the Irish bid many favours in the final analysis. After all, in the cosy, diplomatic world of rugby administration, blazers aren’t used to being lectured and publicly criticised over perceived flaws in their processes.

In the aftermath of the rugby and football disappointments, our response betrays much that’s wrong with modern Irish attitudes. We tend to overestimate ourselves and often fail to give due respect to our opponents. For example, it was naive in the extreme to think that our structural and resource deficiencies would be ignored in the World Cup assessment.

After all, several of our stadiums needed significant upgrades prior to 2023 and one of the grounds (Casement Park) has yet to be built. In contrast, if the World Cup were to be held tomorrow, both France and South Africa could easily accommodate an event of such magnitude. Indeed, both nations have recent experience of hosting major sports tournaments. Of course Ireland has plenty of time to modernise its infrastructure but it’s understandable the ready made nature of our opponents’ facilities became one of the deciding factors in World Rugby’s decision.

There’s something fundamentally unattractive about some of our recent attitudes to setback. Us Irish are at our best when we’re modest, self-effacing and humble. A tenacious and likeable underdog that’s universally admired for those characteristics. As the ultimate exponents of fun and craic. Arrogance and overconfidence don’t sit anywhere near as well in our national mindset. And yet these are the undesirable traits we’re increasingly exhibiting.

Maybe it’s small nation syndrome. You only have to observe the bouts of reflection and recrimination that follow every Olympic Games to see modern Ireland’s inflated opinion of itself. It’s almost as if we somehow expect success. Why? We’re a small country. And we obviously don’t have the resources of the USA or China! It seems we’ve developed a bit of a chip on our shoulders, a warped and unjustified sense of entitlement.

It’s fine when we’re winning, of course, but negative attitudes have become conspicuously prevalent alongside the pain of defeat. We saw it in the response to Rugby World Cup rejection and in the ongoing excoriation of Martin O’Neill. We’ve lost the run of ourselves and we need to row back. It’s time to restore some semblance of balance and perspective.

One of the best things about being Irish is, after all, our smallness. And I mean that it in the best possible way. We’re minnows. A tiny country whose people have shaped the world and done outstanding things on the global stage. A country that’s produced Liam Neeson, George Best, John Hume and U2. A people who consistently succeed in the midst of severe adversity and tragedy; winning despite our small stature. That’s precisely why our victories mean so much. And why handling defeat should be easy for us. After the ludicrous hysteria of recent days, we’d do well to remember that.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey






The Sky’s The Limit?

“When all else fails, there’s always delusion.” I heard this quote recently (I can’t remember exactly where) and thought it was rather wonderful. It’s so true. When every tactic, strategy and carefully thought out plan has been exhausted and proved ineffective, there’s always a guaranteed fall back. Pretend that everything’s alright and convince all and sundry-yourself included-that your analysis is correct. It’s fool proof. A brilliant coping mechanism that can be applied to any scenario or circumstance.

I thought of the saying when learning of Sky Sports’ latest re-brand. For those who missed it, the traditional Sky Sports channels have been replaced by more bespoke versions-Sky Football, Sky Cricket, Sky F1, Sky Golf and a couple of miscellaneous sports channels. It’s an interesting gimmick and something that’s actually quite novel in this part of the world. One can understand the appeal for those besotted aficionados who can’t get enough of their chosen sport. A potential game changer in every sense of the term. It feels like this is a critical moment for the once unimpeachable Sky Sports brand. Satellite t.v.’s premier sports station is facing stiff and unprecedented competition from ambitious rival BT Sports, who are relentlessly going after Sky in the world of football rights and have just snatched exclusive rights to rugby’s Champions Cup from their more established competitor.

Changed times indeed for Rupert Murdoch’s flagship station. I’m old enough to remember when Sky first emerged as major players in the sports market over 25 years ago. There was widespread dismay in the football world when the young, upstart company- as it was then- secured exclusive rights to the newly formed F.A. Premier League. It was indeed an impressive coup and one that firmly cemented Sky’s reputation as major players in the sports business. And how the t.v. establishment fretted. How would fans cope when deprived of terrestrial coverage of major sporting events? How could the emergent station emulate the charm and experience the Beeb and ITV brought to the biggest sporting occasions?

However, all those unfounded fears and worries ebbed away when Sky’s groundbreaking Premier League coverage commenced in the early ’90s. Armchair fans the world over were quite simply blown away by Sky’s unique and inventive coverage. For not only did Sky do sports coverage bigger, they did it better. It didn’t matter what your sport of interest was, Sky had you covered. Football, rugby, cricket, boxing. Sky slowly and steadily secured the key rights to the events that really mattered and then proceeded to fill their ultra-modern studios with the best pundits each sport had to offer. The formula was simple but it was supremely effective. It wasn’t just that Sky was ahead of the game. It was the game.

We know how it ended, but think of the glory days of Sky Sports with Richard Keys and Andy Gray fronting Sky’s glossy and informative football coverage. But it wasn’t just football that saw Sky push the boundaries. They had the best pundits and analysts across the board-Stuart Barnes in rugby, Barry McGuigan in boxing, David Gower and Ian Botham in cricket. The deep, perceptive analysis was complemented by cutting edge technology that served to enhance and improve the viewer experience beyond anything hitherto seen. So, why the change?

Certainly, from a fans’ perspective, there’s a feeling that Sky has lost its way a little. As well as the fierce competition from the brash BT Sports machine referenced above, Sky is struggling to retain a more fickle, modern audience whose attention span has never been shorter. We’re living in a world full of plentiful distractions and consumers often don’t have the time to absorb t.v. sport in the vast quantities consumed in days gone by. In the era of Netflix, Box Sets and streaming, it’s hard not to see the Sky Sports model as being a little out-of–date.

Sky’s current malaise is illustrated by its muddled and often eccentric rugby coverage. Rugby on Sky used to be magnificent, boasting intelligent, informed analysis by some of the game’s foremost thinkers. Sky still have the best pundits rugby has to offer but they increasingly choose to use them in a very unorthodox fashion. Take the recent Lions tour. With proper analysis increasingly cut short, punters were treated instead to bizarre, scripted monologues from Will Greenwood and Scott Quinnell.

You know the sort of thing. These dramatic, rehearsed speeches have been part of the Sky rugby landscape for some time but the Lions series saw these skits taken to a whole new level. Surely there can’t be much demand for these distractions? They’re so unnecessary. Greenwood and Quinnell are both likeable, vastly experienced rugby men and have so much to offer in terms of insight. It’s such a pity that their undoubted talents are being wasted through these annoying sideshows.

Rugby on Sky was once one of my foremost pleasures in life but I find myself increasingly turned off by the direction its coverage is going. I say all this as a confirmed and established fan of Sky. Despite a legion of reasons to do it, I just can’t bring myself to cancel my subscription. In my view, the Sky platform is still light years ahead of its rivals. They are still the leaders and standard bearers in this competitive and dynamic industry. No other channel-BT, Channel 5, ITV-no-one- can hold a candle to Sky in terms of output, quality, production values and the sheer breadth of coverage.

And although not every gimmick works, they are still the innovators. What’s more, while Sky might not be as weighty as it used to be, it’s still the fans’ best bet when looking for informed and clever commentary. Who knows if the re-brand will achieve what the station wants it to, but I, for one, wish them all the best. Sky’s change of emphasis indicates that sport’s premier station has no intention of falling for delusion. It remains to be seen if the changes persuade viewers to keep their remote controls from surfing.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpey

Culture Clash for Big Sam

During the last year, I’ve discovered the pleasure of podcasts. Podcasts are great. For the uninitiated, they are like radio, except you choose the content you want to listen to. It’s one of my simple pleasures in life, sourcing a podcast on a topic and then spending an hour or two listening to an informed discussion. In recent times, I’ve listened to several podcasts on diverse subjects, from music to current affairs and a host of other things in between. In terms of sport, there are some terrific podcasts available.

My personal favourite is Off The Ball from Newstalk. Every week, Joe Molloy and the team provide informed and entertaining discussion from the Irish sports world. All major sports are covered, with the station providing extensive analysis on the hot topics of the day. The journalism is, in itself, excellent, and the team always provides pundits of the highest quality. It’s worth tuning in to listen to Joe Brolly or Paul Kimmage alone-both are Off The Ball regulars. The predominant subject being discussed last week was of course Sam Allardyce’s ignominious departure from the England post after only one game in charge. As usual, Off The Ball was my first port of call when looking for perceptive analysis. The Allardyce debate made for interesting listening, to say the least.

For those who don’t know, England’s manager left his post last week following an investigation by the Daily Telegraph into alleged corruption in English football. Part of their expose featured  clandestine footage of Allardyce negotiating a speaking engagement with businessmen that supposedly had interests in the Far East but who were, in fact, undercover Telegraph reporters. The rush to judgement on Big Sam was predictably speedy, with the prevailing consensus holding that his position had become untenable once the Telegraph footage came to light. The common view was that such enterprises were inconsistent with Allardyce’s exalted position and were fundamentally unbecoming of an England manager. To make matters worse, the former West Ham boss apparently discussed potential circumvention of FA rules on the contentious matter of third party ownership. The media verdict on Allardyce was both harsh and immediate. Many condemned England’s manager as foolish, while greedy was the adjective that featured most often in commentaries.

Whether you view the Allardyce sting as entrapment or a fine piece of investigative journalism, it’s hard not to have an opinion on his dramatic fall from grace. While the Telegraph has undoubtedly done us a service in publicising discussions those involved would have preferred to stay hidden, I think these events tell us much more about the changing nature of football than they do about any individual. Far be it from me to defend Allardyce, but some aspects of the media narrative don’t really add up. Firstly, in relation to greed, is it possible to condemn anyone as greedy in a world where market forces dominate and superstar players regularly earn in excess of £200,000 a week? When the underlying climate is intrinsically avaricious, how can anyone in football condemn Allardyce without leaving themselves open to hypocrisy? Moreover, as far as misdemeanours go, using your position to negotiate some keynote speaking isn’t exactly the worst practice ever committed in football.

I think most analysts have got this story wrong. In my view, Allardyce’s fall has little to do with greed and nothing whatsoever to do with corruption. Instead, Allardyce’s demise is about culture. Sam Allardyce didn’t change. Football did. Big Sam has long been perceived as the archetypal old-school manager; a traditional British boss with an instinctive feel for the conventions of the English game. Ironically, Allardyce’s lack of modernity was probably one of the reasons he was so attractive to his FA employers. After the cosmopolitan sophistication of Sven Goran-Eriksson and Fabio Capello and the eccentricity of Steve McLaren and Roy Hodgson, here was a man who embodied the most desirable traits of the good, old-fashioned British football manager. Someone grounded by modesty and grit, yet still possessing a sharp football brain and a humble intellect. For years, these were the sort of managers that prospered in English football.

However, the world of football has changed beyond all recognition in the last 20 years. Old-school managers like Allardyce have been steadily replaced by a new breed of boss. These new kids on the block exude sophistication and finesse; they have little concern for outdated and antediluvian attitudes. It’s easy to think of the prototype of the modern manager: young, brash, confident and cultured. Usually a former player. Whereas once guys like Big Sam were ubiquitous in English football, that style of manager is gradually becoming extinct, replaced by the Mourinhos, Guardiolas and Pochettinos of this world. It’s hard not to feel for the old-school manager. Football is abandoning them one by one. And as they fall, the modus operandi of the traditional boss slowly disappears. Allardyce has done nothing wrong, but still finds himself obsolete.

I don’t know everything that the Telegraph has uncovered, but I’d be very surprised if corruption was endemic in English football. Modern managers simply have way too much to lose to think in terms of “bungs.” Granted, power and money corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton famously observed. But why would managers and players risk their livelihoods in this crass fashion when it’s so easy to enrich yourself quite legitimately in the modern game? It just doesn’t add up. Where vast riches exist in any walk of life, there’s always the potential for corruption. However, it’s hard to believe that such practices are institutionalised in modern football. And whatever rump of malpractice that still exists will eventually be washed away by the vast corporate machine that is the Premier League. As for Big Sam, don’t be too hard on him. Allardyce has certainly been naive and, by his own admission, a little foolish. And yes, he’s probably been a tad greedy. But no crime has been committed.  It must be hard when the world you’ve known changes before your very eyes. That’s the thing about culture. If you don’t change with it, it will leave you behind for good.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey




Can The Stick Exist Alongside The Carrot?

Should a manager or sports coach ever criticise his/her players in public? This rhetorical question comes to mind on the back of comments made by United boss Jose Mourinho in the last couple of weeks. Mourinho was quite outspoken about certain players in the aftermath of recent defeats and the Portuguese manager’s attitude has sparked a debate over what is and isn’t appropriate for someone in his position. Further to my last blog, the Red Devils predictably bounced back (what a cringe-worthy and cliched phrase!) from their early season slump with an emphatic victory over last season’s champions Leicester City. The United boss was completely vindicated in his selections and tactics as the Old Trafford men slayed the Foxes with overwhelming ease. Were Mourinho’s previous statements justified on this basis? Certainly, whatever the United boss said to his players, it seemed to work a treat.

The answer depends on your perspective and level of tolerance. Conventional football wisdom decrees that you never criticise your players in public. According to this logic, the environs of the dressing room are sacrosanct and any harsh words uttered behind closed doors should remain eternally private. For example, Alex Ferguson had a strict policy of omerta in relation to his players and obsessively refrained from critiquing them in the public arena. Assuming that the former United boss was much more direct behind closed doors, overt public criticism was nevertheless a territory he never ventured into. However, his current successor is cut from a different cloth. Mourinho is notoriously bold, brash and outspoken. United’s manager has no qualms about speaking his mind and seems unconcerned whose feathers get ruffled in the process. While Mourinho would probably contest that he’s overtly, publicly critical of his players, there’s little doubt that the former Chelsea coach is more forthright in his views than many of his managerial peers and predecessors. So, which approach is correct?

It’s easy to maintain the traditional view that players should never be criticised in public. After all, it’s only logical that players respond better to praise than opprobrium. However, I think that public censure can sometimes be justified if it provokes and inspires the right response. It’s a rather counter-intuitive argument to make, but some individuals respond well to honest, forthright critique. As a motivational tool, constructive criticism can be extremely effective. Apart from anything else, it can induce a desire to prove the manger or coach wrong. Similarly, many players respond best to honest and accurate appraisals of their performance. While well-meaning platitudes are well and good, nothing beats an honest and candid assessment of players’ performance aspects that can be improved. It’s always helpful to have essential evaluation measured in a quantifiable way. The key word here is “constructive.”

I believe firmly that individuals are always motivated by praise and encouragement above anything else. This is true in any walk of life. Sport, business, the arts: you name it. I was never much of a rugby player, but I played a little in school and college. I was very enthusiastic, but lacked the coordination and skill to be much of a player. I remember one of my coaches being particularly harsh on some of us. This man had little inclination to encourage or spare any feelings in respect of our efforts. His philosophy was very much one of tough love. And this was supposed to be a fun experience?! Yes, a good (metaphorical) kick up the arse is needed sometimes, but surely there has to be a combination of carrot and stick employed? My abiding memory of this coach’s approach is how utterly self-defeating it was. Regardless of what he thought of our abilities, surely he realised that he would have got more out of us by praising every once in a while? To be fair, this approach wasn’t particularly uncommon. It’s how things were done in those days. A sort of faux drill sergeant mentality.  In my experience, it never worked very well. Professional sport is a much different world to social rugby of course, but the basic principle is the same. How best to motivate an individual? How tough should a coach be?

Sometimes unfiltered honesty is the best policy. Whatever one thinks of Mourinho’s exhortations, they seem to have worked pretty well. Moreover, the United manager’s record confirms that his methods usually succeed. When dealing with elite footballers, the last thing you want is a bunch of precious prima donnas who regard any sort of criticism as a form of personal judgement. After all, we’re talking about multi-millionaire superstars here. Surely, the least we can expect of them is an ability to withstand a little honest critique? The key is balance, in my view. Although it can be beneficial to put the cat among the pigeons sometimes, coaches must be careful not to erode the unity and purpose that underscores any team. Modern players are much more delicate flowers than their forerunners. It’s a fine line to tread. Jose Mourinho is infinitely more qualified to make these judgements than I am and I’m sure he’ll get the balance right.  Constructive criticism certainly has its place, but there’s no substitute for sincere encouragement. In sport, history tells us the best results are achieved by a careful juxtaposition of carrot and stick.


Horrors for Hodgson

Three Lions on a Shirt,

Jules Rimet Still Gleaming,

Thirty Years of Hurt,

Never Stopped Me Dreaming.”

Thirty years of hurt? I’m guessing a majority of English football fans would give their right arms for it only to be thirty years at this moment. You must have been living on the moon if you don’t know the biggest sports story of the week. I don’t suppose any of you missed it, but for those that did, England crashed out of the Euros in the last 16 to the minnows of Iceland. Tiny Iceland. One of the incredible statistics being bandied about is that apparently the Scandinavian island has a population equivalent to Leicester. The 2011 census estimated Leicester’s population as approximately 330, 000. In terms of population, this allegedly makes the midlands town the eighth biggest city in England. You could say the result was like Premier League Champions Leicester City beating England’s national team. But it’s not. The majority of Leicester’s players don’t hail from the city, and the club’s owners are free to sign players from all over the world. To use a better analogy, then, this was like a Belfast team defeating England’s superstars, with the side being comprised only of Belfast born players. Although rather glib, such statistics help put Iceland’s achievement in some kind of context. I’ve been to Iceland. It’s a beautiful country full of wonderful, natural sights, but they wouldn’t be known as one of international football’s superpowers.

I remember when Terry Venables was England manager. English press and supporters absolutely loved him. Venables was regarded as a tactical genius, a coaching guru who could inspire any team to consistent levels of achievement. He used to talk about the “Christmas Tree” formation. Or maybe it was the “Diamond” formation? I don’t know. To be honest, I kinda switch off when football people make the game out to be overly technical or complicated. Football is one of the simplest games imaginable. I just don’t get it when fellas make it sound like rocket science or existentialist philosophy. Nevertheless, whatever Venables had, it worked. The former Spurs manager successfully got his charges to the semi-finals of Euro ’96, the first major tournament held in Blighty since Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy. 1966 and all that. English football was carried along on a wave of popular euphoria until the inevitable moment when Gareth Southgate missed the penalty to send the rival Germans into the final in England’s stead.  Oh well. At least, he got a Pizza Hut advert out of it. My point is this. Even the oracle that was Venables couldn’t get the perpetual under achievers over the line. What chance does anyone else have? I saw a documentary about Euro ’96 recently which revealed that Venables is now running a hotel in Spain. I imagine he’s not coming back any time soon.

From the outside, it seems that one of the biggest problems facing English football is a lack of self-awareness. Post-1966, the English have always had a superiority complex when it comes to football. And indeed most other major sports too! They think they should always be contenders. The prevailing attitude even creeps into sports like tennis where the English have no reason (based on history or climate) to consider themselves one of the game’s superpowers. Therefore, there’s usually a massive disconnection between expectation and achievement. It’s almost inherent, built into the English psyche. Before I get inundated with responses from beleaguered English friends, I’m not talking about the average English punter here. I understand that expectation among English football fans, for example, has been consistently low for many years. Year after year of penalty shoot-out elimination and knockout heartache does that to you. I’m talking about the media. The English press just can’t help themselves. Despite protestations to the contrary, they will always champion their boys as potential winners. It’s the same old story. For sure, they’ll mercilessly slate Hodgson’s boys for the latest underachievement, but as soon as his successor musters a couple of wins, they’ll talk England up as football giants again. It’s inevitable.

It’s a curious phenomenon. And it’s a syndrome we see at close hand from this side of the Irish Sea. Despite having our own televisual and media outlets, us Irish spend a disproportionate amount of time watching English t.v. and reading English papers. Therefore, we’re in an excellent position to assess the English propensity to talk up their sports stars. Sure, all countries do it, but the English are masters at hyping their sports men and women. One of the reasons we’re fascinated by such hyperbole in Ireland is that it’s so different from our own experience and reaction. In Ireland, we’re instinctively modest about our sporting prospects. Even on the rare occasions our sportsmen actually deliver, we scarcely believe it. It doesn’t seem real. We’re programmed to accept mediocrity and disappointment as par for the course. Any success we achieve, therefore, is welcomed as an unexpected delight. And once the euphoria dissipates, we eagerly resume our natural role as underdogs and challengers.

From the outside, certainly, it seems the English media view their sports teams and individuals differently. Maybe it’s a relic of empire, but the English appear to have an ingrained propensity to expect success. And such expectation doesn’t always correlate with the ability of the individuals and teams concerned. The consequence? The English public is almost guaranteed to experience disappointment. When the only yardstick of success is actually winning the competition, you’re setting your teams up for constant failure. The only way to break this perpetual cycle is to lower expectations.The English football manager’s job is a poisoned chalice. Regardless of remuneration, who’d want an impossible job? I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’ll be a queue of top managers wanting to succeed the unfortunate Roy Hodgson.

As a post-script to my last blog, I notice that Boris Johnson has withdrawn from the race to be prime minister following the latest bout of infighting  within the Tory party. I know there are more global issues at work, but given the belief that one of the primary drivers of the Brexit campaign was giving Boris a shot at his lifelong dream, doesn’t the Leave victory seem a little hollow now he’s backed down? The Boris-supporting leavers have campaigned for something that’s proved ultimately futile, a quest for professional aggrandisement that hasn’t even worked. For this-amongst other reasons-, we’re in a period of grave uncertainty? It’s a funny old world!

File:Genève Indoors 2014 - 20140114 - Roy Hodgson.jpg

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: [[File:Genève Indoors 2014 – 20140114 – Roy Hodgson.jpg|Genève Indoors 2014 – 20140114 – Roy Hodgson]] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gen%C3%A8ve_Indoors_2014_-_20140114_-_Roy_Hodgson.jpg

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey