Harry Redknapp is hot favourite to become the next England manager. But apart from his famed man-management skills, does he have what it takes to end 45 years of hurt?
Fabio Capello’s resignation has just pushed English football into another bout of soul-searching, as the FA begins its quest for a manager to lead the national team to Euro 2012.
England’s record has been so mediocre, for so long, that the appointment of a new coach invariably provokes a sort of twisted optimism, tempered by recognition on the part of England supporters that they have been here many times before.
The focus for English expectations this time round is Harry Redknapp – but on previous occasions Bobby Robson, Graham Taylor, Terry Venables and Kevin Keegan have all had to carry the nation’s hopes.
Perhaps fans were more circumspect about Glenn Hoddle or Steve McLaren, not to mention Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello. But as a rule, the new incumbents have had little to live up to – hence the optimism. Their predecessors were never hard acts to follow. To paraphrase Enoch Powell, all England managers’ lives end in failure.
With that sense of confusion goes an inferiority complex. England’s failure – and the relative success in recent decades of rivals such as Germany, Spain, Italy and France – has encouraged a view that most things emanating from beyond the English Channel are invariably more sophisticated – and better.
That view is borne out by the England records of Eriksson and Capello. Stefan Szymanski, author of Why England Lose, told Channel 4 News: “Statistically, our foreign managers have done way better than Englishmen in terms of managing the national team. The foreigners stand head and shoulders above the English managers.”
The problem is that England have lost the recipe for success and have no idea where it went. Harry Redknapp is the overwhelming favourite to replace Capello, yet other than being an acknowledged expert in the arcane arts of man management, his record as a club manager is not particularly impressive.
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Redknapp has achieved just one just one major trophy at club level: the FA Cup, with Portsmouth. But in fact, such under-achievement is the norm where English managers of the national team are concerned.
Cast an eye back over the last 20 years and, with the exception of Terry Venables, no home-grown England manager had won anything of any significance as a club boss before leading the national team. Graham Taylor, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and Steve McClaren had all come close in several competitions, but no more than that.
Even Terry Venables, lauded as the tactical sophisticate of English football, managed only an FA Cup win while a club coach in England (he also led Barcelona to La Liga in 1985).
If we take as read his ability to get the most out of the players he selects, what else could the Tottenham Hotspur manager bring to the job?
Redknapp told the Sun newspaper in 2010: “You can argue about formations, tactics and systems forever, but to me football is fundamentally about players… The numbers game is not the beautiful game, in my opinion. It’s 10 per cent about the formation and 90 per cent about the players.”
But Michael Cox, editor of the Zonal Marking website, believes Redknapp is being disingenuous when he talks up his tactical naivety.
“I think there’s an element of almost trickery in the way he presents himself as a complete bluffer who doesn’t care about tactics,” Mr Cox told Channel 4 News. “Spurs vary their shape from match to match. Redknapp may use simple language – playing one or two men up front – but that is, after all, the basis of football.”
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He says Tottenham have shown, both in the Premier League and the Champions League, that they can adapt their game as events unfold on the pitch.
“When Spurs played Stoke in December, they were terrible in the first half and came in 2-0 down. Then Redknapp switched to a 3-5-2 system. Spurs still lost 2-1, but they had a goal disallowed and had a man sent off.
“On the balance of play, they deserved more and were the better team in the second half.”
Similarly, Tottenham Hotspur’s last Champions League campaign, in which they eliminated Italian giants AC Milan and Internazionale, saw the English side doing more than simply exploiting their opponents’ weaknesses.
“Spurs did very well away from home against Milan,” says Michael Cox. “Milan are narrow and weak down the flanks, and that played into the way Spurs naturally play, with wingers.
“But Spurs varied the way they play, sitting deep with two holding midfields, which nullified the opposition’s threat down the centre.”
The conclusion is that to succeed with England, Redknapp – or whoever it might be – must combine personal skills with tactical acumen, pragmatism and luck.
“Everybody’s got to have luck,” says Stefan Szymanski. “Look at Denmark, who won the European Championships in 1992. They would never have been in the tournament but for the conflict in the Balkans” (Yugoslavia, who qualified ahead of Denmark, were disqualified beforehand).
Michael Cox suggests that towards the end of his term as England manager, Fabio Capello was moving towards a style of play based on a pragmatic acknowledgement of the limitations of English footballers.
“Capello seemed to realise that England couldn’t take on the best sides, such as Spain or Germany, in an open game of football. One of his last games was a 1-0 win against Spain. He repeated that against Sweden.
“It seems Capello was going down the route of accepting that we couldn’t win by skill but could by discipline.”
Footballing discipline is not the first attribute you associate with the Spurs boss. But it may be that if he can combine on-the-pitch organisation with team spirit and a dash of trademark Redknapp flair, he will succeed where other England managers, home-grown or foreign, have failed. 45 years of hurt – and counting!