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Managing the England Football Team - A Permanently Poisoned Chalice

In this blog post, Professor Stephen Wagg explores the challenge that Gareth Southgate faces as he is confirmed as the England football manager.

There was a time – blissful for football people of my generation (I’m the same age as Harry Redknapp) to recall – when nobody took much notice of the England football manager. The team didn’t even have a manager before the Second World War and the sports press scarcely mentioned the first incumbent, former Carnegie College lecturer Walter Winterbottom, during the years immediately following his appointment in 1946. When England squads departed for the World Cups in Brazil in 1950 and Switzerland in 1954 he rated no more than a mention of the ‘also with the party was team manager…’ variety. He did, however, receive a certain amount of abuse when England returned from the World Cup of 1962 in Chile, having been eliminated in the Quarter Finals. Sensibly, he resigned. The days of a quiet life for the England football manager are, of course, are long gone and there are several reasons why.

First, there is the dismantling of the British and other European empires. English football reporters have always assumed England to have been the world’s football missionary, taking the game to all corners of the world. The England team thus became an unacknowledged metaphor for the (disappearing) British Empire. Whenever an emergent nation did well against England, it was rendered, not as progress for a young football country, but as national humiliation for the English at the hands of the world’s Football Minnows and a betrayal on the part of the bungling England team manager. Regardless of history, this remains the frame in which England’s football performances are perceived. For fifty years or more the English football press has been in a state of hubris – the sort of excessive pride.

Second, there was the Cold War – a war of propaganda and diplomatic manoeuvre between the West and the Soviet Union that petered out in the early 1990s. Until then it had been the designated duty of England football teams to beat teams from behind Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’. There was much consternation in the press box, for example, when in 1953, against all expectation, Hungary’s ‘communist robots’ beat England 6-3 at Wembley with a dazzling display of skill and followed up with an even more humiliating 7-1 victory in Budapest a few months later. Football reporters either didn’t know or didn’t care that Hungary had had a rich football culture long predating the country’s communist government.

Third, England actually won the World Cup in 1966, adding to the enduring sense of entitlement that is inherent in the English football media’s reporting of the England football team. Alf Ramsey, a manager impatient with the press (an attitude no England manager could afford now) scored the improbable double of a knighthood (in 1967) and dismissal, following England’s failure to qualify for the World Cup Finals of 1974. All of his now numerous successors have been expected to repeat Ramsey’s feat.

Fourth, there is the rising capacity of the English popular press to mobilise ill feeling against particular groups or individuals. This long-established formula - routinely deployed against migrants (most especially), welfare claimants, politicians of the left, the European Union, feminists, trade unions and so on, has hardened with the emergence of rival media, such as television and the internet. In this regard the England manager is a sitting target: as soon as England falter, he is demonised. Roy Hodgson, who resigned the England managership only in late June this year, but is already the last incumbent but one, is a case in point. As with so many England managers – and managers of other teams likewise – failure was followed by swift redefinition of the manager in question. For example, Hodgson was widely praised for the selection of Manchester United’s 18 year old Marcus Rashford for the European Championships of 2016; however, when Rashford was brought on as substitute in a match that England were to lose, Hodgson was pilloried for sending a boy to do a man’s job. England, moreover, lost to Iceland – yet another football minnow, discounted in advance by most of England’s football writers.

The job now falls to Gareth Southgate and Gareth can expect to be treated no differently from any of his predecessors. Indeed some of the back pages already have put him either in, or close to, the metaphorical dock. The Daily Mirror has pointedly put the rumoured length of Southgate’s contract in capital letters: ‘FOUR YEARS’, it screams. And The Sun has run a story claiming that Southgate now stands to gain £1 million from a company he set up during the Euro 96 tournament. During that same tournament, the paper points out, Southgate missed a penalty for England. They are, of course, planting a false equation, meant to imply that Southgate somehow made money out of letting down the nation. This simply means that things are moving faster now and that the English press are prepared to use the routine language of betrayal about an England manager before he even has his legs under the desk.

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Professor Stephen Wagg

Stephen Wagg joined the Carnegie Faculty in 2006 and was made a professor in 2008. He teaches courses on the history and politics of sport and on the mass media.

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