International management in this country is a curious thing. You forge a long playing career, move in to coaching and eventually club management, all the while dreaming of one day representing your country at the highest level. Eventually you are offered this opportunity and pour your heart and soul in to making the nation proud. You spend your weekends and evenings visiting every ground in England and proudly belt out the national anthem as you watch your selected squad take to the Wembley turf.
Then it starts to rain; You put up an umbrella and your legacy is written.
English international football has a long history of mockery. Graham Taylor is remembered as a ‘turnip’, Sven Goran Eriksson for his private life and Steve McClaren as ‘the Wally with the Brolly’. ‘Woy’ Hodgson’s speech impediment was gold dust for the tabloids. In recent decades the likes of Kevin Keegan, Fabio Capello and Sam Allardyce have faced the jokes of the press and supporters alike.
Each of these men managed the national team; in theory the most prestigious job in English football. They reached the top of their profession, yet they are generally remembered as somewhere between failures and joke figures.
Gareth Southgate currently finds himself a highly unusual position as an almost universally popular England manager. Even so, during the glorious World Cup month, his waistcoat made almost as many headlines as his results. We, or our media at least, seem to have a need to reduce our national manager to an object, a slogan or a character trait. Had Harry Kane not scored in the last minute in England’s opener against Tunisia this summer, could we have seen Southgate’s stock crash in a mass of jokes about his choice of touchline outfit?
Perhaps the reason for this strange habit is not as sinister as it may seem. This summer the whole nation moved to the tune of ‘Three Lions’, as supporters, eventually followed by the media and even the players themselves, told anyone who would listen that ‘It’s Coming Home’. Eventually the rest of the world took note and didn’t like the perceived arrogance. Luka Modric cited the song as one of the inspirations that saw Croatia beat us in the Semi. Paul Pogba joked that it was coming home with him as he held the trophy in the French changing room. Our dry humour was lost in translation.
But somewhere there may be the answer. We, as a footballing nation, are not comfortable with success. ‘It’s Coming Home’ was only funny this summer because it was never going to happen; then suddenly we were in the semi-final and things had become serious. We were enjoying going in to a tournament as inevitable failures. The joke wore off for the rest of the world when we became an unlikely threat.
Our treatment of the men at the helm seems to come from a similar place. We are more comfortable mocking our managers than praising them. The British self-deprecating sense of humour lends itself to revelling in defeat and disappointment. Once the immediate anger has worn off we like to look back and laugh at missed penalties and dismal defeats. It makes it all easier to take.
Whilst this attitude makes the life of the supporter easier, it sentences every man who takes charge of England to a potential joke-laden ending. Southgate, realistic as he is, probably knows his current public image is only temporary. He is likely only one failed qualification campaign away from joining McClaren’s umbrella in the hall of shame.
It’s hard to imagine this changing until we finally get our hands on a major trophy (not the Nations League). We will likely continue to see our players questioned in the media from time to time, as supporters we will continue to use humour to overcome disappointment and, as seen so many times before, our managers will remain one game away from a joke that sticks and permanently taints their career.
Whether this habit is harmless fun or a serious sabotage of a manager’s reputation is open to debate. Perhaps it provides some light relief from the ever more serious business of football. Perhaps it is damaging to the chances of the national team.
It was widely reported that Gareth Southgate had shed the waistcoat against Spain on Saturday night. He may be on to something. If the tide of opinion turns against him, the press may have to find a different label to remember his failure by.
England will never be short of willing leaders. The pride and the pay will make sure of that. It seems though that the role will always come with the risk of serious career damage. For now, Gareth Southgate and his waistcoat have bucked the trend, but it almost certainly won’t be too long before there is another manager’s moniker to add to ‘The Turnip’, ‘Woy’ and the ‘Wally with the Brolly.’