Once upon a time, I used to write about football for a living. In fairness, it seems like an eternity ago that I last sat in a Press box at Carrow Road. But that was where I once plied my trade before all things Addiply – the funny ‘Advertise here…’ thing where once a Google AdSense box beckoned – began taking over my life.
But in 15-odd years following professional footballers around the country on a near-daily basis, you do learn one or two things about them.
Lessons that are just as applicable to League One professional footballers as they are to England’s World Cup ‘stars’. Or, indeed, those same ‘stars’ of France.
For example, professional footballers may well be many, many things. But the one thing they are not is stupid. Not, at least, when it comes to football.
Not only have they played the game to a certain standard for the vast majority of their adult lives, they have also lived within the confines of a professional dressing room since the age of 16.
So, therefore, they roughly know what it takes to win a football match and, roughly, what it takes to make a good dressing room. Or rather, who it takes to win a football match and who it takes to make a good dressing room.
A point that would appear to be lost on at least two international managers who appear to think that they know better. And that’s a dangerous assumption for any manager to make; that’s playing with fire.
Look back at the great Norwich teams over the last 20-odd years and the best ones all-but picked themselves; they made sense; they ‘fitted’ together.
But more than that; the players in those teams – be it Mike Walker’s UEFA Cup heroes, Nigel Worthington’s Championship winners or Paul Lambert’s Class of 2010 – all believed both in each other and in the system that they played.
Ian Culverhouse at sweeper, Craig Fleming and Malky Mackay as a centre-half pair, Wes Hoolahan as a little diamond floating in that awkward little space behind the front two – all such cornerstones of a team’s success came with that team’s blessing.
That – they recognised – was the best way to win games with the talents at the manager’s disposal. Crucially, in each regard, the manager not only allowed the players to play, in many senses he allowed them to manage… he worked with the dressing room grain, not against it.
Most managers come horribly unstuck when they try to impose a system on a dressing room of the unwilling; when they start to go against that same senior player grain… that’s when it starts to unravel.
You can pick your own foible over the last 20 years at Carrow Road – they are not, exactly, in short supply – but insisting Mark Fotheringham was a leader of midfield men might be one; thinking-stroke-hoping that Andy Marshall was the next Bryan Gunn might be another.
The list is endless.
But the point remains the same. Players aren’t stupid. They know what doesn’t work just as much as the punters do in the crowd. Nine times out of ten, however, professional protocol ensures that they never say as much.
Indeed, you could argue that they know far, far more than the average punter – not just about systems and players, but the dressing room personalities that harbour within. They know who doesn’t work with whom; they know who the manager needs to work with to make that team work.
All of which brings us to England and their crossroads moment against Slovenia this Wednesday. What has become abundantly clear this week is that the manager is not for turning; it is my way or the highway… appears to be the Capello motto.
Which is why you fear the worst. Because the world and his weary wife knows that a Lampard-Gerrard combination in central midfield all-but cancel eachother out; they are two identical peas in a pod.
Step up into the tournament setting of the World Cup finals where both the quality of the opposition and the burden of expectation weighs that much heavier than in the qualifiers and it never quite works. England become neither one thing nor the other; never really happy in their own skin.
The trouble is, of course, consigning Gerrard to a wider role merely deepens the sense of dissatisfaction; both full-backs – be it right or left depending on which side Gerrard is nominally directed – know that they will have a large, gaping hole opening up in front of them for the rest of the evening… just as Adam Drury did for all the time that Darren Huckerby was strutting his stuff some way off in the distance.
Likewise our Wayne knows that his big pal ‘Stevie G’ will be that much more distant; his hopes of flicking this ball and that off his Scouse pal being scuppered by the unholy mess into which the England midfield invariably descends.
Of course, how the players themselves would get the system to ‘fit’ is quite another matter, but you strongly suspect that they figure they have more of an answer than Capello does right now.
Just as the French team clearly feel that Anelka might have had a point when he let rip at the French manager in the midst of the Mexico debacle.
And that’s maybe the point. At club level, a manager of Capello’s ilk can force awkward players to take the highway if they don’t fancy doing it ‘My way…’ Granted a large cheque book and a league of nations to select from, you can therefore build a team to the highest of 4-4-2 specifications.
At international level, however, you are forced to work with what you’ve got; you can’t ship in a Claude Makelele to play that anchor midfield role; you’re left to work with the Sons of England – the Terrys, the Lampards, the Gerrards and the Rooneys.
And that has to be the trick; as much as you want to let the players play, on certain occasions you have to let the players manage – a task that looks way beyond Fabio Capello this evening.