How to drink from the poisoned chalice and prosper

Image of Simon Kuper

Traditionally, the England football manager leaves office a ruined man. The tabloids brand him a “traitor” (Don Revie), “turnip” (Graham Taylor) or “wally with the brolly” (Steve McClaren). Usually he is forced into foreign exile or mute retirement. Glenn Hoddle, sacked amidst headlines like “HOD OFF GLENN!”, told me: “It’s the best job in the world. But it’s become the poisoned chalice because of all the other things that go with it.”

Yet everything has changed under Fabio Capello. The Italian makes “the impossible job” seem a relaxing part-time hobby. His England have won their first seven qualifying matches for next year’s World Cup and will book their place in the tournament if they beat Croatia at home on Wednesday. Capello has created a new template for England managers. When he goes, the Football Association will try to appoint someone just like him. This is only in small part because of his good results. For the benefit of future England managers, here are Capello’s secrets:

1. Choose the right predecessor. Capello was blessed to succeed McClaren. Not only had McClaren failed to qualify for Euro 2008, but he also lacked all the key presentational qualities for an England manager, as outlined below.

2. Look the part. A football manager is like a king in a parliamentary democracy. He cannot do much – usually, it is players who win matches – so above all he must look the part. Capello may be the best ever England manager. More importantly, he is probably the tallest and best-looking England manager, with the best spectacles.

3. Arrive with an unimpeachable record. Weirdly, the FA had never previously appointed a manager with an outstanding managerial record. Capello won nine titles in 15 years as a club manager.

The first aim of an England manager is to win matches. The second is to deflect blame for defeats on to his players, the referee or the English nation. Capello, through his prior record, has achieved that.

4. Be a foreigner. Pre-Capello, foreignness was considered a handicap in this job. When the FA appointed the Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager in 2000, the Daily Mail newspaper lamented: “The mother country of football, birthplace of the greatest game, has finally gone from the cradle to the shame.”

But now English football fans seem to prefer a foreign coach. Over time, English managers have become associated with incompetence. “European coach” is now a stronger brand than “English manager”. Foreigners have a particular advantage if, like Capello, they speak little English. It limits their opportunities for communicating with the tabloids.

5. Be a monk. A libidinous manager, like Eriksson, becomes a walking tabloid story. Like Bill Clinton, the Swede would have sailed through office but for his exploits. Capello has no such problems.

In future the FA will try to hire tall foreign managers with large trophy cabinets, and then contractually oblige them to take libido-reducing drugs. However, these successors will need Capello’s crucial piece of luck: mostly avoid strong opponents in qualifying matches.

Since 1970, seven countries have beaten England to qualification for a major tournament. Five of them went on to reach at least the final four. The other two – Holland in 1994 and Croatia in 2008 – reached the quarter-finals. It is strong opposition rather than inborn stupidity that slays England managers.

Capello has played one competitive match against a team ranked in the global top 10. It was a glorious success: England won 1-4 in Croatia. However, that is a small sample. In four friendlies against top-10 sides, Capello’s England have won once.

Every England manager’s career ends in failure. When Capello’s England encounter a top-10 team at next year’s world cup, they will probably sail out of the tournament. But his presentational achievements should survive.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.