England’s ignominious exit from the World Cup has launched the usual storm, including here on this blog. Perhaps the most surprising suggestion so far is that Maradona is a good manager and that England could do with the likes of him. The Sun, inevitably, demands that the next manager be English. Given England’s pivotal position in the game, it’s worth pondering. One statistic unearthed by the debacle is that fewer than 3000 Englishmen have qualified for the top UEFA coaching certificate, a fraction of the number in most rival countries, and already an indicator that the FA may need to look abroad.
The two key attributes an England manager needs are that he is a proven winner and that he is able to make bricks out of straw. Too often the FA has given the post to men who have never managed to steer a club to the League championship, men used to coming second or lower. Having the ambition, drive and confidence that winning requires is a different kettle of fish. Second, England are unlikely ever to have the most talented team, so a successful manager will have to rely on superior fitness, discipline, organisation and tactics; that is to say, on getting the very best out of what he’s got.
The key exemplar was, of course, Alf Ramsey. At Ipswich Town he was never likely to have the top players but he guided them first to promotion from the Third Division (South), then from the Second Division and in 1961-62, when Ipswich were universally marked down as relegation fodder, he won the League Championship at the first attempt. Moreover, he did this with a largely unchanged team – the key pairing of Ray Crawford and Ted Phillips did just as well in the First Division as they had in the Third. So a proven winner and a man who got the maximum out of slender resources. He was also quiet but a strong disciplinarian. He didn’t shout or throw boots about but when several senior members of the England team, including Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton, missed a team talk they immediately found their passports placed on their beds. The message, even to the star striker and the captain, was that if you don’t behave, you go home. And finally, Ramsey was a forward thinking tactician, a pioneer of running off the ball and a man willing to drop even Jimmy Greaves because the unsung Martin Peters fitted his tactical plan better.
Ramsey won the World Cup in 1966 but the full measure of his achievement came in 1970 when he built an even stronger team, keeping six of the 1966 squad but bringing in Francis Lee, Colin Bell, Brian Labone, Alan Mullery, Terry Cooper, Allan Clarke and Peter Osgood. In the group stage England narrowly lost 1-0 to Brazil, the best team the world has ever seen. In the quarter final England led 2-0 with only 20 minutes to go and only a freak goal-keeping error from Bonetti allowed the Germans back into the game. As it was Germany came third and lost only 4-3 to the losing finalists, Italy. That is, although no one could have hoped to stop Brazil in 1970, but for Bonetti’s error England might again have made the final – away from home. No wonder the surviving members of those England squads unanimously regard Ramsey as the best they ever saw.
It’s true that Ramsey’s quiet but passionate Englishness allowed him to connect with his team at a deep, personal level so that they were willing to run their guts out for him. But, looking around, no English manager today has all these virtues. The nearest approximation would be Arsène Wenger, a proven winner but a man who never has the resources of Chelsea or Man U to play with. He too is a magnificent spotter of talent, a disciplinarian, a fine tactician and a man who earns the players’ respect. Note that Rafa Benitez, undoubtedly a fine manager, facing a similar lack of resources at Liverpool, tried his best and failed but Wenger’s Arsenal stayed in contention for the Premiership title to the very end. You can’t expect World Cup-winners to come along more than once in a generation but Wenger is our best bet.