Jim White

Headlines don’t lose matches

Jim White

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On Wednesday Graham Taylor, the former England manager, delivered an insider's view of the job he once memorably described as the impossible one. England Expects, his film for ITV was called.

It was an intriguing insider's account of the misery of the English condition. And few can have suffered as much under the weight of England's expectations as Taylor. A decent, intelligent, thoughtful man, he was subject to the most vitriolic personal attack on a manager ever suffered in the long and tortuous history of English football and the press.

Joe Kinnear might think he has a hard time, but it is nothing to the way Taylor was treated a generation ago. After England lost to Sweden in the European Championships in 1992, the headline in the Sun was Swedes 2 Turnips 1, an amusingly pointed gloss on a disappointing result.

The next morning, however, it was not the team that was held up to collective ridicule. It was the manager. It was Taylor alone. He had been transmogrified into a root vegetable. His face - photo-shopped into something large, purple and sprouting - that became the face of defeat. It was not a good look.

And it was something from which his reputation took a long time to recover: he was called Turnip Taylor in the street for years afterwards. Now a respected and astute radio pundit, he can look back on that episode if not with equanimity then at least a wry amusement. But at the time it must have been horrible.

The question is, however: did it make any difference to the England team's results? Taylor is pretty certain it did. His authority, he felt, was undermined amongst the players who all read the ridicule and started to believe that the boss was not up to the job.

It was also the theory endorsed by Glenn Hoddle, another England boss who suffered from negative reporting during his time at the helm. As far as Hoddle was concerned, as he talked to Taylor from the smart-looking new academy he has opened in Spain, until the English media stop criticising the team, they will never win anything. It is a view widely held in the country and in football. It is almost a given: we'll win nothing with those headlines. And it is utter baloney.

Here's why. Before England's last World Cup qualifier in Croatia, the press previews were about as negative as you could imagine. There were not many personal attacks on the manager Fabio Capello. His reputation gave him - for the time being at least - some protection. If anything, the lack of personal attacks made even the analysis more depressing. England was not suffering from individual incompetence. The consensus was the England team was now institutionally incapable of winning. Everything, we press men believed, was loaded against them achieving, was rotten about the English game, from the overwhelming number of foreigners in the Premier League to the culture of excuse making that infects every part of the England set-up.

That was certainly my view. There was too much money, insufficient pride and not enough players who could kick with both feet. Indeed, Taylor's own film seemed intended to maintain the assumption that nothing could ever be won by England again. After all, one of its main interviewees was Slaven Bilic, the Croatia coach, questioned the day after the game with England, the appointment presumably intended to get a victor's view of where it is all going wrong.

Except it didn't quite happen like that. Against all expectation, England won in Croatia. Handsomely, too. Thus demonstrating that no matter how negative the press, it does not affect a result. In the press we might like to think of ourselves as major players in the game, but in fact we are a marginal irrelevance at best.

England won in Croatia despite the headlines. They won because they have a manager who at last - unlike Taylor, Hoddle and poor deluded Steve McClaren who had his teeth whitened in order to look better in press conferences - ignores the peripherals such as the media and gets on with the job of preparing his players. You could see his single-mindedness when he was interviewed by Taylor for the programme. Capello agreed that the English press could be vicious. "They are strong critics," he said.

But his job, he said, miming a pair of blinkers, was simply to concentrate on the job in hand. In other words, ignore the media, it is an irrelevance. Focus, responsibility, preparation is all that matters. He is right. And with an attitude like that, you never know he might start to get the results that generate positive headlines. Which, as we all know, have never won anyone anything.

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