Sack the Manager, Sack the Government!

By Kelly, Richard | History Review, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Sack the Manager, Sack the Government!


Kelly, Richard, History Review


Richard Kelly finds compelling links between England soccer managers and post-war political leaders.

The Touchy-Feelies

During the first 18 months of Tony Blair's government, a number of people noted similarities between the new Prime Minister and the then England soccer coach, Glen Hoddle. Both were thought to represent a younger and more `modern' approach to their respective positions; both were active Christians; both attached importance to spiritual guidance (be it from Christian socialists like John MacMurray or faith healers like Eileen Drewery); and both were said to signify a break from the `sleazy' regimes of their predecessors -- allegedly marked by back-bench bungs and dodgy tax returns.

Furthermore, both Blair and Hoddle had severe problems with Europe (EU tax harmonisation or qualification for the European Championships); both felt `let down' by exotic behaviour from mercurial individuals they initially indulged (viz Welsh Secretary Ron Davies and midfielder Paul Gascoigne); both favoured a `touchy-feely' style of leadership, based upon a strong awareness of

sentimentality and how it can be manipulated. Above all, both were thought to be supreme symbols of our feminised, post-Diana society.

Hoddle resigned as England coach, in somewhat bizarre circumstances, at the start of 1999. Yet, in Kevin Keegan, the spirit of Blair/Hoddle/Diana lives on. Keegan is another leader who tries to `empathise' with his charges, displaying (like Blair and Hoddle) a sure grasp of emotional intelligence. As he told the Sunday Telegraph shortly after being appointed, `understanding how the players feel about things' was to be a major consideration in his managerial reign.

Like the current Prime Minister, the current England manager is also strong on emotive rhetoric and passionate oratory -- though rather suspect on mundane specifics. The details of Blair's `Third Way', for example, remain shrouded in mystery, while Keegan is scarcely noted for meticulous tactics. Both men appear to believe that, in the end, messianic speeches will suffice.

But is this the first time that England soccer managers and British Prime Ministers have looked similar? The postwar period suggests not, and may even point to a classic example of zeitgeist theory: one which holds that most public affairs are guided by the intangible `spirit of the age'.

The Patricians

During the premiership of Harold Macmillan (1957-63), England's manager was Walter Winterbottom. Like Macmillan in the first world war, Winterbottom was a member of the `officer class' in the second, having been an RAF wing commander. Like Macmillan, Winterbottom had enjoyed an extensive formal education (even though Balliol College Oxford is seldom paired with Chester College of PE) and, like Macmillan, Winterbottom had a discernible `schoolmasterly' style -- hardly surprising given that Winterbottom used to be a schoolmaster.

But there were much deeper similarities. Both men sensed they were managing decline, and that their task was to make that decline as dignified as possible. For Macmillan the rude awakening came in 1956 at the time of the Suez crisis, one which brutally exposed Britain's pretensions as a world power. For Winterbottom, meanwhile, it came slightly earlier when, in 1953, the Hungarians walloped England 6-3 at Wembley -- a result which cruelly indicted the traditional British game-plan.

By the early 1960s, there was also a broad feeling that both men were somehow at odds with current trends, particularly the new fashion (embodied by President Kennedy) for youthful dynamism. Macmillan's Edwardian posture became a handicap in the new, Beatles-led culture, while Winterbottom -- also derided as a `gentleman amateur' by some journalists -- struggled with the new generation of `flash' soccer stars (as represented by Chelsea's Jimmy Greaves).

When looking ahead to the next general election and World Cup, pundits assumed that both Macmillan's record and Winterbottom's team would be savaged. …

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