Confirmation of this fact, if one were needed, came two days ago with the announcement of Alex McLeish’s appointment as manager of Birmingham City. Apparently, managing a second-rate Premier League club (sorry, Blues fans) is more alluring than the prospect of steering your national team to the 2010 World Cup finals. Well, more rewarding, at least (he’s reported to be getting a fourfold pay rise); although, to give McLeish the benefit of the doubt, he has said he wants the challenge and opportunity to coach a group of players on a daily basis, which he wouldn’t get if he’d stayed on as Scotland manager.
So McLeish has joined the list of recent home nation managers who’ve jumped ship in favour of a more comfortable passage on the Premier League steam liner: Lawrie Sanchez, who – along with David Healy – had worked wonders with the Northern Ireland team, being lured away in mid-Euro-qualifying campaign by Al-Fayed’s dodgy dollars at Fulham; Mark Hughes, who appeared to be turning round the Wales team, abandoning them for Blackburn Rovers after a very nearly successful Euro 2004 qualifying campaign. It’s no wonder that the FA had to pay McLaren and Sven Goran Eriksson (particularly, the latter) such obscene salaries: that was probably the only way they could prevent them from also de-camping (perhaps not in the case of McLaren, though, who’s hardly covered himself in glory in the England job).
The priority at the FA is clearly the club game, particularly the massively lucrative Premier League. While this remains the case, it is hard to see how England or any of the other home nations can achieve success in international competition. The FA’s lack of vision and commitment for the national side was ironically borne out by the words of Premier League spokesman Dan Johnson earlier this week when he defended the League against UEFA president Michel Platini’s criticism that there were not enough English players and coaches at senior levels in English football. What he said was:
“We run the Premier League and we run it successfully, which is beneficial to the English game and that is our business and not Platini’s business. . . . We attract the best in the world and when English players are coming up against the best week in, week out we think it is good for them. . . . We want players who are able to compete with the best in the world. If you look at the current crop of players we have a world-class group and the investment that is going in right across Premier League clubs in academy players is high in terms of finance and intellectual commitment. I think there are various factors as to why we didn’t get through this time but the quality of the the players was not one of those factors”.
All of the thinking centres on the ‘business’ of running a successful Premier League and English club game as well as producing talented individual English players who feed into the Premier League and club set up and add to its global market appeal. But the national team is just an afterthought: there are no ideas about what it might take to mould a group of skilled individuals whose emotional, physical and financial investments are virtually all in the domestic and European club game into a winning international team. Basically, this is a very secondary priority. What you end up with is an elite group of world-class players who are able to command regular Premier League team places; but not the depth of English talent that is also regularly competing at the highest level. Hence, when – as during the failed Euro 2008 campaign and particularly the Croatia match – the top players are injured, there just isn’t an equivalent calibre of talent to replace them. Plus the players that come in have little experience of playing together as a team.
The FA and the Premier League indeed need to sort out their priorities. At the moment, it’s clear that the enormous cash cow that is the English club game is their main concern. But this is all short-term thinking and blinkered vision: how much more glamour and sales potential would there be for the Premier League if the English national team won either the European Nations Cup or the World Cup – as the ‘current . . . world-class group’ of top players ought to be capable of doing if indeed they are world-class? But it has to become the top priority; and the FA has to have the national pride, vision and – yes – the business plan in place to dream of glory and go for it.