Fingers, toes and and all other traversable body parts will be well and truly crossed at the FA as England begin a third international tournament under Roy Hodgson. Not necessarily in the hope of victory but certainly in the hope that failure, for the first time, is avoided.
What can be deemed success at a tournament where only eight of 24 teams will be eliminated at the group stage, with the top two in each group progressing and the best four (of six) third-placed teams advancing also? Would we consider falling at the last 16 a step in the right direction after a World Cup where we failed to win a single game and finished bottom of the group? A last 16, remember, that could conceivably include teams like Iceland, Albania, Hungary and Northern Ireland.
A strong argument could be made to stick, no matter what, with Hodgson, who has shown bravery in selecting England’s youngest group of players in 58 years as well as the youngest squad in Euro 2016.
What could be achieved if he were to keep this group together and go off to a World Cup in two years time, still with an average squad age of less than 28?
Looking at the teams in this year’s tournament, something begins to become very clear; arguably, only France, Spain and Germany have better squads. England have shown they can go toe-to-toe with Germany and France already, albeit in mostly meaningless friendlies, but who else can realistically claim to have a better chance?
Portugal? Yes, they were without Cristiano Ronaldo and down to ten men early on but last week this Portugal side were awful. Can a team that still relies on 34-year-old Bruno Alves and 39-year-old Ricardo Carvalho be considered a better bet than England?
Italy? Good at tournament football, they say, but this Italy squad has only really got two star names; legendary goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, and Roma midfielder, Daniele De Rossi. Are the rest made of the same stuff?
Belgium? A team brimming with bona fide superstars, plying their trade at the biggest clubs and in the biggest leagues all over Europe. However, recent results and performances have been patchy. Are the egos in the dressing room beginning to drown out the unity formed when they were just considered plucky underdogs? Does the ‘golden generation’ tag hang too heavy like it did for Portugal and England previously?
Realistically, failure to reach at least the quarter-finals and the FA will be saying goodbye to Hodgson. Anything but a place in the semis and Hodgson could find himself lured outside of his office at Wembley, only to be knifed one by one by Dan Ashworth, Martin Glenn and their FA cronies. “This is for the botch.”
But, in the event of said failure, to whom do they turn?
The FA have made their last two appointments on the hop.
Fabio Capello was hastily appointed when Steve McClaren somehow failed to navigate his way through a more than straightforward Euro 2008 qualifying group. The ‘wally with the brolly’ was gone within days of the ignominious defeat to Croatia. A draw, at home, was all that England needed to qualify for the 2008 tournament in Austria and Switzerland. Then FA Chief Executive, Brian Barwick, was expecting to spend the proceeding days and weeks browsing the latest ski-wear, not looking for a new coach.
Capello himself then resigned in a huff, four months before Euro 2012 and following the FA’s decision to remove the captaincy from John Terry. Again, the FA found themselves scrambling around hastily looking to find the right man for the job. Harry Redknapp, emerging victorious and exonerated from Southwark Crown Court, was not him. Roy Hodgson, after some deliberation, was.
This time, contingency plans must be very firmly in place. A successor to Hodgson should be in mind already.
A year ago maybe not, but certainly two years ago, Roberto Martinez would have been in the running. Ingrained in English football and culture since the mid 90s, Martinez would have been a serious proposition had he continued the success he had in his first season at Goodison Park. Alas, he was unable to maintain that early impact, succumbing this summer when his reign was ended.
Somewhere within the halls of the FA will be a trash basket containing a crumpled up piece of paper in it, with the words ‘Alan Pardew’ scribbled on it. Before Christmas, Pardew would have been a realistic outsider had the role suddenly become vacant. After overseeing such a catastrophic collapse in the second half of the season, he wouldn’t be in the running now – despite dragging his Crystal Palace side to a sentimental FA Cup final.
So, assuming the candidate needs to be British, who is left?
Step forward Edward John Frank Howe. Eddie to his mates. Young and raw maybe, but too young? Let’s not forget, Howe was probably a lovable Italian away from being Manager of the Year last season. Surely, like Marcus Rashford, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
Howe is an intriguing prospect, and in all likelihood he is just that at this stage – a prospect. His work at Bournemouth is nothing short of remarkable. He is most certainly on the FA’s radar, his name written in capital letters, but one can only assume that they will be keen to see him continue his work at Bournemouth for now, before moving onto a bigger club and having some sustained success there too.
Would it be the height of insanity to appoint Howe now though? He is vastly more experienced than Frank Rijkaard was when he was appointed manager of the Netherlands in 1998 (Rijkaard was 36, Howe is 38), before he led them to the semi-finals of Euro 2000, crashing out only because the Dutch, in those days, were even more lousy than England in penalty shoot-outs.
Who better to lead a young squad than a young manager?
It won’t happen though. Hodgson was appointed by former FA Chairman David Bernstein. This would be the first appointment made by Chief Executive Martin Glenn, General Secretary Alex Horne and Director of Elite Development Dan Ashworth. They are unlikely to display the kind of cojones needed to hire Eddie Howe at this early stage in his career.
Back in December, Gary Neville went off to Valencia to show the FA that he might have what it takes to succeed Hodgson. By March he was back, looking a less likely next England manager than his brother Phil.
So who is left?
Honestly? Nobody. Or, nobody English.
Twice before, the FA have looked at foreign options and both times they’ve quickly intimated that the next manager would be British. However, on both occasions, they looked overseas for their overseas manager, when there was a wealth of them in the Premier League. And still is.
What would it take to lure Mauricio Pochettino away from Spurs? His only previous dalliance with England was when he tripped Michael Owen in the box to give away a penalty, at the World Cup, back in 2002.
He is an ambitious man. What is he looking at in terms of his next role? United and City are off the table while José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola complete their customary three seasons. Arsenal is a no-go. Chelsea will most likely be looking for a new manager by next May, but is that a step up nowadays?
He is someone who knows how to get the best out of Delle Ali and Harry Kane, quite possibly England’s two brightest young players at this moment in time, as well as Danny Rose, Eric Dier and Kyle Walker.
Pocchettino hasn’t got his Spurs side doing anything revolutionary. They do the simple things well. Solid when they don’t have the ball and dangerous when they do. The very things needed at international level, when you don’t have much time with your players.
The team spirit and work ethic he has instilled in his players is another plus point. There is a great deal of respect and loyalty there, which is why Pocchettino is unlikely to face a summer exodus of key players.
Would Ashworth and co. attempt something so bold? They certainly can’t afford another scenario like in 2006, when Luiz Felipe Scolari was the chosen man, only to have the Brazilian turn England down. They need to be sure they have the offer right. Also, negotiating with Daniel Levy is an expensive enterprise and enough to put anyone off even trying.
Pocchettino is certainly the candidate that ticks the most boxes at this point in time. Which is why all on the FA panel, except Dan Ashworth, are rumoured to favour sticking with Hodgson.
And who knows? Roy could come back from France victorious. He could then kneel before the Queen and lead England to the World Cup in Russia in 2018 as Sir Roy.
Wouldn’t that be nice.
Robb Graham, Pundit Arena