It’s time for English football to grow up

New Statesman

It's not me, it's you. They are English football's final words to every manager as he heads for the exit. It's like listening to a friend explain why his girlfriend has dumped him: "Mate, she'd gone a bit nuts, to be honest."

The jilted psyche is both adaptive and simplistic: she must have gone mad because she didn't love me any more. What could be more conclusive than that?

English football has been doing it again. The national game is convinced it is desperately unfortunate with its managers, like a teenager cursed in love.

It has tried pairing off with weak managers who ask lots of questions and smile inanely; it has tried strong men who don't listen and know all the answers. It has tried sophisticated foreigners with art collections; it has tried the bloke in a tracksuit next door. It has tried crooks; it has tried sweeties. And yet, however differently they start out, all English managers end up the same: all wrong 'uns, all useless, all a bit nuts once you got to know them properly.

It's like a broken record, listening to English football curse its luck. Unless . . . unless . . . what if it's actually English football that is the nutter here? What if we've got the whole thing the wrong way round? Suppose it's not the succession of managers who are all crazy, inept and untrustworthy? Imagine if English football itself - not just the players, but the whole pyramid of insecurity and anxiety that supports our national obsession - is the basket case?

Increasingly, there is no other explanation. To have a few bad relationships is bad luck; but a never-ending sequence can only be poor judgement. Bobby Robson was a great man, but he was lampooned for being too old and out of touch. Graham Taylor's evident decency was a strength when he was a club manager, but we turned it into a weakness. Terry Venables could sell you a Ford Fiesta at Lamborghini prices but his entanglements with the law never went away. Glenn Hoddle was a good tactician but we drew him out on issues like predestination and found his theology not to our taste.

We destroyed them all, one by one. Now, with Fabio Capello gone, we turn with desperate enthusiasm to Harry Redknapp; a shrewd, charming cockney, because he "understands" us, the English.

Mr Perfect

English football is needy; it wants to be saved, to be rescued, to be made great. And, given that English football is entirely unprepared to grow up itself, it wants someone else to make all the changes on its behalf. Meanwhile, the character profile for Mr Perfect has narrowed to one characteristic: he has to be the opposite of the last bloke.

Kevin Keegan was an England legend, one of the boys, a talismanic captain, a leader of men. We loved his motivational expressiveness and barn-storming passions. So we made him manager, a strategic role that revolves around selecting players and devising tactics. When England crashed out, we mocked Keegan for his inexperience, tactical naivety and hapless dependence on motivational gesturing. Talk about moving the goalposts.

This called for someone cool, someone foreign, someone laid back. Enter "Zen" Sven-Göran Eriksson. Sven didn't scream; Sven didn't shout; Sven didn't cry. He smiled at the press and behaved as though he regarded his large salary as compensation for living in a lunatic asylum.

It didn't work out with Sven, of course, so we blamed the coldness of the Nordic peoples. English football then raced across the dance floor, seeking out Sven's opposite, and jumped desperately into the outstretched Yorkshire arms of Steve McClaren. McClaren was so close to the players that he called them "Stevie G" and "Wazza" and "Becks". But when that relationship soured, it was time for another 180-degree spin.

Where could we find the inverse? Someone forbidding, austere, frightening, innately superior, a natural aristocrat: Fabio Capello. The doubters were silenced. Too authoritarian? Just what the lads need! A bit headmasterly? Teach them discipline! But he doesn't speak English? They'll figure it out when they're dropped!

English football appointed Capello for being all those things; now he is hated for them. We shouldn't be surprised because the pattern is always the same. English football is like a shopper who demands a red apple and only a red apple. Having taken a bite, we then want a refund, screaming, "This apple is red!"

England have replaced the refined European with a caretaker manager - Stuart Pearce, the British Bulldog. But it is time to look beyond the man in the dugout. English football's determination to blame the manager has become a convenient smokescreen used to avoid more serious, structural inadequacies. When you've had this many terrible relationships, it's time to look within. That is where the real problem lies.

It's not them. It's us.

Ed Smith's "Luck: What it Means and Why it Matters" is published by Bloomsbury on 29 March