Saturday, 27 August 2011


The next time you hear Jamie Redknapp or Andy Townsend gush about some crashingly limited midfield donkey’s “triffic enjinn,” I want you to bear two things in mind: first, as Ruud Gullitt said of Roy Keane, my car has a good engine but that doesn’t mean it can play football; second, receiving praise off workaday English pundits doesn’t carry quite the same kudos as having Franz Beckenbauer say “Pelé was the best in the 60s, Cruyff in the 70s, Maradona in the 80s, and Laudrup in the 90s”. That’s Der Kaiser, folks. Or take Andrés Iniesta: “The greatest player in history? Laudrup.” Still not satisfied? Well, in 2006, Raúl said Laudrup was the best he ever played with, and he played five seasons with Zidane. 

That, amigo, is Big Boy Shit. I mean, at the turn of the millennium, he was voted La Liga’s best player in the previous quarter-century – not Cruyff, not Maradona, not Ronaldo, not John Aldridge; Laudrup. 

Obviously, then, it wasn’t much of a stretch for UEFA to crown him Denmark’s Golden Player, despite the fact that a disagreement with coach Richard Moller Nielsen led to him absenting himself from his nation’s footballing zenith: the remarkable (but not off-the-beach) Euro ’92 triumph as replacements for not-quite-yet-former Yugoslavia. Even so, this disappointment was more than offset by a stellar club career that, after leaving Brøndby as a 20-year-old, took in no less than seven top division titles with Juventus (one), Barcelona (four), Real Madrid (one), and Ajax (one). 

Although he briefly shared the Juve midfield with UEFA’s curmudgeonly rosbifophobe president, Michel Platini, his peak years were undoubtedly spent with Barca’s Dream Team (1989-94), for whom he provided the cold-blooded seny (reason, or nous) to Stoichkov’s fervid rauxa (passion). 

Even so, his occasional maverick tendencies and perceived laziness often exasperated his coach, Cruyff (an Oedipal drama, perhaps), and so, following his omission from the Champions League final in 1994 (a 4-0 drubbing by Fabio Capello’s Milan, the Italian incredulous that the Dane was absent), he was offloaded to arch-rivals Real Madrid, where he was instrumental in a 5-0 evisceration of the blaugrana en route to a fifth straight title. A mark of the affection in which he is held in Catalunya is that, while another former favourite to sign directly for Real, Luis Figo, had a pig’s head lobbed at him, Barca’s fans still idolise the Dane. 

Laudrup's croqueta

What did Laudrup have? The overriding sensation was that of an almost balletic grace; he simply floated over the surface. Technically, he was a consummate two-footed dribbler, his trademark move being la croqueta (switching the ball quickly between feet to slalom between two onrushing defenders), since adopted by Iniesta. It all came from balance, of course – not only that of his own supremely elegant movement, but also in the awareness of when his opponents were off balance, having the classic dribbler’s innate sense of when to move the ball. He would often stop his markers dead in their tracks then, as they were momentarily flat-footed, much like a matador who allows the tiring, defeated bull to brush his thighs, he would slip the ball inches from the helpless defender’s feet before a flourish of acceleration sent him clear (¡Olé! indeed). 

On top of that, he had breathtaking control and was a hyper-intelligent passer, with the uncanny defence-unlocking ability common to all the best playmakers. Of his repertoire of final balls, it was perhaps the look-the-other-way pass or signature ‘spoon’ pass – one that scarcely even entered the thoughts of lesser players – for which he will be best remembered, leading to the nickname ‘the tin opener’ (in my house, at least). 

Laudrup the coach

A true, unfettered Nordic genius, then – perhaps the only one ever to emerge from those cold, collectivist (or individualism inhibiting) lands – the culés who saw him in his Camp Nou-bestriding pomp certainly realized they were witnessing a rare era adorned by a rare talent, and to make the point hung a huge banner commanding us, in English, and thus politely, to “Enjoy Laudrup”. 

Thursday, 25 August 2011


The Croatian team of the 1998 World Cup has long been one of my favourite international sides. Moulded by maverick coach Miroslav Blažević, and possessing two maestros pulling the midfield strings – 60-a-day playmaker, Robert Prosinečki, and Zvonimir Boban (forever loved in Croatia for launching a flying kick at a policeman who was beating up a supporter of his team, Dinamo Zagreb, when a riot broke out between rival ultras during a game with Red Star Belgrade in the old Yugoslav League) – it punched well above the weight of a seven-year-old nation with only 4.2 million inhabitants.  

Admittedly, their ‘checker board’ strip wasn’t the easiest on the eye, while the players we saw at first-hand in the Premier League either underwhelmed (Davor Šuker at Arsenal, Mario Stanić at Chelsea), played for such relatively small clubs as Derby (Igor Stimać, Aljosa Asanović) and Middlesbrough (Alen Boksić), or else disappeared without even kicking a ball (Robert Jarni at Coventry City). However, it cannot be disputed that, while not without great individual flair and technical excellence, they were a team that was very much more than the sum of its parts, spurred on not only by Blazevic but also by a fierce patriotism stoked by the bloody war with Serbia (a statue outside the ground at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb actually proclaims that the aforementioned riot of 13 May 1990 was the war’s first battle) and shored up as the former Yugoslavia disintegrated amidst ethnic, religious, political and other tensions. 

Zvonimir Boban takes on the police in the Battle at the Maksimir

It could be argued that had the constituent republics of the former Yugoslavia managed to uphold their uneasy alliance – a sham marriage – and remain a nation-state, the self-styled Brazilians of Europe might have proven pretty unstoppable during the 1990s as a football force. It is certainly the stuff of many a wistful musing among Balkan football fans, regardless of their political persuasion; indeed, Srečko Katanec, the Slovene lynchpin of Sampdoria’s first Serie A-winning team in 1992, contended in somewhat Evil Overlord language that “had the country not fallen apart, I guarantee we would have crushed the world.” 

The evidence? Well, the Yugoslav under-20s side that won the World Youth Cup in Chile in 1987 contained not only Katanec and his Croatian neighbours Boban, Prosinečki, Šuker, Stimać and Jarni, but also the Serbs Predrag Mijatović (later of Valencia and Real Madrid) and Vladimir Jugović (later of Inter, Juve and Lazio), while players of the calibre of Siniša Mihajlović (scorer of the most free kicks in Serie A history) were either withdrawn, injured, or suspended. This single generation (!) could have been added to such already established greats as Dragan Stojković and the man AC Milan fans knew simply as il genio, Dejan Savićević. But it was not to be. Along came the Balkan Wars, among the most grotesque and hate-filled of the twentieth century, out of which eventually emerged, somewhat groggily, these six new old nations: Serbia, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia and Croatia. 

Anyway, in 1998, having played a solid first tournament as a fledgling nation in England two years earlier, trouncing Denmark 3-0 en route to a contentious quarter-final defeat to Germany, Croatia went all the way to the semi-final, where they met the hosts in the pristine new Stade de France. After enjoying much the better of the match and taking the lead through Golden Boot winner Šuker, they were unfortunate to be downed by the only two goals of right-back Lilian Thuram’s 142-match international career, although some consolation was to be had in securing the bronze medal by beating Holland 2-1 in the third-place playoff. 

Šuker scores the opener in the World Cup semi-final

Now, the reason for this extended pre-amble is to provide a little context for a quite wonderful passage in Jonathon Wilson’s excellent book, Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football, that touches on Croatia’s success in France ’98; moreover, the passage in question deals with one of my favourite footballing (and sporting) themes: unorthodox leadership, especially important in football, where a coach’s influence during the game is relatively negligible. In it, the former Everton and West Ham centre-back Slaven Bilić reflects on the unusual motivational strategy employed by the most illustrious of his predecessors as Croatia boss: the irrepressible, if slightly unhinged, Blažević. 

Bilić, of course, is largely remembered on these shores for the somewhat theatrical, face-clutching penalty-box tumble he took during that semi-final in Paris, resulting in a red card – and missed World Cup Final – for Laurent Blanc, a dignified man and regal footballer in his prime. However, the reputation Bilić acquired, both from this incident and his subsequent record of just twenty-six league starts in four years on Merseyside, as something of a yellow-bellied scoundrel and skiver is largely undeserved – it is little known, for instance, that he actually played the tournament in France with a stress fracture of the hip, ultimately leading to his premature retirement (even now he has to drive jeeps, as the low seat position of regular cars is too uncomfortable). Indeed, Wilson says he has “dealt with few more instantly likeable footballers than Bilić,” while I have long felt him to be one of the more charismatic and engaging figures in modern football. Perhaps the unconventional behaviour can be traced to having a father who, as a Professor of Economics at the University of Split, was lucky to escape imprisonment in 1971 after organizing a demonstration against Tito and the Communist Party centralists in Belgrade. Be that as it may, Bilić is a chain-smoking, polyglot (Italian, English, German, Croat) law graduate, guitarist for a moderately successful rock band (Rawbau), and now responsible for nurturing a new generation of Croatian talent, headed by Luka Modrić. 

Whether he seeks to emulate Blažević’s style remains to be seen, however, for the latter was fond of consulting astrological charts prior to games – much as was England’s coach at France ‘98, Glenn Hoddle – and superstitiously ascribed Croatia’s showing at the tournament to him wearing the cap of a French gendarme beaten to within an inch of his life by German hooligans earlier in the tournament. At other times, he used pretty blunt gimmicks to inspire his men, once taking off his Rolex watch, dropping it to the dressing room floor and smashing it to smithereens, a fairly graphic demonstration of how he wanted his team “to crush the opposition as I have crushed this watch”. 

At any rate, Bilić’s affectionate portrait of the eccentric who coaxed the young nation’s footballers to such heights in 1998 is so rich and amusing that Wilson declines to intervene in the narrative, simply letting the words do the talking, an eminently sensible choice. To wit: 

He was the ideal coach for us. If you’d given us Capello, Ferguson or Wenger, it wouldn’t have worked. He was everybody’s father, a great motivator.
You would play against, let’s say, Estonia, and you know it’s only Estonia, but he would gradually motivate you. Every day he knew in his head when he was going to create an incident to wake everybody up a bit, then he’d tell us all to go to a nightclub or something. At team meetings he’d be talking about Estonia as though they were fucking Brazil. You’d know he was lying, you’d know it wasn’t true, but you say, fuck, yeah, it’s going to be hard. And he would always say Estonia’s left-back is whoever, and he’d be talking about their players, and he’d be writing their names on a board, and you’d know it was wrong; he’d be saying, like, this guy, he’s so quick, he’s so good, and you’d know when he was talking to you that he’d never seen him in his fucking life.
Anyway, it would motivate you, but whoever we played against, he always told us we were better than them. So when we played Argentina in the World Cup, he came to me and he said “Son”, because we were always his sons, “Son, you have to come with me and talk to the press.” So, OK, it’s me and him in the press conference. And I know even the twenty-second player in their squad plays for Inter, and everybody else is at AC Milan, Real Madrid, Barcelona…all at the best teams, and we have Boban at Milan, but he doesn’t play, and Šuker at Real Madrid, and he doesn’t play. The rest of us were playing in great leagues but not for great teams. So he says to the press, “Argentina, not a bad team, not a bad team, but none of their players play for the best teams in Europe”. So I look at him and say “What the fuck are you talking about?” But that’s what he was like. It was all nonsense, but it was great nonsense. 

“Great nonsense”: pure magic.

Monday, 15 August 2011


Not long ago, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I got to thinking about the humble apostrophe – “to some a mere punctuation mark”, I wrote, “to others the departure point for a whole book (cf. Lynne Truss’s [Truss’?] Eats, Shoots & Leaves)”. However, such reflections were not the result of a fastidiousness 
grammarians rancour, as they were with Truss, but for the altogether more mundane reason that a Cornish friend of mine belched up the frankly OUTLANDISH proposition that the sometime (actually, one time) Newcastle United goal-grabber Stephane Guivarc’h was, and I quote verbatim here, “the greatest apostrophied footballer of all time”.

As you can imagine, I almost spat out my drink in scornful 
disbelief and, suspecting more than a little Celtic bias toward his Breton cousin, rasped “that’s absolute fucking bollocks, Chief”. I started to reel off alternatives, when an eavesdropping Los Angelino chimed up: “Like, he-llo!! Er, Samuel Eto’o!? He’s, like, the greatest apostrophied sportsman EVER. Period”. A Glaswegian opposite me, also eavesdropping, did not concur: “Git tae foak. Whoat aboot Brian O’Driscoll? Ronnie O’Sullivan? Shaquille O’Neal, ken?” And so the conversational wildfire spread… 

I, meanwhile, had retreated to the bar. It was my round. (Ken who?) 

To cut a long story – and my auto-plagiarism (if such a thing is possible) – short, a debate of epochal significance ensued as to who – Who’o? – would get in the all-time World Football Apostrophe’s (sic) XI. They would play either the Hyphens or the Accents, of course.

Incidentally, we had a sub-debate about where they might play, this time-traveling, punctuationally homogenous team of ours. Several cities were considered – St David’s, Wales (admittedly, a fairly small city); Nuku’alofa, Tonga (a little too remote); St John’s, Antigua (a nice spot, but the stadium is a little small); Sana’a, Yemen (politically unstable); L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, just south of a genuine football metropolis in Barcelona – but in the end we plumped for the Netherlands and duly tossed a coin between its 19th and 3rd largest cities, ’s-Hertogenbosch and ’s-Gravenhage (a.k.a. The Hague), the former, joyously, winning.

Anyway, here’s the team we came up with…

GK: Michel Preud’homme
RB: John O’Shea
CB: Bruno N’Gotty
CB: David O’Leary
LB: Charles N’Zogbia
RM: Johnny van ’t Schip
CM: Yann M’Vila
CM: Andrés D’Allessandro
LW: Alan A’Court
#10: Kaka’
CF: Samuel Eto’o 


GK: Jacques Songo’o
D: Stephen N’Zonzi
M: Martin O’Neill
M: Landry N’Guémo
M/F: Fabián O’Neill
F: Stephane Guivarc’h
F: Gary O’Connor 


Michel Preud’homme 
With his long dark ringlets of hair, Preud’homme was an instantly recognisable figure between the posts for Standard Liège, Mechelen, and Benfica, not to mention the Belgian national side (winning 58 caps) after serving a long apprenticeship under Jean-Marie Pfaff, whose sizeable boots – or gloves – he filled with distinction. Indeed, he won the Yashin award for the best ’keeper at the USA World Cup in 1994, and was at this stage arguably the world’s premier stopper, an opinion certainly held by the International Federation of Football Historians and Statisticians (IFFHS) who finally crowned him as such after he had twice finished runner-up to Walter Zenga. Preud’homme later went into management with Standard (winning their first title in 25 years), Gent, and Twente Enschede, following in a certain Englishman’s footsteps. 

John O’Shea 
Resembling a hybrid of Paddy McGuinness and Peter Kaye, John O’Shea was Manchester United’s Mr Versatility throughout the noughties, playing left-back, right-back, centre-half, and centre-midfield (not to mention striker and in goal) at various stages of his career at Old Trafford. A wholehearted player and fans’ favourite, his personal pinnacle at the club came with an injury-time winner in front of the Kop in 2007. 

Bruno N’Gotty 
Best remembered in England for a four-year spell at Bolton Wanderers under Sam Allardyce, a manager who no doubt saw a similar player to himself in the big, strong, uncompromising centre-half, N’Gotty nevertheless also played at some continental glamour clubs – at AC Milan, and in France’s three largest cities, with PSG (for whom he scored the winner in the 1996 Cup Winners’ Cup Final, a 1-0 defeat of Rapid Vienna) and the Olympiques, Lyonnais and Marseille. Although good enough at his peak to win 6 caps for Les bleus, N’Gotty usually had – in Desailly, Blanc, Gallas, et al – bodies as formidable as his own blocking a path to the national side. 

David O’Leary 
Before his Leeds Utd-white managerial reputation was chucked in the washing with a bright pink dress and put on far too high a temperature during a bout of reckless, Europe-chasing spending, O’Leary was a stalwart centre-half for Arsenal (for whom he made a club-record 722 appearances) and the Republic of Ireland (for whom he scored a decisive spot-kick to eliminate Romania in Italia ’90). Pre-dating George Graham’s Famous Four, O’Leary nevertheless formed – with the likes of Jennings, Brady, Stapleton and Sunderland – a key vertebra in the spine of a useful Gunners side that reached three consecutive FA Cup Finals from 1978 to 1980. The aforementioned Leeds meltdown was followed by a three-season stint of ever-diminishing returns at Aston Villa, where his snub-nosed cantankerousness was much in evidence (which may well have contributed to his four-year managerial hiatus). 

Charles N’Zogbia 
Playing left-back for Apostrophe’s is N’Zogbia, occasionally deployed in this position early in his Newcastle career by Glenn Roeder. While a string of excellent midfield displays under Sam Allardyce and Joe Kinnear alerted suitors to the Frenchman’s talents, it was the latter’s tongue-tied reference to him as “Insomnia” that helped speed him to a January window exit in 2009, “Zog on the Tyne” swapping one chav chic tycoon in Mike Ashley for another in Dave Whelan, joining a Wigan side that would give him a free role. It will be interesting to see where – and how well – he plays at Aston Villa this season. 

Johnny van ’t Schip 
Having come through the fabled Ajax academy, Canadian-born Dutchman Johnny van ’t Schip was a fixture in the first team during the 1980s, sporting the famous number 14 shirt previously worn by his illustrious manager. With a model wife and, at one point, the most lucrative contract in the Eredivisie, van ’t Schip was not always universally popular, yet rarely groused about his handling by the dogmatic Cruyff. He appeared in over 40 games for the Oranje, including both the early stages of their van Basten-inspired Euro 1988 success and the spiteful clash with Germany in 1990. After Euro 92 he went to Genoa to wind down his career, since when his coaching appointments have largely been as part of van Basten’s staff, both with the national team and at club level.

Yann M’Vila 
After chosing France over the parental homeland of the Congo, the 21-year-old Rennes tyro has already won 10 caps for Les bleus and appears to have become a firm favourite of new boss, Laurent Blanc. Having made it into the Ligue 1 team of the year for 2010-11, M’Vila, natural heir to Vieira and Makélélé, is sure to feature soon on the radar of the European elite, particularly if Rennes advance in the Europa League. 

Andrés D’Allesandro 
Between Maradona and Messi, Argentina haven’t half had some #10s overburdened with praise at a young age – from Aimar to Ortega, Saviola to Lavezzi – but none so much as d’Allesandro, whose stellar dribbling displays at the under-19 World Cup in 2001 attracted interest from Europe, and he duly followed a well-trodden path to the old continent, first to Wolfsburg and then, um, Portsmouth and Zaragoza, before returning home with San Lorenzo and Brazilian club Internacional. Competition for forward places in the albiceleste national side is now so strong that players like Tévez, Higuaín, and Milito are benchbound, so it was something of a surprise that he was briefly recalled to the national colours last year.

Alan A’Court 
Occupying Liverpool’s left flank for 354 games during Shankly’s early years, A’Court was voted #81 in the “100 Players Who Shook The Kop”. The strong, direct winger scored 61 goals for Liverpool and showed great loyalty by staying with them after relegation, winning his 5 England caps (three of which were at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden) while still a second-tier player. He finished his career across the Mersey at Tranmere, then meandered through several coaching jobs, including Norwich, North Staffs Polytechnic and Nantwich Town, before quitting to run a newsagents. 

Thats right: Kaka’, not Kaká. Ask the shirt manufacturers of AC Milan, Real Madrid, or Brazil, a far more authoritative source than Wikipedia I daresay. Anyway, despite being the modern era’s most overrated player, the hole-roaming, Jesus-belonging enganche is still a shoo-in for any Apostrophe XI you care to mention.

Samuel Eto’o 
For two years at Barça under Franck Rijkaard, the electric running and unerring nose for goal of cheetah-lookalike Eto’o was the perfect compliment to the conjurations of Leo Messi and Ronaldinho. The feistiness that saw him confront the Brazilian and his boss over the former’s lax attitude to training, indulged by the latter – a belligerent trait manifest, also, in the graceless taunting of arch-rivals, the club that rejected him, with “Madrid, cabrón / Saluda al campeón” (Madrid, assholes / salute the champions) – eventually led to the Camp Nou exit, but he showed a hitherto unseen humility in diligently fulfilling his defensive duties while playing wide right for Inter under José Mourinho, as he pocketed a third Champions League winners medal in his first year in Serie A. Eto’o is a four-time African Player of the Year, and in 2006 he finished third in FIFA’s World Player of the Year award, only the second African to make the podium. 


Jacques Songo’o 
The barrel-chested Cameroonian was a stalwart for Deportivo La Coruña during the Galician club’s rise to the top of the European game under Javier Irureta, winning the Zamora Trophy for La Liga’s best ’keeper in his first season and helping the club to their maiden title three years later.

Stephen N’Zonzi 
Blackburn’s pacy Franco-Congolese full-back was unlucky not to make the Apostrophe’s’ starting XI, but he fits the bill of the modern, raiding full-back while not being shy of a tackle…

Landry N’Guémo 
Providing some midfield steel from the bench is 26-year-old Cameroonian international, N’Guémo, a former Celtic loanee who they refused to buy from his French club, leading to the memorable headline, involving no less than two apostrophied footballers: ‘No Go N’Guémo: Celtic Switch Attention to N’Diaye After Move for Nancy Bhoy Stalls’. Now back in Ligue 1 with Bordeaux. 

Martin O’Neill 
Before becoming a cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof manager and sometime garrulous, non sequiteur-spewing pundit, O’Neill formed a key part of Brian Clough’s Europe-conquering Nottingham Forest, a side that played 4-4-2, relying on wingers and classic big’un / littl’un forward combination – hard to see where he got his managerial outlook from, then... O’Neill played 64 times for Northern Ireland and was a busy, unflashy player prepared to do the dirty work for his superiors.

Fabián O’Neill 
The 19-time Uruguayan international – yes, you read correctly – played for the country’s legendary Nacional club before moving to Italy, where he enjoyed seasons at Cagliari, Juve and Perugia as an attacking-midfielder. He retired at the tender age of 30 to raise cattle on his familial hacienda.

Stéphane Guivarc’h 
The Breton striker was very much a leftfield selection for France’s ultimately glorious home World Cup of 1998, in which, despite starting four games and coming on as sub in two more, spending a total of 247 minutes on the field, he failed to score… Still, that was enough to secure a move to those astute purchasers of European strikers, Newcastle United (see Kluivert, Patrick; Tomasson, Jon-Dahl).

Garry O’Connor 
The neck tattoo-removing seeker of expiation for a wayward past in which he had “too much, too young” just edges out Irish pretty boy Keith O’Neill for the final spot on the bench, for no other reason than you’d only find three O’Neill’s in such close proximity in Faliraki.


Friday, 12 August 2011


Ask a learnèd man to explain the general cause of historical events and chances are he will witter on abstractly about the ‘hidden hand’ effect of so-called ‘rational actors’ interlocking in a so-called ‘free market’ (the liberal version), about the ‘dialectic’ of antagonistic classes in perpetual struggle (the Marxist version), or perhaps about divine will and Fate (most monotheisms) – all very neat and tidy, but just a touch simplistic, no? And that’s being generous.

Perhaps instead of looking for a ‘grand design’ to the flow of events, we need to take a step back and ask a more pertinent question: is there any overarching pattern to history, or do things just bumble along fairly haphazardly – intentions, desires, decisions, struggles, and stuff organic and inorganic all bumping into each other in ways that are not random, exactly, but undirected? In this view, historical events would emerge from a messy brew of colliding causes, producing unforeseeable, unpredictable outcomes. Thus we have a first golden rule of historical analysis: that of contingency, not necessity. Or: things could always have turned out differently… An example: the swift and bloody Spanish conquest of South America was less the effect of superior weapons and organization, or even persuasive Catholic stories, as often supposed, than of the debilitating diseases they introduced (by accident) to the local population. 

What has all this abstruse philosophising got to do with football, you may ask. Well, it’s this: these contingent ‘rules’ governing complex historical processes apply equally to – and should be used to understand – the ‘fate’ befalling footballing dynasties. For instance, where would the two Merseyside teams be today had a Belgian structural engineer or UEFA stadium inspector realized that Heysel Stadium was unfit for purpose? Every penalty call closes off certain paths through the future and opens others. Then there were Gazza’s tears… 

the birth of modern football...?

So, historians (including football historians) are now far less likely to bridle and meh contemptuously at the claim that an event ultimately occurred – or a course of events took a particular direction – because of something as simple and ‘insignificant’ as an emotion: it could be argued the true cause of the Cold War and its nuclear overarmament was the fear of a future event (one that never came to pass, yet nevertheless set history off down a runaway causal spiral: an arms race). In this conception of history, shame, self-consciousness, vanity, and narcissism are all perfectly valid historical causes (which in turn have their own complex causes, of course, albeit of more interest to biographers than historians…). 

Anyway, acknowledging that minor events – events that would scarcely be thought of as historical (such as the beating wings of a famous Japanese butterfly) – are able, if sufficiently amplified, to have major, world-changing effects is tantamount to conceding this second ironclad rule of historical analysis: one man’s hang-up, felt intensely enough, can change the course of history… 

Which brings us to Steve McClaren. And Hitler. 

As a nipper in Austria, the future Führer flunked his way through high school then famously set his heart on becoming a painter, only to be rejected at the tender age of 18 by the Vienna Art School. Hard lines. He may well have written about the episode in Mein Kampf; he may just as well have suppressed it, pretending that it was water off the proverbial duck’s back. Were I a proper historian, I would probably have read the book to find out. Or had a research assistant do it.  

Nazi painting

At any rate, Hitler’s attempts to take the boho route – wild beards, kaftans, joss sticks, jazz – were met with as sturdy a palm (face-palm, in this case) as would later be adopted by the Nazi salute. According to a close friend, he never came to terms with this incident in his life, nor ceased to feel ashamed of his ‘inadequate’ paintings, even ordering Nazi Party officials to round up as many of them as possible out of fear of public ridicule. Now, it seems reasonable to assume that, had the old Viennese rector somehow intuited that his no doubt well-intended and meritocratic prevention of what was likely to be an unfulfilling career spent knocking out low-grade kitsch paintings would ultimately lead more or less directly to the Holocaust, then he might have been persuaded to relax his stringent entry criteria. Just this once. For the greater good. Of course, there was, in addition to the shame, more than a smidgeon of cocaine-fuelled racist delirium and deathlust in Hitlerism. Yet the point stands: do not underestimate the lengths that people will go to in order to conceal and/or surmount their neuroses (Exhibit A: Michael Jackson’s face). 

Wacko: once upon a time, he didn't like his nose

Fast-forward, then, to 11 November 2007, and the final steps of a very different attempt to ‘make it’ in Vienna – not entry to the Art School this time, but into the Ernst Happel Stadion, on June 29, for the final of Euro 2008. We are among the 88,000 faithful congregated at the newly-opened Wembley Stadium to see England play Group E leaders (and already Switzerland-and-Austria-bound) Croatia in the final group game. The scenario was simple: should Russia win away to Andorra (a country so lowly – in footballing terms, if not geographic – that they even play their home games away), then England would require a draw to secure progression to the tournament stages. There is rain – and tension – in the air.

The details of the game are drearily familiar: Carson’s clanger, leaving 82 minutes for him to dwell on the dream-shattering reality of a howler on competitive international debut (82 minutes, therefore, for the fans to shit themselves with every incoming shot) and Olić’s neat second; a second-half fightback through Lampard and Crouch, before Petrić’s drive leaves England with a dozen minutes to claw themselves up from the precipice. Meanwhile, in Barcelona, Russia lead only by a single goal and, utterly incredibly, Andorra, the minnows of the minnows, fashion a goalscoring chance…

The rain is now torrential, and as England’s chances of qualification recede in the face of this bright and highly motivated Croat performance, the manager, Steve McClaren, could do nothing more than look on forlornly from the edge of his technical area, sheltered from the elements by a large, blue-and-red FA umbrella, his utterly English fecklessness accentuated by juxtaposition with his guitar-playing, chain-smoking opposite number, Slaven Bilić. Wembley may well possess the largest roof-covered seating capacity of any stadium in the world, but the pitch might as well have been on Dartmoor as far as McClaren was concerned. There on his pitchside stage, at the dramatic hinge point of his life – a moment for him to inspire his players, to galvanize his countrymen – what did our hero do? He sipped on a hot beverage. Wetness personified (ironically enough); drenched in bathos. A drip. 

Now, given that this is a man who appeared conversant with the post-sheepskin world of football management (indeed, he was headhunted by Manchester United on the basis of his forward-thinking, stat-wielding modernism) and thus one who, upon his appointment to the top job, engaged self-styled PR ‘guru’ Max Clifford – who else? – to manage his media relations, this was hardly the projection of the sort of image of Churchillian Gafferdom that his proudly three-lion-tattooed countrymen would have expected in their hour of need. It was anti-charisma; the instantaneous evaporation of all his credibility. How else can you describe such a colossally ill-judged act of berkishness? Surely Clifford had briefed him: “whatever you do, Steve, don’t make yourself look an ineffectual nincompoop in front of ninety-thousand Englanders”. “Check”.

So, how do you account for these self-inflicted wounds? What on earth possessed him?
Well, clearly the hapless McClaren’s ridiculous shelter-seeking can only be explained by an abject fear that the frankly preposterous quiff that he vigilantly maintains – an island of sparse vegetation undergoing rapid, aerosol-induced desertification as it drifts ever further from the continental land mass of his main coiffeuse – would be flattened, unflatteringly, by the teeming rain, leaving a great sodden ginger smear plastered to his bonce. And once those oh-so-carefully positioned follicles were relieved of their main job – simulating full-head-of-hair conditions (from a certain precise angle, in a certain light) – then who’s to tell how far down the face such a damp tongue might loll. Not so much a hairdo, as a hair-don’t, to borrow a much-used gag. 

"the desert grows three miles a year, it just grows, it just grows..."

We can now chuckle at the absurdity of it all, but it’s worthwhile taking a moment here to question the wisdom of employing, in ostensibly the most important post in your national game, a man who, in order to maintain his self-esteem – and thus his authority as Boss – requires certain precise meteorological conditions to be in place! (“Sorry, guys, I won’t be coming in today. Too windy!”)

Imagine for a minute that you are Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Cashley, or Lampard, players somewhere near their peak in 2008 and with their bi-annual tilt at tournament football – at footballing immortality – slipping away; imagine looking toward the bench to see that the manager’s primary concern is not to throw on game-breaking substitutes and shake things up, nor to deliver a rousing exhortation, but to keep his thatch dry. It’s the equivalent of Genghis Khan stopping for a quick pre-pillage manicure. (Incidentally, Barnet-envy must have been at the root – no pun intended – of him stripping the captaincy from His Royal Hairness, the Duke of Beckhamshire, and giving it to the more conservatively mopped “JT”.)

It would be churlish and unrealistic to suggest that people ought to be able just to brush off such neuroses. The process of balding can be traumatic (on this note, what exactly did his mentor at Derby, renowned slaphead Jim Smith, actually teach him?), to which eloquent testimony is paid by many an unsightly and ill-advised footballing combover, from Bobby Charlton to Chris Garland.

Chris Garland, Bristol City: combover

However, as both Max Clifford and the England players’ sleeve tattoos ought to have screamed out at him, this is an image-dominated age. “The medium is the message, Steve!!” “Gotcha, Max”. So, for McClaren to seek to uphold a façade of hirsuteness (much less undergo what Martin Amis used to call a “rug rethink”) without face-saving contingency plans for inclement weather was negligent in the extreme, and provided an open goal for the press. And the red-tops are hardly renowned for treating England managers with kid gloves (Exhibit B: “Swedes 2 Turnips 1”).

Having already started in the job with the epithet “Second-Choice Steve” (rumours that his wife also used this sobriquet are yet to be confirmed.), the “Wally with the Brolly” headline was clearly McClaren’s death knell as England coach. A bad hair day, to say the least. Reputations: a lifetime to build, a moment to destroy.

Thus, after an 18-match stint at the helm, the shortest in England’s history, the FA nabobs handed over the reins to a man who, while having the disadvantage of not speaking English, had the advantage of not speaking English. However, and crucially, Capello at least had a dense follicle canopy (which presumably cancels out the communications shortcomings by virtue of the fact that his dim-witted and hair-conscious charges are themselves not, liiiike, proper into, like, words and shit, yeah?).

Meanwhile, off McLaren went to Twente Enschede to blast industrial strength hairspray on his thinning reputation, a rare broadening of horizons – in British managerial terms – for which he ought to have been roundly commended. However, he immediately scissor-kicked himself another spectacular PR own-goal, ensuring permanent ridicule on these shores by giving – with all due respect to Messrs Kinnear, Clough, Keegan and one or two others – possibly the most infamous TV interview ever conducted with an English football coach (was Max Clifford still advising him at this stage, or did he only come in when there was a forest fire to put out?). This interview would forever cloud the fact that “Der Kuifje” – the Dutch for Tintin (literally, ‘the quiff’), as he ought to have been dubbed by the local media, if he wasn’t already – in pulling off the minor miracle of winning the Eredivisie with a team outside the Big Three (Ajax, PSV, Feyenoord), became the first Englishman to win a top-flight title since Bobby Robson’s Porto in 1996.

Not making the Swiss-Austrian 
Euro finals hit McClaren hard

Instead, McClaren will be remembered as the man whose hair neurosis single-handedly emasculated a Golden Generation of footballers and cost England their best shot at tournament success since 1966, with disastrous effects for their own careers, the morale of the people, and thus ultimately the economic and political health of the country. Could fascism sprout from such a barren brow? 

Leaving aside for now the somewhat incidental question of whether the Golden Generation even existed – either as a generation, or as something golden – or whether it was in fact yet more laughably raddled tabloid hyperbole and Sky-injected steroidal braggadocio, it is entirely plausible, within the historiographical framework set out earlier, to link our nation’s present economic malaise, social turmoil and political uncertainty to McClaren’s quiff-protection. Who knows what might have happened had we qualified for Euro 2008? Let us simply note that the tournament’s winners, Spain, undoubtedly confident from casting off the “nearly-men” tag, went to the World Cup in South Africa and won there, too, the first European side ever to win another continent.

“Yeah, but…” you’re doubtless about to start bleating, “England went out with a gigantic whimper at the hands of a dynamic young Germany side”. True, but perhaps the cause of that defeat lies squarely in the non-participation in Euro 2008, the origin of which was Shecond-Choish Schteev’s hair hang-up, as has now been irrefutably established. (Look, if you’re prepared to defend the contingency that goal-line technology could have changed the outcome of the Germany match, then you have no choice but to run with this theory.) Had we qualified for Euro 2008 (which we didn’t, because of McClaren’s hairdo) and gone on to win the World Cup in South Africa – and let’s face it, we weren’t a million miles away; ask The Sun – then it’s fair to assume that this would have provided the nation with a much-needed economic boost that might have swept us all the way through the London Olympics and beyond, creating a new, confident nation to face an uncertain postindustrial future. It would certainly have prevented the riots.

So, when you are next pondering why your local sports centre has been streamlined, why the library has closed, why the streets are covered in litter, why pockets of blank-eyed folk are being sucked from employment to alcoholism and worse, then fix your eyes no further than a desolate-looking chap under an umbrella one November Wednesday night back in 2007, a man sinking, plummeting, yet unable to allow his hair to be seen ruffled.