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.


  1. What an enlightening post! I Discovered your blog yesterday and think it's brilliant.

  2. Cheers Olly! I don't suppose you know how I might make some actual money from it, by any chance? This blog (and the other two) are used mainly as an archive for occasional pieces, which should be evident from the number of hits...

    I'm on twitter: @reverse_sweeper

    Glad you like it.