“One of the fears of coaches [is] that their players will take anxiety on to the field with them, that they’ll be weighed down by the thoughts that it might not go their way, they’ll imagine the newspaper headlines when they don’t play as well as they would like. We try, as hard as we can [to] encourage the players to believe; look, you are good enough, you will be good enough, just believe in yourselves.”
The horse had already bolted. Roy Hodgson may have ended his pre-Euro 2016 press conference with talk of encouraging his England team, but it is his own anxiety which he is still struggling to suppress in his third major tournament as manager. The players did not take any fear, Hodgson’s unfortunate choice of word, with them on to the pitch against Russia. They approached the game with fierce determination, the performance only dropping in the 15 minutes that followed half time. Perhaps that was no coincidence. Persistence finally paid off when Eric Dier curled home a stunning free-kick but England retreated until Vasili Berezutski’s arcing header snatched an undeserved equaliser for Russia.
England have now won only two of the seven tournament matches they have played under Hodgson, both of those victories coming at Euro 2012, against Sweden and Ukraine, when he was parachuted into the position after Fabio Capello’s untimely resignation. When England were eliminated by Italy on penalties, there was a sense that it was ‘job done’ instead of considering what might have been. Lowering expectations has been the biggest achievement of Hodgson’s reign.
The formulaic slog of the past four years has been punctuated by intervals of genuine optimism – a perfect record in qualifying, the fightback to win 3-2 against Germany – but when it has really mattered on the biggest stage the manager has been found wanting. On Saturday night it was his decisions that cost England momentum. Four of the squad’s five strikers remained unused on the bench, including 24-goal Premier League champion Jamie Vardy, as Jack Wilshere and James Milner were sent on to shore up the resistance of a pitiful Russian opponent. Vardy’s pace and poise would have stretched a creaking defence on the counter, Milner slipped and lost possession with his first touch.
“We didn’t honestly believe we were in great difficulties in that period of time,” said Hodgson afterwards. “We thought we would see the game out at 1-0.” But what about killing it off? England are fortunate to possess some of the finest attacking talent at the tournament, yet it appears it has been reserved only for when the team is chasing a deficit. Hodgson chose to be conservative when the game was crying out for more pace, more outlets, more belief. There was logic to his decisions – they can always be explained – but while it takes a sensible manager to qualify for a tournament, it takes a bold one to bridge the gulf between that achievement and taking a team to the business end of the competition. Hodgson is an accomplished warm-up act when we came to see something more risqué.
When Sven-Göran Eriksson was appointed England manager in 2001, one of his first acts was to hire Norwegian psychologist Professor Willi Railo to assist him. Railo, who previously helped Eriksson transform Lazio into a Serie A-winning side for only the second time in the club’s history, and was recruited by tennis star Björn Borg in the seventies, divided sports professionals into two personality types: cultural architects and cultural prisoners. “Cultural architects are people that are able to change the mindset of other people. They’re able to break barriers, they have visions, they are self-confident and they are able to transfer their own self-confidence to a group of people,” explained Railo. Cultural prisoners, on the other hand, “are negative, who tell you why something can’t be done rather than how it can be done.”
Not averse to modern methods, Hodgson has enlisted the help of sports psychiatrist Dr. Steve Peters to perform a role similar to Railo’s remit before the 2002 World Cup. But it requires only one of the manager’s press conferences to understand which of the two camps he falls into. “We have a team that, if we perform to the level we think we can perform to, we’ll make it difficult for any opponent that comes our way,” said Hodgson before England faced Russia. “But then we’ll have to see what happens, because it’s a knock-out tournament, and everything hangs on 90 minutes of football and in 90 minutes many, many things can happen.” Many things, such as the players taking their anxiety on to the pitch. On the surface these appear to be excuses; according to Railo’s doctrine they are the explanations of a cultural prisoner.
For all the work of Dr. Peters, and Hodgson’s forethought to hire him, it is the manager’s voice that sounds loudest among the players. It is one that lacks conviction. In an interview with the Guardian in 2001, Railo said: “Journalists ask me this question all the time: what will Mr Eriksson bring to the England team? And I tell them, wait and see. So they say okay, what do you suggest he should say to his players before the match? I say, it is too late there. The job must be done before you reach the dressing room.” The fear with Hodgson is that the good work done in advance can still be undone in the dressing room.
Although Eriksson’s reign ultimately ended in disappointment, it was clear that his personality type was that of a cultural architect. “He is self-confident, he is not afraid of failure, he dares to win,” said Railo. Eriksson’s biggest fear was fear itself. In May 2002, in the build up to the World Cup, he and Railo featured in the BBC documentary The England Patient that looked at their transformational impact on the national team’s psychology, culminating in the famous 5-1 win against Germany. “Fear of failure, it’s a big, big problem in football,” Eriksson told the cameras. “They are afraid doing mistakes, afraid not being good enough. I think the job as a manager you have to make them secure, tell them that you don’t need to be afraid, just go out, I’m behind you, I take the responsibility.”
Railo echoed the Swede’s thoughts by repeating his mantra: “You have to dare to lose to win. A winner hates to lose, but the winner is not afraid of losing. That’s the difference.”
Against Russia on Saturday, Hodgson was afraid of losing. He was afraid of England blowing the lead and therefore made the decision to see the game out. The effect was to cede territory, to cede opportunity, to cede belief. To invite pressure on a defence that is widely acknowledged as being the main area of weakness in this England team. It was not the leadership of a cultural architect, displaying the bravery to risk Russian reprisal and reproach at home, and ultimately it was caution that failed to pay off.
The silver lining is that, despite moments of profligacy, the team performed well. And for Hodgson there is still time to lead with greater conviction. Personalities are abstract, pliable, susceptible to change. So is the influence they hold. For Eriksson’s England, Railo noted one individual whose character developed more than the rest: “Let me mention just one name – Beckham. He has grown to become a cultural architect. He has today a very great influence on the attitudes of the other players and he is thinking the same line as Sven-Göran Eriksson.”
Hodgson must now decide whether he is to be the cultural architect that leads England forward or the cultural prisoner that holds them back. He has nothing left to lose: he has already overseen capitulation in the group stage in 2014 and the pain of being eliminated on penalties in 2012. There will surely be no new contract unless England advance beyond the second round. Now is the time to be bold.