There’s a type of dead-eyed certainty in a certain type of football person when it comes to the subject of British managers. Sam Allardyce said recently that Brits are becoming “second class” and that “English and British coaches are being overlooked regularly”, and his is a prevalent if paranoid opinion. He sounded rather like that bloke who will corner you in a pub, look right and left before saying: “Of course the real minority in this country these days is the white man.”
Allardyce’s statement was, with the sort of enjoyable deadpan comic timing that the universe can sometimes deliver, made laughable this week when David Moyes, against all sense and objective judgement, given the West Ham job. His appointment was the seventh time a British manager was given a Premier League job since the start of last season, out of 13 appointments, both permanent and temporary. Allardyce could well become the eighth if he takes over at Everton.
But that’s a debate which has been had, and will be had, and one that seems entirely pointless as neither side will change their minds. To an extent you can understand the complaint of native employees not being given a fair crack, if that is indeed the case. But what’s particularly interesting is that those who sadly shake their heads and complain about this issue is that they always seem to refer to ‘British’ managers, not English.
Aside from the 2012 Olympics, when it would have been just too embarrassing for the hosts not to field a team, and a couple of other examples way in the past, in football ‘Britain’ does not exist. It’s a geographically adjacent collection of small countries with varying degrees of power in their domestic leagues, and differing levels of apathy towards their national teams. It is, collectively at least, a meaningless notion.
It’s also a pretty flexible one. In the outside world Britain is England, Wales and Scotland, but in football terms you’ll usually find Northern Ireland and the Republic are thrown in too because, well, those lot are basically on our side, ain’t they? I am unfamiliar with Brendan Rodgers’ politics, but his eyebrows were probably raised every time he was referred to as a Brit, for these purposes, which happened a lot.
Football historically has a curious relationship to Britishness. Scots dominated the great Liverpool teams of the 70s and 80s; John Charles is one of Leeds United’s greatest ever; 18 of Manchester United’s 20 league titles and all three of their European Cups were won by Scots. There’s a degree of integration in the domestic game. But in the international game there are few more fierce rivalries: which is to say, everyone hates England, and England patronises everyone else.
It’s thus easy to see why these players and managers from foreign footballing countries “don’t count” when it comes to matters of nationality. And the notion of identity is a curious and flexible thing: you can identify as British, English, Scottish, Welsh, none of the above and for passport purposes you’re a citizen of the United Kingdom.
But in this specific context, we’re talking about the English Premier League. If this argument was about preserving the specific national identity of this division then it would be easier to understand, if not agree with. It’s the same if it was about purely breeding coaches for the national team, and the notion that the English manager should be English is a logical one.
Yet, because it’s Britain, not England that is referred to, it isn’t about any of these things. It’s not just petty-minded parochialism, but arbitrary petty-minded parochialism, based on a historic ideal that might not even have existed, and if it did is long gone now. Scottish football and English football and Welsh football are different things: they have different attitudes and styles and powers. The assumption that they’re all the same is now no longer relevant, so conflating the nations when it comes to protecting some vague idea of patriotism or nationalism is almost entirely pointless.
If a ‘foreigner’ who’d failed in his last three jobs had been given the West Ham job then the predictable voices would have been loud and long. But in football terms, David Moyes is a ‘foreigner’. Moyes has worked in the Premier League for 15 years, on and off, so he ‘knows’ the division, but given his record since his last couple of years at Everton, it’s a bit like saying a surfer can survive swimming with great white sharks because he knows the sea. If you ever want a definition of privilege, it’s a man being given a Premier League job after three quite emphatic failures.
In football, Britain doesn’t exist, so there’s little point in pretending it does.