How the process works
Everything goes well for a while until a crisis event occurs or a trend emerges which later becomes “what everyone thought all along but couldn’t say because they didn’t want to rock the boat”.
Let’s look at some examples from UK history. The Emperor Hadrian enjoyed rave reviews in the Londinium Evening Standard for his wall-building skills only to see all his good work ruined by one editorial: “Hadrian's Wall doesn't seem to be stopping the Picts getting through on the 18.27 coach from Glasgow to London Victoria. Everyone at the Londinium Evening Standard thought the wall was a rubbish idea all along. We only kept quiet because we didn’t want to rock the boat.”
Wellington thought his 1814 - 15 campaign against the French an unqualified success. Backed by patriotic headlines such as "Give it some welly" and "Stick two fingers up to the French" the Iron Duke had, after all, finally seen off Napoleon on the fields of Waterloo.
Not that this stopped the papers pointing out that his soldiers didn't go into battle blindfolded or with one arm tied behind their backs, the traditional way we beat the French back then. “Everyone at the Grimsby Bugle thought Wellington was a flat track bully all along. He proved our point with his unwillingness to give the French a sporting chance. Obviously we kept quiet because we didn’t want to rock the boat.”
Building up England managers and then knocking them down
England managers since Alf Ramsey have also suffered under the relentless gaze of a media buoyed by raised expectations. Ramsey failed to retire after 1970 when the goodwill for him to depart gracefully still existed. The knives came out once we failed to make the 74 Finals.
Of Ramsey's successors, probably only Joe Mercer, Ron Greenwood, Bobby Robson and caretakers Howard Wilkinson and Peter Taylor left the job with their dignity intact. The rest were lauded but eventually lambasted for one reason or another:
• Don Revie - failed to qualify for 1976 European Championships
• Graham Taylor - remember the Swedes v Turnips headlines and the "Do I not like that?" agony of losing out on the road to USA 94?
• Terry Venables - a tainted off-field business reputation took the focus away from a very good managerial record
• Glenn Hoddle - a case of bad karma saw him off
• Kevin Keegan - we needed guile but got the bulldog spirit
• Sven-Goran Eriksson - we wanted the bulldog spirit but got guile and a depressing run of quarter final exits from a colourful character who usually had more than football on his mind
• Steve McClaren - nobody wanted "Second Choice Steve" and it eventually became obvious why
All of these managerial casualties had run-ins with the press, which invariably believes it knows better. And tellingly, with one exception, they all came and went in the last two decades as the press honed its hunting instincts to perfection.
What does any of this mean for Fabio Capello?
Not much at the time of writing. Using a not-so-subtle blend of language barriers and quiet authority, the Italian has so far kept a lid on expectations. He even publicly admitted playing down England's hopes was an essential part of his preparations for the tournament. This appears to have taken the press, which likes nothing more than fools willing to over-inflate England's chances, by surprise.
Sadly this can't last. Sooner or later Capello will take a decision which backfires. And then the mood will change. It’s time for some ill-informed speculation on how and when this might happen:
• Probably not before the World Cup, unless a betting scandal involving most of the squad erupts, forcing Capello to hand the captaincy over to Billy the Fish. Being led into a World Cup by a fictional fish wouldn’t go down well.
• A group game goes wrong, prompting the nation's footy scribes to wonder aloud about England's prospects. Capello tries the language barrier/quiet authority shtick. It doesn't work. The following day one newspaper headline reads: "Capello - you're pasta your best."
• It's the last 16 or the quarter finals. Now the campaign to propel England to glory on a wave of passion, belief and frothing at the mouth insanity begins. Capello counters with references to cunning, intelligence and discipline. "You're talking bolognese," says one tabloid.
• If England reach the semis most people's expectations will be met. The mood will be fervent but deferential to The Don. He will be safe, whatever happens. “Can Capello make a pizza history?” they probably won’t ask.
Of course none of the above may happen. England may sail through the competition with the minimum of fuss and Capello could scoop a knighthood on a wave of media adulation. Or it could all go horribly wrong, in which case I will tell the press “I thought Capello was a very lucky manager who would eventually be found out. Obviously being English I kept quiet because I didn’t want to rock the boat”.
What do you think? Can the Capello – media relationship survive the strains of a World Cup?