So, Emile Heskey has left top-level English football for good this time. And yet, strangely, the latest England manager could still be heard urging his players to “look for the big man” in his first training session with them yesterday. Who, if not Heskey, was The Big Man to be looked for (physically and existentially, no doubt)? Ah, it was Andy Carroll. This, I have to say, is not a reassuring realisation.
In Carroll, Roy Hodgson appears to have come up with an example of an idea that used to be something like logic, but has now been entirely hollowed out, becoming nonsense instead. You see The Big Man idea in Heskey’s day seemed to work sometimes for two reasons: First, Michael Owen, who he played up front with, was a bit small. Second, Heskey, at times, could score goals in his own right, and even regardless of that, was a semi-good player (strong, quick and able to hold onto the ball and stuff). There might even be more reasons, but it’s quite hot here and I’m only half interested. Anyway, neither of those, correct me if I’m wrong (don’t), applies well to Carroll, who’s going to play for England at Euro 2012 off the back of a four-goal Premier League season for Liverpool.
Carroll, seemingly, will get to play for England simply for being A Big Man. Not because having a Big Man will be of any particular use to anyone in particular, or because Carroll has proven himself a good football player, but because he is big. He doesn’t even have A Good Touch for a Big Man! And thus clever English football has come up with the Big Man Up Front as an innate good. Oh good.
That it was Hodgson—well-travelled, Uefa-branded Roy Hodgson—who made the New Emile Heskey appointment was also slightly significant. In Roy it becomes clear that you can take the coach in and out of England for thirty years, but you’ll still never take from him his love of the Emile Heskey footballer, the rubbish but big striker, the pure masculine lummox with a penchant for embarrassing misses. Evidently this English obsession with the big man really is the stain which never goes away, even once you’ve burned off all your clothes and chewed off your own foot.
Why can’t it be got away from? One suggestion is that Roy is simply being pragmatic – accepting that he doesn’t have the creative genius in his new side to be able to forget the long ball option. But I don’t buy it. As Carroll scored a goal in training, Hodgson called out “well done, son”: that was our clue. Hodgson is no sycophant: those aren’t the words of a man who is resorting to the oafish striker; they’re the words of a man who genuinely enjoys the oafish striker. Hodgson, then, is simply trapped by being English – he can’t help liking appalling footballers who happen to be large, however many coaching badges he collects.
It’s only right to feel sorry for him. Only poor timing—bad luck—leaves his choice of a big man—which, remember, he can’t help—looking ridiculous. When Glenn Hoddle and Terry Venables picked Alan Shearer it looked perfectly reasonable: Shearer could score and hold the ball up and “get into ‘em!” But the fact of the matter is, Venables and Hoddle were bound to pick him regardless of those things—he just happened to be big. Hodgson is stuck with Carroll, the baddest of the bad, and looks an idiot for it, but it’s not his fault – he just happens to be English at the wrong place and the wrong time.
England fans used to laugh at Emile Heskey, but I think everyone knew on some level that the last laugh would be his. Andy Carroll is about to play for England at Euro 2012, and there are few funnier jokes going than that.
Despite so many reasons for fans of England and English football more generally to be negative, however, there is also room to be positive. After the events of last week there can at least be no doubt that an English player will lift the European Championship trophy. John Terry, we can be sure, will gladly step up—whichever team wins the tournament—to collect his award.
No indication yet on how the press will play it when he makes a lunge for Steven Gerrard’s captain’s armband, but one can always be sure that JT will not notice either way.