Belgium 2, England 0. Time for a new look.
We invested in the vest. The vest propelled us forward, but ultimately the vest did not deliver. The vest is now forever associated with the bowel-curdling disappointment of 2018, the tournament where we English fans—and wee English fans like myself—dared to rise above our usual pessimism and to believe that, after more than half a century, it was coming home. Let the vest take the fall so that Gareth Southgate, the almost-triumphant England manager and a genuinely great bloke, can live to fight a new day. (Qatar 2022 will be here before you know it!)
Mr. Southgate is by no means the first soccer manager to adopt a signature sartorial flourish in the hopes of inspiring players and fans. In fact, he is part of a very long tradition. Superstitious and neurotic, managers are constantly on the lookout for that lucky talisman, some mystical garment or accessory, which might allow them to prevail in the random, low-scoring, crazy-making game of soccer.
Frank Buckley, a stroppy World War I veteran who managed Blackpool, Wolves, and Leeds, is forever remembered for his massive tweed baggy knickers. Portsmouth manager Jack Tinn swore by his “lucky spats.” In the 1970s, John Bond made waves with his sinister blinding-white raincoats and his impressive bouffant hairdo. Sexy impresario Malcolm Allison set hearts aflutter with sheepskins and an oversize floppy fedora, and Ron Atkinson, aka Champagne Charlie, garnered mixed reviews for his ramparts of shimmering manjewelry.
By flaunting their tabloid-friendly flourishes, these guys were able to increase their personal profile, inspire their lads and rah-rah entire stadiums. However, times have changed, and managing today’s England World Cup team, with all of its unwieldy history, invites a level of scrutiny that would have caused Jack Tinn’s lucky spats to shrivel and drop to the floor. What was previously seen as just an endearing and memorable eccentricity can, in our age of memes and roiling, boiling social media, achieve a lethal symbolism. If you don’t believe me then go ask the vest.
I was 14 when we first won the World Cup. The year was 1966. We Brits were still clawing our way out of austerity Britain—hence the undernourished physique referred to above—and overnight it felt like the sun had come out. In the intervening years it started to feel like the sun had gone back in. Not only were we unable to recapture the title, but the players from that winning side often seemed cursed. Captain Bobby Moore—beautiful Bobby!—died of cancer aged 51. Alan Ball died of a heart attack while trying to put out a rogue bonfire in his own backyard. George Cohen ran out of dough and was forced to flog his medal. Nobby Stiles, one of the great folk heroes of British soccer, who was pictured on the winning pitch clutching the World Cup in one hand and his NHS dentures in the other, survived a stroke and prostate cancer only to receive an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. In 1972, Gordon Banks lost his right eye in a car accident. I could go on, but you get my point. It’s small wonder we Brits are such a bunch of doom-laden Doras.
In 2022, I will be 70 years old, and significantly shorter, no doubt. Will Mr. Southgate be able to bring it home before I am seen clutching my dentures in one hand and a walking stick in the other? And, more importantly, what will he wear in lieu of the vest?
I am voting for a more sportif informal approach. Some of the greatest and butchest British managers of all time—Bob Paisley, Alf Ramsey, Tommy Docherty, and Brian Clough—have hit the pitch in a track suit. Won’t Gareth be a tad warm, zippered inside a synthetic two-piece, in the middle of the desert? Those much-vaunted air-conditioned World Cup Qatari stadiums, already under construction, will keep the temperature nice and cool, just like the man himself.