Andy Carroll, Watergate and England’s national emergency

What has the Watergate scandal got to do with Andy Carroll’s suitability to lead England’s attack?

At the meeting that authorised the burglary of the Watergate hotel – and fatally undermined Nixon’s presidency – one manager reluctantly backed the scheme thinking: “It’s only a third-rate burglary. What could possibly go wrong?”

The Watergate scandal is the classic manifestation of a psychological phenomenon which Irving Janis dubbed “groupthink”. In essence, the term describes the mechanism by which members of a tightly knit group are so keen to reach a consensus that they don’t critically test, analyse or evaluate an idea, no matter how barmy it is.

Janis died in 1990 but if he were alive today – and read the football media – he would realise groupthink is flourishing. Especially, as we’ll discuss later, where Newcastle’s No.9 is concerned.

U-turns and turnips

This year we have seen classic examples of groupthink in the British football press. The most spectacular – both because of the scale and the speed in the change of attitude – was the way that, within days, a press that had condemned Fabio Capello as a turnip (or, as they say in Italy, Luca Toni) after the fiasco in South Africa did a collective U-turn and – with the exception of a few distinguished dissenters like Patrick Barclay – concluded the Italian was still the right man for the England job.

Once that collective decision had been made, nothing could challenge this view – not even the revelation that the vastly experienced Italian had been outthought by a bunch of German Ph.D students.

Capello would presumably struggle on University Challenge

In case you’d forgotten, the students’ masterplan to undo England wasn’t especially complicated or cunning. It boiled down to four points:

1. If you clog midfield, you stop most England attacks.2. England’s defence doesn’t like it up ‘em so hit long balls.3. Lure John Terry out of position.4. Give the ball to Matthew Upson – he rarely passes it to a teammate.

Loving and loathing the Blues

A few weeks ago there was a minor outbreak of groupthink when the question: “Is it time to love Chelsea?” popped up in various parts of the media and was answered in the affirmative by such usually reliable stalwarts as Kevin McCarra.

The grounds for loving Chelsea were basically as follows:

1. Chelsea aren’t spending anywhere near as much as Manchester City. 2. Their coach is a very nice bloke, a proper football man.3. Er, that’s it.

It’s a bizarre question anyway. If you’re a supporter of Arsenal, Fulham, Spurs or  West Ham, there is never a time to love Chelsea. The Blues have been despised for decades, witness the rant by Terry (James Bolam) in Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? back in the 1970s that “Chelsea represent everything I detest about football”.

Even if Roman Abramovich brought peace to the Middle East, discovered a cure for cancer and made world poverty a distant memory, large swathes of the populace would still find it hard to warm to the Blues.

How handy is Andy?

The latest, astonishing case of groupthink is the clamour for Andy Carroll to be included in the England squad. His strengths are obvious – aerial prowess, never say die spirit, a useful left foot – but so are the deficiencies.

If even 1% of what the tabloids say about him is true, the kindest you could say is that Carroll hardly has the kind of lifestyle that suggests he is a dedicated, focused, professional athlete.

Carroll has most pundits singing off the same hymn sheet

As I write this, he has scored seven goals in the top flight. Yet such sages as Jamie Redknapp confidently predict he could lead the England attack for the next decade. This is a terrifying prospect in so many ways.

First, the mere prediction suggests that Redknapp has learned nothing from the World Cup, a tournament ultimately suffocated by hype. When George W. Bush said “You can fool some of the people all the time and those are the ones you should concentrate on”, he was joking. Redknapp and other pundits have taken Dubya literally.

You expect this kind of knee jerk from Alan Shearer, the self-appointed patron saint of the Geordie nation, but the last time we had this kind of clamour, the striker who was good enough to lead England’s attack for the next decade was Andy Johnson, now rebuilding his career at Fulham.

If seven goals in the top flight is enough for a striker to be considered worthy of the Three Lions, how much lower can the bar go?

Doesn’t this represent some kind of national disaster? A crisis so deep that the sports minister should declare a state of emergency, assume extraordinary powers and order Stuart Pearce to spend very waking hour searching Genes Reunited until he’s found half a dozen decent young foreign strikers with an English grandparent?

The idea that Carroll is the new Shearer, Supermac or Milburn is appealing, especially to Toon sentimentalists. But as an England star, it’s almost as likely that Carroll could be the new Francis Jeffers, David Nugent or Chris Armstrong who amassed just two England goals between them.

I don’t have a convincing alternative to Carroll. I just believe we’re far better off not falling for all the hype. Carroll may be a useful makeshift, a striker of last resort, or he may rise to the challenge. But his top-flight goals have come against Arsenal, Aston Villa (in disarray after O’Neill’s exit), Blackburn, West Ham and Wolves. Hardly proof he’s a world-class striker. 

And only a media desperate to convince us that a) England have a real chance in 2012 and b) the Premier League is not the new Championship (which is what it increasingly feels like to me) would say otherwise.

Ultimately this kind of groupthink metamorphoses into a much more devastating phenomenon. The phenomenon I’m thinking of starts with ‘mind’ and ends with four letters that rhyme with ‘luck’.

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