Last week, as Jesse Marsch’s appointment by Leeds United was being pencilled in, Richard Keys and Andy Gray – those two concrete pillars of football establishment thinking – barely bothered to hide their disdain on beIN SPORTS. There was a glorious moment in which Gray simply, slowly pronounced his name, “Jesse… Marsch”, as if those two words were enough to state the hypothesis and win the argument.
The implication, deliberately or otherwise, was that you simply can’t be called Jesse and hope to survive in the Most Difficult League In The World. To be American in the Premier League is, in some corners of punditry, still a deep-rooted taboo – “in their football they throw the ball, Jeff”. You need a proper name to succeed. Not Bob, though – definitely not Bob. Bradley’s time at Swansea City does not live long in the memory, but that’s largely because he only lasted 11 games.
Marsch has enough on his plate keeping Leeds United in the Premier League. He has received a hospital pass, following the most popular manager in their modern history, starving a squad of the dogmas on which they used to feast, and trying to improve a defence that had conceded 20 times in their previous five matches. All without a transfer window and with the threat of relegation that means he must hit the ground running.
But beyond that, he arrives in England not just as a coach but as a standard-bearer for an entire football culture. Even if Keys and Gray spoke a little like the elderly relative who you learn to ignore because they are set in their ways, on this topic they reflect a large minority – perhaps even a majority.
Bradley’s experience at Swansea was unhelpful. He is the only US-born manager in Premier League history and he was a dud. We did not dismiss all French coaches because Remi Garde flunked at Aston Villa, nor all German coaches after Felix Magath’s weird pseudo-medical use of cheese. But then they both came from established footballing cultures, and so were viewed as exceptions to the rule. A small sample size should dissuade hard opinion, but then that really isn’t how these things work.
We cannot escape the role of vernacular. Again Bob “PK and road game” Bradley’s time in England was instructive, but it goes beyond that. Football is so ingrained in our everyday culture that it is wedded to cliched patterns of speech. Hearing an American discuss football can jar a little because it is English, but not as we know it.
We see it best in the word “soccer” itself. How many people hear an American say that word in the context of English football and wince but also watch Gillette Soccer Saturday, use websites such as Soccerway, Soccerbase or Soccerstats or grew up with Sensible Soccer as a cornerstone of their football enlightenment?
The culture war extends beyond language, though. Americans are viewed suspiciously due to a perceived lack of football heritage. Their fandom is presumed to be plastic. The rise of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in the late 1960s probably didn’t help. It was platformed by a desire for showmanship and entertainment, broadly reflecting perceived American sporting values.
In English culture in general, we are suspicious of ego, hyperbole and razzmatazz. And if you’re going to watch your football team play, the least you can do is look like the whole experience is vaguely painful.
Perhaps things are changing, even at a glacial pace. Arsene Wenger was scoffed at when he first arrived in England. During his first season, Pep Guardiola was mocked for saying that he didn’t coach tackles, provoking grandstanding that he needed to adapt to “our league”.
One of the keys to England’s improvement over the last decade – coaching, youth development, tactical awareness – was a deliberate shattering of hardwired insularities.
But then Wenger and Guardiola were incredibly successful, which only increases the pressure on Marsch. He is not foolish enough to become deliberately entangled in a culture war given the pressing emergency of Leeds’ fight to stay up, but he can also not choose to completely escape it. You can see them in their studio now: “How could he ever keep them in the Premier League – they don’t even have relegation over there”.
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