Monday, 25 June 2012

Paying The Penalty Again And Again

There’s a Thelwell cartoon strip – one of them pony pictures with a little plump horsey kid involved – which starts with a lass standing waist deep in water while her nag peers over the fence at her. The reins are still in her hand. The caption says summat like: ‘If you’re having trouble with your pony, don’t worry....


Just remount (picture of lass getting back on horse)...

Take her back to the beginning (picture of lass on horse about to approach the same jump again)...

And make her do it again’ (picture of lass standing waist deep in the same water with the same horse peering blankly at her from the other side of the fence)

[It's not quite this one but you get the idea!]


And so it is with England and penalty kicks. This is eight out of nine spot-kick defeats in major tournaments. The idea that the latest one is ameliorated by Italy’s utter domination of the match itself means bugger-all. We’re owed one by now. Italy have a dreadful record in shoot-outs and even they turned us over.

Hodgson was quick to praise his players for effort, and who could disagree? If there’s one thing Englishmen could teach the rest of the football world it’s how to throw yourself bodily in front of piledriving 25-yarders and still stagger back to their feet to take some more. Scott Parker has been less a footballer and more a walking game of Pong.

But that sort of reckless derring-do doesn’t win football matches. Simple things do. Like passing to a team-mate. Who passes it to another one. Who passes it to another one. Now, it’s not necessary to be so good at this that, like Spain, you become a FUCKING BORE, but it would be nice to keep it long enough to get into the opposition half.

It does seem faintly ridiculous, some twenty years after Graham Taylor’s woeful and inept England team, so devoid of technique that Carlton Palmer made it into the starting eleven, that we are still producing football teams that treat a football like it’s a live explosive.

It’s not Hodgson’s fault. Indeed, he recognised that our boys would spend most of the match trying bloody hard to get the ball back off better footballers and set up his teams accordingly. Supposedly our most gifted player, Wayne Rooney couldn’t have had a less certain first touch if he’d have been wearing flippers. Roy’s diligent faith in Ashley Young was nonplussing by the end. Young should not have been on the pitch to miss a penalty. He’s a lad with, apparently, a lot of ability, but like Wazza, he tends to hide his light under the largest bushel in the universe.

Now, on the bright side, the team were well-organised and did as well as could be expected. There are some players who truly cemented their places: Glen Johnson was very good; Hart will be there until he wants to leave; Welbeck looked the part; and the likes of Gerrard, Terry and Cole played reliably and in the skipper’s case, very well. However them last three aren’t the answer any more.

I have a blue print for the future of England foot ball and it is this:

1. Practise penalties. I don’t buy this frigging argument that it’s a ‘lottery’. If it was England would win the odd one. If that’s what constitutes a lottery we’d all be fucking millionaires by now and Camelot would be out with the begging bowl like a bunch of buggering bankers.

2. When children learn how to play football, let them have a football to learn with. Don’t spend half-an-hour making the poor sods do sprints and stretches and all that shit. If they want that they can do athletics, right? The football is their friend, not the big bloody sphere that gets in the way.

3. When children reach ten years of age, don’t make them play on a full-size pitch. If you do that, the most important player on the park becomes the big dozy lunk who can hoof it down their end. And yes, believe it or not boys and girls, that’s where English centre-halves are born. Keep them on dinkier pitches where control and retention of the ball is a GOOD THING.

4. Do a Germany. Handpick some very good young players and blood them now. As a unit. I’m talking about Rodwell, Wilshere, Sturridge, Walker, Jones, Smalling, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck, Carroll... there are probably others. Tell em, you’re the team that will be playing for England in 2014, 2016, 2018. (Stevie, it’s been lovely but you’ve never quite lived up to the billing. JT, when you’re released maybe you take an advisory role.) Lamps, good luck on the sofas of punditry. And we stick by this pool of players, and we let ‘em be a bit shit for a while.

5. The media is never again to be permitted to display any optimism whatsoever. Who the hell built this team up just cos they scraped, admirably, past three ordinary teams deserves shooting. There were pigeons, domestic pets, hell even my wife, who knew this team wasn’t going to win this tournament in a million years. So perhaps footy journos might have been able to see that too. It’s a fact that only the England National Party fail to understand that there’s a marked difference between honest patriotism and crass stupidity.

So we’re left licking wounds that are entirely self-inflicted. A short-sighted plan to redevelop Wembley Stadium rather than invest in our footballers and coaches hasn’t helped. It’s like building a National Theatre and then putting school plays on it for years on end.

In the meantime, let us relish the fact that the semi-finalists are the best four teams in the tournament. Let us hope that Portugal (or more specifically Cristiano Ronaldo) can shake Spain out of the metronomic tedium of their football and that Germany win the whole shebang and prove that a bit of long-term planning combined with some brilliant and intelligent footballers can win you a trophy.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Swedes 2 Turn-Ups 3

My expectations are low. I know we cannot win the tournament. I doubt we can get past the group stage. Even then the quarter-finals will see us humiliated. Low, low, low.

Even then the win against Sweden had me squawking like an angry macaw at the bastards in navy blue with sky blue trim (and how weird does that kit look, eh?). First 45 minutes, all fine. We can’t keep the ball but neither can Sweden. It was like they were all playing for charity. Still it’s a short journey from Gerrard’s Cross to Carroll’s Noggin and England go 1 up.                        
                             
Ten minutes into the second half England give the space of Hyde Park to rampaging Viking Incarnate Olaf Mellberg and we’re 2-1 down. Cue Wearguard Woy being decisive and positive: Milner goes off having played like a cotton town on its last legs (bags of industry, no end product) and on comes Theo Walcott, who reminds me of one of them Mazda sports cars: he’s fast, smooth, difficult to catch but everyone knows it’s not a real sports car.

And blow me (no, please) if Walcott doesn’t play one of them occasional blinders that Arsenal get. His equaliser loop-di-dooped like one of them joke balls you get in a beach shop and his run and cross for Wellbeck’s equaliser was textbook. Wellbeck’s finish was a thing of wonder too. As he’s an English forward I just assumed he’d miscontrolled it and fluked it in but no, the lad went for it.


Now once I’d recovered from chewing fingernails, fag-ends and a good proportion of the rug in the front room, I started to get that awful feeling again. You know the one? When images borne on sun-kissed clouds waft across the windows of your mind. Images of white-clad lads, lions in triplicate about their stinking nylon shirts, holding aloft some kind of bauble or trinket. They are smiling, they are triumphant, and fuck me, they’re English!

Where this almighty piece of self-delusion comes from I’ve no idea. Of the football I’ve seen so far, England couldn’t match ninety per cent of the teams in anything except possibly effort. I would’ve added organisation but given the first 20 minutes of the second half in Kiev, forget that.


Before the Sweden game I looked at the England subs bench and it could not have looked thinner if it had been adorned by cover models for Vanity Fair. There are still obvious problems with the team: John Terry could be out sprinted by a broken-winged swallow at the moment (I’d be playing Jagielka meself); Gerrard feels wasted playing deep; and Ashley Young looks more nervous than a stray Corgi in a Korean kebab shop.

Then again, the upside is that England scored three without their ‘talisman’ (ridiculous football-speak meaning ‘best player’ which in Rooney’s case isn’t backed up by recent performances in an England shirt); the scorers were all between 21 and 23 years of age; and hellfire we’ll have Spain in the quarters so really it’s not that important what happens so long as these young lads keep getting a kick.

So, yes, low expectations, but no, not remotely downbeat. I think the FA have to be congratulated on not going for Redknapp who, given the strange bumptiousness of his departure from White Hart Lane, was probably going to be the right man at the wrong time. Certainly the media would have been jollied up and over-optimistic, 'Arry would've been unable to resist givin' it large and we’d have never had this quiet acceptance of over-achievement by modest players.

As for the rest of the tournament, I think you’ll find I’d pointed y’all in the direction of Russia’s inevitable demise. Germany continue to feed the posse of pundits with the usual clich├ęs. They know how to win, they’re never beaten, they’re organised, efficient… they also happen to be really bloody good but let's not let that get in the way of an old-fashioned stereotype. Hellfire even Vieira was joining in with it. (Disappointing to see Keane and Vieira sharing a TV studio without anyone having the wit to order some pizza at half-time).

Spain’s little ninety-minute keep-ball session against Ireland was one of the more one-sided affairs I’ve ever seen in world football. And with Torres looking more confident they might yet have someone who can finish of all the pretty patterns with a proper punch. I know the stats for Xavi are always amazing but we have to remember that he never passes it more than ten yards. And given the way he shoots I sometimes wonder whether he can kick it much further.

Holland left in trudging oblivion. Good. I still haven’t forgiven Van Marwjick for besmirching the good name of Dutch footy with that cloak and dagger clobbering they tried to give Spain in the World Cup Final.

Portugal and Germany are shoo-ins for the semi-finals now; Spain’ll join them, as will France or Italy; all of which makes for a bleeding wonderful spectacle for us. My only fear is that the closer the final, the worse the theatrics.

It hasn’t been too bad – indeed Gerrard’s star jumps have been up there with the best – but there are some knobheads who roll around the floor like they’ve injured themselves in an accident at a timber yard. I mean that old duffer who Nalbandian scarred at Queen’s Club yesterday would’ve been doing sixteen somersaults around the park had he been wearing a Croatian football shirt.

The greatest disappointment thus far has been the bottling of it by Poland, both in their first game and their last. Neither the Czechs nor the Greeks could intimidate a flock of sheep, and yet the Poles wilted under the weight of expectation in a way England’s golden generation could only sit back and admire.

The golden generation has of course pretty much gone. At last. This new generation needs a less blingy epithet – one more in keeping with Cameron’s England. It’s the Tinfoil Generation; shiny, modest and surprisingly useful.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

So Far So Roy

Well at least we know what we are getting with Roy. First thing to know is that it's not going to be pretty. It's not even going to be passable given it's Friday night and you've had a skinful but at least she's interested and vertical. It's going to be turn over, take one look and run for the door with your clothes bundled up in your hands.

It is going to be simple though. Hodgson understands, and he's the first manager or even pundit to do this in about twenty-five years, that English footballers aren't all that good. They can keep a ball like a three-year-old keeps a secret. Ask them to interchange positions in a free-thinking way and they'll all end up pretty much in the same place. Hence my own philosophical treatise on England's midfield which many of you will recognise as the Gerpard Conundrum.

Given that the ball is such a transient passenger in the lives of an England footballer, it seems only sensible to ask the players to concentrate on what happens when we don't have the ball. And Hodgson is good at this. Keep your shape. Get behind the ball. And it worked against France.

Well, that is apart from their goal when no one closed Nasri down. But we'll forgive Parker that, given that he was flinging himself in front of everything remotely goalboung like someone auditioning for Kevin Costner's stunt double in The Bodyguard.

France helped a lot. They seemed to be adopting that old-fashioned 5-a-side rule where you're not allowed inside the D. Benzema preferred to trot out somewhere near the centre circle and hammer it - quite threateningly it must be said p from distance.

Ribery once again proved to be a scuttling idiot. Quite how this bloke earns rave reviews is beyond me. He's part of this absurd vogue for right-footers to play left-wing (and vice versa) which leads to (a) all the width of an attack being sacrificed as Franck blunders inside and into his own players; or (b) he stays wide and with his wrong foot hits a cross so puny that an a goldcrest* could clear it.

I'm longing to see an old-fashioned get-to-the-byline merchant tear some full-backs to shreds. The bloke who got closest to it was Debuchy, a definite plus for the French, whose performance in the opposition half was in mared contrast to, say, that of John O'Shea. As Ireland tried to press to get a second equaliser the Croats wisely gave O'Shea all the time in the world to do what he wanted with the football, and he duly gave it back to them. O'Shea is a full-back from a bygone age: honest, loyal, consistent and shite.

England's overlappers failed to bomb on but Glen Johnson had one of his better defensive displays and Cole confirmed what a top player he is. Upfront England managed five shots. Yep. Five. I'm sure Hodgson was outraged. ("Why so many, boys?"). But he did dare a little, did Roy, and Oxlade-Chamberlain was a delight to see, if only because his energy and fearlessness was such a contrast to those nervous ninnies that usually patrol that flank.

The main thing is that everyone did their job well, even if Young could've been a little smarter, Milner should've scored, and Jordan Henderson's appearance served to underline why we must not get ahead of ourselves.

I reckon it could've been better with a referee who thought that every sneaky Gallic trip was to worry about. Cabaye clipped more ankles than a runaway strimmer but remained without caution.

Me, I reckon one of Lennon or Adam Johnson is going to be desperately missed when Roy needs summat to happen from off the bench. I watched the Swedes and while there is officially 'nothing to fear' in them (I seem to remember Germany dscribed in the same way in the last World Cup - oops!) there's no chance of Hodgson's team comfortably beating anyone.

Ibrahimovic remains as easy to predict as an English summer. He's perfect casting for Abenazar in Aladdin. He's a bit of a magician too, but a fecking lazy one - the proper adjective I believe is Berbatovian. Mind you it's not like Shevchenko does a whole lot either, apart from (yawn!) scoring goals. (When I was a kid I despised Gerd Muller cos that was all he could do n all.)

Of the other teams, well only Russia have impressed, but then they always do until they don't, and then they're out. Holland were the big losers, squandering opportunities to profit like so many public-school stockbrokers.

Spain look fine, but the beauty of taka-taka grows stale with its familiarity. And Torres still looks like he's not the man to put the cherry on top of the approach play. (If he is, there's going to be a lot of lost cherries).

All in all, though, there's been the usual mixture - a bit dull at times, very cagy, but enough to keep you in its thrall - in fact, I am officially as happy as a pig in shit.

Maybe it's these austere times, but I dunno, I feel good watching England without the schizoid delusions of the recent past. As my mate Tony Thompson said last night, just after he'd agreed with that sentiment: "And you never know, Robbo, with a bit of luck and a fair wind, we could nick this tournament."

Siiiiiiggggghhhhhhhhhhhhh!

*Goldcrest - Britain's smallest wild bird, excluding like really titchy baby birds n that.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Don't Blame It On Rio

If Roy Hodgson was under any illusions as to what a shitty little mess he's been put in charge of, the last few days' developments have put things in very whiffy perspective.

First of all, let's get one thing clear. That snippy little Belgian Mertens can scurry back to his bonce-busting beer and overrated chocolate and never darken aWembley penalty area again. Tweeting apologies are just so much Blegian waffle. That was the pettiest piece of skulduggery I've seen on a football field since... well since Rooney did that crappity thing against Montenegro, the plank.

Gary Cahill will watch Euro 2012 at home. The curious thing is Rio Ferdinand (81 caps, highly regarded, popular in the England camp) will be doing the same. Unless they both want to pop down the Blue Bell and have a jar with us lot. (First pint's on you.) His place has been taken by Martin Kelly. That's right. Martin Kelly. Me either.

Now, Roy Hodgson's attempt to explain away Rio's absence as being for 'football reasons' stands up about as convincingly as Didier Drogba. At best you might argue that Rio's fitness is a little dodgy, and that won't be helped by travelling hundreds and hundreds of miles on a frigging plane cos of the FA's witless decision to house the squad in another dimension of time and space.

Incidentally his PA suggesting that Rio has been 'disrespected' doesn't help. The manager gets to make his choice and no one has the right to be selected. (Apart from, apparently, John Terry.)

Ferdinand had clearly not ruled himself out; Roy had. But now Ferdinand is the next best available centre-half in the country. Fact. So why?

Now even the most guileless yokel, who has spent his whole life bailing hay and molesting livestock, might be able to pinpoint where the problem lies. And it lies with John Terry.

So:

1. How the fuck did Chelsea get away with postponing a court case that every other foul-mouthed muppet in this great kow-towing Monarchist moshpit of ours would have had done and dusted within a month? Ridiculous. Indeed, most employees would be suspended on full pay until the facts had been discussed in a magistrate's court.

2. How on earth is it that Terry gets selected when his very presence is divisive? It's got to cause friction. Unless you are blue-shirted, brown-nosed disposition, you'd have to agree that it's the equivalent of sticking you knob into a can of coke and squatting on a wasp's nest for the afternoon. If the case had been heard - and Terry cleared - then fair enough. But Chelsea made sure there's an itch to scratch.

3. Terry hasn't exactly been the bedrock of the Chelsea defence this season. Admittedly he's spent a lot of time trying to house-train David Luiz as he hares around the park like a sugar-rushed Shitzu. But Terry hasn't been much better, and his lack of pace is actually so startling that at times you had to look really hard at the replay to reassure yourself that he wasn't actually running backwards.

So if - if - it has been a case of a straight choice between Terry and Rio, then I figure that Hodgson made the wrong choice. Politically, practically and based on performance it would've been a toss of the coin.

Now there's a danger here that Rio gets to walk around with a glistening halo over his head, but we must remember that that's not a halo, it's another chunk of crass footballer's bling. I recall the missed drugs test, the demand for higher wages when he returned after 8 months, the notorious Man United Christmas Party (WAG-free but tottytastic). He's not bleeding Gandhi.

And maybe if Micah Richards hadn't trotted off like some dull-arse product of the Sylvia Young Theatre School (or his agent did on his behalf) he'd have been going and we'd have been hard pressed to criticize Hodgson.

Instead we have a situation where Hodgson's judgement is brought into question and, in the case of huffy Micah, we have a manager who sends his assistant Stuart Pearce off to deliver the bad news, something Capello got rightly slated for.

Now I want to get behind Roy. He's got a crap job. The squad has rumbled off to Poland like a horse-drawn cart packed with willing farmhands. Trouble is the road is so bumpy that not a day goes past without hearing how one poor numpty after another has fallen off the cart and done a groin.

And to be fair he's inherited a bunch of ageing underachievers that have, time after time, left us barstool bores dashing off to A&E after another pint-pot has shattered in our angry fists.

After this latest farrago, one thing is for certain. It is time to get shot of 'em. There is hope if the likes of Wilshere, Rodwell and Cleverly continue to impress when they're not keeping the sports physiotherapy industry in work. There's Hart, Jones, Welbeck, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walker, Smalling... these lads are good and don't treat a football like a spheroid alien that needs relaunching back into the orbit from which it came.

So maybe, just maybe, this ill-judged and ugly affair will force a drawing of the line in the sand and we can get on with watching young, honest and not too restrained footballers actually enjoying a bit of a kickabout without getting too big for their hopefully well-used boots.

Before then, though, cover your eyes, whistle a happy tune and don't fall for this 'low expectation' shite that means we've got 'a better chance'. It just means we'll be less disappointed. And I'm happy with that.

And in any case, who wants to see John Terry jumping with joy on July 9th? I don't. I honestly don't.