World Cup 2018: #4 England Review

“To take the second youngest team in the tournament and the least experienced team in the tournament and break through so many historical barriers has to be a brilliant achievement for the team.” [Gareth Southgate on ITV’s ‘World Cup: Summer of Love’, December 2018]

The year of 2018 will be remembered in England as one of the worst, most chaotic and confusing years the country had seen in a long, long time. Government ministers provided shambles after shambles with the ongoing Brexit saga. The nation was divided and at each other’s throats. Debate was disappearing, with people refusing to engage with anybody who disagreed with their opinion online. The football World Cup in the summer was being treated with fear, trepidation and a lack of enthusiasm the likes our team hasn’t seen for at least a decade.

Six months on from Russia 2018, it was that tournament which provided an all-too-brief respite from the horror back home. That team, led by that manager, were the beacons of light in a dark, dark time. Gareth Southgate, BBC Sports Personality Coach of the Year, had achieved the most difficult of tasks; getting the country to unite behind a common cause. Not only that but he also inspired people to believe in the England team again. To get behind them. To will them on. It was a wonderful time to be a football fan again. And this resulted in a semi final place and fourth overall at the World Cup; our best achievement since 1990. Imagine if we’d have won the bloody thing!

Southgate's World CupBBC Sports reporter Gabby Logan interviewed boss Gareth Southgate in December to reflect on the World Cup summer

 

Monday 18th June, 7pm. Volgograd. Group G; ENGLAND 2-1 Tunisia

The draw for the group stages had been kind to England; the beatable Tunisia and Panama in with tricky Belgium. The aim was always to get out of the group and realistically in 2nd place behind Belgium, who were many people’s tip for the whole thing. We wouldn’t play Belgium until last so it was quite conceivable that we’d qualify for the knockouts before that match, all we had to do was win the opening two games. This Monday night in Volgograd saw England face Tunisia for the first time since a 2-0 win in France 1998, coincidentally that was also the opening group match. England had an inexperienced squad led by an inexperienced international manager but expectations before the tournament were low. This was only going to be a benefit to them. The way they were open with the media in the build up to the tournament was impressive. It allowed the characters in the squad to shine through without a filter or another agenda. It was a masterstroke from the FA. By the time the opener kicked off England seemed ready and raring to go, demonstrated by the fantastic start made. Inside the opening eleven minutes England took the lead. An Ashley Young corner was thumped goalwards by the head of Harry Maguire. It crashed off the goalkeeper’s claw to land at the feet of poacher Harry Kane just three yards out to tap home. However the lead only lasted twenty minutes. Kyle Walker used his arm to shepherd an attacker out of the way from an in-swinging cross, which the referee decided was a foul. Sassi converted the penalty right into the corner despite Pickford’s best efforts and the game was level. England pushed and harried for a winner but it was just not there. We had to wait until stoppage time at the end of the match for the decisive action. Another corner, this time from Kieran Trippier, was floated in to Maguire. His knockdown fell at the back post to an unmarked Kane who expertly guided his header into the goal from five yards to snatch it. England had done it! “There’s no doubt scoring that late goal and being patient enough to do it I think was a big moment in the tournament for us,” Gareth Southgate told Gabby Logan during her retrospective review “Southgate’s World Cup” in December.

 

Sunday 24th June, 1pm. Nizhny Novgorod. Group G; ENGLAND 6-1 Panama

Again speaking to Gabby Logan for her review, Southgate explained the opening win “definitely meant that the atmosphere around the whole training camp and for our fans and everything else was more relaxed. You buy yourself another five days before the next game.” That next game being England’s biggest ever tournament victory. Set pieces continued to be a major part in England’s success. Another Ashley Young corner found an English head unmarked in the centre of the area, this time John Stones, to take an 8th minute lead. The lead was doubled through Harry Kane’s penalty after Jesse Lingard was shoved over. Kane’s kick absolutely flying into the top left corner, unstoppable. It was Lingard’s turn next after he played a neat one-two and unleashed a fabulous curling effort into the corner from outside the box. It was four in the 40th minute through a cleverly worked free-kick routine. Henderson flicked the ball up, it was headed across goal by Kane where Raheem Sterling was waiting. His header was saved by the goalkeeper but Stones was waiting to pounce on the rebound from less than two yards. And the scoring continued just before the half time whistle when another penalty was given, this time for practically an assault on Kane right in front of the referee whilst waiting for a cross to be delivered. Tunisia had got away with a few rough holds in the first match but Panama certainly would not here. Up stepped Kane to blast it the exact same way as his first to make it five-nil England. What an incredible first half of football. He got his hat-trick in the second half via a fortunate flick off his heel from a Ruben Loftus-Cheek effort, and in doing so became only the third ever Englishman to score three in a World Cup match – joining Sir Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker. Panama did pull a consolation goal back with around twelve minutes remaining from Beloy, which gave their fans something to cheer about for the first time in tournament history, but the day was all about England and their march through the group. Suddenly the fans started to believe this year would be different. The squad was playing with freedom, scoring goals and creating chances. Banana skins were avoided, six points from six achieved and the top scorer in the Cup was one of our own. Gareth’s waistcoat attire quickly became elevated to iconic status levels, fans were singing his name, cheering his players and witnessing great things on and off the pitch. Yes it was “only” Tunisia and Panama. But in 2010 it was “only” Algeria, in 2014 “only” Uruguay and Costa Rica and 2016 “only” Iceland. And we didn’t win any of those matches. Whatever happened afterwards, this would always be a match and a performance to savour for the fans.

 

Saturday 7th July, 7pm. Kaliningrad. Group G; ENGLAND 0-1 Belgium

With objective one achieved, qualification to the knockout stages, the final group match against Belgium was a bit of a dead rubber as they’d also made it through. The only thing left to decide was which of the two would top the group. Usually that would mean a more favourable path in the next round however this tournament was all over the place in terms of upsets and the reality was that second place in this group would probably be a better route to take. Neither team would ever throw the match of course, but it was used as an opportunity to give game time to some of the personnel who so far had not featured and those players could look back and say they had played in a World Cup; all invaluable experience for next time. “We knew that actually one half of the draw looked stronger than the other. We knew that the most important game was the knockout game and we had the chance to keep the basis of what we saw as our first team, at that moment, fresh,” the boss outlined to Logan in December. The match itself was largely forgettable, with the pace being slightly slower than in the opening games, and neither team wanting to put too much at risk as they looked ahead to bigger things. Former Manchester United striker Adnan Januzaj got the only goal of the game six minutes into the second half. Consequently Belgium won the group whilst England were runners-up and not many people back home were too disappointed with that outcome. Belgium’s potential route to the Final would feature the possibilities of Japan next, then Mexico or Brazil in the quarter finals with France, Argentina, Portugal or Uruguay in the semis. By contrast, England’s 2nd place spot meant it would be Colombia next then either Switzerland or Sweden with potential semi final opponents being Spain, Croatia, Denmark or Russia. On paper you would definitely select the half of the draw England were now in, but it’s never as simple as that as Southgate pointed out once again to Gabby. “Whoever we played in the second round, frankly if we had an easier semi final, we hadn’t won a knockout game since 2006 so let’s not worry that far ahead. How do we give ourselves the best chance of winning the knockout game?” He wasn’t allowing himself to get too carried away, but for us fans we really believed now we could go far here.

 

Tuesday 3rd July, 7pm. Moscow. Last 16; ENGLAND 1-1 Colombia (AET, 4-3 on penalties)

With second place secured, the first knockout hurdle England had to face was in the shape of South American tricksters Colombia. We had previous with them. France 1998, group stages; England won 2-0 then thanks to Darren Anderton and David Beckham’s goals up against the likes of Carlos Valderrama. But they were a far better team now with household names all over Europe. It proved a tough match, both mentally and physically. Following on from the pushing and shoving against Panama and Tunisia, this too was a bruiser. It boiled over in the 57th minute when England were awarded a penalty after Harry Kane was bundled to the ground by Carlos Sanchez from a corner. It took around two minutes between the kick being awarded and Kane converting it due to various protestations from the Colombians, including scuffing up the penalty spot with their studs. But this was 2018 England, not 1998. We wouldn’t let that distract us. Harry Kane certainly wouldn’t and calmly slotted the ball home straight down the middle as the keeper dived to his right. The lead would last all the way until the third minute of stoppage time when a corner was swung in, with every other Colombian in the box including the goalkeeper, and Yerry Mina’s header bounced up and over Kieran Trippier on the goalline. Equaliser. And you just knew it would be the inevitable penalty shoot-out that would follow. It just had to be; for Gareth Southgate, for England, for the World Cup. The preparation had been done months in advance, players knew who would be taking the kicks and Jordan Pickford in goal knew where he needed to be diving to save them. The first five taken were all scored; Kane and Rashford for England, Falcao, Cuadrado and Muriel for Colombia. But up stepped Jordan Henderson who saw his shot saved, with England 3-2 down. We needed a hero. Pickford became that hero. Uribe hit the bar and the balance shifted back our way. Kieran Trippier scored in the top-left corner and we were all square again. Back came Jordan Pickford, who saved magnificently with a solid left-hand to deny Bacca and put England in the driving seat. Amazing! Eric Dier was next up and he made no mistake; low, hard and towards the left corner of the goal. England had won their first ever World Cup penalty shoot-out at the fourth attempt, managed by a man whose most infamous moment in international football thus far was missing a penalty in a shoot-out twenty-two years prior. Redemption. The tables had turned, the belief grew further. Whatever happened after this, that moment on that night had given us England fans so much joy, so much relief and so much belief.

 

Southgate conductingGareth Southgate emerged after concluding his various media duties to conduct the jubilant England fans in celebration following the Quarter Final win

 

Saturday 7th July, 3pm. Samara. Quarter Final; ENGLAND 2-0 Sweden

England had reached their first quarter final since 2006 and the Germany World Cup. That summer we played, and drew with, Sweden in the group stage. This summer we played them in the knockouts. The belief back home was definitely this would be ours to lose today, Sweden were OK but no more. Even Gareth Southgate was confident; “I knew if we played the way that we were capable then our system in particular would cause Sweden problems. So the 3-5-2 against their 4-4-2 gets us in pockets of space that really is a problem for them,” he later told Logan. The truth turned out to be exactly that. Nerves were settled after half an hour when our set piece dominance showed once more. Ashley Young’s corner was angled towards the big, powerful head of Harry Maguire (Slabhead to his mates) arriving on the penalty spot and flew into the net. Maguire was in the stands as an England fan with his mates just two years earlier at the Euros in France, now he was scoring in the World Cup quarter final, his first England goal. Raheem Sterling would go close and Jordan Pickford would have to produce some fantastic stops during the match but it was all settled just before the hour mark. Trippier pulled the ball back for Sterling to loop up into the area. Waiting at the back post unmarked was Dele Alli. He had beaten the offside trap enabling him to head straight through the Swedish goalie and double England’s advantage. Pickford again had to make some further outstanding stops but by this point there was never any doubt. The belief that was so lacking in previous years was there for all to see. There was only ever going to be an English win from that point onwards and so it proved. After the stress, the emotions, the exhaustion of the penalty shoot-out last midweek, this match was relatively plain sailing. England marched on to the World Cup semi finals four days later and the entire country was talking about it. Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat look had become iconic; he had a lookalike in the crowd, a song of his own sung by the fans and a National Waistcoat Day established to support the team. Every interview he gave, every match we played, we impressed so much, he impressed so much. The clichéd ‘zero to hero’ tagline was spot on for this case. He inspired his players, the fans, the nation, with his calm demeanour and classy attitude. The whole of England would be watching on Wednesday.

 

Wednesday 11th July, 7pm. Moscow. Semi Final; ENGLAND 1-1 Croatia (1-2 AET)

The big match was here. This was the side of the draw we wanted. The big teams were all falling by the wayside; Italy and Netherlands didn’t even make it, holders Germany eliminated in the groups, Spain and Argentina out in the next round, Euro champs Portugal too, Brazil, Belgium and France were on the other side of the draw meaning we were left with just Croatia to beat to reach our first World Cup Final since the boys of ’66. And it began oh so well. In the fifth minute, Kieran Trippier secured his place in the Team of the Tournament by scoring his first international goal with a wonderful free-kick from just outside the box which flew into the back of the net. Cue delirium both at home and in Moscow! His deliveries, his work rate, were all so impressive this summer. England were dominating the match and a golden chance fell to Harry Kane who was miraculously thwarted by the goalkeeper Subasic (and a combination with the post) not once but twice in the same move when it looked certain he would score. As the game went on, the pressure grew. The enormity of the situation perhaps began to dawn. Fans were nervous, players were anxious and, most importantly of all, Croatia began to get better. In the 68th minute they equalised. Vrsaljko’s cross from the far touchline was met by the outstretched boot of Ivan Perisic who nipped in ahead of the defence to stab home. He went on to hit the post as Croatia really pushed for the winner but it wasn’t to be and extra time would again be necessary. The experience showed, they got stronger as we got weaker. Modric, Perisic, Rakitic and Mandzukic showed off their ability. In the 109th minute of the match the fatal blow came. Kyle Walker’s half clearance only put the ball onto a Croatian head. That header went over the right back and suddenly Mario Mandzukic was in the clear out of nowhere, sharper than John Stones to the danger and able to fire towards goal past Pickford from just a few yards out. We couldn’t say it wasn’t coming, but when it did come it was so, so heartbreaking. For the first time in that tournament it looked like we didn’t believe any more. It wouldn’t be coming home. The players had given everything and more, they made us so proud. It was a joy to watch the England team at that tournament but it would be the semi final stage and no further.

 

Saturday 14th July, 3pm. Saint Petersburg. 3rd Place Play Off; ENGLAND 0-2 Belgium

The emotions were still very raw just three days on when England had to complete their tournament in the Third Place match. The country was of course disappointed not to be playing in that Final on Sunday, some genuinely believed “It’s coming home!” and all that. It was hard not to be upset by the semi final, going so, so close. There was a connection between the fans and players for the first time for years, even decades. We bought into this group, led by an impressively calm and sensible leader who said all the right things at the right times. So that bond amplified the feeling of disappointment not just for us but for them too. We were so proud of them, indeed are so proud of them, for their achievements and that will always stay with so many. Just like when we played Belgium three weeks earlier, this match had the strange feel of a friendly. Unlike that match though, where only five players across both teams had played their previous match, today the line ups were pretty much full strength. When England were last this far into a World Cup in 1990 we lost the Third Place Play Off to Italy in Bari. And it would be a similar outcome in 2018 against the Belgians, losing two-nil in Saint Petersburg. They took a fourth minute lead with a goal assisted by the Premier League; with Manchester United’s Lukaku passing for West Brom’s Chadli to provide the crucial cross into the penalty area. It was finished by Thomas Meunier who wasn’t picked up quick enough in front of goal by England’s Danny Rose. England came closest in the second half when Eric Dier was put through by Marcus Rashford but his chip over the onrushing ‘keeper didn’t quite have the legs to make it over the line and a covering defender cleared off the line. The bronze medal was sealed with eight minutes remaining Chelsea’s Eden Hazard was found by Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne to run in behind the England back line and sidefoot past Pickford for two-nil in typical fashion his fans are used to seeing. And that was that. Belgium recorded their best ever finish at a tournament whilst England had their best for 28 years. The impact on English football domestically that Italia ’90 had was enormous, the aim after this summer would now be to maintain the connection, the passion, the performance levels and everything that was so great about this England squad as we look ahead to future tournaments.

 

The feel good factor of the World Cup certainly continued in the months afterwards for England. The newly established UEFA Nations League, replacing international friendlies and providing competitive football to international matches outside of Qualifiers, helped the momentum. England were drawn in a tough group with Spain and Croatia but came out on top, advancing to the inaugural tournament finals to be played in June 2019. And the terrific atmosphere from the World Cup was present in those matches. Wembley was absolutely bouncing for the final Nations League group stage match against Croatia. The new version of the stadium had never heard anything like it at the highest level. England did the business again in the most incredible year for a long time. Gareth Southgate was universally praised and, more importantly, respected. Harry Kane was the World Cup golden boot winner, our first since Gary Lineker in 1986. The players enjoyed playing for their country. They bonded with their teammates, had the press and fans on their side and this youthful, exciting and engaging team were only just getting started.

I never quite thought I would see England in a semi final of a World Cup, certainly not so soon and absolutely not at this tournament. Everything done in the previous two years was with the mindset of doing well in the 2022 World Cup. Gareth’s reflections with Gabby were “of course an opportunity missed which would always be there. But also a large feeling of that’s maybe an experience we had to go through because normally teams that win – France lost a European Final at home, Germany had semi finals before they won their tournaments – it’s very unusual to come from 15th in the world where we were a few months before, to being a team that are ready for semi final, Final and winning a tournament.” Yet here we were in the semis four years ahead of schedule. After the disappointment of Brazil 2014, crashing out after just two group games, and the embarrassment two years later against Iceland, international football was so low down the English pecking order. It was seen as a nuisance when the international breaks came. A team full of overpaid underperformers in a soulless ground with no pride or passion. A lot of that thinking was eradicated in one glorious summer in Russia.

“Whether it’s the opportunity of a lifetime is up to this group of players and this group of staff,” Gareth Southgate told ITV’s ‘World Cup: Summer of Love’ documentary which aired in December 2018. He continued “To take the second youngest team in the tournament and the least experienced team in the tournament and break through so many historical barriers has to be a brilliant achievement for the team. What’s hit me since we’ve been back is that that’s probably been the most rewarding part. People felt they enjoyed the summer and there a reconnection with the team. For me that is a massive step for us moving forward.” And that sums it all up. It’s easy to overplay and overstate the importance of football to its community but when they get it right and it goes your way the effect is enormous. Gareth Southgate was rewarded for his efforts with an OBE in the New Year’s honours list. This summer changed perceptions of so many; the sceptical media, the club loyalists, the casual fan and even the anti-football brigade. They all saw something during the tournament in the summer from that young, united England team which will stay with so many people for a long, long time to come.

FansFans erupting in celebration in a show of unity behind this exciting England team

World Cup 2014 : #4 England exit the greatest World Cup

“It’s not the despair. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope!” [John Cleese in Clockwise, 1986]

Is there anything worse than leaving the party before it really gets going then watching everyone else have a great time? You know the scene; you turn up not really sure what to expect, slightly nervous about the night ahead because your best days are probably behind you. People that arrived before you seem to be sinking the pints quickly and effortlessly, now it’s your turn to go to the bar. You stutter over the order but not to worry, you still get the drinks you wanted. With the confidence of alcohol and belief that it might be your night, despite it being a long time since the last good one, you go over to the dance-floor to get your groove on. It doesn’t go well. Every girl has brought their boyfriend. Limited scoring opportunities here.

Hold on though, you can hear high-pitched screeches and see the inflatable fallace which means one thing; a hen party has arrived. A glimmer of hope. Immediate disappointment shows on your face as it’s a 45 year-old hen who’s brought the rest of the Bowls club with her. It’s only been an hour but you just know it’s not been a good night. To cap it all off you misjudge your drinking and end up throwing up all over the place. A more experienced drinker wouldn’t have done that. As a result the bouncer kicks you out. You retreat from the club and head home the earliest you have done in a long, long time. The rest of that club gets stuck in as the hen party also contained some aspiring page 3 models who turned up as you left. But it’s too late, you can’t go back in now. Poor decision making was costly. So much hope but it just wasn’t meant to be.

Christ the Redeemer

Christ the England fan

Enough claptrap, England have crashed out of the World Cup on day nine having played just two matches. Day nine? It’s the earliest exit in over 50 years. The shame has been enhanced by some of the lesser teams doing so well. Chile, Costa Rica and Colombia have been exciting and should all go through to the knock out rounds. It is the most open and attacking World Cup in decades. To the point of writing this 77 goals have been scored in 26 games. Contrast that with this point four years previous in South Africa when only 49 net-ripples were recorded. It’s been a trend of recent tournaments for England to turn up and stink it out with awful performances. This year it didn’t start like that, which lead to optimism in defeat. How rare is that?

England 1-2 Italy

England team v Italy

The Italy game on day three had so much promise. An 11pm kick off our time on a Saturday night against an ageing team who we went toe-to-toe with all the way to penalties just two years prior. Our younger, fearless team would go out and show the Italians that they’re out of touch, we thought. We weren’t expecting as much as before but maybe, just maybe, we could get a result here. Wahoo on West Street was my chosen venue. Jugs of beer ready. Three Lions and World In Motion blaring out and the big screen erected. Here we go!

Italia 90 vs Brasil 14

Sturridge goal captioned in the Italia 90 graphics

The match itself followed how the rest of tournament had started, with good attacking football and a lively, open game. The day before, world champions Spain were humiliated 5-1 by the Netherlands. They looked rocked, old and slow. We couldn’t do the same to the 2006 champions. Roy Hodgson’s selection was very encouraging. Sterling, outstanding for Liverpool the past season, started in an attacking force alongside Rooney and Welbeck, behind Sturridge. It looked fresh, it looked lively and, most importantly, they all caused problems for Italy. Sterling hit a fantastic strike from way outside the box which hit the side-netting but left us all thinking it was a wonder-goal. The BBC scoreboard flashed up ‘GOAL’ and we were all jumping around throwing alcohol about like we were Formula 1 drivers. No goal but plenty of positives. So it was inevitable that Italy then took the lead. It was a very good low drive from Marchisio 20-odd yards out to go one up.

However bad a hangover may be the next day after a football match I guarantee it won’t be as bad as the pain England Physio Gary Lewin had after this match. In a bizarre incident involving water bottles, he managed to break his ankle celebrating Daniel Sturridge’s equaliser. This led to him being stretchered off down the tunnel to provide another iconic World Cup image. Sturridge managed to keep his cool to slot home a great sidefoot finish from Rooney’s perfect cross. Cue a repeat of the jubilant beer-throwing we practised earlier, this time momentarily blinding me. When I was able to see again I did fear that Lewin had maybe suffered a more serious fate, perhaps a heart attack. Fears were put to rest when he appeared on the screen. So it was safe to laugh at him. Smiles weren’t as broad when comic-book villain Mario Balotelli cropped up to head the winner in the second half. “Why always him?” a lazier writer would put. I am lazy, clearly as I was supposed to be writing a separate blog for each match!

Gary Lewin

England physio requires physio

At full-time we found ourselves in the unprecedented position of feeling alright and actually quite positive about England after a defeat. Weird to say, particularly after what happened next, but there was a great deal to take from that match. Roy Hodgson said so himself in the post match interview. Sterling was a phenomenon. We knew he was good but here he came to life bossing the game through the middle. This was at the expense of Wayne Rooney who was forced wide. The pundits post-match called for Rooney to be moved more centrally. Whilst some of the fans agreed, others (including me) thought he should be moved to the bench. It just wasn’t working for him. Elsewhere Sturridge looked good and got the all important goal in his World Cup debut. Even Danny Welbeck looked decent too. The midfield was strong, the attack was lively. The defence had its problems, particularly the full backs, but because we had something going forward we tended to overlook that aspect. Bring on a deflated Uruguay we cried, after their surprise 3-1 defeat to Costa Rica.

England shots

England had more shots than me on a Saturday night in Oxygen

In truth I was never really too concerned about taking on Uruguay. Yes they have great strikers in Cavani and Suarez but I didn’t think they had enough to dominate. That, coupled with the display against Italy, meant my pre-match mood was quietly confident. Boy, how wrong was I?! The line-up was unchanged but the positioning was slightly different; Rooney was pushed into the middle and Sterling moved wider. The pundits got their wish. At the time I couldn’t fathom why the best player in the previous match, the unpredictable threat, was moved to accommodate a man out of sorts and out of luck. I trust in Roy and Gary Neville, I just think this was a mistake. The pressure was now on Rooney to repay them. He had no excuses and had to have a good match.

England v Uruguay

England unchanged for Uruguay

We label Rooney as our only world-class player but time after time he struggles to fulfil that billing for England. Uruguay do have a true world-class player in Luis Suarez. As remarkable as his recovery is having only had an operation a month ago, his threat was constant and he always had the upper hand over our defence. He linked up with his strike partner to open the scoring in the first half with a very nice headed goal. Phil Jagielka seemingly tried to play the offside trap which was a crazy decision given he was only about ten yards out. It was a bad time for Jagielka to have his worst performance for his country. The same goes for Glen Johnson and Leighton Baines. Only Gary Cahill, with his John Terry-like commitment, came out of the game with any sort of praise. The Sturridge of the Italy game was unfortunately replaced by the hesitant, wasteful Sturridge that left Chelsea. It looked so flat and so very hard to score.

Wayne Rooney

Rooney hits the back of the net

Things didn’t change too drastically in the second half. We weren’t creating the chances like we did in the first game. Sterling wasn’t allowed the space and time to run at lightning speed to frighten another ageing defence. Our only serious chances came through, or rather fell to, Wayne Rooney. His free-kick in the first half whistled agonisingly close to the top corner. The TV next door annoyingly is about 3 seconds ahead of the one I was watching on at home so I could hear their cheers turn to “ooooh” before I could see the bloody thing. HD – not quite the wonder of modern broadcasting it thinks it is. I didn’t care about the delay when the chance was finally taken by Wayne with a tap in even that granny prostitute would have scored. (Several years on that reference is still funny.) For those seven or eight minutes after the goal we looked back to our best. The pressure mounted. The bus from Uruguay was well and truly parked. It worked though, they soaked up the brief spell of pressure better than Juan Sheet’s paper towels.

And then came the heartbreaker. The moment which, whilst absolutely gutting, was far from unthinkable. The moment that triggered England to be placed onto a life-support machine. A simple goal kick was flicked on unwittingly by Steven Gerrard to Suarez, who out-thought Jagielka (him again, unfortunately), to smash home with less than ten minutes to go. He latched onto the pass because he gambled that the ball would travel as far as it did. Jagielka again was relying on offside being given and didn’t drop back goal side when the ball was played. A very basic goal to give away. A bit like against Germany in the last World Cup. It’s as if we learned nothing from that great Deutschland dissection.

Would you smash it?

Only the England fans seemed fully fit

The social media crew were quick to point out the horrid stat that never before had we lost our opening two matches. It’s also the first time England have exited in the World Cup group stage since 1958. Finally we have a reference which pre-dates the year we won the thing, whenever that was. I’m starting to doubt we ever did win it. Maybe it was a myth like the moon landing or white dog shit. We’ve tried going into tournaments with massive expectation, we’ve tried with no expectation – whatever happens it is still the worst possible feeling to be knocked out of an international tournament. Never have I experienced the pain so early on. At least in Euro 2000 it was late on in the third match that we blew it. This just feels like it’s over before we even started. I should point out the life support plug was only officially pulled out when Costa Rica beat Italy 1-0 the following day but many had already given up by then, despite Gary Lineker’s best efforts to cheer on the Italians. As the quote at the top suggests, it’s the hope that kills you.

Lineker tries to inspire Italy before their Costa Rica meeting

Lineker tries to inspire Italy before their Costa Rica meeting

There is another match to be played. Costa Rica v England is a poor man’s third place play-off. At least with that match it means you’ve done well and reached the semi finals. This is so far away from the semis it’s like a different competition altogether. It could get the lowest television ratings for an England match ever. I’ll still be watching but part of me is more interested in the Italy v Uruguay game being played simultaneously. Particularly because Andy Hinchcliffe will be co-commentator and he is excellent.

The pundits have come out in force to criticise England, as have the fans. Rightly so. But I have been disappointed to see none of them mention the switch between Stirling and Rooney. So many of them were calling for that change but it hampered us rather than improved us. Chris Waddle was spot on when he said that we aren’t learning from previous mistakes. Thierry Henry and Clarence Seedorf on the BBC explained that it’s not enough to just have decent players, they have to work as a team. Which brings me back to the Rooney argument; he seems to be automatically picked on name alone and the system accommodates him rather than he accommodating the system. There are positives of course; young players will gain experience from this and will hopefully merge a good team with Barkley, Lallana, Luke Shaw and Sturridge at the core. Argentina’s former Real Madrid star Santiago Solari seems to think so. At the Euros two years ago we were saying it was all building towards this World Cup. Now we’re all building towards the 2016 Euros. Sooner or later we are going to have to pause the building work, step up and win games ugly as well as through brilliant football. We need our big players to perform in every big game. No time to hide. If they ain’t doing it they’ve gotta go. I’d like to see Roy remain at the helm. Let’s face it, the European qualifying group is very easy. So make the most of it and forge a great team rather than a few good individuals.

PaddyPower

PaddyPower’s list of media exit cliches

In the meantime the tournament continues with three games a day for the next few days then the knockout stages bring it up a notch. The World Cup has been so great so far. There have been only a couple of poor games. The coverage has been superb, particularly in the studio, from the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Danny Murphy, Martin O’Neill, Patrick Vieira and the aforementioned Henry and Seedorf. The game goes on without England. Not too many outside these shores will give a hoot. We just aren’t very good. I’m off to support Germany now so let’s hope we can end that awful 24 year wait for a trophy!

HIGHLIGHTS England 1-2 Italy with Joe Speight
HIGHLIGHTS England 1-2 Uruguay with Guy Mowbray & Phil Neville

WATCH BBC pundits analyse Rooney’s performance after the Italy game
WATCH BBC pundits react to England’s sad exit
WATCH Roy Hodgson’s interview with Gabby Logan after the Uruguay match
WATCH Glenn Hoddle’s view on Wayne Rooney’s future
WATCH Argentinian Santiago Solari chatting with Lynsey Hipgrave about a brighter future for England

World Cup 2014 : #3 England Preview

“There are two quality players in every position and the manager has gone on record saying there are places available” [Steven Gerrard, England captain, May 2014]

The ’23 enigma’ is the belief that most incidents and events are directly connected to the number twenty-three. This has come about due to the ‘Law of Fives’ which states all things happen in fives, or are divisible by or are multiples of five. Or are somehow directly or indirectly appropriate to 5. The ’23 Enigma’ is regarded as a corollary of this law, since 2 + 3 = 5. And you can directly thank Wikipedia for that pearl. The number is also synonymous with the World Cup as it is the magical number of players you can select in your official squad. So every four years players desperately clamber to be selected in the England twenty-three. Roy Hodgson, affectionately referred to as Roy the Redeemer two years ago, has chosen his and they are shown below.

The England 23

Roy Hodgson’s England XXIII

I am very happy with Roy’s choices. There isn’t one player missing from the squad that I would have selected. The only big name player omitted is Ashley Cole and rightly so. He hasn’t been playing regularly and he isn’t first choice for England as Leighton Baines is better so why waste a reserve place on him when you can bring Luke Shaw (a man who had a great season) to gain vital tournament experience? Cole promptly retired from international football upon finding out the news. It’s the sort of positive decision that’s been missing in previous squad selections. Players were getting in because of their name rather than their form. Remember the Sven days?

This selection seems different. It has an exciting edge. Either end of the pitch is pretty much sorted; Hart in goal and Rooney up top. The midfield is bursting with attacking options to make an impact at their first tournament; the likes of Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling have the chance to make worldwide names of themselves. As do Daniel Sturridge and Rickie Lambert. There’s also a steady core with Gerrard and Henderson, linking up brilliantly at Liverpool, ahead of solid defenders Leighton Baines and Gary Cahill. There are a few positions up for grabs as ever and one or two positions that look a little bare. The right back and centre back options are limited but with a bit of luck the first choice XI won’t be forced into changing much, if at all. If we can get a settled side we can build momentum and form good link ups.

With the squad in place, the next part of any preparation is the friendly matches. The opposition were carefully chosen. Peru at Wembley to provide the South American flavour akin to two of the Group D opponents first. Then Honduras and Ecuador in Miami to rehearse the sweltering conditions of Manaus in the Brazilian jungle for the tournament opener. I went along to the Peru match to say farewell and good luck before Roy’s boys depart for their adventures. It’s always great going to the national stadium and even better when your side win.

England versus Peru

England versus Peru

The Peru game wasn’t a great spectacle, it was extremely comfortable right from the kick off. That’s never a bad thing of course. A win is a win and helps build the confidence and the all important momentum. The starting XI was pretty close to what I’d opt for at the World Cup; with Hart in goal, Johnson, Cahill, Jagielka and Baines at the back, Lallana, Gerrard and Henderson in the middle and Rooney with Sturridge up front. The only difference would be Sterling starting for me instead of Welbeck.

ENGLAND Wembley Stadium 30

Daniel Sturridge has had an incredible year and will surely relish going up against his strike partner Suarez in the Uruguay game. He scored an absolute belter against Peru, curling it into the top corner from outside the area. The defence also got on the scoresheet with Jagielka and Cahill netting. They didn’t really have much else to do. The impressive crowd of over 80,000 found it so relaxed that paper aeroplanes were launched from all sides of the ground. Huge cheers went up every time one made it onto the pitch but the real highlight of the night was when one hit a Peruvian defender on the head. Quite a feat.

Job done at Wembley. All the best to the boys heading to Brazil

Job done at Wembley. All the best to the boys heading to Brazil

Having tackled the first obstacle well the players flew to Miami for the warm weather training. This being the England squad, they were met with torrential rain on the first day although this did soon clear and the match against Ecuador was played in the conditions intended. It was largely forgettable like most friendlies but certainly had its moments for a second string England. Ecuador took the lead with their first attack early on, then Rooney got the scrappiest of equalisers after good work on the wing from Oxlade-Chamberlain. He really impressed me in the Euros two years ago and hopefully can provide a decent impact sub option this time round. Not looking too likely though as he went off injured and is expected to be out for a couple of weeks. Not good.

England v Ecuador

Another lowlight was Raheem Sterling being harshly sent off following a mistimed challenge and subsequent square up with Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia. Hopefully not a sign of things to come from the officials this summer as it was a rash decision. Other disappointments were Ben Foster’s poor kicking and positioning, a makeshift, nervous defence and James Milner just isn’t up to scratch. He’s not bad but he’s not great either; mediocre. Ecuador also scored a cracking equaliser through Arroyo, past some half-arsed attempts to close down and block from Wilshere and Milner.

On the plus side we saw a lovely strike from Rickie Lambert akin to Carlos Alberto’s classic 44 years previous. The midfield going forward looked decent, particularly the aforementioned ‘Ox’. Two games, two different sides. Roy reverted back to the same starting line up in the thunderstorm-delayed final warm up against Honduras, which indicated maybe what his preferred first choice is.

England v Honduras

Previous pre-tournament games have taught us that they don’t really give any indication as to how the team is going to fare. Remember before the World Cup in Germany eight years ago? Peter Crouch scored a hat-trick in a famous 6-0 win over Jamaica which convinced us we were gonna go all the way this time with that poorly-labelled ‘golden generation’. The reality was a quarter final exit. Or what about the 3-1 against Mexico four years ago? Again another quarter final exit. Before Italia ’90 there was one win, one draw and one defeat. Again not really a sign of things to come as we were one successful penalty kick away from the final that time. So the results don’t seem to give much away. Italy would hope so! They only managed a 1-1 draw with Luxembourg a few days ago. The formations and line ups don’t always follow suit either. Before the 2002 Cup Sven changed from his familiar 4-4-2 to a more attacking 4-3-3 against Cameroon in order to incorporate world beaters Darius Vassell and Emile Heskey, and looked what happened to them.

The conclusion really is to use these friendlies for what they are; as practices. The main thing is for players to not get injured. Marco Reus of Germany and Frank Ribery of France have both had to pull out just before this World Cup due to injury. These games are more to give a chance for players to get used to each other’s company, locked together for weeks on end with little else to do or see. As cricket has shown with Kevin Pietersen’s exit from the England squad, it is vital to keep a happy dressing room. The manager, ably assisted by GNev, has made his decisions. It’s up to the players to take it to Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica. The Italians knocked us out two years ago in a dire match. A draw seems likely again this time, maybe England to sneak it. Uruguay are great up front with Cavani and Suarez but the latter has been injured and may not be 100% fit. Costa Rica are the team many people think will be the easiest of the three. If we stay unbeaten we should progress to the knockout stage. The last 16 team is looking to be perhaps Colombia or Greece, which wouldn’t be bad at all. I’m getting ahead of myself but it is all very promising. The World Cup is only a few days away and I just want it all to live up to the hype. Prove that it really is the greatest show on turf.

WATCH the team from BT Sport’s ‘Life’s a Pitch’ discuss England’s chances a week before the tournament starts

READ my starting XI World Cup iconic moments

CLICK for the full World Cup match & TV schedule

Euro 2012: #5 The inevitable defeat on penalties

England 0-0 Italy (AET, 2-4 on pens) – 24/6/12, 7.45pm 

“You can’t really, unfortunately, practice. You can’t reproduce the tired legs. You can’t reproduce the pressure. You can’t reproduce the feeling of nervous tension. They stood up to it better than we did” [Roy Hodgson] 

“Most realistic expectations already having been met, England now has the chance to fulfil some dreams by clearing the hurdle that has most often claimed them in the past,” Jon Champion opened his ITV highlights commentary. But ultimately we lost in the quarter-finals on penalties. Again. A bloody penalty shoot-out. ‘Why always penalties?’ as a Mario Balotelli-style shirt might say. What is wrong with English footballers and taking penalties on the international stage? Why have we only won once in ten shoot-outs? Ashley’s Young and Cole are added to the long list of England penalty missers including Messrs Carragher, Beckham, Batty, Ince, Southgate, Pearce, Waddle et al. It’s a list which just keeps growing and shows very little sign of ending. Unfortunately our European adventure did. I was absolutely gutted, which is probably why it’s taken a full week to bring myself to write this. 

Today is the day of the Euro final. Whilst I didn’t think England could be in it, I did start to wonder if this time might be our time. Perhaps the new duo of Hodgson and Neville, the Redeemer and the Screamer, lulled me into a false sense of optimism after four really poor years. After avoiding Spain to play Italy I did feel confident that we could this time go one step further and reach the semis for the first time since ’96. There were many similarities between then and now but unfortunately the most damning similarity was crashing out on penalties both times. We all thought the Italy game was going to be close but I didn’t think it would go all the way and I wasn’t really prepared for penalties. Maybe a sneaky one-nil, maybe an extra time winner, but not the unrivalled agony of the shoot-out. Sky Sports News’ Iain Dowie on the other hand did predict it. He’s done quite well on the prediction front this tournament and should be in the money. 

Cash-strapped BBC certainly aren’t, or at least want to portray themselves as cost-cutting, and have decided to base their studio back home for the tournament so far. It was a refreshing change then for them to dig out their passports and fly over to cover this match from within the stadium from this point onwards. The final four games were all to be shown on BBC One; the plan was for three of those to feature England. They were slightly confident, I was slightly confident, the England set up seemed slightly confident. So near yet so very far. 

Roy Hodgson did mention in his pre-match presser the possibility of pens and that they had been practising. You can practise all you want, in theory taking a penalty is a simple task compared to dribbling past three defenders and scoring in the top corner, but there is something that gets to the players which just causes them to lose their cool and either blast high, in Ashley Young’s case, or place it poorly, like Ashley Cole. The unchanged line-up meant both of these players were on from the start so perhaps tiredness, physically and mentally, might have been a factor. Substitute Theo Walcott was slightly fresher and he was apparently the scheduled fifth taker, maybe he should have gone earlier. 

Before the agony of the conclusion there was the, well, agony of the ninety minutes. The first half was decent, England were playing quite well, particularly in the first fifteen. After that though it just seemed Italy had more control and possession of the ball and were definitely more dangerous. They bombarded the England goal and struck the post twice. We were holding on to the clean sheet desperately. If it was a boxing match the referee might have been tempted to call it off. If it was a tennis match no amount of cries of “Come on Tim!” would have been able to help. If it was a curling match… well anything could have happened because the scoring for that’s all over the place. But it was a football match and you know that it doesn’t matter how much possession or shots on goal the opposition has, if they don’t score you won’t lose. England had a couple of chances too. The last of the ninety was an overhead effort from Rooney where, like BBC commentator Guy Mowbray said, if he’d have shinned it rather than connected with the boot it might have been on target. It’s about those little moments of fortune which change the course of the game and, ultimately, the path through the tournament. 

No goals scored by either team meant we were going to extra time. The worst possible news for all non-sport fans, the schedules were going to change! Aaah! The news wouldn’t be shown at ten, what a disgrace. It’s not like there’s a 24 hour news channel to update you all day every day on how shit the World can be sometimes and how corrupt politicians are. I have no sympathy for people who moan when live events overrun. Of course on this occasion I too would rather the news was on at ten because it would have meant we would be spared the horror of penalties. 

Extra time came and went quicker than a Katie Price relationship and in truth it was all too tense and excruciating to recall. I once again returned to Wahoo in West Street, packed to the rafters and brimming with emotion, and had a prime spot right at the front to the left of the giant screen. We got a good leaning point by the DJ booth, thankfully vacated for the night apart from the odd rousing football song pre-match and half-time, and stocked up on enough pints to last through the extra half hour without having to wade past the hundreds packed inside. I have never sung the National Anthem so loud or even been so agitated during a match before. Perhaps I wanted to win this game more than any before because it would be so great for the Redeemer and for us. Also it would set up a mouth-watering semi-final line-up with two big international derbies; Spain v Portugal and England v Germany. Too exciting to think about and unfortunately too much to become a reality. 

Extra time was dominated by the Italians but again failed to score. They did put the ball in the back of the net but thankfully the linesman was alert and correctly called it offside. I couldn’t believe my luck. I thought it really was all going our way and there was no way we were going to lose now. It was written in the stars. Seemingly though the person writing in those stars was dyslexic and got it wrong. To penalties it was. I wasn’t sure if I could watch. I was with Harty and Ciaran. Harty couldn’t watch. Ciaran just about could. The players all stood on the half-way line, shoulder to shoulder, arms linked. We did the same. It’s the default shoot-out position. It is in football anyway, they have a different meaning to that sentence in America I believe. 

The penalties started so well; Gerrard and Rooney both scored and they sent their second penalty wide. Advantage England after two. The Italians went first and levelled it at two-all before Young stepped up. He’s had a terrible tournament and was extremely fortunate to have played in all four games so far. He was even more fortunate to last the duration of this. His luck ran out though and smashed his penalty against the bar. Gutting. It was all level again and could go either way. They scored again to put the pressure on Cole. His soft penalty was more like a pass to the goalkeeper’s left; it was a comfortable save. It all meant that if Alessandro Diamanti scored Italy would go through. We were therefore all on Diamanti watch. He did score. Italy went through. It was another traditional, inevitable, penalty shoot-out disaster for England. What a sad, sad way to exit what’s been such a bright tournament. It hurt more than if we lost four-nil. 

I’ll save the reflection and analysis of England for the tournament review blog coming soon but the pundits all seemed to agree that something is seriously wrong the English football in the wider sense than the twenty-three man squad. The Premier League is overrun by foreign stars, pushing our ones to the sidelines. The grass-roots set up is aggression over flair, win over playing well, hard work over talent. The same things are being said now as they were sixteen years ago but very little’s changed in between. The long-term future needs sorting. 

As for the short-term I was pleased with England’s display in this tournament. We were unfancied, some even doubting if we’d get out of the group. Anything after would be a bonus. It’s a fourth quarter-final exit in five tournaments and we still haven’t made a final since 1966. What Bobby Moore and Alan Ball have made of this England side we’ll sadly never know. I’m sure they weren’t fancied back then but they clawed their way through. They didn’t have to face penalties. We need to do more in the actual match time to win rather than go all the way past extra time. Because the more you play dangerously, in a shoot-out you’re going to get shot down. That we did once more, and we now wait two more years to even think about achieving that most impossible of dreams; lifting a trophy on the international stage and being the best. The World Cup champions in Brazil in 2014; are we nuts? 

Euro 2012: #4 It wasn’t pretty but we won the group

England 1-0 Ukraine – 19/6/12, 7.45pm 

“We’ve grown in strength. I think today once again the players showed an incredible spirit, incredible desire. We played a real away match with a capital A” [Roy Hodgson] 

“They’ve not had much luck going for them, even going back to Maradona’s hand of God and all that, the penalty shoot-out in 1990. I just feel that all the players are fit, they’re very happy as a group, they’re singing from the same song sheet, there’s no great talk of ego and everybody wants to do well for a coach they like and respect, most importantly. Optimistic” said Sky Sports’ number one commentator Martin Tyler in the build-up on Sky Sports News. The nation shared Tyler’s optimism ahead of the final game against Ukraine. All we needed was a point to go through. We might even win the group! Things were looking oh, so bright pre-match.

Unlike other tournaments and probably other teams, I never got the sense that this England squad or us as fans were arrogant about qualifying. After all it would be typical England to be in such a great position and mess it up late on. For reference see Phil Neville’s last-minute foul against Romania to send us crashing out of Euro 2000 via a penalty. All we needed to do was not lose; simple. We didn’t have to rely on someone to do us a favour necessarily, getting through to the knockout round was in our own hands.

The team news this time was not so dramatic because we all knew Wayne Rooney was now available for selection after a two-match ban and we all knew he would surely go straight into the side. He did. Goal-scorer Carroll was the unlucky man to miss out. He can’t feel too hard done by though, it’s Wayne Rooney for goodness sake. He is one of the genuine world-class stars England has. Other than that the team, and tactics, were unchanged from the starting XI of the Swedish game.

The most important thing is that we won. It wasn’t pretty but we won. Therefore we qualify for the quarter finals. The pleasant surprise was that the Swedes did us a favour and beat France, meaning that we top the group. An outstanding achievement for Roy’s men considering how derided they were and how little preparation as a unit the current staff have had together. England qualified from the group stages unbeaten and in great shape. On paper everything looks fantastic.

The reality of the Ukraine game is somewhat different. I watched this game in the glorious surroundings of Wahoo on West Street; the place formerly known as Walkabout. I have watched several England games there; some good, some awful, but tonight’s was something else. I watched Theo Walcott bag a hat-trick in a qualifier against Croatia there, I was there two years ago when England crashed out of the World Cup against Germany with the Lampard ‘goal’ that wasn’t given. One extreme to the other. This time the game was extremely tense against Ukraine. We were all in a positive mood ahead of it. On ITV Roy Keane and Jamie Carragher couldn’t see anything but an England win. Professional worrier Adrian Chiles wasn’t so confident; he was anxious over the prospect of playing World and European Champions Spain in the quarter finals and wanted England to go all out to win the group. We agreed. Keano was more concerned about doing your own job, England must win and the rest of the group will “sort itself out”. Wise words from a man growing into a very decent pundit.

The match took place in Ukraine of course, so the fans were outnumbered by something like 10,000 to one. It’s the quiz show William G. Stewart wanted to host, but had to settle for 15 to 1 in the end. The National Anthem was belted out by every England man, both on the pitch and in the crowds. It was fantastic to see and something Roy the Redeemer seems to have demanded from his players. It shows passion, pride and belief; words which may be the strapline of the Nationwide building society but also apply here. England started well in the first two group games. Against Ukraine it was all a bit too tense and a little flat. There were very few chances in the first half and in truth it was the ‘home’ side which dominated possession. I pointed out during the game, as I like to see myself as a bit of a defensive expert, that it was fine for Ukraine to have all this possession and try to put England under pressure because we were coping with it very well. Roy’s England are an excellent defensive unit and this sort of pressure is a light warm-up if we did dare to dream and faced Spain. Bring them on!

Half time was a bit of a relief because it meant we could visit the toilets and get another drink. Not at the same time though that would be disgusting. And tangy. A bit like Carling. The ITV studio were critical of England at half time. I think we all felt we could be doing better and should be going out to win this game to give us the best chance of winning the group. The return of Wayne Rooney didn’t seem to liven things up, if anything he looked rusty and a bit short of practice. Having not played for five weeks perhaps we should have expected this.

Nothing would have dampened my belief that England would win this game. Just a few minutes after the break and that man Rooney popped up and proved me right! He scored possibly the easiest goal he will ever score, but similarly one of the most important. It was surprisingly his first tournament goal since his first tournament back in 2004. He needed this goal, England needed this goal. I thought we might push on from there and close the game down with a killer second goal but it didn’t turn out that way.

After a middling, tricky 61 minutes something extraordinary happened. Something which may provide the turning point for England at major tournament football. Something which hasn’t happened since 1966. Ukraine scored. They broke through the England defence and put the ball over the goal-line. Nothing too extraordinary about that but, and like Nicki Minaj it’s a big but, the goal wasn’t given. It crossed the line but the goal wasn’t given. Despite having a referee, two linesmen and a further assistant standing next to each goal none of them gave it and it was officially a great clearance off the line from John Terry. Replays proved categorically that it did cross the line. We got that little bit of luck after all those years of hurt. Immediately we can all feel that little bit better about Lampard’s ghost goal of 2010, as it went in our favour this time round and football HAS evened itself out! Is this our year?

The worst thing about that incident is that the UEFA and FIFA anti-England conspiracy theory rears its ugly head again and is another piece of evidence in its favour. Sepp Blatter immediately said that goal-line technology is now an “absolute necessity.” Fuck off Sepp, where was this statement two years ago? Where was the sympathy then or in 1986 when Maradona punched the ball into the goal? Or when Sol Campbell’s header was ruled out for nothing in 2004? Or previously in 1998? Where was our support from football’s governing body? It was none-existent. It’s their own fault for not introducing technology years ago when every fan would welcome it. England one, FIFA nil.

The rest of the game was a bit of a blur as it proved very tense and nervy to watch. England had a couple of chances, Ukraine had a couple and should have scored but the final whistle went and we cheered like we hadn’t cheered before. England had won the game and were through to the quarter finals! Bring on  Spain we thought. However Sweden did us a huge favour and beat the French two-nil. Vilified in Friday’s game, ‘Zlats’ Ibrahimovic scored one of the goals of the tournament and it meant that, although France still went through, we topped the group!

So Italy provide the next obstacle on Roy’s path to redeeming the nation’s pride and bringing home the European Championships trophy for the very first time. Italy looked a bit cagey against Ireland in the last game but they too are unbeaten. They drew the first two games one all and put two past the Irish, averaging two goals a game so far. We average more so we are bound to win, right? I think we’re in for another tight tussle which may even go past the ninety minutes. I can’t wait for Sunday’s match. I think we might just do it.

Euro 2012: #3 The tactical victory we’ve waited years for

England 3-2 Sweden – 15/6/12, 8pm 

“You’re just hoping your quality will shine through in the end and I’m very delighted that we could win this game against a very good Swedish team” [Roy Hodgson] 

“There’s just something about Roy’s team which seems different. Can we mash the Swedes? The signs are good,” I claimed after seeing England draw the opener with France. I was in a positive mood ahead of the big Sweden game despite having never beaten them in a competitive game. Until now! That final part from blog #2 was right; there is something different about Roy’s England which I haven’t seen in the six international tournaments I’ve endured. This England are adaptable to differing formations; Roy played a tactical masterstroke this time. This England are battlers; it was almost as if going two-one down made them want the win more. And this England are enjoying playing; there’s smiles and harmony in the camp whereas previously it’s an unwanted chore to wear the Three Lions. 

Ok let’s not get carried away, we beat a disappointing Sweden side for the second time in eight months. And we conceded poor goals from a veteran defender who has a beard akin to a desert island dweller. But it was the manner of the win which impressed me and inspired me more than anything. The England team showed heart and spirit and, despite the two-goal blip in a terrible ten minutes, the positive attitude was notable. Going into the game a lot were significantly more confident about winning this game than they were six weeks ago. Even more so after Monday. The tough game of the group was out the way; the tough opposition, the tough earlier kick off conditions and the tough task replacing the suspended Rooney. If we were going to win any of the games this Friday night clash with bogey team Sweden was top of the list. If anyone could beat them though Roy could. He is held in such high regard there and he knows how they play. His knowledge would be key to this success. 

Much like immediately before the French clash, the team news against the Swedes brought about a surprise and a new face to international tournament football. £35 million Liverpool striker Andy Carroll came in, with the exciting and impressive Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain the unlucky man to lose out. Carroll started up front alongside Danny Welbeck in an apparent 4-4-2 formation; Ashley Young dropped back from just behind the striker to fill in on the left wing vacated by The Ox. Roy Hodgson explained the change was to counter the big, physical strength of the Swedes in both boxes. Andy Carroll was brought in to provide a big, attacking presence but also defend his own area when the likes of Mellberg and Ibrahimovic come up for set pieces. Roy the Redeemer employed new tactics and I was intrigued to see if they’d work or if we’d see that familiar, disappointing England of tournaments past. 

In truth the conclusion is a bit of both really; the tactics did work and Roy’s management won us the game but we also saw glimpses of the England of old. Thankfully those glimpses were outnumbered by the many positive moments Friday night’s game showed. The first half went about as well as we could have hoped for; one-nil up looking rather comfortable. Sweden didn’t trouble Hart’s goal too much, which was a relief considering his somewhat shaky performance four days previously. It was, as expected, physically demanding and strong challenges were flying in everywhere. Scott Parker stood up to it well but there was always the fear that he could be outmuscled and leant off the ball. He typified the change in the England attitude, he seemed determined not to get pushed off the ball and the desire shown was admirable. He was my man of the match, but then again as a defender I think I appreciate the gritty defending more than attacking flair. 

The first half attacking flair was led through a captain’s performance from Steven Gerrard. Perhaps slightly less so in the second half, Gerrard bossed the first forty-five and it was his excellent cross which brought about the opening goal. Liverpool team-mates combined to break the deadlock; Gerrard crossed from a very deep position and his perfect delivery was headed home expertly by big Andy Carroll. One-nil England and one-nil to Hodgson there. Before the tournament I was concerned by the large amount of Liverpool players occupying the squad, particularly after a poor season from them. The likes of Jordan Henderson and Martin Kelly I wouldn’t recognise if I was sitting next to them. But I suppose that probably says more about me than it does them. The goal was one England goal-scoring greats Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker would be proud of. Suitably the pair were sitting in the BBC studio back home to give their verdict on the game. Although in more than six seasons working as a regular pundit the only insight Shearer gives is to how cosy it is to work on Match of the Day where clichés and a lack of research is rewarded with a contract extension, ‘banter’ and chumminess is vital and any hint of detailed, intelligent research is met with disbelief and bafflement. To say MotD is like the 19th hole on the golf course is both accurate and frustrating. I’m not a fan of BBC football. 

The only sign of intelligence came in the form of pitchside pundit David James. The former England goalkeeper, in discussion with Martin Keown and Gabby Logan at the stadium during the interval, pointed out that at times England’s formation wasn’t as rigid as it had been in game one and there were opportunities for Sweden to exploit if they took their chances. This of course was disregarded by the longest serving pundit Alan Hansen, who maintained that England would win the game comfortably and would go on to score another couple without reply. Anyone who’s seen England over the past decade would know that’s never the case. Even though The Redeemer’s turning things around now he’s still only won by a single goal margin both times and are more defensive minded. 

David James was correct in his cautious warning and shortly after the break Sweden equalised with what’s been credited as an own-goal to Glen Johnson. He was another Liverpool player to play a significant part in the game; the own-goal his only blot on an otherwise top-class performance. My mind was still confident England would come back and regain the lead at some stage, knowing a draw would probably not be enough. I wasn’t expecting what happened next. The ball was lobbed in from a free kick given away by a petulant trip by Carroll, still smarting from an incident seconds before where he thought he was fouled. Sweden had a free kick in a dangerous position and right on cue huge, veteran defender Mellberg put them two-one up from a header six yards out. Disaster had struck, England were behind for the first time under Roy. The hateful Ibrahimovic celebrated in a terrible manner, squaring up to goalkeeper Hart, swearing and gesturing arrogantly in his face. Words can’t describe just what a waste and a prick that man is. He missed out on the opportunity to join Arsenal after saying that “’Zlats’ doesn’t do trials.” Thus confirming the general rule that anyone who refers to themselves by a nickname is one to avoid. 

The final twenty-five minutes were a big test of new England’s character. Judging by the result it was a big triumph. Watching live it was distressing conceding the goals but that only served to make it all the more enjoyable when two further Englishmen got themselves on the score-sheet. Again we have to look to the manager’s tactical nous by bringing on Theo Walcott, a man derided in the previous blog, to turn the game around. Walcott managed to score an admittedly fluky goal with one of his first touches, sending it flying past Isaksson, deceiving the big keeper all ends up. England were level – cue joyous scenes all around the country and on the bench where the excitable Gary Neville was jumping for joy. I watched this game at home but I can imagine many a drop of beer flying around pubs everywhere. 

The excitement didn’t end there as England only went and won the bloody game! Unthinkable just fifteen minutes before but thanks to some great pace shown by Walcott and a remarkable piece of improvisation to back-heel the ball in the net by Welbeck and the turnaround, quite literally, was complete. The fighting spirit, the unity and determination shown by every England player was likened to Venables’ successful Euro ’96 squad; seen as the last decent England tournament. Let’s not go overboard of course because it was a narrow win against a team who’ve lost both games but the manner of the win and the tactical triumph for The Redeemer keeps the confidence growing and the belief rising. Football plays havoc with the emotions; England fans especially. We’re going through it all again on Tuesday against hosts Ukraine; this time we only need a draw. But lose and we’re out. Knockout football’s started early. Three games, three lions, three unbeaten? Again, I’m feeling confident. 

Euro 2012: #2 An Unbeaten Start

England 1-1 France – 11/6/12, 5pm 

“I’ve got to be very proud of their performance. I didn’t think that there was any player on the field that let us down.” [Roy Hodgson] 

“Waterloo, Agincourt and now Donetsk,” was the rousing cry from ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley just before kick-off, referencing famous battle grounds for England and France down the years. Football match ups are often cited as ‘battles’ now rather than games. Few held out much hope for the English in this battle pre-match. The build-up has been very low key, almost downbeat; a first before a major tournament in my lifetime. 

With the change of management a few weeks before, as Italian ‘Postman Pat’ Capello was replaced by ‘Roy the Redeemer’, the pessimism was understandable. Injuries to key players like Lampard and Cahill coupled with the suspension of Wayne Rooney haven’t helped. The opposition, whilst hardly world-beaters, could all be tough in their own ways; France unbeaten in twenty-one games, Sweden traditionally tricky for us and Ukraine buoyant in front of home support. But still I held out hope. I believed. 

Well, it’d be weird not to go into the tournament with at least a little blind optimism, wouldn’t it? We’ve become accustom to it. I didn’t know much about the French team going into the game apart from a couple of them play in the Premier League and their main man is Christian O’Connell look-a-like Franck Ribery. And the manager is the fantastically calm Laurent Blanc. By contrast I’ve been watching with interest a younger, fresher and inexperienced England side led by the Redeemer over the past two weeks in friendly wins against Norway and Belgium. Hardly the cream of European football but wins nonetheless. The performances in those games were strong, resolute and very hard to break down and beat. England defended in numbers and were happy to allow the other side to have possession without ever looking threatened. 

These tactics worked a treat in the friendlies; the big question was how would this fare against better teams? The answer in terms of the France match was positive. On reflection there were many positives from the opening game. The pre-match chat focussed on the selection of eighteen-year-old winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He is of rare ilk; a likeable Arsenal player. I was really looking forward to seeing how he would fare against Patrice Evra and the other full-back Debuchey. As was Iain Dowie on Sky Sports News, who changed his prediction from a draw to an England win solely because ‘The Ox’, as he’s now known, was starting. He didn’t disappoint. He was full of running and full of positive movements. The biggest difference between him and fellow Arsenal and England winger Theo Walcott, who I don’t rate, is that he does have an end product. If Oxlade-Chamberlain bursts down the wing he is able to pick a pass out or deliver a decent cross; Walcott isn’t. You’d also back him to score one-on-one more often than Walcott.  

If the new boy was the most exciting prospect, it was the experienced players who showed their class during the game. Captain Steven Gerrard, free to run the show in Lampard’s absence, did just that and was at the forefront of the attacking play. He provided the cross for the goal; a bullet header from Joleon Lescott to grab his first international goal. Scott Parker did a terrific job protecting the defence and keeping the French at bay. Ashley Cole and John Terry, so often making all the wrong decisions off the pitch, did everything right on it. Watching the game live on the big screen in Dick’s Bar, the Albion’s very own in-stadium boozer at the Amex, we all came away from the game pleased with the result and, of course, very pleased with the performance. 

The French equaliser nine minutes after Lescott’s opener was a gut-wrenching moment. Questions were asked of goalkeeper Joe Hart, beaten at his near post by fellow Manchester City man Samir Nasri (straight out of the Arsenal book of ‘Players you only need to look at to dislike’) but it was a great strike. The biggest groan came when James Milner, also a title winner with City this year, rounded the goalkeeper and found the goal gaping. Unfortunately he then looked up to see the fans gasping as he panicked and put the ball wide. It was a golden chance and one which I thought we would have regretted at the time. Yet another one of those ‘What If?’ moments for England. 

Before the game ITV reminded us of what a disaster the opening game has been for England in European Championships gone by. We have never won our first game. That horrible record continues but we would have taken a draw pre-match and it kicks off our campaign nicely. France were a good side, indeed are a good side, but perhaps we gave them too much credit. Gordon Strachan on the ITV highlights show said it was as if we thought we were playing the classic Brazil side of the past we were that pessimistic. Their long unbeaten run continues since the disaster of the last World Cup, as does ours under The Redeemer. 

ITV match pundits Jamie Carragher (who is surprisingly compelling) and Gareth Southgate were pleased with the performance. Frenchman Patrick Vieira also thought England looked solid. The negatives came from the French players themselves. Patrice Evra thought France deserved the win and they were the only side playing football and Florent Malouda, a Champions League winner with Chelsea this season, agreed. He couldn’t complain too much though, as he admitted, his team won the big one by playing a similar style. 

Watching the game and the coverage back a couple of days later I stand by my feelings of the performance at the time; England looked hard to beat and in tournament football that is never a bad thing. Strachan and co showed on the highlights just how England’s tactics have changed to be more solid and narrower. One example showed how Gerrard of two years ago might have been rushing to close down every French attack thirty yards out but this time round was happy to keep them at arm’s length and deal with the pressure in numbers rather than risk being caught out of position, allowing room for a simple one-two. Hodgson’s tactical knowledge was one of his main selling points; the Redeemer is proving the FA right at the moment. 

There are still many questions; are the over-30’s capable of playing two games in four days? Will our youngsters be able to replicate their enthusiasm and confidence or will inexperience lead to mistakes? And is it possible to idolise Roy The Redeemer Hodgson any more than I already do? So far, so very good. Next up on Friday is Sweden. We always play Sweden and they don’t lose to us. There’s just something about Roy’s team which seems different. Can we mash the Swedes? The signs are good. 

Euro 2012: #1 Countdown

Seven Things About The European Championships

Once every four years the continent’s greatest football teams all gather to decide who the best European nation of all is. Sometimes England are there too. When they are the whole country becomes a fan of the beautiful game, people you never thought would be interested suddenly are and every few days when England are playing pubs are packed and everyone is united in one cause; to celebrate and cheer the Three Lions on. The excitement is building already and we aren’t playing until Monday! Euro 2012 starts today in Poland and Ukraine. Bring. It. On!

The Euros may be the secondary competition behind the World Cup but I think it’s a more difficult trophy to win. There’s half the amount of teams and most of them are pretty decent. Sometimes in the World Cup you get a couple of easy games; rarely in the Euros. England found it so difficult that four years ago we didn’t even qualify. Thankfully this time Capello got us there as group winners. As everything was going so well we suddenly found ourselves manager-less, our best player suspended for two games and confidence low.

The build-up to this tournament has been strangely muted. For the first time the media and fans alike haven’t really talked about winning it. The pressure is off. We have Roy Hodgson in charge now; a man with international experience and a very clever tactician. I’m looking forward to him and Gary Neville’s coaching with great interest. I think we’ll get out of the group, it may be tough but we’ve got the quality to do so. Then when Rooney returns from game three onwards it’s a bonus and we can really go for it. We have nothing to lose in this tournament. I have a sneaky suspicion we might surprise.

Also present are the Republic of Ireland. It’s the first time they’ve made it to a tournament for ten years. The Republic have looked strong and difficult to beat in qualifying under Trappatoni but they have found themselves in the group of death. They play World and European Champions Spain, 2006 winners Italy and the notoriously tricky Croatia. The key game is the first one, lose against Croatia and Ireland have a massive mountain to climb. I don’t think Ireland will progress but it’s going to be great to have them and their fans in town. Personally I’m looking forward to watching a game in Molly Malone; an Irish pub on West Street which opened a couple of years ago. It promises to be a right laugh.

Elsewhere the other team I can’t wait to see is Germany. They were incredible at the last World Cup and after knocking us out 4-1 I was rooting for them to go all the way. They played the most exciting football and have a great squad and a great manager. Ozil, Schweinstiger, Lahm, Podolski; they are full of talent in all areas. It’ll be between them, Holland and Portugal to progress from their group and then have the easier half of the draw through to the final. Potentially it could be England v Germany in the semis; what an absolute cracker that would be. I can but dream.

The hosts of a tournament are crucial to making it a success. Germany’s World Cup in 2006 looked amazing from a fan’s point of view. The introduction of the ‘Fan Parks’ around the country was a great success. I do have my doubts whether Poland and Ukraine can pull this one off. They don’t jump out as being particularly nice places. I wouldn’t want to go there really; it would probably scare me a little. It’s never been hosted this far East before but FIFA and UEFA keep trying to open football up further than the main, established countries and unite nations. Hopefully this one will work as well as South Africa 2010 did.

A lot of the focus has been on the potentially dangerous nature of the hosts fans. A Panorama documentary shown last week focussed on racism in Poland. They showed footage of Asian fans being kicked, beaten and chased out of the terraces by supporters of the same team in a lower league Polish match. It was shocking stuff. Former England defender Sol Campbell, a black man, was shown the footage and warned black fans that they risk their lives if they travel out there. South Africa has had massive racism problems in the past, and may still have underlying issues, but this seems worrying that in 2012 racism still persists so openly in some places. We may return to this space later I fear.

One of the most exciting aspects for me is always the television coverage. The BBC and ITV do us proud on the international stage and always put on a fantastic show. It makes you wonder why they can’t do it all the time! ITV are basing themselves in Castle Square in Warsaw in a purposely-build studio overlooking the main square. It’s sure to have another iconic backdrop like in Berlin, Cape Town and others down the years. BBC are staying at home for much of the tournament which is a real shame as you lose a lot of the host atmosphere and ‘colour’. ITV also have a more interesting line-up with the likes of Roy Keane and Roberto Martinez. And the title sequences are always intriguing too.

Of the rest, Spain are probably everyone’s favourites having won the last two tournaments. I expect them, Holland, Germany and one other to make up the semi-final line-up. England? Maybe, just maybe. One thing’s for sure, once the tournament gets going it’s going to completely take over my life. It’s going to be three weeks of footballing bliss. Or possibly another misery filled England collapse. My seven things to watch out for are England, Ireland, Germany, the hosts, racism, TV coverage and the other contenders. We’ll see if I still think the same when the final’s been won and lost on Sunday 1st July. Until then, let’s enjoy the unfamiliar surroundings and get the beers in. The summer of sport begins now!