Euro 2012: #7 Reflections

‘Making History in Poland and Ukraine’ 

“Once every four years the continent’s greatest football teams all gather to decide who the best European nation of all is” was how I opened my Euro 2012 blogs a month ago. I made a few predictions and musings ahead of the tournament. In that first blog I discussed seven things to look out for in the tournament; England, Republic of Ireland, Germany, the hosts, racism, TV coverage and the contenders. We’ll find out now how much I got right; safe to say though that Nostradamus can rest in his grave unchallenged in terms of predictions.  It actually turned out to be the most enjoyable and interesting European Championships I’ve ever witnessed. 2012 in Poland and Ukraine will be remembered for a long time. It was the tournament where history was made. 

In terms of England’s tournament I am quite proud of the effort. Roy ‘The Redeemer’ Hodgson pulled out a few tactical masterstrokes. With Rooney out until the Ukraine game the attack was led by Andy Carroll against Sweden, bolstering our height and physical presence up front against a very tall and tough Swedish team. He proved the manager right and headed in BBC pundit Gianluca Vialli’s joint goal of the tournament. He also brought on the right subs at the right time and turned that game from a potentially crushing defeat to a great victory. He was defensive minded against France, probably the toughest game of the group, and we played to our strengths. Roy and his assistant coach Gary Neville had a great tournament and really impressed me. The camp seemed united and happy for the first tournament for a long time. Comparisons were drawn between this year and 1996. Unfortunately both tournaments saw us crash out before the final and the search for that elusive first European Championships win goes on. 

I said it would be tough to get out of the group but we’d have the quality to prevail. I was right – we even won the group which was a real bonus. Our tournament ended in the next round with the dreaded penalties defeat to Italy. This match highlighted our weaknesses; we have a real lack of world class stars. Only Steven Gerrard stood out as a top player for us and we need to start producing more stars if we’re going to win something soon. Overall it’s a more positive report than it could have been given the situation a couple of months ago. We look ahead to Brazil in two years. That was always Hodgson’s plan; this tournament was a trial for it. Things are looking up again. 

Ireland’s campaign on the other hand was a bit of a disaster. The group was a real tough one; Spain, Italy and Croatia. Two of those teams contested the final. The Boys in Green lost all three matches and only scored one goal, having the worst Euro record of all time. The fans enjoyed themselves and were notorious for their loud singing throughout, even when things weren’t going well. ITV’s Roy Keane was critical of this and said Ireland shouldn’t just be going out there for the ‘sing-song’, things need to be taken a bit more seriously. He is one of the most serious people I’ve ever seen but he’s right. It always has a party feel with Ireland, rather than being serious contenders. This was the last tournament for some of the stalwarts; Given, Dunne, Robbie Keane, Duff? The story was similar for each game; goals were conceded at the worst possible times, sluggish starts and a lack of quality ultimately let them down. Badly. 

The Germans didn’t disappoint. They were the most watchable team on show and produced some fine moments. To lose to Italy in the semi-finals will be seen as a bit of a failure for this much-fancied squad. The fascinating coach Joachim Low and his team of talented, exciting young stars scored goals, played some excellent football and worked incredibly well as a unit. German football is riding high again at the moment and surely their time will come and will win another tournament very soon. They dispatched Holland, Portugal, Poland and Greece in style. The Bundesliga had the highest average attendances in Europe last season. I will be tuning in next season if it’s anything like the national team. 

It’s always horrible when the guests dominate and take over if you’re the host. That was definitely the case on the pitch for Poland and Ukraine, who both exited at the group stage. Poland opened the show in style with an entertaining one-all draw with Greece but never really found their form after that. Ukraine came closer, beating Sweden in game one and were narrowly beaten to second place in the group by France. The fans made up for the players by creating a great atmosphere. Stadiums were close to full for every game. It surprised me really. I wasn’t really looking forward to matches being played over there but they proved me wrong and showed me up as a bit of a snob. Castle Square in Warsaw, where ITV were based, looked absolutely beautiful and is now high up on my wish-list of cities to visit. England go there later this year for a qualifier, I would love to join them. 

The biggest fear ahead of the tournament for the host cities was racism. Panorama highlighted incidents from league games before the tournament but that sort of level of racism was nowhere to be seen during the Euros. There were a couple of reports about it, a few monkey chants were heard during a Holland training session, there were some racist banners and songs from various nations fans but nothing close to what was being feared. Fines were issued but these very much seemed like isolated incidents that, unfortunately, do still crop up everywhere. The hosts did a very good job and the fan experience seemed as enjoyable as ever. Huge congratulations go to UEFA and the host cities for putting on such a great show. 

Similar plaudits should also go to ITV for delivering world-class broadcasting once more. They captured the atmosphere and fun of the tournament from the beginning and even won some detractors round. Situated in idyllic surroundings, the team was led by excellent hosts Adrian Chiles and Matt Smith. The pundit line-up was very strong; Keane, Strachan, Southgate, Roberto Martinez and newcomer Jamie Carragher all had great tournaments. Keane, Martinez and Strachan in particular made for compelling viewing and I hope we can see a lot more of them together in the coming years. As ever, ITV’s commentary was strong, with three very good pairings. It was a tournament ITV can be very pleased with. 

The BBC had a mixed show. Being based in Manchester for the groups was a big downside. The studio felt very dull and flat, particularly after hearing such a great cauldron of noise during the game itself just seconds before. It felt like any other regular-season show. Gary Lineker did come out of it well though, he anchored things impressively and is a very safe pair of hands. The pundits were generally disappointing opposite him. Regulars Hansen and Shearer were so bland, clichéd and under-researched it was just embarrassing and were rightly shown up in the latter stages when Klinsmann and Vialli turned up. Lee Dixon was well-prepared and he did prove an exception to the MotD rule. Even the commentary didn’t stand out as anything other than acceptable. There were decent report features in the build-up, especially before England games with Roy Hogson interviews, but there was something missing this time round from the Beeb. Must try harder. 

As for the rest of the tournament, Spain won it and in doing so became the first team to win three successive international tournaments. They can be frighteningly good at times and showed up the gulf between them and ourselves. Nonetheless I did actually get bored with them. They played some game without a recognised striker, so from an attacking point they lacked excitement and ground out games. They were the opposite of my beloved Germans! Holland were the biggest chokers, burning out in the group stage and had a nightmare. Big questions will be asked of them having finished runners-up two years ago. Italy came from nowhere to storm to the final, bizarrely again following on from another footballing scandal back home. The last time that happened they won the World Cup six years ago. Portugal did well and broke into the semis. My final four prediction of Holland, Spain and Germany wasn’t too far out; two out of three ain’t bad. The football wasn’t easy to predict, the tournament was alive from the very start and I enjoyed every minute of it. The togetherness and unity felt during England matches watching in the pubs and viewing at home takes some beating. It’s why I love football and why I loved these Championships. Only a few more weeks now and the domestic season kicks off again. Hopefully more history can be made there too. 

Euro 2012: #6 Television Coverage Review

‘Inventive, Thoughtful Viewing vs Bland, Boring Cliches’ 

“It’s good to dream” [Euro 2012 on ITV promotional advert] 

“Any football programme that can get Roy Keane turning around in his chair smiling from ear to ear waving deserves some sort of credit! Nice ending to a good tournament and coverage!” wrote royal99 on the Digital Spy broadcasting forums as the curtain came down on another international tournament. This European Championships was the most enjoyable and entertaining from a personal perspective. I wasn’t interested in football when Euro 96 was here in England, which I’d imagine would have been incredible. But there was something special, perhaps unexpectedly so, about this year’s tournament. From start to finish I enjoyed the lot.

As usual I wouldn’t be attending any of the matches in person or travelling anywhere near the host cities so I was relying on the broadcasters to convey the atmosphere and showcase the spectacle on my television. ITV did not let me down. I’ve always been a big fan of ITV’s coverage of football, and sport in general, for over a decade. Most of this time I’ve been alone in my praise, with the majority preferring their terrestrial rivals BBC. When Premier League highlights transferred from Match of the Day on BBC One to The Premiership on ITV1 there was uproar. People hated it. I really enjoyed it. Advertisement breaks don’t bother me too much, particularly in football. When watching a game in a pub that final break just before kick-off really adds to the excitement. The majority of the time the adverts are about the game or about the sport anyway and it only lasts for about a minute. In general people don’t like ITV’s football but there was a sense during Euro 2012 that opinions were changing slightly.

The ITV Sport Channel will always live long in my memory. The Football League will never enjoy the breadth and depth of coverage ITV gave it during the 2001/2002 season. Ten years later only a handful of the talent on display for ITV were on show during the Euros. Matt Smith, Peter Drury, Jim Beglin, Jon Champion and Ned Boulting were all still on board, and Guy Mowbray was leading the BBC’s commentary line-up. Proof that form may be temporary but class is permanent.

Ahead of the Euros there wasn’t the same sort of excitement and hype we normally see. Very few Euro-themed programmes, no post-match spin-off comedy show, no celebrity bandwagon jumping. Even not all the adverts had some sort of tenuous link to the tournament. The reason? Probably because there wasn’t much belief the England team would go very far for the first time in my life

Seemingly the only ones that had faith in Team England was ITV. Their pre-tournament promo had the theme ‘Dare to Dream’. It was a very clever campaign in which famous moments in England’s footballing history were reimagined and, with a bit of technical editing, we came out on top. Gareth Southgate scored his penalty against Germany in 1996. Phil Neville’s last-minute tackle against Romania in 2000 was a clean one. Scott Carson saved the Croatian shot in 2007. The full-length advert, hyperlinked at the foot of the blog, had England unbeaten in over 500 games, winning every trophy in sight. “What if?” they asked. That inventive promo set the tone for ITV’s tournament coverage. Unfortunately for the BBC’s effort, their advert also summed up what was to come from them.

The BBC promo, whilst visually quite nice with animations and the same dramatic music Brighton use in their pre-kick-off video, was exactly the same as their title sequence. Not a big point for anyone but I was kind of disappointed, particularly compared to ITV’s effort. It smacked of laziness. The BBC decided to base themselves at home for the first half of the tournament and only fly out for the last quarter final onwards; which equated to four games. It felt like just another MotD broadcast. The same old faces appeared, the same old clichéd lines were trotted out and there was very little to indicate this was a major international tournament. It lacked atmosphere, colour, and excitement. Their tournament only got going in the knock-out rounds; which was the exact opposite of the competition itself strangely. The football during the group stages was fantastic, even England were playing well.

It wasn’t all bad news for the BBC team. Gary Lineker held the front line well and is a reliable pair of hands. Lee Dixon was as usual the best of the regular Beeb pundits, ignoring the apparent unwritten rule by engaging in a bit of research. When Jurgen Klinsmann and Gianluca Vialli appeared for a couple of games late on they dragged the coverage up to a different level and put the British pundits to shame. Alan Hansen may as well tweet his contributions in nowadays; a once great pundit reduced to lazy, generic pre-conceptions. Commentary wise it’s still solid if unspectacular. The weakest are by a million miles in the co-commentators. Mark Lawrenson is such an irritant he should have an orange sticker on him, constantly sniping and belittling the game. Go home then Lawro if you don’t like it. Mark Bright is actually rhyming slang and is unbelievable to think he’s been a BBC regular for a staggering 12 years. McCarthy and Keown weren’t too bad but suffered from the curse of Twitter; everytime they were on they would be trending. Rarely is that a good thing. The highlights shows with Colin Murray were ok, he’s an interesting host and is well suited to this sort of lighter style of show. Pitchside, Jake Humphrey continues to appear on every sport and has come a long way since his terrible debut shows five years ago. The BBC does sport so fantastically well but their football continues to let them down. It appears outdated, too familiar and offers very little insight or excitement.

Contrast that to ITV who I have got nothing but praise for. From Adrian Chiles, through Roy Keane and Jamie Carragher, onto Clive and Andy, Peter and Jim and Jon and Craig the line-up was strong in all areas. Chiles has really grown into his role as football anchor, despite some thinking that’s rhyming slang, and steadied the ship, keeping conversations flowing expertly. With the advert breaks the flow isn’t the same as what he enjoyed on MotD2 but he’s been reunited with his old pal Gordon Strachan and the pair always ensured that light-hearted, enjoyable side of the game was present and it made for excellent viewing. The ITV pundit line-up was fewer than in recent years but much, much stronger; quality over quantity. Roy Keane made for fascinating viewing and Chiles even managed to crack a few smiles out of him! Roberto Martinez provided fantastic tactical insight and great knowledge in every appearance, even making it onto the final show due to his countrymen’s victory. Newbie Jamie Carragher was also very engaging and was surprisingly (and refreshingly) honest, unafraid to criticise current and former teammates. Gareth Southgate bowed out to step-up his full time FA role with a solid tournament too.

ITV can be very proud of the studio stuff, situated in a beautiful location in Castle Square in Warsaw. It felt like the coverage was sponsored by the Polish Tourist Board because it really made me want to visit the place. I’m looking at flights as I type! The commentary was faultless too, with three settled pairings who all work so well together. The graphics were nice and shiny and new; always a bonus. The ‘I’m A Celebrity’ style name tags were pleasing. My highlight of the coverage was definitely on day three when the build-up to Spain vs Italy (a rehearsal for the final as it turned out) was presented from a café in Castle Square and they were joined by the delightful Emiliano from Milano, an Italian fan. It had that retro Football Italia feel to it and was a lovely change to the norm.

For that and all of the above I can’t praise ITV highly enough. They enhanced my enjoyment of this great tournament immensely. The BBC did a good job too, but this time they were overshadowed by their younger rivals. It’s back to domestic stuff for the two soon; ITV will continue the big events with England games, Champions League, Europa League and the FA Cup. BBC will pick up the bread and butter grind of the Premier and Football League highlights and the Olympics of course. I hope the high standards continue there and beyond as we look ahead to the next international tournament and Brazil 2014. Ooh I can picture it now!

HYPERLINK: ITV’s ‘What Dreams are Made Of’ promo

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!