Jul 252014
 

England headed to the 2014 World Cup on the back of a decent qualification campaign, and while expectations were at an all-time low, they were at least supposed to put up a fight and spring a surprise or two on Brazilian soil. However, the Three Lions ultimately endured a torrid tournament as they bowed out in a pit of despair after embarrassingly suffering their earliest World Cup exit since 1958.

England’s fate was sealed in just eight days (or five if starting from their first match) into the showcase spectacle after they lost both of their opening two Group D matches, before departing Brazil on the back of a forgettable goalless draw against surprise package Costa Rica.

Below is a breakdown of England’s meek exit from what was otherwise a memorable feast of football, while we also assess the state of the squad ahead of the rapidly approaching Euro 2016 qualification campaign and how things can improve quickly if Roy Hodgson and his men are to regain some face in France in two years’ time.

The Breakdown

The Three Lions showed sparks of electricity in their opening 2-1 defeat to Italy, and could count themselves unlucky for not coming away with a point. Despite the loss supporters were, on the whole, pleased with the performance and thus had high hopes of getting the better of Uruguay.

In their following game, after falling behind to an inevitable Luis Suarez goal, Roy Hodgson’s men battled back to draw level with 15 minutes left on the clock, only to blow it 10 minutes later by alarmingly switching off at the back, which allowed Suarez to bag a brace, and the win. Costa Rica’s shock 1-0 victory over Italy the following day meant England’s early exit was already confirmed by the time they locked horns with Los Ticos, which depressingly ended 0-0.

So, England departed South America with only a pitiful point to their name, which represented their lowest-ever haul in a World Cup group stage, while it was also the first time that they had failed to progress through to the knockout stages since way back since 1958. The Three Lions’ wretched display means they have since plummeted down to 20th in the latest FIFA World Rankings, their lowest standing in a whopping 20 years.

In a nutshell it was ultimately a great shame that England were merely a by-stander at what was otherwise a simply stunning tournament.

The Manager

In the aftermath of virtually any other World Cup the England manager would have been booted out of the exit door, however the FA have continued to back Hodgson, who came under immense scrutiny following his side’s early exit.

Critics slammed his tactical shortcomings, the team’s defensive frailties and also their failure to convert chances. In fairness, prior to the tournament Hodgson was urged by just about everyone to place his faith in the youngsters (it was England’s second youngest World Cup squad ever), which he did to an extent, but in the end it was a lack of experience that ironically hurt England.

On a positive note the preparation and organization was meticulous, and the camp couldn’t have been happier, in stark contrast to the previous World Cup under Fabio Capello. Meanwhile Hodgson’s England arguably employed a more attacking style, with many of the youngsters shining at times, however the consistency, talent and firepower simply wasn’t there…

Hodgson’s contract shoots through until 2016, but the former Fulham boss knows that a slow start to their European Champion qualification campaign could be costly, although he is very unlikely to leave his post unless England fail to qualify, which is unthinkable yet not impossible. Furthermore, it is painful that there are no obvious candidates to succeed him.

The Players

While Hodgson has to take a lot of the blame, his players can hardly been excused from the savage spotlight. Skipper Steven Gerrard and “star man” Wayne Rooney were dispiritingly below par. Gerrard did everything right off the pitch, but couldn’t produce the goods on it, with a long, hard season at Liverpool (which ultimately ended in heartbreak) likely to have zapped his energy. The 36-year-old has since announced his international retirement, and he leaves a big gap in his wake.

Rooney, as always, was under immense pressure, but did manage to grab his first World Cup goal and assist. However, he frustratingly failed to stamp his authority in any of the three games, and is now likely to have only one more chance to make an impact at the World Cup.

England’s defensive shortcomings were painfully exposed. On both occasions England equalised (against Italy and Uruguay) they failed to make the most of the momentum, and were made to pay for this as they were subsequently torn apart at the back. Glen Johnson struggled, Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka were far from their best, while Gary Cahill sorely missed the presence of Chelsea teammate John Terry. Elsewhere Goalkeeper Joe Hart was on the most part a bystander, and only made one save in the two games in which he played.

At times England were exciting and dynamic going forward but they frequently ran out of ideas, with composure in front of goal a major problem. The Three Lions have now only scored five goals in their last two World Cup campaigns, which is less than Germany (seven) scored against Brazil. Furthermore they have failed to score two or more goals since drawing 2-2 with Sweden in 2006.

Euro 2016

Despite their World Cup horror show England will be expected to waltz through a favourable Euro 2016 qualification Group E featuring Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino. The Three Lions are the hot odds-on favourites to qualify as group winners, while the pessimistic amongst you will find odds of 20/1 for England to repeat the agony of 2008 and fail to qualify.

It will be interesting to see what changes Hodgson makes to both his team and his formation. He is likely to continue to bring the youngsters through so they can earn valuable experience, with prominent roles expected for the likes of Luke Shaw, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling.

Hodgson also has his work cut out to replace Gerrard, whose retirement has left a gaping hole in midfield, while it also means that England are now without a natural leader. Rooney is the favourite to wear the armband, although he could face competition from the likes of Gary Cahill and Joe Hart. Only time will tell in relation to how England respond to their World Cup heartache, but on the plus side there are an exciting band of youngsters coming through, who in time can hopefully lift the spirits of a deflated nation.

Jun 062014
 

After months of speculation, Roy Hodgson named his 23-man England squad for the World Cup in Brazil and preparations for the tournament can now begin in earnest this week with the first of three warm-up matches taking place against Peru at Wembley on Friday night before jetting off to Miami where they will face Ecuador and Honduras ahead of their first game in the tournament against Italy on 12th June.

It hardly needs saying that England are without a major International trophy since they won the World Cup back in 1966 and while few are expecting them to match that feat in 2014, there is a growing feeling that England can make an impression on the tournament with a number of exciting youngsters hoping to make their presence felt in South America.

The large majority of the old guard have been discarded by Roy Hodgson with Captain Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard the only remaining players of that so-called ‘golden generation’. England will be without the likes of Ashley Cole, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand for the first time in a while at a Major tournament and in come Raheem Sterling of Liverpool, Ross Barkley of Everton and Luke Shaw of Southampton to name just three of the young guns heading to south America that are hoped to spark the next era of England’s national team. Last season’s Premier League saw a number of young English talent rise to the top of the game at Southampton and Liverpool in particular and they have been rewarded with a chance to continue that good domestic form in Brazil.

Sterling and Barkley have been highly impressive as attacking midfielders for their clubs and both have the ability to go past players with a mixture of class and speed which is what England have been so badly lacking in recent years. They have been given the freedom to express themselves by their club Managers and if Roy Hodgson allows them to do the same, they are two players who are more than capable of making a big splash for England over the next couple of months

England will need their entire squad to be in great form if they are to even qualify from their group with Uruguay and Italy their main two opponents in Group D. That was one of the toughest draws they could have received but the same applies for their opponents who would have been less than pleased to have seen the three lions land in their section. The pressure is off Roy Hodgson and the England team to a certain extent which could play into their hands as they come up against the Luis Suarez led attack of Uruguay and the experience and overall class of Italy, who knocked them out of Euro 2012 on penalties.

The headlines have so far been made by the young guns in the England squad but with their lack of experience so stark, the likes of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard will become even more important. Both players have been to countless tournaments during their career and both are more than capable of leading England through that tricky looking Group if on form. Gerrard has been rejuvenated in a new deeper role in the Liverpool midfield and should take on the same responsibility for England, while Wayne Rooney will have a point to prove after heading to recent tournaments without a major injury overshadowing him. The Man Utd forward is likely to be paired with in-form striker Daniel Sturridge up-front which does look exciting, on paper at least and the pair could well be crucial in helping England flying under the radar into the latter stages.

At the moment England can be backed at 33/1 to win the World Cup and for once, few could argue with the bookmakers, who normally have England much shorter given the weight of the ‘patriotic pound’ from hopeful fans. However, expectations are pretty low for Roy Hodgson’s men and in truth, any sort of progression to the last 16 of the tournament is likely to be viewed as a success, given their draw. It should however be noted that if England do manage to make it past their Group they are likely to face either Colombia or the Ivory Coast in the round of 16 which is a winnable game if they are on form. That would be considered a decent enough draw for a World Cup knock-out match which could well see them head back to the quarter-finals for the first time since they fell to Portugal in 2006.

At this stage though, England remain somewhat of a mystery when it comes to predicting their performance in South America. It is safe to say that most wouldn’t be surprised if they fell at the group stages but at the same time, there is more than enough young talent in that squad to see them through to the latter stages if they are given the freedom to express themselves. The defence would be a slight worry for Roy Hodgson but there is no doubt that this team is potentially full of goals with Rooney, Sturridge, Sterling, Barkley, Lallana and Gerrard all in great form and hoping to take their club performances onto the world stage this summer. Heads of the nation will be saying progression to the last 16 is the best Hodgson’s men can hope for whilst hearts will believe that an adventure to the last four and beyond is not totally out of the question!

Mar 062014
 

Goalkeepers

 

Joe Hart

His status as England’s number one is not currently under threat. Being dropped by City in November seems to have served as a wake-up call and he’s certainly become noticeably less error prone since then. Rob Green’s career was effectively destroyed by an error at the 2010 World Cup. He was dropped for the next game and didn’t play again. Everyone remembers David Seaman’s error in 2002 which potentially cost England the trophy. Avoiding acrimony this summer would be a success for Hart. Along with some penalty shoot-out heroics.

Frazer Forster

Now a record-breaker in Scotland having gone longer than anyone in history without conceding a goal, Forster will be the only player based outside England in the squad come summer time. How much longer he remains outside England is up for discussion with him being linked with a host of top European clubs this summer.

Ben Foster

It could easily be John Ruddy in this slot. Either way the third choice keeper is extremely unlikely to see any playing time throughout the tournament.

 

Defenders

 

Kyle Walker

Provided he stays fit, the young Spurs full-back should experience the first of several international tournaments for him this summer. Has been a regular in the Spurs side for three years now and has now made the right back slot with the national team his own.

Glen Johnson

Back to fitness after a spell out on with a knee injury, Johnson offers a lot going forward but is quite suspect defensively. I think he’ll be second choice to Walker when it comes to picking the team.

Leighton Baines

One of the best left-backs in the world and a starter now that he’s made this spot his own ahead of Ashley Cole towards the end of the qualifiers and surely must retain it when the tournament comes around. Cole is out of the Chelsea side and would struggle to make this one on current form. Baines has continued to impress this season. He’s solid defensively, electric going forward and deadly from set-pieces. Plus he’d be a reliable penalty-taker.

Luke Shaw

Shaw is going to be a star for England for the next decade. England are not going to win the World Cup this summer so one option is to look towards building for future tournaments where they may be successful. Hodgson should do what Glen Hoddle did in 1998 with Rio Ferdinand and give him some major tournament experience early on in his career. It will stand him in good stead. By the time Euro 2016 comes around he’ll be 20 years old, surely England’s first choice left back with three years of Premier League experience and a World Cup under his belt. Makes sense to me.

Phil Jagielka

In good form for Everton this season, Jagielka  is a vastly experienced centre-half who should finally get to experience playing in a major tournament at long last. He’s 31 now so this may be his only chance. I expect him to be a starter on current form.

Gary Cahill

His centre-half partner at Chelsea may be missing out but Gary Cahill certainly won’t be. He’s been just as impressive as John Terry this season at the heart of a much meaner Chelsea defence and is England’s leading centre back at the moment. No disrespect to him, he’s a fine player but it is a far cry from ten years ago when they had Ferdinand, Terry, Campbell, Carragher and Ledley King vying for just two spots.

Phil Jones

He’s versatile and that may prove his biggest strength and yet his biggest weakness at the same time. I’m not sure if Phil Jones is good enough in any position to hold down a starting spot this summer but his versatility may lead to him becoming a useful squad member, particularly coming off the bench. I can’t see him filling a starting role, injuries notwithstanding.

Chris Smalling

Having a nightmare season at club level but Smalling should still edge out the likes of Michael Dawson and Steven Caulker for a spot on the plane to Brazil this summer. England will be hoping his form takes a dramatic improvement before then, he’s been dreadful for United in recent weeks.

 

Midfielders

 

Steven Gerrard – Captain

He’s been a revelation for Liverpool this season as a holding midfielder. Gerrard, despite being 34 by the time the tournament rolls around, should play every minute for England in Brazil. His quality with a football remains undimmed despite his passing years. Gerrard will this summer offer a glimpse of what might have been should Fabio Capello have been able to talk Paul Scholes out of international retirement in 2010. He will thrive in the deeper midfield role.

Gareth Barry

He has quietly gone about his work this year, playing a crucial role in Everton’s upturn in fortunes under Roberto Martinez. Barry hasn’t appeared for England since before Euro 2012 but may find himself in line for a recall. I think he’d be perfect back-up for Gerrard. They don’t have another quality holding midfield player.

Jack Wilshire

Wilshire is a gifted footballer with a mean streak to him that any good central midfielder needs. He’ll probably find himself partnering Gerrard in the centre of midfield in Manaus against Italy. Injuries have restricted him to just 14 England appearances so far in his career. Despite being only 22, Wilshire carries a serious presence about him on a football pitch. The kind of player opposition fans love to hate, but the kind you want him on your side in a battle.

Jordan Henderson

Another player whom if the squad is selected on form, as it should be, will find himself on the plane. Henderson has been fantastic this season, finally justifying his hefty transfer fee with some top drawer performances. If his good form continues, he’ll be making a late push for a starting spot.

Adam Lallana

Right now, Adam Lallana is one of the best attacking midfielders in the Premier League. Were he at Arsenal or Manchester United or Chelsea , there wouldn’t be a question over Lallana’s place in the squad.  As he is a Southampton player, he does find himself at risk of missing the final cut as Hodgson may pluck for players at bigger clubs. Carrick, Cleverley and Lampard all spring to mind. It would be extremely harsh on the lad to miss out. He’s been consistently good all season and has proved he’s not just a flash in the pan. He’s the real deal.

Ross Barkley

See Luke Shaw above. One for the future. Feel terrible bumping Adam Johnson from the list for him but he’s a better prospect. Barkley started the season well and earned his first call-up in August. He has been able to maintain a decent level of performance this season for Everton and would be deserving of a spot in the squad.

Raheem Sterling

Does not look out of place alongside Suarez and Sturridge in that Liverpool team, Sterling has responded well to being dropped last season. He’s reclaimed his place in the Liverpool side and kept it with a string of impressive performances. He’s still only 19 so this will be yet another chance to give a youngster a taste of a major tournament with a view to him benefiting in his prime a few years later.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

Slightly older at 20, ‘The Ox’ has looked impressive since returning from injury recently and given the demise of his club-mate Theo Walcott, he must surely be a certainty for a seat on the plane to Brazil. He can play on the left or right wing but since his return from injury, he has been deployed through the middle at times by Wenger and done well. Another option for Hodgson to look at.

 

Forwards

 

Wayne Rooney

Rooney got injured in the run up to both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and his lack of match fitness was horribly evident on both occasions. He’ll be desperate to make amends this time around and score his very first World Cup goal. Man United’s lack of any meaningful games over the next few months should help him remain injury free.

Daniel Sturridge

Quite simply, England’s best hope for goals this summer. He may yet steal the Premier League’s golden boot off his team-mate Luis Suarez which would be a huge achievement for a man deemed not good enough for Chelsea or Manchester City. His progression in the last twelve months has been remarkable and he now stands, deservedly as one of the top strikers in Europe.

Rickie Lambert

If he makes the squad, the rags to riches story of Rickie Lambert will be told a million and one times this summer. From working in a beet factory and playing amateur football at aged 19 to going to a World Cup in Brazil at the age of 32. And he’ll be there on merit. The Southampton striker had been rejuvenated under Pochettino in the past fourteen months. He’s not just a goal-scorer, he’s got wonderful technique and his link-up play is excellent, particularly with Lallana and Rodriguez, whom he may be lining up alongside this summer too.

Jay Rodriguez

He tends to attract considerable less media attention than his Southampton team-mates Lambert and Lallana but Rodrgiuez is no less a player than any of them. He’s not as effective as an out-an-out striker, more of an inverted winger/inside forward, cutting in from the left. Rodriguez’s form this season certainly merits a call-up to the squad.

 

The Back-Up Brigade

 

The two biggest names missing from this are obviously the Chelsea pair of Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole. It might seem a little harsh to leave out such a loyal servant in Lampard but the fact is he is not playing regularly enough for Chelsea this season to merit his inclusion over the likes of Jordan Henderson or Gareth Barry, both of whom are impressing week in and week out for their clubs. Ditto Ashley Cole. It makes no sense to me having him occupy a slot that could go towards giving Luke Shaw some invaluable tournament experience.

That said, I’m living in dreamland and I fully expect Hodgson to select both based purely on who they are. That is how it goes with England. Reputation triumphs over logic every time.

Players unlucky to miss out whom will be placed on my back-up list are Adam Johnson who has been in excellent form for Sunderland as of late, Andy Carroll who simply has not played enough games for West Ham, Kevin Nolan who it seems will never get his chance, Joleon Lescott, Curtis Davies Steven Caulker, Danny Welbeck, Kieran Gibbs, Jon Flanagan, James Milner, Tom Huddlestone and Michael Carrick.

 

Follow me on Twitter @DLPlaymakers and @MitchDowling

and read Deep-Lying Playmakers

Oct 162013
 

England have found their way into the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after beating Poland 2 – 0. Thanks to Hodgson’s excellent focus, paying attention to what’s happening today, rather than what happened in the past. Changing things up a little, Hodgson decided to start the United duo of Michael Carrick and Chris Smalling. It’s not surprising that Hodgson has chosen these two but, to start them in such an important match was an interesting choice, nonetheless.

 

Michael Carrick was slipped into the squad to replace the venerable Frank Lampard in midfield. The midfielder has had a solid history in the Premier League, having left Tottenham for Man. United in 2006 for a whopping £18.6 Million. While not the goal scoring powerhouse that either Lampard or Gerrard have become known for over the years, Carrick is a solid all-rounder.

 

Chris Smalling has come in to replace Kyle Walker from Tottenham as a Yellow Card prevented Walker from playing against the Poles. The 23-year old has been playing for the England senior squad since 2011, with the win against Poland being his 7th appearance for the team. A relative unknown to some, Smalling is a solid defender who was sold to Man. United for £10 Million from Fulham in 2010. As a member of the younger generation that’s set to breathe new life into the England squad, Smalling has a lot to prove.

 

Starting players aside, Hodgson and his squad were well aware that only a win would guarantee their place in Brazil next year. Thanks to goals from Rooney and Gerrard, the England squad will be learning how to control mosquitoes as they get ready to play in the hot South American climate. Taking their place in Group H along with the Ukraine, England have qualified.

 

In one of the more exciting World Cup qualifiers as of late, the Polish team gave England a lot to worry about. Even though England were ahead 1 – 0 going into the second half, it looked like Poland could have equalized at any minute. Thanks to a solid hit from Gerrard in the 88th minute though, it was beyond doubt that England would be heading to the 2014 world cup.

 

Now that the England squad have qualified for 2014, it seems that the team’s stroke of bad luck could be over, as things start to look up. After a rough few years for English football, everything seems in place for a solid performance next year however, Hodgson will have his work cut out for him. As a new generation of players start to take their places, blending the old with the new will be his biggest challenge next year in South America. Can he bring the team together? Or will we see communication issues like we have before?

 

All of these questions and more will be answered next year, as England take their 15th appearance in a Football world cup. Can we hope for another 1966? At this stage, anything seems possible.

Oct 112013
 

Roy Hodgson may have been slightly concerned to see Jack Wilshere making the headlines over the last few days as the Arsenal midfielder made his views crystal clear about potential foreign born players pulling on the England shirt, but whilst all this was going on and filling up the column inches it has allowed Hodgson to stay out of the limelight and try to mastermind England’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup and his quest will start at Wembley against Montenegro on Friday night.

The Three Lions sit pretty at the top of Group H and know that a win on Friday over Montenegro and again on Tuesday against Poland will book their place in Brazil next summer, but fans will still step into the matches with trepidation and just be praying that Hodgson can be the architect of the six points that guarantee England will on the plane to South America next Summer.

England have been in these situations in previous qualifying campaigns, most recently in 2007 when a win against Croatia was all that was needed to reach Euro 2008 but a wet night at Wembley, an umbrella and Steve McClaren in the dugout should act as a reminder to all fans of the national team that nothing is straight forward…

On paper, home ties against Montenegro and Poland should prove comfortable victories, but England have never done things the easy way and there will no doubt be a sense of nervousness echoing round Wembley when the sides come out to do battle in a contest that England are hot favourites to pick up the three points.

A perfect scenario will see England dispatch of Montenegro and Poland beat Ukraine in another Group H tie and Hodgson’s men would for all intents and purposes have secured their World Cup place as their vastly superior goal difference would see them top the group, even if they were to suffer defeat against Poland on Tuesday night.

However, Hodgson will be focussing fully on a Montenegro side that still have aspirations of making Brazil themselves and have only lost once in qualification and managed to draw with England 1-1 earlier in the campaign and will certainly not be a pushover for the Three Lions.

Ashley Cole will be missing for England, but the embarrassment of riches at left back will see Leighton Baines step in and this change shouldn’t weaken the side and with Wayne Rooney back in the starting line-up, they should be able to create a little more in the final third having struggled to manufacture chances in their forgettable goalless draw with Ukraine last month.

Rooney could be joined by Daniel Sturridge in attack following the Liverpool marksman’s flourishing form at Anfield this season and if the pair can fire on all cylinders then they could cause huge problems in the Montenegro rearguard.

Whilst England have very few injury concerns for the match, the visitors are sweating on the fitness of some key personnel and talismanic skipper Mirko Vucinic is set to miss the game, whilst a handful of defenders could be forced to stay on the sidelines and this can only help Hodgson’s side in picking up the crucial three points.

Joe Hart has come in for some scrutiny in recent weeks for his performance for Man City but the shot stopper has kept two clean sheets in his last two games for England and has only conceded three in the eight qualifying games, so will be confident of putting his domestic woes behind him for these two games.

On paper,England look the much stronger side and home advantage should help but at 4/11 to win this game with bookmakers, the odds do not reflect the task in hand and history tells us that England can struggle when under pressure. A Three Lions victory is predicted but fans should prepare themselves to sweat for it!

Oct 102013
 

“If you’ve lived in England for five years, for me, it doesn’t make you English. You shouldn’t play. It doesn’t mean you can play for that country. If I went to Spain and lived there for five years, I’m not going to play for Spain. For me an English player should play for England really.”

The words of Jack Wilshere as he makes a play for the recently vacated English Defence League leadership (I kid, I kid!). The Arsenal and England midfielder was giving his response to to the much discussed suggestion that Manchester United’s 18 year old wunderkind Adnan Januzaj – born in Brussels to Kosovan-Albanian parents – could one day qualify to play for the three Lions. After moved to England two years ago having joining the Reds from Anderlecht, Januzaj’s eligibility hasn’t really been on the agenda. That all changed following his match-winning display against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light when David Moyes revealed to the world that the FA had been in contact asking about his possible availability.

Naturally, the debate has raged since then. Many people echo the sentiments of the Arsenal man. How could someone who is actually in no way English qualify to represent this country? It is the kind of suggestion that would have been dismissed out of hand many years ago but the changing world, particularly in sport, suggests it’s not quite the absurd possibility that it may initially appear.

A little over 12 months ago, much of the country was united by the showpiece spectacle taking place known as the Olympic Games. On home soil, Britain triumphed in event after event picking up medals like sweets at a pic’n’mix. It didn’t go unnoticed that, Mohamed ‘Mo’ Farah, a man whose 5,000 metre gold medal on ‘Super Saturday’ was probably celebrated more that any other throughout the games, was not what some may call a typical Brit. Born in Mogadishu, Farah came to England aged 8 and spent his formative years living and training in the UK, therefore qualifying to run for Britain. However, rather than bask in the glory of his many successes, a certain national newspaper decided instead to take aim at him and the rest of 11% of Team GB athletes competing at the games by labelling them ‘Plastic Brits’ – the obvious implication being that their claim to ‘Britishness’ was somehow wrong. If Januzaj did eventually play for England, I guess that would make him similarly ‘plastic’.

Levelling these kinds of insults seeks to draw a distinction between Nationality and naturalisation. Jack Wilshere makes the understandable point about simply living in a country not making you ‘from’ that country. But as we well know, that is a far too simplistic summary. In the modern world, the rise in movement and mass migration means that your country of birth is not necessary where you may spend your life, nor might you ever even lay claim to it as any part of your nationality. In this country we have something called a citizenship test meaning a person can come here, devote themselves to learning the history of Britain and embrace the core values that make up ‘Britishness’ and fundamentally, qualify to be British. Naturalisation is a opportunity afforded to people who move to a different country for business or family purposes so people will ask why football (or sport in general) should be any different.

A player can move countries to join a club in at a young age, grow up and spend most, if not all, of his career there. To deny him the opportunity to represent that country seems contradictory.

In football, the waters are muddied further when factors such as ancestry are taken into consideration. Players can qualify for different nations simply through their grandparents. This seems to be the cut-off point but it is completely arbitrary. If you trace your heritage back further, perhaps you will open yourself up to a whole world of opportunities. When Wilshere talks about ‘English players playing for England’ does he mean those of purely Anglo roots?

Perhaps, in this world of multiculturalism, sport is the last bastion of retaining something resembling national identity – prompting the ‘Plastic Brit’ accusations in athletics and much of the mostly amateur sports in the Olympics. But what of those most British of sporting institutions Rugby and cricket? In 2008, Tongan-born Leslie Viaikolo, who had already represented New Zealand in Rugby League, played 5 tests for England. Andrew Strauss, one of England’s most successful cricket captains, just so happened to be born in Johannesburg and spent time growing up in Melbourne.

Even in football, Brazilian Marcos Senna played a key role in the heart of Spain’s midfield during the successful Euro 2008 campaign while his fellow countryman Deco represented Portugal 75 times. Another Brazilian, Cacau played and scored for Germany during the 2010 World Cup. The Germans also have given opportunities to Ghanahian-born Gerald Asamoah and embraced Polish born Miroslav Klose and Luckas Podolski as their own. The France team that won the World Cup in 1998 were famously referred to as the ‘Rainbow Warriors’ due to the large multicultural make up of their squad.

Let us not ignore the fact that England’s very own John Barnes was born in Jamaica to Jamaican parents. However, rather than prove to be a trailblazer, he may well turn out to be an exception.

The attitude of Wilshere, and others, will result England being left behind. It also seems somewhat ironic that there is a desperation to retain a purely English identity with regard to the playing staff when so much else of ‘English football’ autonomy has been lost over the years. The fact the FA have resorted to hiring, not one but two overseas coaches in little over a decade suggest to me that the horse has very much bolted as far as the national side is concerned. Beyond that, you won’t find another country in the world where the top club side are almost all owned by foreign owners. It’s difficult to beat the drum for national identity in football when local and regional identity in the sport is fast eroding away. In 2008, many celebrated the fact two English clubs reached the Champions League final in Moscow. On one side, you had an American owned team, managed by a Scot, whose best player was Portuguese and were sponsored by an American insurance company. While on the other, you had a Russian owned team managed by an Israeli, whose best player was Ivorian and sponsored by a Japanese electronics firm. The only thing ‘English’ about the final was John Terry’s penalty miss.

The most curious thing about this whole Januzaj debate is that he isn’t even yet eligible, nor, by all accounts, does he even want to play for England. Five years is a long time. Jack Wilshere’s comments, while somewhat understandable, fail to take into account what is a vastly changing football landscape. The idealistic notion of the 11 best pure bred Englishmen lining up to take on the world can almost be called fantastical. Nowadays, it would be narrow-minded and quite insular not to open up our minds to the possibility or exploring different available options.

When all is said and done, when we come to terms with the fact the tide has long since turned and trying to command the waves is futile, the idea, while not ideal, of a naturalised players might not be the worst idea in the world.

Sep 102013
 

Brazil 2014. As World Cups go, it’s probably the one you don’t want to miss – either as a supporter or a player. The tournament is being billed as a “festival of football”, full of “colour” and set with the backdrop of a “carnival atmosphere”. One suspects that these are just some of the clichés that make the 20th edition of the competition actually sound like something enjoyable to look forward to (unless you’re actually from Brazil but that’s a story for another day) rather than the act of over-dramatised trench warfare that modern football is often depicted as. From an English point of view, it’s the one party we don’t want to be looking in on from the outside.

With things looking tight at the top the current qualifying group, England travel to Kiev to face Ukraine this week. Three points for the Three Lions will mean that Roy Hodgson can pack his Havaianas and Ray Bans as a win will all but seal qualification and safe passage to Brazil with two ‘winnable’ home games to come. A draw would make things slightly more uncomfortable while a defeat will certainly set off alarm bells. Currently topping the group, England’s destiny is very much in their own hands and, while not an impossible outcome, it does seems unlikely that they will be missing out on the fun and games next summer.

However, it would be unwise to take qualification as a given. It’s exactly 20 years since England last missed out on a World Cup and Roy Hodgson will be hoping not to follow in the footsteps of Graham Taylor and the ultimately disastrous qualifying campaign for USA 94.

England were drawn with Turkey, Poland, San Marino, Holland and surprise package Norway. The Scandinavians started with a 10-0 victory over the hapless San Marino which seemed to set the tone for what turned out to be dominant qualifying campaign as they led from the front. Norway had played and won 3 games by the time they travelled to Wembley in October 1992. David Platt gave England a second half lead but Kjetil Rekdal’s stunning left foot volley meant that Taylor’s team could only take a point from what was their first match in the group. Playing catch-up, a Gazza inspired 4-0 win over the Turks, a 6-0 thumping of San Marino and another 2-0 win in the return fixture in Turkey meant England were joint top of the group with Norway and Holland by the time the Dutch came to Wembley in March 1993.

A stunning John Barnes free kick gave England an early lead before David Platt doubled the advantage. A young, promising striker by the name of Dennis Bergkamp pulled one back with a delightful volley just before half time. Just as England looked on course for what would have been a valuable victory, Des Walker was beaten for pace by the electric Mark Overmars and the Sampdoria defender ended up pulling his opponent to the ground. Replays suggested the initial contact took place outside the box but with just five minutes to go, the referee awarded a controversial penalty to the Dutch which Peter van Vossen dispatched with little fuss. This minor setback turned into something of a catastrophe just a month later as England could only manage a 1-1 draw in Poland, thanks to a late Ian Wright equaliser, before suffering a damaging a 2-0 defeat in Norway courtesy of goals from Oyvind Leonhardsen and Lars Bohinen – two players who would later play in the Premier League.

In order to top the group, England knew they needed maximum points from their remaining games. A comfortable 3-0 win over Poland at Wembley provided hope but with Norway also beating the same opponents shortly after, it was a showdown with Holland for second place. The penultimate group match saw England travel to Rotterdam level on points with the Dutch and knowing a draw was the absolute minimum they would realistically be able to get away with. In what was a tense encounter, things seemed to be going to plan as the score remained goalless going into the second half. Then with about half an hour to go, a speculative Tony Dorigo long ball was misjudged by Ronald Koeman and David Platt found himself in on goal. Koeman then cynically pulled Platt to the ground to prevent him from giving England a shock lead. The only decision that would have made sense would have been a red card but German referee Karl-Josef Assenmacher only saw fit to issue a yellow. The resulting free kick came to nothing and mere moments later, in the cruelest twist of fate, Holland themselves won in free kick in the exact same position at the other end of the pitch. Of course, it was the man who should have been sent off who would step up and break England hearts as he delicately lifted the ball into the top corner. Even watching it now, the ball seems to travel in slow motion as David Seaman desperately sprawls across the goal fruitlessly trying to stop it going in. Dennis Bergkamp soon scored a second against his future Arsenal teammate and travel agents up and down the country lamented the fact that it now looked likely that most English football fans would be doing their best to avoid taking any trips to America the following summer.

Going into the final game against whipping boys San Marino, things were desperate for Taylor’s team. To have any chance of qualification, England needed Poland could beat Holland – the very same Poland who had lost 4 in a row since that unlikely draw against England earlier in the year. The Three Lions also have to make sure they beat San Marino by a margin of at least 7 goals. Sadly, even this task proved beyond them as a calamitous Stuart Pearce backpass in the opening 9 seconds allowed Davide Gueltieri to give the microstate an unlikely lead. The seven England eventually did score in response ultimately proved fruitless as Holland quite easily dispatched of Poland 3-1 to join group winners Norway at the World Cup.

Fast forward to the present day. Just one point separates England, Montenegro and Ukraine at the top of the group. Anything less than a win in Ukraine and the home game against second placed Montenegro in October will take on even greater significance. England’s final match is then against Poland who themselves could be back in contention if they beat San Marino as expected. England will be favourites going into all three remaining games but having only managed to draw against each of these opponents so far and only registering wins against the two sides propping up the group, absolutely nothing is set in stone. The spectre of that 1994 campaign and subsequent failure should provide a cautionary tale about how costly it can be when you fail to beat the teams around you in qualification. Graham Taylor’s legacy is not something Roy Hodgson will want to emulate.

Aug 292013
 

England head in to their crucial 2014 World Cup Qualifying matches against Moldova and Ukraine in September, buoyed by the fact that they have a squad containing strikers that have been in good form so far in the 2013-14 Barclays Premier League season.

The Three Lions have named five recognised strikers in their squad, with Manchester United pair, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck, joined by Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge, Southampton forward Rickie Lambert and Tottenham Hotspurs; Jermain Defoe.

Apart from Defoe; who has been given just 16 minutes of playing time so far in the 2013-14 league season, the England forwards have all staked a strong claim to start for the Three Lions against Moldova on September 6th.

Daniel Sturridge (4th) and Danny Welbeck (7th) find themselves in the top 10 of the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index rankings thanks to their two goals in two games so far in 2013/14, whilst Rickie Lambert has netted once and has earned 52 PPI points (15th).

The only player of the four yet to score a Barclays Premier League goal this season is Wayne Rooney, but the Manchester United striker has made up for this fact by assisting two goals for his club – something that the other three forwards have yet to do.

Looking over a longer term, no English player has scored more Barclays Premier League goals since the start of 2012/13 than Southampton frontman Lambert (16), with three of the other four strikers in the squad also featuring high in the rankings. Danny Welbeck has scored just three goals in the league since the start of last season, but with two of these coming in his two appearances this season, he’ll be confident of reaching double figures in 2013/14.

Jul 012013
 

Bang! Egypt ruin England’s footballing summer as the U20s, like the U21s, go home at the group stage of an international tournament without managing to win a game. It’s a damning, bleak story say the press with England looking no closer to progress at any level. You can’t argue with it. Or can you?

The U20s is a funny age group for England. Like the U18s they rarely meet as a squad and seldom have games. European international football lends itself to U21, U19, U17 and U16 age groups more frequently and so for starters, this is a mish-mash of a squad if you like. With the U21s in Israel for the European finals this summer this was never going to simply be a squad of the best players aged under twenty from England. In fact, if your average football fan was to look at the England U20 squad, he or she would maybe only recognise three names – so who are the U20s?

The squad picked contained a mix of players who’d regularly stood out at both reserve and academy level for their clubs over the last couple of years, as well as a few players who have started to break into Championship teams over the duration of the 2012/13 season. In terms of experience it read:
– 21 players of which 13 had never played even a minute of top flight football.
– 7 players who’d made a combined 63 Premier League appearances between them (mostly from the bench).
– And Eric Dier who’s managed to break into the underachieving Sporting Lisbon first team.

It might sound like a readymade excuse, but this was an inexperienced group of players. Take the other countries in their group and look at experience – Iraq had as many full international caps between them as England did Premier League appearances; Chile and Egypt are both used to playing an U20 squad and as such they had players who were not just used to playing together but had players who’d played in this age group at least 20 times as well as some who’d full international honours.

But we’re England! It doesn’t matter what kind of experience these other countries have, we should be beating them comfortably on principle. To a point, yes this is true. Our country has clubs with great academies that produce good footballers for the national team and three years ago we won the Euro U17 Championships so three years down the line what’s gone wrong? From that successful U17 group, only six were in the U20 squad with others either with the U21s or injured (only a couple have dropped off the radar altogether). Experience whether at a competitive club level or international level really is important particularly when a group of players so lacking in it is competing in an age group where other countries have been able to start to experience that.

You can argue that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a young player to break into a first team at a Premier League club; and you can argue that because the FA have allowed the league to become so competitive that the problem, a seemingly irreversible one, is one of their own doing. So maybe our players are developing a bit later on – there are plenty examples of that being the case at present even in the full England squad.

What’s maybe most important to take away from this U20 tournament though is that beyond the results there were positives. This group, a technically gifted group in some positions in particular, played good football. Fans moaned that our U21s could hardly keep the ball and create chances over in Israel and yet by contrast the U20s were the opposite – they just failed to take many of their opportunities.

It’s a work in progress after all. The fans and press alike moan if England win playing dull football and yet when one age group starts to show a change in attitude it’s “so bloody bleak” to quote Sam Wallace of The Independent. One wonders to what extent Sam and other journalists who’ve been ever so quick to pile on the doomlordery watch and follow U21 and U18 football in England – or even U19 and U17 football. Football in England has been undergoing a change over the last few years – deep in the bowels of clubs, kids are being taught technical skills and a new style of play. Prodigious talents are being encouraged to express themselves rather than conform. Academy football is as entertaining and good as it’s been in a long time. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that our press were proud to watch two English sides, Chelsea and Aston Villa, meet in the final of the prestigious NextGen competition.

There certainly is a problem in terms of the number of foreign players in academies and the number of players making the steps up through to the first team but there’s lots of good going on. As a lesson, look at Man United and look at how long it took Rene Meulensteen’s impact to be felt in the first team – 9/10 years. Danny Welbeck was part of the first group to experience Meulensteen’s new methods and the fruits of the hard work were only felt in United’s first team nearly a decade later. There simply is no quick fix. England now have a fabulous base, St George’s Park, and it will take time for the new techniques and styles to filter through into the higher England international teams. Clairefontaine – held up as an example to how England should run their national set-up wasn’t an overnight revelation either.

So what of the U20 tournament itself? England will look back to the Iraq game as the one that really got away but against a good Chile side and Egypt, the performances were strong as neat possession football lead to chances, often falling to either Ross Barkley or Harry Kane but accurate shooting seemed to evade most of the players. Kane in particular was an unfortunate disappointment – he tried hard and played well against Chile but he struggled to make his size make up for his lack of pace. As @ManUnitedYouth pointed out on Twitter – sometimes a squad simply lacks a clinical striker but that doesn’t make it a bad squad. United’s own U21 side were the perfect example of this in the latter half of last season.

Individually there were bright sparks too – Ross Barkley stood out in most games and various defenders put in some very strong performances. The style of play was no doubt a Peter Taylor influence but was importantly something that these players were all used to playing for their various clubs.

Who am I to argue with good writers and knowledgeable people of the game in the media? If the U20s make the sports sections in and around the tennis, the cycling and the formula one then there will be a wholly negative spin put on the last couple of weeks. Results should have been better but performances were good – a strange predicament for English football indeed. Remember, there were some countries that didn’t even qualify for the tournament *looking at Argentina and Brazil in particular* – embrace the changes we did see and look for the positives that are most definitely taking place in our academy system rather than listen to people in the media with influence whose finger isn’t always quite on the pulse. The reaction on Twitter to the results/performances by them compared to those who watch and follow academy football in England closely couldn’t be more different. I know whose opinion I side with anyway.

Jun 092013
 

There was plenty of frustration from England fans after the U-21s were comfortably beaten by Norway in the UEFA Under-21 European Championship at the weekend. A lot of the anger was directed at Stuart Pearce, the manager, who often gives the impression of someone who doesn’t have a clue.

In 2007, when Pearce first got the job, the U-21s made it to the semi-final of the tournament and in 2009 they reached the final. These achievements are all the more impressive when you consider England’s awful record in this tournament prior to his appointment. Between 1990 and 1998 England failed to qualify for the UEFA European Under-21 Football Championship, they failed to make it out of the group stages in 2000 and 2002, before again failing to quality in 2004 and 2006.

In fact, under Pearce’s guidance, reaching the semi-final in 2007 was the U-21s greatest achievement in 19 years, whilst reaching the final in 2009 was their greatest achievement in 25 years.

Whilst I don’t see Pearce as the man to bring our young players through so we have a future team that can rival that of Spain’s, I also don’t understand the furore concerning their performance in the latest tournament. The greatest players England have seen for ten or twenty years didn’t get anywhere in the European Championships when they were in the U-21s, but for some reason, this year, everyone has an opinion on England’s lack of progress.

Also, it’s important to that note that unlike most other European countries, England don’t take their best players to the tournament. Jack Wilshere, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Rodwell and Kyle Walker were eligible to play and were selected by Pearce, but none of them played.

Let’s look in more detail at England U-21s history from 1996 onwards, which coincides with the beginning of the development of England’s so-called “Golden Generation”.

1996 UEFA European Under-21 Football Championship – did no qualify

Hosted in Spain. England finished 2nd in the qualifying group, ahead of Ireland, Austria and Latvia, but behind Portugal, therefore didn’t qualify for the knockout stages.

Selection of players in England U21s squad in qualifying and who later made appearances for the senior squad: David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Phil Neville, Robbie Fowler, Sol Campbell, David Unsworth and Trevor Sinclair.

Scotland, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal and Spain qualified. Italy beat Spain in the final, whilst Scotland lost to France in the Third Place match. Parma’s Fabio Cannavaro was voted Player of the Tournament.

1998 UEFA European Under-21 Football Championship – did not qualify

Hosted in Romania. England finished top of the qualifying group, ahead of Georgia, Italy, Poland and Moldova. Greece and England were the two worst first placed group winners. Greece defeated England in a playoff to qualify for the tournament.

Selection of players in England U21s squad in qualifying and who later made appearances for the senior squad: Nicky Butt, Lee Bowyer, Emile Heskey, Phil Neville, Jamie Carragher, Rio Ferdinand, Richard Wright, Kieron Dyer, Danny Murphy.

Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Russia Spain and Sweden qualified. Spain beat Greece in the final, whilst Norway beat Netherlands in the Third Place match. Barcelona’s goalie Francesc Arnau was named Player of the Tournament.

2000 UEFA European Under-21 Football Championship – group stage

Hosted in Slovakia with revised rules. The initial qualifying groups lead to further groups involving 8 teams. England finished top of the qualifying group, ahead of Poland, Bulgaria, Sweden and Luxembourg. England finished third in the next group stage behind Italy and Slovakia.

Selection of players in England U21s squad in qualifying and who later made appearances for the senior squad: Frank Lampard, Jamie Carragher, Ledley King, Danny Murphy Danny Mills and Luke Young.

Italy beat Czech Republic in the final, whilst Spain beat Slovakia in the Third Place match.

2002 UEFA European Under-21 Football Championship – group stage

Hosted in Switzerland. England finished top of the qualifying group ahead of Greece, Germany, Finland and Albania. England finished bottom in the next group stage behind Italy, Switzerland and Portugal.

Selection of players in England U21s squad in qualifying and who later made appearances for the senior squad: Gareth Barry, Jermain Defoe, Scott Parker, Jermaine Jenas, Peter Crouch, Alan Smith, Bobby Zamora, Luke Young and Paul Konchesky.

Czech Republic beat France in the final. Sparta Prague’s Petr Cech was named Player of the Tournament.

2004 UEFA European Under-21 Football Championship – failed to qualify

Hosted in Germany. England finished 3rd in the qualifying group behind Turkey and Portugal.

Selection of players in England U21s squad in qualifying and who later made appearances for the senior squad: Michael Carrick, Gareth Barry, Joe Cole, Gareth Barry, Peter Crouch, Michael Dawson, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Bobby Zamora, Paul Konchesky, Chris Kirkland, Francis Jeffers

Italy beat Serbia and Montenegro in the final, whilst Portugal beat Sweden in the Third Place match. Parma’s Alberto Gilardino was named Player of the Tournament.

2006 UEFA European Under-21 Football Championship – failed to qualify

Hosted in Portugal. England finished 2nd in the qualifying group behind Germany but then lost to France in the play-offs.

Selection of players in England U21s squad in qualifying and who later made appearances for the senior squad: James Milner, Darren Bent, Glen Johnson, Michael Dawson, Carlton Cole, Scott Carson, Kieran Richardson,

Netherlands beat Ukraine in the final, whilst Heerenveen’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was named Player of the Tournament.

Apr 302013
 

Some players just aren’t made for the English game, some of us aren’t as efficient as Germans at taking penalties, even fewer are capable of playing “tiki taka” football like the Spanish, but we all wish we grew up on a Brazilian beach and could dance through challenges. These are the stereotypes in football, I’m not sure where they’ve come from but what I can tell you is who typifies their country like no one else, whilst at the same pick out the red herring and tell you he isn’t really from that country, no matter what his passport may say, his performance on the football pitch say otherwise. So without further ado, the first instalment of stereotypical footballers awaits.

What better place to start off with than the country we live in, that’s England, in case you were wondering. Okay, so who is this player that sums up the very English nature in us? Many believe Steven Gerrard wears his heart on his sleeve, his passion when he puts on that shirt, the one with the three lions, he plays for that shirt, there is pride in his performances. He’s physical and gives it his all every time, he loves getting stuck in with his challenges, he loves the Hollywood pass, he’s everything great about the English footballer but quite frankly he isn’t your typical English footballer. Scott Parker on the other hand… is just that.

Parker also wears his heart on his sleeve, he loves the shirt, he plays for the shirt! He’s physical and gives it his all every time, he loves getting stuck in and he’s got an unbelievable work rate. He would probably take a bullet for his teammates and die whilst singing the National Anthem with his last breath. The difference between Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker is that Scotty isn’t all that good. Yes, he tries hard and gives everything he has for England but in reality what has he got to offer? Besides being as tough as nails and hard graft that is. The answer is, not much. He’s not supremely talented on the ball, although he is quite partial to a ‘Cruyff Turn’ just about fooling the 90-year-old in attendance who can’t quite keep up with the game any more. His dazzling footwork can only be described as watching someone try and run around in a bog, in fact it makes quite painful viewing on the odd occasions he forgets that he isn’t playing as Messi on FIFA and in actual fact he is Scott Parker, Englishman. His passing range is limited to a 5 yard radius. He reminds me of a dog that chases a toy you throw at him endlessly, but yet more often than not, when he gets said toy he doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

That being said, there is no faulting the fact Parker works his ass off when the other team are in possession but then he looks like a deer caught in headlights when he actually gets the ball and usually by the end of the game he can be found breathing out his backside. We shouldn’t forget though that journalists in this country defied Premier League Betting odds and voted him as their player of the season. Yes, the people who report on the game we love were swept away by Parker’s work ethic, during his failed bid to save West Ham from relegation two years ago, because he worked hard.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, if you are the type who likes their players to show effort for the cause above having the talent to achieve this so called cause. Parker typifies not only your typical English footballer but what your average of English viewer wants to see. Forget Frank Lampard, he doesn’t look like he tries when he plays for England, I mean why isn’t he scoring 200 odd goals from midfield internationally? We don’t want him in the team, we want Scott Parker. Let’s be honest here, no other country that believes it has realistic aspirations of winning a World Cup would consider the idea of Parker being captain but he represents us, the common folk. Men (and women) up and down the country feel a sense of pride when Parker is on the pitch, it’s the underdog story that we all love so much. In spite of being not all that good, he’s out there realising the dream so many of us have shared, playing in front of a packed Wem-ber-ley on a wet, Tuesday night. If Scott Parker wasn’t a footballer, he would be in the stands, with his shirt off and part of that bloody band.

So there you have it folks, Scott Parker is your typical English footballer, yes it is a sad day. Now, for the exception…

David Beckham.

I could have ended it at that full stop and you could’ve filled in the rest yourself, but for the purpose of transparency and making sure everyone is on my wavelength, David Beckham is the best of us, he can score from in his own half, he can bend a ball like, well, Beckham. There’s no point in arguing the next point… The man is fairly handsome, he’s a celebrity, he’s an icon, he’s even accepted cultures outside these shores. What is there not to love about him? I’ll tell you what, he’s no Parker.

“God Save Our Scott Parker”

Mar 212013
 

Into his 17th year as a professional footballer, Rio Ferdinand still has the knack for a headline or two. The 34 year old centre-back has (unwittingly?) blown up the Twitterverse with a starring role in Riogate (the 2013 edition). Engulfing, for lack of a more descriptive adjective, 140 characters of opinion around the world, one man’s back spasm has manifested into a fiery debate of vigor and robust. Yet, for all the ‘should he / shouldn’t he’, there are two tangential stories that also come to mind when discussing the – well three, if we’re being picky, but we won’t go down that third rabbit hole of ‘young vs. old’ just yet.

First and foremost is the poisoned chalice of the England manager role. Whether it’s Steve McClaren’s aloof remarks about how well “Wazza” played or Fabio Capello simply being Fabio Capello, you’ll struggle to find a league of gentlemen ready/willing/able to support the task at hand. Yes, headlines need to be written, papers need to be sold, and clicks need to be made – but for once, it would be lovely to let the England national team take to a series of matches without some brown stain adorning the pearly white shirt of the 3 Lions.

While Ferdinand’s opting in then out of the England squad was something of a farce, it’s really not down to those on Twitter, nor the national media, to assume they understand the ins and outs of how Rio manages or treats his ongoing injury. Nor is it for us, en masse, to really judge Roy Hodgson. A proven tactician and manager. While Rio has 81 caps for his country, prolonging what he dreamed of as a kid (a professional footballer) likely remains paramount in his mind. Forget Manchester United, forget the wage packet, if you throw in a degree of subjectivity – you get the sense Rio is the type of guy that wants to play ball, no? Fine. Let’s flip it back to objectivity for a second. Flying thousands of miles roundtrip across Europe for a dead rubber tie, training, and all that goes along with being an international footballer, perhaps it doesn’t make sense for Rio to have even gone (or said yes) in the first place. If he tweaked his back, he’d miss the season, it would delay him for pre-season, and so the slippery slope begins. But that’s Rio. Rio isn’t alone in being Rio, but Rio also doesn’t capture every international footballer (young or old). Rio and his medical staff know what’s best. Perhaps that’s a naïve statement, perhaps not. Roy Hodgson, however, knows what’s best for him and his team and that is something that people need to start supporting and getting behind – even when Roy has packed it in and Stuart Pearce is in charge. Fine. Alan…Pardew? Case in point; let it go. In time Rio will become what Michael Owen was – a footballer we will celebrate after he retires. Right now, he’s the divisive focus of opinion, and opinion on a topic that very few people truly know about (medical duty of care around a chronic injury).

This bleeds into the second point of club versus country. We all know who wears the trousers in that relationship. When those who “pay his wages!!1!” come calling, he [the footballer] must listen. Well, bugger that. Isn’t that what those hefty, inane insurance policies are for? Taking club association out of it, what about one’s personal pride in playing for their country? Why can’t local teams develop local players who can go on to celebrate success at the highest level? People drool about Barcelona and the midfield duo of Xavi and Iniesta who went on to European and World Cup glory. Yet if it’s ‘Footballer A’ from your local club, there’s an almighty uproar. Why can’t you enjoy the success of your own player? Does it offend you when a rival player of a team you despise gives your bestie a high five and a hug when they meet up for England duty? If the footballers themselves can be proud (and they’re the ones who have dedicated their lives to getting to that point) of playing for their country, then why can’t football fans simmer down and just enjoy the moment? The tribalism is almost Neanderthal like.

Good luck in Podgorica, because the lack of strength in depth England has across its own domestic leagues is staggering, pitiful, pathetic and a crying shame. Onward with the youth revolution! If the Premier League will ever give anyone any money, that is.

Oh, and for giggles, a cynic might write – if Ledley King can fly to South Africa and play in a World Cup with knees of jam, then why can’t Rio sack up for one game away in Montenegro? Tweet on!

Nov 142012
 

I’ve always quite admired Leon Osman. Never spectacular but always diligent, a real team player. And whenever I’ve heard him interviewed I always thought he seemed a decent bloke and reasonably articulate. When he has ever lost his place for a time at Everton, he has always just got his head down, never complained and just worked hard to ensure his manager picked him again. Yes, Leon Osman is a great example to his fellow professionals.

His call up to the England squad for the friendly against Sweden seems like just reward for a decade of consistent performance in the Premier League. And he seems like a player that, if he was still a club manager, Roy Hodgson would want in his team. In announcing the squad Hodgson said of Osman: “He’s a player that I’ve admired since I came back to Fulham five years ago. He’s always done extremely well whenever I’ve played or watched Everton. His performances have been really, really good. Of course, he’s faced great competition in the position that he plays, but on this occasion we’ve got the opportunity and the space to bring Leon into the team.”

So all these reasons seem sensible to call up Osman and give him his chance at international level. But Osman, a debutant at the age of 31, has the weight of history going against him in order to be a success. And the simple reason is this – modern footballers do not start successful international careers in their thirties. I’m not being ageist and I must stress, this is not about Osman’s ability. He has been widely praised by his fellow professionals for his call up and his quality in valuing possession of the ball has been cited as one of the reasons for his elevation. But at a time when Hodgson has been praised for his willingness to give young players a chance, a call up for a 31 year old is a backward step, if he truly wants to build for success at the 2014 World Cup.

We’ve been here before. An established Premier League footballer finally gets his chance in his thirties after seemingly accepting he will never get an opportunity at international level. None ended up establishing themselves in the team. Look at the likes of Steve Bould (2 caps), Tim Sherwood (3 caps) and our most recent 30+ debutant Kevin Davies (1 cap) for evidence. All solid and dependable Premier League players who arguably should have had their chance earlier in their careers. The same applies to Osman who has seen some much poorer players picked in front of him in the past.

But his time has passed, unfortunately. International football has shifted towards youth. Hodgson had the chance to have a closer look at other younger players in this friendly with the likes of Adam Lallana, Mark Noble and Jonny Howson available from an admittedly shallow pool. Promising but relatively untried alternatives include Nick Powell and Jake Livermore but maybe Hodgson thought his experimentation was already sufficient, although it didn’t stop Jonjo Shelvey getting the nod in his initial selection.

Of course players in their thirties can still have an impact on the world stage. You only had to see the midfield performances of Pirlo and Xavi in the summer to see they can still cut it. But you’re talking about exceptional players there, not decent ones. Germany’s last competitive squad in October contained only one player in his thirties, never mind one making his debut (and that was Miroslav Klose who has 67 goals in 126 matches so he also seems to be quite good at it). At Euro 2012 there were a total of two players who had made their debuts in their thirties and they were both third choice goalkeepers. In fact there hasn’t been an outfield player who has played in a major tournament since the 2006 World Cup – one for Angola and one for Tunisia, hardly potential tournament winners.

You have to go back to Euro 96 to find a tournament-winning player who made his international debut in his thirties. This was a man who helped break English hearts with the equalising goal in the semi final, followed by scoring in the penalty shoot out. He was never beaten in his 25 international matches, a record. If Leon Osman even makes it to five international matches it’ll be an achievement. But perhaps he’ll turn out to be as successful as the German, Kuntz.

Oct 162012
 

Danny Rose was sent off for reacting to what appears to be racial abuse in England U21’s 1-0 victory against Serbia U21s.

“I think there one or two racist incidents from the crowd, they’ve been reported to Uefa I believe by ourselves, and it’s in their hands now,” said U21 boss Stuart Pearce. “I’m very proud of my staff and players, I must say. It’s very sad to be fair, [but] we’re united as a team and a staff. I never like to see a football match end like that.”

Oct 112012
 

The good ship England football team is in ‘there be dragons territory. The old certainties of the Golden Generation are being shredded – Terry is gone, Ferdinand is in the wilderness, Lampard is increasingly a side-lined figure. Gerrard, in the twilight of his international career, is finally playing where he’d like to play. The sad irony is that his legs aren’t what they were at his peak. The only thing that continues and should give us reassurance in turbulent times: Ashley Cole will get booed with every touch in the upcoming games. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The twin rocks that England built there team on for a generation are crumbling. John Terry has retired from England duty. His game is a bogey. Terry’s relationship with England is a complex one. Managers seem devoted to him. Devoted to the point they will sneak around behind the backs of others to please Terry.

His brother-in-arms, Ashley Cole, is somehow in the England squad despite calling the FA ”twats” a few days ago and who seems to find himself in hotter soup as each days goes by.

Roy Hodgson, the likeable enough and respected manager of England (well, outwith the red half of Merseyside), was spotted last week on a tube saying that Rio Ferdinand’s England career is over. This is on the back of Hodgon’s bizarre behaviour in the summer when he argued that Cahill, Lescott, Terry, Jones, Jagielka and Kelly were all ahead of Ferdinand regards ”footballing reasons”. We all suspect that Hodgson didn’t want Ferdinand and Terry in the same squad and most of us would have respected Hodgson more if he’d said as such. This was compounded by Ferdinand’s allegations that it was never explained to him exactly what those footballing reasons were.

How we got here is complex and reads like a cross between something from Renaissance Italy  and a CP Snow novel. The question ‘Where we go next?’ is more interesting.

Talent and the future

The Golden Generation is fading out. Ferdinand, for all the things that have been said about and – even – for his ”Choc Ice” tweet, is still one of England’s finest centre-backs. He is, at his best, still a Rolls Royce centre-back in an era of Trabants. He was imperious against Newcastle at the weekend and is still a finer player than the likes of Lescott or Jagielka. He played more games than most of us thought last year and managed, for large chunks of the season, to keep Phil Jones and Chris Smalling out of the side.

Given form, competition, and the fact that by the end of this year Parker, Terry (who would be eligible bar his retirement) and Cole will be 32, Gerrard already is and Frank Lampard is 34, it seems odd to discount the 33-year-old Ferdinand on account of his age. There were even rumours that Hodgson wanted to call up the 37-year-old Paul Scholes for the Euros. Hodgson has recently recalled the sumptuous 31-year-old Michael Carrick to the England squad presumably with the view that he will make a contribution for the next couple of years.

There are genuine questions about when players should retire or when they should be put out to grass. There is a good argument to say that better players should be dispensed with to allow younger players to be blooded and gain experience over time. There is a better argument to say that England need a player at the centre of their defence who will still be there in two years time.

Will Steven Gerrard, the England captain for the qualification campaign, be in the England team in two years time? Will Scott Parker? Will Frank Lampard? Some will, fairly, claim that the World Cup 2014 team – assuming qualification – needs to be a team that blends youth and experience and that a meaningful transition takes place. It isn’t about picking all the ageing players or all the youthful ones. It is about picking the right players and getting the right blend. That may mean dispensing with Ferdinand even if they stick with Lampard and Gerrard. I’d pick Ferdinand in the squad even if he were only a bit part player.

England, however, are not in a position – especially now Terry has retired – to discount defenders players as gifted as Ferdinand. As talented as Cahill is, and as good as Jagielka can be, it would be a brave soul to argue that Shawcross or Lescott are in Ferdinand’s class. It remains to be seen whether Caulker, Smalling, Jones or Kelly can step up. Would they be better off with the support of a player of the class and standing of Ferdinand? My guess would be yes.

Rio in Rio?

It is difficult to feel sorry for a multi-millionaire footballer but I sometimes think Ferdinand has been given a raw deal by England. Too often big decisions concerning him haven’t been communicated with him. He hears via the rumour mill or via people twittering from a tube.

He is probably the best England centre-back since Bobby Moore – certainly in an all-round footballing capacity – yet he seems to have been dealt a cruel hand at times by his country (especially considering how the FA have often overlooked Terry’s behaviour and how managers have indulged him). All that aside, Ferdinand has always seemed enormously keen to play for England. He has always seen it as the pinnacle of the game. He is right. Smaller men would have spurned England this summer. He was one of their loudest supporters even as the man he believed had racially abused his brother wore the shirt. Even though the manager was calling up second choice right-backs from Liverpool to the squad ahead of him for footballing reasons*.

I think we need that attitude in the national squad. It just so happens that he is still, on form, worthy of being in the England squad. It is a shame that Mr Hodgson feels otherwise.

*I think Kelly will be a massive player for Liverpool and England but I’m not sure even I, as one of his cheerleaders, I can claim he was ahead of Ferdinand this summer.