Monday, 21 October 2013

What does FA stand for?

Looking at the weekend's results you might be forgiven for thinking that all is rosy in football's garden (apart from the fact that your Dad keeps worrying about the windows getting smashed and if you keep whacking it over next-door the big fuck-off Alsatian will marmalise your casey with its canines.)

Andros (surely a brand of household bleach and not a name) Townsend, Daniel Sturridge, Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere... well they're all pretty handy, aren't they? But nevertheless only 1 in every 3 first team starters in the Premier League are English. Which is a problem, apparently. (In Qatar there's a problem that only 8 in every 11 starters are Brazilian and this could have a terrible effect on the national team's chances in 2022.)

So Greg Dyke, in that bustling no-nonsense way of his, comes stomping in with this FA commission to investigate why English players are so poorly represented.  It sounds great. Greg, so much a man of the people that he can get someone to stuff his hand up a rat's backside and save a whole TV station, has really copped hold of a genuine concern for football fans in this country. Hasn't he?

Well, to start with, ermm... No, not really. Most fans I know don't give a toss what's on a footballer's passport so long as the player concerned has an instep that meets the ball more often than his shin.(Or, to put it another way, as long as it's not Titus Bramble). Me, I like the idea of a club whose playing staff represents its local community and principal supporters, but even I can concede that those days are long gone.

Much like our national cuisine, which we once cherished but now realise was stodgy, predictable and not much good for us, our football has been enhanced by spicy imports. Twenty years ago the presence of an Ivorian in your midfield was as unlikely as a pot of Thai fish sauce on your supermarket shelf. And these Thai meals and Ivorian midfielders have improved my life immeasurably.

The only time this issue becomes thorny is when the national team, as it has done many times in recent years, comes up woefully short on international duty. Then we all seek to blame them blinking foreigners who come over and take our jobs (and, at the risk of straying into Adrian Chiles territory, in the case of Poles and plumbing, for example, they tend to do it better and cheaper).

Now the commission's remit is to look at:

"1. The pathway from schools into academies;
  2. The progress of those young English players in club academies (ages nine to 16);
  3. The development of those young academy players into first team Premier League players."

(That's the first time I've ever cut and pasted from a David Bond blog. My punctuation is better.)

The original eight people who were going to explore this are Greg Dyke, Danny Mills, Glenn Hoddle, Howard Wilkinson, Richie Humphries, Dario Gradi, someone else at the FA, someone at the Football League.

They've now been joined by the England football manager and a black man called Rio Ferdinand. Had the FA Commission already had a minority ethnic person in its ranks, we might well be considering how much Ferdinand might have to offer. But for now it looks like the most blatant bit of tokenism since David Cameron allowed a grammar schoolboy into a cabinet meeting (actually that might be yet to happen).

Heather Rabatts was right to be so blazingly angry about this issue. As is Sol Campbell. It's a bleeding long time since Viv Anderson stuck his telescopic legs through a pair of England shorts. One only has to look at the England squad last Tuesday to realise just how important black players are to the national team.

And yet Dyke assembles a clump of horribly familiar and pasty establishment figures to his commission. All right Dario Gradi sounds like he might be a bit Italian or summat but you know what I mean. If there is a problem with the promotion of young Englishmen in the game, then half of these blokes have been overseeing it!

As for the ladies, well thank you very much dears but the last one of you to make a significant contribution to the well-being or otherwise of the FA was Faria Alam. Women have to be on this commission too.

Just as bad, there appears to be no true representation from people working with the youngsters at grass roots level. Obviously they'll be consulted but in a top-down, rather patronising way. Suited grandees sliding out of the back of Lexuses and shaking hands with kids doing keepy-uppies on a basketball court - that sort of thing.

Meanwhile the Premier League are outside the tent pissing in, which is pretty much their default position these days.

Dyke has rushed this through with well-intentioned zeal but I don't know anyone who doesn't see this gathering of minds as a talking shop for tedious duffers, most of whom spend none of their time with the young people whose needs they claim to be promoting. It's truly laughable.

I mean what's Hoddle going to say, exactly? The ones who can't make the grade at Premier League level probably did something bad in a past life? Wilkinson is just some past-it old chunterer. Only Gradi has any track record in converting potential into success.

The three objectives of this commission amount to pretty much the same thing. Better young players come from better coaches and yes, an infrastructure that keeps these players learning and developing. So who's going to coach the coaches? And can they have better facilities please?

When it come to clubs that doesn't even have to mean that the players or coaches are English. Hell, look at the players that have come through Ajax's system: Suarez and Erikson are just recent examples. They don't have to be Dutch. It's just a shame that they're never English.

I'd have been tempted to put Gradi in charge, pay him properly, give him a couple of community-based assistants and send him on a two-year mission. What the other nine blokes there will contribute is difficult to guess. And why so many?

I mean I wouldn't mind sitting around a table with Rio and Danny having a good old chinwag about the state of the game either. I just wouldn't make it a flagship policy for my organisation.

What does FA stand for? I think we all know. And it's not Faria Alam.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Racy Old Roy!!

Well thank God for that.

I know the more cynical souls amongst us are quite happy to chunter about the big tournaments being better when we're not in them, but I was pleased as punch for England last night. And especially for Roy Hodgson.

It's hard to think of a more honourable fellow than Woy. Even his acceptance that this was perhaps his greatest night as a football manager came with the rider that he didn't want to devalue what Switzerland achieved under his stewardship.

And you can't help but give the lovely old duffer a lot of credit for the way England played in the last two games. It was breezy, entertaining stuff. Caution thrown to the wind. Handbrake off. All right I'm not sure what else they could have done given they needed to WIN, but... it was almost as if Harry Redknapp was in charge.

Which of course he should've been. Harry'll tell you that. Everyone wanted him, you know. There are newborn babies entering the world in tears because of that decision. Everyone loves 'Arry. Apart, perhaps, from the Inland Revenue. And the FA. There is a whiff of something around Redknapp. It's called suspicion. And for all his geezery bonhomie he can't quite shake that off, bless 'im.

But that old samba soccer guru Roy Hodgson was the main man. Up until these last two fixtures he'd overseen a team that staggered out of one place after another clutching its single point like an asthmatic hanging on to his inhaler. The performances varied from poor to abject. The desire not to lose brought a deathly stiffness to everything the players did. The ball become as welcome a companion as a false widow spider on a toilet seat.

Roy meanwhile seemed blithely ignorant of the facts that lay before the rest of us. He thought the team had done well, except for the odd bad spell, and that a point was worthy of celebrating. The rest of us thought they were a bit shit.

My research (asking people in the pub) tells me that expectations are pretty low for this England side. There have been times when the successful exchange of four passes has been cause for optimism, it being such an improvement n all. None of this pessimism harms Roy.

Nor does having a full squad to choose from. The absence of Ashley Cole only helped England's cause with Baines delivering crosses like a left-pegged mop-topped Beckham. He is the best left-back we have now. Comfortably.

The selection of Andros Townsend was Hodgson's true bit of inspiration. The lad was a loanee at that den of iniquity Queens Park Rangers last season. He was part of that football club experiment which we might now sum up in seven words "Splash The Cash And Cross Your Fingers." He returned to a Tottenham bursting at the seams with new signings and you were wondering who was going to borrow him next.

And now he's been as good as anyone in an England shirt in his first two games, although I was bit suspicious that Andros Townsend's man of the match award v Montenegro was chosen by Andy Townsend. Corruption runs deep in football.

His pace terrified the opposition full-backs. He revealed a very decent right foot to go with his excellent left. Unlike Walcott, he didn't burst into space, lift his head and pick out some more empty space. Unlike Young, he tried to play the game in an upright position. Unlike Milner, he looked like he might do something creative with the ball. And he can't half belt it when he wants to. A brilliant pick.

Gerrard too deserves praise for his contribution. He's not quite the bloke that single-handedly secured Rafa Benitez's reputation at Liverpool in 2005, but he's a wiser soul now. He looks at ease with himself. And he's still got enough puff to get up the park and toe-poke in the decisive goal.

Rooney looks like he might be near his best too. He's looking pretty secure in front of goal and that Desperate Dan grin hasn't been seen this often in an England shirt since he was the boy Shrek of 2004. The naff headgear needs to stay, Wazza. It's working.

Of course there are concerns: Welbeck continues to float around like a great fragile moth. He seems to need about eighteen touches before he can shoot. You can praise the lad's movement and his link-up play (although that was erratic last night) but ultimately he's supposed to score goals and I still don't reckon he'll get enough.

Poland's best attacks came from our corners. It was alarming how easy it was to run the length of the pitch without getting challenged. No one went to the ball. Everyone just ran back towards the goal as if they thought that enough of them could queue up on the goal-line we might just be okay. It reminded me of the 4-1 defeat to Germany. That sort of defending. Scary. But they got away with it... just.

And maybe that's the price you pay when you actually try and win a game of football. Certainly there was a bit more incision up front and the interchanging front four were bordering on a revelation.

But no, England will not win the World Cup. Not even close. And there's nowt wrong with realistic expectations. Most of us support club sides where realism is essential. So a bunch of young lads with a  couple of old heads and a decent method to them seems like quite a nice watch if you ask me. As long as we don't expect miracles.

Having said that, I can already see England's performance in their opening fixture of Brazil 2014. It'll be like every other one: nervy, cautious, scratchy, but a point is a point.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Ingerland, Ingerland, Ingerland...

Oh shite. It's another of those weeks coming up. England have two games between themselves - ourselves? - and World Cup qualification. Try as I might I can't help sensing a dryness at the back of the throat, chrysalises in the belly just bursting with butterflies and, I don't mind admitting, a certain tightening of the ring-piece.

And yet I keep asking myself why. Why, when all England have thrown at us in every tournament since '96 has ranged from inept penalty-taking to inept bleeding everything. Why, when I absolutely know that Hodgson and his squad don't have a Richard Dawkins' prayer of a chance even if they do qualify? Why, when I enjoy it much more after we have made our inglorious/brave/unfortunate exit from the tournament?

Why, when it's just an accident of birth that I am English. And, given the less than binding regulations regarding which country one can represent these days, why don't I just tell everyone I'm Spanish and have done with it? Like Big Sam, who reckons he'd be a tactical genius if his name was pronounced 'Allardici', I too would be held in high regard: Derekinho Robsonez.

But I look down the highlights of the weekend's Premier League matches and suddenly start to imagine England on the brink of a renaissance. Forget that Roy Hodgson is a careful (negative)manager who doesn't so much 'set out his stall' as 'design the whole indoor market complete with good points of access and egress and clearly marked muster points'.

No, England have two strikers in good form: Sturridge and Rooney. They have a solid centre-back pairing, a commanding captain in the deep-lying Gerrard, and a couple of bright young things in Barkley and, if they can drag him out from behind the bike-sheds, Puffin' Jacky Wilshere. Hell there's even that converted tearaway Ravel Morrison looking more than promising now.

(And don't forget Januzaj! Yep, I saw little Adnan only the other day, fish n chips in one hand, B n H in the other, having a good old sing-song around the joanna before settling down to watch Corrie. Aye, he's salt o' the earth that lad.)

On the other hand, the keeper looks capable of diving over a double-decker bus at the moment... and the right-back, whoever he is, has a tendency to get so lost high up the pitch that the other ten have to organise a search party. And James Milner might be playing: Mr Work-Rate. Honestly sometimes I crave a lazy bastard who can actually do something with the football.

But there ought to be the makings of some sort of a team there. And yet... and yet....

...They can't seem to keep the ball. If they could retain the ball like my bladder can retain liquid we'd be laughing. But technically, England are still - what's the word? - SHIT. Never mind keepy-uppies - it'd be good to see our boys start with playing 'keepies'.

The standard of coaching of young footballers in this country is a root cause but don't worry!!! The FA's head of coaching is none other than John Beck. YES, that's John Beck who made Graham Taylor's Watford look like Barcelona. John Beck, who left the corners of the pitch unmown so a big hoof would slow up there, who gave prizes to the lad that could kick it the furthest, who dowsed his players in cold water before a game.

England's footballing youth is in safe hands, eh? For fucking fuck's sake.

So, it appears that my rising anxiety is based upon not evidence but some weird learnt experience. I think it's called 'blind patriotism'. That I should watch England - a hastily assembled bunch of self-interested millionaires - and expect them to lift my spirits like some Olympian distance-runner. Hmmm.

And even if they do get to the Brazil, what is the World Cup anyway? With every passing day it becomes clearer and clearer that the greatest football tournament in the world is one enormous gravy train for the insular and self-serving members of FIFA (Financially-Incentivised Football Administration).

I have this horrible dream that in 2043, the cryogenically-frozen head of Sepp Blatter will be thawed out long enough for him to tell us that World Cup 2056 will be held on... the planet Jupiter.

"Yes" Sepp'll say "there'll be those who doubt that the transport links will be up and running in time. There'll be those who wonder if Jupiter has enough of a football fanbase to create a decent atmosphere. There'll even be those who wonder whether athletes will be able to play football on a gaseous surface, let alone breathe the toxic air. And yes, they may have to play the tournament in mid February to compensate. But there all always nay-sayers and doom-mongers.

But all this faffing around the edges of the Qatar 2022 decision just shows how many vested self-interests are already in place. It was about intelligent decision-making it would never have gone there in the first instance.

Here are three objections that might have been raised at the time:
1. They don't like poofters.
2. They employ slaves.
3. It's too fucking hot.

But if you start including all these factors into your calculations then... well, Russia would have to keep their gobs shut and tolerate homosexuals at the Winter Olympics. And frankly, who exactly do they think is doing most of the ice-skating there, anyway, eh?

Nah, it's a bloody ugly farrago is the World Cup - a great festival of fingers in pies masquerading as a sporting spectacle. I feel soiled just thinking about it, as soiled as a free-thinking person allowing themselves to watch the X Factor (which I did on Saturday night and if there is a priest out there can you get round my house double-quick and absolve me of my sins?)

Yeah, the World Cup is completely and utterly tarnished in my eyes. There's only one thing that can reclaim it from the gutter. That's an England victory!

Come on lads. We can have these Montenegrolians! Brazil here we come! 2-1 on Friday. 3-0 on Tuesday. Job done.