Wednesday, 27 March 2013

England Has Stopped Expecting

Last night's experience as an England fan felt like so many others. For the last ten years England have specialised in squandering one-goal leads. Instead of carrying the fight forward after the interval the boys in white retreat to the edge of the penalty box and stand there like so many penyatas and the
opposition batter them til they cough up their goodies.

Last night reached new levels of bipolarity. For 45 minutes, England zipped the ball about with no little precision. There was the usual mixture of pass and move from off the Man U training ground and the occasional aimless lump up the park.

But Brnovic's chippy assumption that England would be scared proved unfounded. The Montenegran manager piggy black eyes seemed devoid of answers. Worse still, Wayne Rooney was having a good day.

Then came half-time. Lord knows what Roy said to his players.

Perhaps it was "don't fuck this up, boys!" Or maybe "be afwaid, be very afwaid!" Or simply "whey-heyyyy 1-0!!! Great wesult lads!!! Who's off for a Balkan bevvy?... What? Another half? Oh bugger!"

Whatever it was, the team - the same team, mind you, unless the power of top Premier League clubs means that Hodgson is forced to play replicants in the second half in order to save their stars for Saturday - came out and played really fucking badly.

Some credit must go to Brnovic for changing it round at half-time and stifling Johnson and Cole's progress. But hellfire it was hardly a stroke of genius. What was baffling was the fact that Hodgson seemed incapable or recognising how bad his team were. I was surprised to see Cleverley substituted because I'd forgotten he was on the park. (He's starting to annoy me that lad. It all looks nice
enough but he achieves nowt.)

To me the player that typifies Hodgson's England is James Milner. Now you can't fault the lad's work-rate. He goes through a pair of bollocks every game. But my God you just screamed out for someone with a bit of wit to be out on the right.

Time and again he fired a cross along the six-yard box. Hard, low and hopeful. Even Theo Walcott or Aaron Lennon, headless chickens both, might have had a little look and picked someone out.

Nevertheless, there is something relentlessly worthy about Milner. He's like a sheepdog, but less inclined to think for himself.

All sorts of things annoyed me about that match. By the end I felt like I'd spent the night dodging crumpled balls of paper, picking up bog rolls, wandering through the acrid smoke thrown up by flares, or simply standing by some bloke with a mike in his and and a voice like the gaping maw of hell. That bloke made me hanker for the tranquil days of 2010 and the vuvuzuela. If he'd have been standing next to me that microphone lead would've be acting like an enema on his innards. (Not pretty but very fair.

Every time Hart took a goal-kick he pinged it out towards Milner and Montenegro got a throw-in. That supposed penalty England should've got was denied them because Welbeck went for the Stevie G swan-dive. Try and score a goal you great nelly!

And then there's the perennial problem with Hodgson's England that when in doubt they simply sit on the edge of their box and hoof it back to the opposition over and over and OVER AGAIN! Like some namby-pamby student protest in the late 70s.

In the light of the first 20 minutes of the second half, the only question was who would Roy bring on?

Perhaps Scott Parker could go on and throw himself in front of Vucinic for thirty minutes. Oxlade-Chamberlain to give England a little more devil? Jermain Defoe to see whether a greedy goal-hanger could grab that second goal? Well, I tell you what, Roy, ANYBODY would have done. Nobody was not an option.

While Brnovic chucked on forward after forward, Roy stood there tweaking his bottom lip like a kid wondering if he might be able to nip over the neighbour's fence and get his ball back.

Now I like Roy. He's straightforward, honest, and not inclined to get too excited or too down-hearted. Nevertheless it's disheartening to hear him say that that was 'not a bad result'. After the first half it was a terrible result - and more to the point a terrible performance.

If I hear Gerrard, in that post-match whine of his, say 'we didn't keep hold of the ball well enough' one more time I'm going to throw myself into a vat of beer and never emerge. It's not a bad way to go. In fact, throw Hayley Atwell in after us and I'll take it.

The fact is England have been like this as a team for bloody years. All the expectation - bloated by the fact that our lads play in the best League in the world even though only Cole, Gerrard and Hart can hold down a starting place on a regular basis - has been frittered away.

Hodgson has carried on where Capello and Eriksson have left off. Team after team lack the courage or confidence to seea game through, to kill the opposition off. It's like watching Aston Villa sometimes.

At half time yesterday I just sat back and waited for the inevitable retreat. Only when England have been unmanned by a sending-off or the tag of underdogs do they ever put in a proper shift - and even then that's your bog-standard heroic failure.

I'm sure they're fed up of it. I bloody well am.

The only option is the German model - bring in a whole new array of young lads. Let them have four years together. Keep the same coach over that time, regardless. See what we end up with. It cannot be worse than what we have. Can it?

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Getting to Rio

It's nice to see, as the world celebrates the arrival of a new Bishop of Rome, that the notion of the late withdrawal still has some purchase.

Rio Ferdinand's decision to exclude himself from the little matter of a trip to San Marino and Montenegro has left most of us feeling bewildered. (Although not quite as bewildered as I feel when hearing various Catholic commentators, and in particular, cardinals, getting mildly erect when talking about the new Pope. I can't help seeing them under the bedsheets with a torch and a copy of Vatican weekly - which is at least a preferable image to the one that they'd prefer you didn't know about. But I digress.)

Ferdinand couldn't come to play for England cos he has an 'intricate, pre-planned fitness programme'. There was a lad at our school who skipped swimming lessons cos he had a 'chronic, ongoing and debilitating aural condition'. Yes it sounded like a skive to me n all, but I'm sure if you had asked him he would have reassured you as to his passion and commitment to swimming.

The thing is, if Rio can't come on these trips cos Fergie won't give him a note, then what the fuck's the point of him insisting he really wants to play for England? If he has this complicated schedule - and it sounds as if he can't break wind without the Govan Beetroot sniffing the air and giving it the thumbs up - then essentially he's saying I can play for England, yes, but he has to fit in with my plans.

That's a non-starter. So just retire, Rio. Okay?

I mean it begs the question just what does he do with his week? Clearly he's got a more secure handle on it than he had when he missed that drug test. He must have a window set aside for 'shopping for jumpers' now.

Now I like Rio. I think he's a top player and if I was Hodgson I'd be dead keen to have him in the team. There was a time not too long ago when pundits were purring about the great depth of talent that England had at centre-back: Terry, Ferdinand, Cahill, Jagielka, Lescott, Dawson... and Smalling and Jones getting better all the time.

Now that just reads like an injury list. When I was growing up centre-backs were made of iron. Even if you were armed with a sledgehammer and a forklift truck you still wouldn't be able to get them off the pitch. Maybe it's just bad luck but these days they're about as sturdy as puff pastry.

I can't imagine Jack Charlton or Terry Butcher insisting that they'd have to skip an international fixture cos I've got some raiki massage at 10 am that day and then I'm doing some intense visualisation exercises at half-two. Indeed Butcher would have been more likely to say "Let me take out my own stitches out before I get on that plane".

Of course recent history is also littered with the debris left by Cap'n Terry. His retirement, huffily done and only after the FA kind of insisted that the words 'cunt' and 'black' had been used in reference to a fellow professional, was welcomed in most quarters.

Of course while Terry was captain, Rio was left out when Terry was captain for 'footballing reasons' which is a bit like leaving out Bradley Wiggins from the Olympics for 'cycling reasons'. You could argue that a centre-back partnership between a user of racist language and the brother of the victim of that racist language might not make for a good football team, I suppose.

Ironically, Terry would be quite handy now, even if he too suffers from chronic back problems and has been left out by Benitez. (Although Benitez also leaves out Eden Hazard... just how - how??? - is he still in gainful employment?)

So Hodgson is left with the onerous task of cobbling together a pair of centre-backs and crossing his fingers. It'll be Caulker and Smalling most likely. Against San Marino it could be Walcott and Lampard for all it matters.

The last time an England manager was rooting around desperately for a pair of centre-halves before a vital qualifier was November 21st, 2007. Yes it only feels like yesterday, doesn't it? That night England's back four were Richards (remember him?), Campbell (a plodding 33 at the time), Lescott (in a wonky-wheeled shopping trolley of a performance) and Wayne Bridge who played like a man who had one eye on the fact that John Terry wasn't on the pitch. They were a bloody shambles but weren't much helped by Scott Carson's awful performance.

Now I don't doubt that Hodgson will have his team, whoever they are, better organised than McClaren. And I'm more than certain that Woy won't have an umberwella handy either. In Montenegro, I wouldn't be surprised if the owl-faced gaffer doesn't break the record for the number of holding midfielders in a starting eleven.

But the omens aren't great. Much emphasis is always put on Rooney but sooner or later we will embrace the idea that the top-weaved terror of Toxteth is nowhere near the potential genius everyone hoped for when Clive Tyldesley hollered "Remember the Name! Wayne Rooney!" And with no Wilshere we might just have to rely on Sturridge or Welbeck fulfilling some of their promise.

I expect to see this team v Montenegro: Hart, Johnson, Smalling, Cahill, Cole, Milner, Carrick, Gerrard, Cleverley, Rooney, Welbeck.

But between then and now let's work hard, boys n girls, to just dampen down any residual optimism that some foolish people might have gained from that win against Brazil that took out national team to 4th in the FIFA rankings.

Yes. Fourth. Try explaining that to your children when they say 'But I thought we were shit, Daddy."

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Perils of Success

The way managers are getting treated this season makes me think of the slippery ironed forehead of Prime Minister as he repeatedly calls us to face reality.

In these times of austerity tough decisions need to made. And as we've learnt from the great puffed-up ponce, it's only the wealthy and financially secure folk who have the ability to make these decisions. I mean who better to tell you that you're going to have to lose benefits than a man who is heir to a wallpaper and fabrics empire?

And you know what, the best man to tell you how best to improve your bog-standard comprehensive school is the kind of posh grown-up schoolboy who would've ended up head-first in the nearest bin had he set foot in ours. (Michael Gove. Look him up if you've never heard of him and tell me if just one glimpse of that puckered arse of a face doesn't get your reaching for the nearest sledgehammer.)

And surely we must all admit that the man most qualified to tell Brian McDermott that his number's up is the son of a 'Russian multi-billionaire' (or, as the rest of the world would put it 'successful arch criminal')

Yes Anton Zingarevich becomes owner on January 21, when there are still ten full days of transfer window available. He gives his backing to a coach who earns himself the title of manager of the month. Then he sacks him a handful of games later.

McDermott, remember, took over when Reading were stuttering away at the foot of the Championship. He took them to the play-offs and then to automatic promotion the following season. This is a man who runs a club on possibly the smallest budget in the division. In the real world, he would be considered something of a success. In the harsh new world where we are all cold, naked and at the whim of a plutocrat in a leather armchair, he's a dud.

Has little Anton got someone in mind to replace the Bunsen Honeydew looky-likey at the Madekjski? Naaahhh! Course not. These sons of billionaires don't seem to have the first idea how to do things sensibly. I have visions of Anton in his playroom, throwing a few subbuteo players around and bawling "Me want new manager! Me want it NOW!"

Then he pulls out a Pannini sticker book from fifteen years ago and starts pointing at pictures until he finally lands on one who might be a manager.

I don't suppose Antone's studied comparable cases from last year, such as Wolverhampton Wanderers. There, a chippy successful businessman, Steve Morgan, took over the club and behaved like he'd never a run a paper-round before. He sacked Mick McCarthy, who had been doing pretty well on limited resources. Morgan then found he had no replacement and so turned to McCarthy's assistant Keith Connor, who watched from the touchline with all the assuredness of a labrador peering out from the back of a dogcatcher's van.

Connor was sacked and replaced by Solbakken, and the club has never looked forward since.

The ridiculous thing about McDermott's sacking - and I hope he's having a lunchtime ale with Nigel Adkins where they can discuss the perils of success and over-achievement - is that Reading were a team devoid of stars. Their only strength was their team ethic. That team ethic was built by McDermott over two or three years.

Whoever comes in is not going to be able to scatter a handful of stardust over Jimmy Kebe and Hal Robson-Kanu and transform them into the Messi and Ronaldo of Berkshire.

I mean am I insane or was it not that long ago that a desperate Newcastle United turned to a club legend to save them for the last nine games of the season? And far from proving a lifeline, Alan Shearer grabbed on to the nearest piece of concrete and went down with them.

The new breed of owners honestly seem to think that their sheer wealth will mean that any decision they make will be a good one. Perhaps they look at Abramovich and think 'well that smirking asssassin of an owner goes through coaches like a virus goes through the Queen's alimentary canal and he still manages to win quite a lot of things. Yes I shall run my club like I have lost touch with any humanity I once had.'

The Roman Empire currently boasts El Porquo as the temporary Maitre D. Here's a bloke who's got used to the rough and tumble of modern managerial and simply lines his piggy pockets and he trots from one abject failure to another. It seems strange then to be complimenting him on the way Chelsea played at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Wiser heads might tell you that had Eden Hazard on the pitch from the start, there might not have been so much to worry about. Chelsea have always looked a better squad on paper than United (that's if you allow for the fact that Chelsea only have one striker). On Sunday they were far superior for the last hour.

They were better with Lampard off the pitch. David Luiz looked a very sound defender and the identikit trio of Mata, Oscar and Hazard buzzed around United's defenders like flies around sleepy cattle.

United on the other hand were very poor, gifting back possession like a Dad with his five-year-old son in the back garden. It is a mystery how they have gained such a stranglehold on the Premier League this season. Van Persie has made a huge difference but Fergie's midfield still looks way short of top class and without Scholes to plod on to give it a bit of solidity the likes of Cleverley and Carrick get too easily overrun.

The Cup draw left you with that sinking feeling that the best game left in the tournament will be a semi-final and the final will be tediously one-sided. Personally I hope that Wigan can win it. It would be great reward for the club, the very good manager and in particular a chairman who has remained loyal and true to that manager.

It would also be a reminder that a bit of integrity and a bit of long-term thinking can reap its reward.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Real-ity Bites

It is difficult to know what came as the biggest shock at Old Trafford last night. It was a rum one, that's for sure. Rooney wasn't selected. Mourinho was humble (but it's an arrogant humility, isn't it?). Fergie sent Phelan up to talk to the press - although part of me wondered whether he wasn't back in the home dressing-room slowly spit-roasting the ref over the flames of his fury. And most alarmingly of all, a United player was sent off AT OLD TRAFFORD!

I actually cannot remember that ever happening. It's as rare as a Blair apology. Or a Prime Minister in Primark. It wouldn't happen in the Premier League, but maybe these Turkish officials don't know the rules.

As for the facts, well, I don't think there was much in it. I wouldn't have given him a yellow cos there was no malice in it. Peter Crouch pretty much kicked Matt Taylor's head into the top tier last weekend and no one seemed bothered. Nani was clearly a tad concerned which was why he stayed down like a roped steer for a good two minutes. Arbeloa made the most of it and despite being
the least gifted footballer on the park, managed to make the most significant contribution to the game by getting kicked.

Roy Keane was adamant that the decision was correct. He insisted that a lack of malice is neither here nor there, which is presumably why Roy's challlenges were always malicious. I mean you might as well break a limb if you're going to get sent off anyway. Strictly speaking, Keane was right. And to be fair his punditry makes a pleasant change from the lukewarm feyness of Southgate and Townsend.

Townsend was at his worst last night. If there was a missed opportunity it was down to a striker not quite hitting when he should, or taking the extra touch, or NOT taking the extra touch. Still when you remember the lethal strike rate that Andy mustered during his professional carrer you'll realise how much wisdom he has on the subject. It's like having a jumped-up public schoolboy tell you how to run your state education. Townsend is the master of instantaneous hindsight. It's not a compliment to say he makes it seem like anyone could do his job.

It's hard to feel sorry for Ferguson - and yet last night I did. It felt a bit like shedding a tear for an old silverback who's been terrorising the jungle for years. But nevertheless the red card was pivotal and you could understand his rage.

In the first half, United looked pretty comfortable and Welbeck, for the first time I could remember, looked a like grown man, rather than the gangling foal I'm used to seeing.

Ronaldo looked becalmed, as if deference to the place where he learnt his trade was inhibiting him. Vidic looked back to his best. Rafael belied his childlike, almost Pokemon-like apearance with bags of energy and authority, and Madrid didn't look like much really.

Of course the red card ignores the fact that after Ramos had poked the ball past Diego Lopez - a kind of Spanish refuse collector with dustbin-lid hands - Real picked up the pace of things and looked very like having the rest of the match. Nani's dismissal deprived United of a dangerous counter-attacker, and the Portuguese was having one of those mights when he looked more likely to threaten the oppostion net that the fans behind it.

So England will not have a representative in the quarter-finals unless Arsenal can call up Derren Brown for the away leg in Munich. And it's fair to say that just about represents where the standard of the Premier League is now. While we like to go on about it being the best league in the world, it doesn't produce the best teams. United wouldn't be winning the Premier League at a canter if the quality was high.

At times it produces the dourest football. Stoke City fans will tell you they like to keep it on the deck. They do. They keep it on the top deck, somewhere around Crouchy's eyebrows.

Germany and Spain look like they've got much better club sides - with far more natives in them - and with far less money shelled out by the fans to watch them. In other words the Premier League is pretty shoddy value at the moment.

As for Wayne Rooney, well... it's been coming. He's very good, Wazza. Very good. But when he lines up with a true great like Ronaldo or Van Persie, you realise that his very best is not going to beat that. Of course the thing is, when he terrorised teams at the age of 16, we assumed we'd got an utter genius. And what's worrying about the lad - apart from the hair which looks like it's been removed from a horses arse and just stuck on there - is that he is not a vastly better player now than he was in 2004.

You could say that the lad has been played in all sorts of positions since Fergie bagged him from Everton. I think that he's never going to be the great of the game that we hoped he might be but I'd stick him in the Scholes role (the original one, not the relaxed armchair one he has now) and forget about him being an out-and-out striker.

I've no doubt his future at United is secure.

Which is not something I could say for a certain Turkish referee. Hopefully Sir Alex is coming to terms with defeat this morning. But it makes me cross. How could he do that to Fergie. He's an old, frail man. As if.