Archived entries for Football Column

Euro 2012 – Phase 3

Sixteen years ago at half-time of the England’s second Euro’96 group game against Scotland, then BBC pundit Jimmy Hill laid into Paul Gascoigne with the relish of as starved lion feasting on his prey; the tendency of scapegoating the nation’s most talented player existed before Gascoigne, as Glenn Hoddle experienced throughout the eighties, and is one that continues now, as a half-time glance at Twitter during Tuesday night game against the Ukraine showed. Gascoigne spectacularly proved his critics wrong within minutes at Wembley, while Wayne Rooney more routinely also justified his place with a well-timed run to get the only goal in England’s 1-0 win against this year’s co-hosts.

Some suggested Rooney shouldn’t be included in the squad because of his two-match suspension, others said he should start on the bench on Tuesday, and after a goalless first-half, in which he missed the best chance of the game, some were calling for him to be substituted at the break. Rooney is of course vital to this England side, a unit that lacks creativity and guile and has less match-winners than past England squads. Both to improve his match-sharpness, and improve England’s pattern of play, it was common sense Rooney started against Ukraine, with the ambition for the team to progress as far as possible. Continue reading…

Euro 2012 – Phase 2

While the quality has sometimes been variable in this summer’s European Championships Finals there has been excitement throughout with England’s win over Sweden last night perhaps the most thrilling of all so far. The Swedes looked poor in the first-half and England were well deserved of their one-nil lead going into the break, which came from an excellent goal from Andy Carroll that must rank as one of the best headed goals in any European Championship Finals.

But the Swedes came out energised in the second-half, playing a much more up-tempo game and all over England like a rash, with the realisation they needed something out of the match to have a chance from progressing from an average group. Four minutes into the second-half Olof Mellberg beat Joe Hart perhaps a bit too easily when he responded the quickest from a loose ball following a free-kick Carroll conceded just outside the England box, before adding a second with a powerful header of his own, turning the game on its head in ten minutes. Supposedly well-organized, England had been undone by two-set-pieces. Continue reading…

Euro 2012 – Phase 1

England entered Euro 2012 yesterday, living up to the billing of being well-organised but uninspired, with a decent enough performance that was worthy of the 1-1 draw against a French side who looked susceptible to runs behind the back of a high-line, and didn’t do enough to get behind England’s deep back four.

The ball retention was slightly better than in England’s two previous games under Roy Hodgson, with Scott Parker central to short-passing in the middle of the field, and Ashley Young linking up and creating an early opportunity with a killer pass that put James Milner through early on. Milner’s movement from off the right was a rare example of the system at its best in the first-half, although as the game wore on England defended deeper with two banks of four, which while thankfully not leaving much space between the back four and the midfield as in previous tournaments, was so rigid it meant there was little fluidity when going forward. Continue reading…

England v Belgium 2 June 2012

With balloons in the crowd, a strong focus on Royal Family look-a-likes and the Mexican Wave starting before the first fifteen minutes had passed, the general atmosphere in England’s match against Belgium less than a week before the start of a major tournament summed up the ambivalence towards the current national team. In fact there were so many paper aeroplanes thrown from the stands, made from the red and white ‘clappers’ left  in every seat, it is arguable there hadn’t been as much rubbish on the pitch of an England match since the display against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup.

However, real evidence of the low levels of expectation as the national side head towards the European Championship came at the end of the match; two years ago after England played Mexico at Wembley ahead of the 2010 World Cup the majority of the crowd stayed behind after the final whistle to fervently wish the players well before they set-off to South Africa. Steven Gerrard even commented about how he could see the determination in the eyes of so many that Wednesday evening. This time as the players started their walk around the ground, most had already headed-off despite the more convenient Saturday early evening kick-off, with polite applause from those that stayed.

And with news yesterday that a sixth player from the team that finished eighth in the League will now be part of an England squad challenging for the European Championship, as Martin Kelly was called-up to replace the injured Gary Cahill, it is no surprise there is such little anticipation and excitement, as the current England side takes on an uninspiring style, both on paper and on grass. Continue reading…

Ordinary Boys

When Ron Greenwood became England Manager in 1977 he tried to replicate the success of the English Club side of the time by picking a team with six Liverpool players in his first game in charge. At the same time Roy Hodgson was in his first Managerial role, in Sweden, at Halmstead, but something must have stuck, because thirty five years on, Hodgson’s first match had five Liverpool players appearing at some point in the game for England.

Rather than being League and European Champions the current Liverpool side of course finished eighth in the League, a position that reflected their performances, which cricket commentators would describe as “ordinary”. And the tone of Hodgson’s overall squad selection – average and uninspired – was also the style of a pedestrian 1-0 away to a Norway side currently managed by long-ball advocate Egil Olsen. Continue reading…

Negative

Saturday was billed as “The Day of Destiny” by Sky Sports, with two big football finals where in the build-up we led to believe the prize for the first one, the Championship play-off final, was bigger because of the financial rewards. A strange way to measure the prize in sport. On a similar note, Chelsea’s win in the Champions League meant they qualified for the tournament next year, which in itself will probably be worth around at least £20m in extra revenue than being in the Europa League; but you don’t get medals, open-top bus parades or a place in the Club’s roll-of-honour for increased turnover, although in Chelsea’s case, their finances have been key to their success.

However, even with the backing of a billionaire owner for nine years that allowed them to have the luxury of a £50m player on the bench despite a handful of suspensions, Chelsea’s approach to the game was that of an underdog looking for a giant killing, with defensive, negative tactics; and as Johan Cruyff told De Telegraaf, the outcome was one that no-one, other than Chelsea fans, could be happy with.

As with the game earlier in the day, when West Ham beat Blackpool with a late goal in a 2-1 win, the better side lost. Blackpool played some excellent football at Wembley, and like Bayern later in the evening, had their finishing been up to scratch on the day, would have run out comfortable winners. So it was nice that the following night Napoli beat Juventus 2-0 with a fluid, attacking passing game that stopped the Italian Champions completing a double, and going through their domestic season unbeaten with their often pragmatic approach. Continue reading…

Hyperthrust

The intercut highlights of the two games that decided the title on Sunday make compelling viewing; almost addictive, they demand repeated watches on some of the many different shows now available, with drama and emotion that only sport can provide. The shots of first the Manchester City crowd when they go 2-1 down and then later Manchester United players and management when the penny drops that City have won the title feel like an intrusion in private grief, yet they are, as with the celebrations either when goals went in or news came from other grounds, a reminder that the supporter is an integral part of the action the Premier League license out in various formats.

As a brand the Premier League still has the hype; the presenter on Sky Sports ‘Football First’ authoritatively said it was the first time the title had been decided in the top flight had been decided by goal difference – only true if anything prior to the last twenty seasons has been wiped from the records, but not letting facts get in the way of a good story. And countless other pundits, caught up in the excitement of Sunday, have been talking about the best season ever, as the Premier League reaches its landmark twentieth birthday, glossing over the fact the quality has at times been inconsistent. Continue reading…

Bitter Green

There was a noise coming from a number of the back pages of the national press last week; not the everyday white noise of often baseless transfer speculation, quotes taken out of context and hype for a forthcoming match, all of which are easy to ignore, but something more nasty. Though in reality the sound was the same as a spoilt child spitting out its dummy and rattling its play pen, the personal abuse directed at Roy Hodgson even made the front page of The Sun. Continue reading…

Something Changed

Last week the Champions League semi final second legs threw up a couple of shocks that perhaps shouldn’t have been so surprising. Firstly, there was evidence last year that Barcelona didn’t have enough depth in a squad that showed signs of tiredness towards the end of the season, and sometimes struggled to break teams down that were intent on putting all their men behind the ball. An example of this was in their last 16 match against Arsenal, when despite dominating for the best part of 180 minutes, they were nearly knocked out by a team that didn’t have a shot on target in the second leg as Nicklas Bendtner found himself in a one-on-one in the dying minutes. Meanwhile, the second thing that took the football world aback was a £50m striker scoring a goal. Continue reading…

Members Only

On Sunday evening the PFA handed out their annual awards, a ceremony that used to take place in the last weekend in March in London, the same weekend as the League Cup Final. The conclusion of the England’s second domestic cup competition is now a month earlier, but while the PFA’s night of recognition is now a few weeks later, some of the nominees and winners reflect only a partial part of the season, so early is the voting.

Like a cliché, this season has been one of two halves, and players that have come to the Premier League in January and flourished, notably Nikica Jelavic at Everton and Papiss Cisse at Newcastle, had no chance of getting a look in the Premier League team of the Season, although players that have faded since Christmas, like David Silva and Gareth Bale, do make the team. One player who has particularly found form since a move in January is Steven Pienaar, who back at Everton is trusted by his Manager, and is effectively using the space he has given, as notably demonstrated with a beautiful equalizing goal at Old Trafford on Sunday that may prove decisive in the title race.

And the PFA Awards themselves, though not as irrelevant as player ratings in newspapers that may well have been given by a hack who has probably spent most of the game tidying up a pre-written match report, or a man-of-the-match award that has been voted for by armchair fans who could have texted their choice before any significant incident had taken place, do often deliver results that produce some degree of bemusement. Continue reading…



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