Can England win Euro 2016?

England v France

England v France at Wembley. Photo by Ben Sutherland,

If England were to be crowned European champions in France this summer it would come as something of a surprise to me. By then of course, Leicester may already be Premier League champions and an English triumph at the Euros wouldn’t be as big a shock as that. Still, England have never previously won the tournament nor, remarkably, ever even made the final.

Recent friendly matches were an opportunity to assess the form of Hodgson’s squad and their prospects when they cross the Channel in June. A 3-2 victory away in Germany was a significant statement of intent, subsequently tempered slightly by a 2-1 loss at home to the Netherlands a few days later.

What struck me most about these recent matches is the extent to which the England side has changed from the last major international tournament, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Let’s compare the starting line-ups from England’s crucial group game against Uruguay in 2014 with the team that took the field in Berlin last month.

Uruguay v England (19/06/14)

Hart, Johnson, Baines, Cahill, Jagielka, Sterling, Henderson, Gerrard, Sturridge, Rooney, Welbeck.

Germany v England (26/03/16)

Butland, Clyne, Rose, Cahill, Smalling, Dier, Henderson, Lallana, Alli, Welbeck, Kane.

Only three players – Cahill, Henderson, and Welbeck – appear in both line-ups. Several others who played against Uruguay may also start England’s first match in Euro 2016 against Russia with Hart, Rooney, and Sturridge probably the most likely among them.

Nevertheless, it’s a significant overhaul of his side that Hodgson has undertaken. No bad thing that in all likelihood given the fact that the ‘golden generation’ scarcely got anywhere near bronze.  So is the 2016 vintage better?

Defensively I don’t think it is. England are a team that leak goals against decent opposition and there’s quite a lot of inexperience at the back. Clyne is average in my view and Rose has a lot to learn before he can consider himself a master of international football. Smalling is a link in the chain that opposition sides will regard as vulnerable.

The emergence of Alli provides some real dynamism and vigour in midfield, of the sort that Sterling briefly promised at the World Cup but has failed to deliver this season at Manchester City. Lallana, after failing to convince me in his early days at Liverpool, seems to be growing in confidence and influence. Henderson is no Steven Gerrard, for club or country (I suspect Klopp may be inclined to let him leave in the summer).

Up front things get particularly interesting and, as has been the case for rather a while now, the biggest dilemma concerns Rooney. The Manchester United striker is more often found splitting opinion than splitting defences these days.

One school of thought maintains that Rooney is still England’s most important player and should be the first name added to the team sheet. A dissenting school contends that peak Rooney was reached quite a long time ago and while he might retain a place in the squad, he should not feature in the starting eleven.

Hodgson is a cautious manager by nature and thus I suspect that Rooney (if he’s fit) will start in the game against Russia. Personally, I would pair Kane and Sturridge up front although Vardy certainly deserves consideration for the extraordinary season that he’s having.

There are goals in the current England side and they look like a much more threatening proposition than the team that limped so meekly out of the World Cup with just two goals in three games.

The recent round of friendly fixtures point to an open championship coming up and England are far from alone in carrying defensive frailties into the tournament. It should make for entertaining viewing.

Scotland, sadly, won’t be in France this summer but will be facing England in World Cup qualifying later in the year. After our recent friendly in Prague, Gordon Strachan observed: “we are not a great side but we can turn ourselves into a decent side by working hard.” That’s a fair summary of our current state and I think it also describes where England are at the moment as well (although they undoubtedly have a lot more quality).

Roy Hodgson justifiably claimed that the win in Berlin was his best night as England boss but went on to acknowledge that: “we have got an awful long way to go before we can claim to be anything like Germany with all they have achieved.”

Hodgson has been a master of expectations management since taking charge. The hype and hysteria that used to carry England teams into tournament battle has largely dissipated with more sober assessments being made of a squad that is good but lacking in greatness.

How much greatness is there elsewhere though? The Germans looked quite ordinary in qualifying (Scotland were unlucky to lose to them twice); the Spanish have lost more than a little swagger of late; the Italians are hardworking but not exactly inspired under Chelsea-bound Conte; the French face the pressure of playing at home (something that worked for them in 1998 but could easily go against them); while the Belgians will rightly travel in hope but I’m not convinced they yet have the expectation of victory.

The UK referendum on leaving the EU falls between the end of the group stages and the start of the knockout phase. England have a favourable group so there shouldn’t be any Engxit before a potential Brexit.

So, can England win it?  Yes, given how open it looks to be and the shortcomings elsewhere. But I don’t think they will. Hodgson is a realist and his assessment is correct: it’s only a short journey to France, but his squad still has a long way to go.

In search of freedom … from Mel Gibson

The Tartan Army. Photo by: Ronnie MacDonald

The Tartan Army. Photo by: Ronnie MacDonald

The draw for the qualifying stages of the 2018 World Cup took was conducted while I was asleep. To be honest, I’d forgotten that it was even taking place last weekend. When I awoke, it was to discover the sudden appearance of Mel Gibson all over my Facebook feed. There he was, charging forward, arm extended, offering the hand of … well, not exactly friendship.

Scotland v England; the auld enemy drawn together in the same group. Two competitive matches to anticipate. Fortunately, the recent progress that Scotland has made under Gordon Strachan means that those matches will actually be competitive. England start as big favourites of course but they can expect a stern test at both Hampden and Wembley.

Strachan said that “the whole of Scotland are roaring” after the draw: “they make take all three points, but they will never take our underdog sense of grievance” or something like that.

Scotland v England is the oldest international fixture in the world and it may be a little bit of an understatement to describe the rivalry as intense. I’m all in favour of intense rivalry and even more in favour of the ‘banter’ that stokes it. I must also confess (and I’m not particularly proud of this) that I tend to support whichever opposition England happen to be facing.

That said, I have very little time for the ‘stand up if you hate England’ brigade. It’s a song (and there are plenty of others like it) that gets repeated airings at Hampden and never fails to strike me as rather pathetic.

I am a very patriotic Scot but not a nationalist (at least not in the contemporary context of Scottish politics). I think there’s a perfectly reasonable case to be made for Scottish independence and it’s one that it is sometimes but not always made by the SNP. It’s not a case that I find entirely convincing however and that’s why I would’ve voted no in last year’s referendum if I’d been entitled to vote (something denied to me as a Scot living overseas).

While there were some very positive aspects of the referendum campaign – the level of engagement among young people for instance – it did bring to the surface the dark and unseemly underbelly of Scottish nationalism. There lurks hatred of the English and indeed hatred of anyone (“traitors” is the term often employed) of anyone who doesn’t share their zeal for independence.

I sincerely hope that the forthcoming games are remembered as a sporting spectacle and that the banter remains exactly that and doesn’t become something altogether uglier.

The matches promise to be two great occasions and you should definitely take the chance to watch if you like your football with a generous side serving of intensity. These will be games for the brave rather than faint of heart, on the pitch and in the stands.

Between now and then, I’ve no doubt that Mel Gibson will be making a few more appearances on Facebook.

Ronaldo v Messi match abandoned at half time

Ronaldo. Photo by: Themeplus

Ronaldo. Photo by: Themeplus

In the end there were 41,000 fans at Old Trafford for Portugal v Argentina (or Ronaldo v Messi) last night. Apparently that still wasn’t enough for the organisers to break-even but was more than I expected when I previewed this game in a post last week. I did get one thing right in that post though: I predicted that neither Ronaldo nor Messi would play for more than 45 minutes.

Both were substituted at half-time, leaving many fans disgruntled. Did they really expect anything else? One supporter was quoted on the BBC website saying: “Considering I had paid £50 to see them both, I thought it was shocking when they didn’t come out for the second half.” Considering what Real Madrid and Barcelona pay them to play, I think they would have been more shocked if the two had emerged for the second half.

Another fan that the BBC spoke to said: “They had obviously arranged beforehand how long they would both play for and, if I had known, I would rather have stayed at home and watched the Scotland-England friendly on TV.” Even if they had both played for 90 minutes I very much doubt it would have been worth the price of the tickets.

Ronaldo and Messi are both exceptional players and certainly worth watching but it’s clear that these friendlies hosted in a third country and put on by a private firm have only one aim in mind: making money from those who should know better or those who can afford not to. If it takes more than 41,000 people to turn up, at around £40/£50 per ticket, for a match like this to be profitable then the organisers really are living in a fantasy world.

The BBC report on the game notes that ‘this friendly was always unlikely to answer the question of which of the two is currently the best player.’ Well, quite. Imagine two blokes arguing in a Manchester pub last week.

Bloke 1: “Messi is clearly the greatest, not just now but of all time. He’s a phenomenon.” Bloke 2: “No way, Ronaldo is quicker, stronger and a more complete player. He’s undeniably the best in world.” Bloke 1: “They’re both playing at Old Trafford next week in a big glamour friendly. Let’s go and see it then we can settle this debate once and for all.”

The debate is set to run and run for longer and further than either player did last night. We still debate Pele v Maradona. Entirely erroneously in my view, Maradona is much the greater. As for Ronaldo v Messi, I think Ronaldo has had the better 2014 overall (despite a very mediocre World Cup) but that Messi is higher on the list of all-time greats – second only to Maradona for me.

In another friendly last night Scotland lost 3-1 to England. That’s all I’m going to say about that other than that I’m glad I didn’t get up at 4am to watch it.

The day I queued for three hours to watch a football match (on TV)

Stirling University campus. Photo by: John Bostock

Stirling University campus. Photo by: John Bostock

It was Saturday the 13th of November 1999. I was in my first year as an undergraduate at the University of Stirling. Scotland were playing England at Hampden in the first leg of the play-off for the Euro 2000 tournament that was hosted in Belgium and the Netherlands.

I wasn’t a member of the Scotland Supporters Club back then so there was absolutely no chance of getting a ticket for the game. My room in my halls of residence didn’t have a TV and anyway I think the game was on Sky. The few people I knew with TVs in their rooms didn’t have satellite TV.

No problem though, the sports bar at the student union was showing the game. They’d been advertising it for several weeks.

On a normal Saturday as a first year undergraduate I would not have been up before noon. The game kicked off at 2pm. The night before, anticipating that it might be busy, a group of us discussed what time we should head over to the pub. I suggested noon should be fine, a full two hours before kick-off. The suggestion was met with incredulous looks.

I thought I’d been rash in proposing that we go so early. After all, that would require getting up before noon. “I’m going to go over and check at nine tomorrow morning,” one of my friends said. It’s just as well he did.

Before nine the following morning he was banging on my door. “There’s a queue already, let’s go.” I stumbled out of bed. 30 minutes later I had joined him and several other friends in the queue. It stretched all the way around the building and halfway down the main drive of the campus.

Since it was November in Scotland it was freezing cold. We shivered and sought warmth in song. The sports union pub wasn’t due to open until noon – two and a half hours to wait. I think someone had a packet of wine gums; that was all we had to sustain us.

Of course the queue wasn’t moving because there was nowhere for it to go until the doors opened. We speculated about the line-ups and made our predictions for the score. I tipped 1-1. There was confidence but mostly nerves (and boredom).

Finally it was noon. Still we waited. Anguished glances up the queue. “What’s going on?” grew to a chorus. At last, a solitary step forward; one small step for me but one giant leap for the queue.

About 20 minutes later we were inside. It was 12.30. To say we were packed in would be something of an understatement. I had a sense that various health and safety stipulations were probably being breached. The bigger concern was how to get to the bar to order a beer and a burger. The tallest in our group (not me) was dispatched on this mission.

He returned with beers and the news that the burgers would take about an hour. Apparently the kitchen was a little overworked. In the end the burgers took almost 90 minutes to arrive.

Scotland were two goals down by then. Scholes scored both. On each occasion our defence granted him a far more generous amount of space than had been provided to us in the pub.

The team battled on strongly, played reasonably well, but didn’t manage to score. 2-0 was the final result. We walked back dejectedly.

The second leg at Wembley was on the Wednesday night and it was on either BBC or ITV (I don’t remember which). That meant we could watch it in the TV room in our halls.

The general consensus among pundits seemed to be that the tie was pretty much over. A 2-0 win away from home was certainly a good result for England. At Wembley we were immense though. Don Hutchison scored to put us ahead just before half-time. Suddenly it looked possible. I recall this as one of the best games that Barry Ferguson ever played, he completely dominated the midfield.

The longer the second half went on the more desperate we all became. Then, with 10 minutes to go, a flick on from a corner and there was Christian Dailly, launching himself into a diving header from six yards out. Completely unconsciously, I mirrored his effort. This meant that I had launched myself at the TV.

Seaman just got a hand on it and kept the header out. I saw that just before the sticky floor of the TV room met my face. Dailly picked himself up. I picked myself up and sat back down. 10 minutes later it was all over and we were out.

Scotland face England tonight in a friendly at Celtic Park. It’s the first time the two countries have played each other in Scotland since that November day in 1999. Tonight I have the option of watching at home but it will require me getting up at 4am, which is about the equivalent of getting up at 9am as an undergraduate.

The Monday Post – 17/11/14

Photo by: Football Gallery

Photo by: Football Gallery

This new format of spreading international games over several days is still taking a bit of getting used to. Some people seem to have just got bored and given up entirely. I was amused to discover that more viewers tuned in for the BBC quiz show Pointless on Saturday night than for ITV’s coverage of England v Slovenia. I’ll let you do your own puns. The quiz show averaged 4.99m viewers with a peak of 7.26m while the football averaged 4.56m with a peak of 6.3m.

By all accounts England were pretty terrible and still won pretty comfortably. It’s not surprising then that interest in this current team and qualifying group is so low.

Rooney won his hundredth cap and scored a penalty. Wellbeck helped himself to a double. All of this happened very shortly after Henderson had scored an own goal to give Slovenia the lead. I’m not sure that there’s much else to say about the game other than that apparently Uefa made the Slovenians travel in a team bus to the stadium despite the fact that they were staying in a hotel just 50 metres away. Meanwhile, over on pointless …

TV producers love to get those shots of teams emerging from the bus and entering the stadium. Most players bounce off the bus with enormous headphones and try to either put their most serious game face on or make a strenuous effort at appearing serene. Some have huge bags and suitcases as though headed for a fortnight on the Costa de Sol while others make do with just a tiny wash bag.

The scene then cuts to the studio where former pros will make their pronouncements: “the boys look relaxed” or the “boys look focused” or “the boys look up for it.” Actually, the boys just got off a bus, that’s all. I wouldn’t read too much into it.

The tendency toward pointless analysis is now reaching such heights that it surely can’t be long before ‘the boys getting off the bus’ becomes subject to video analysis with slow-motion replays and comment being made on the formation.

There are no points available on Tuesday night when Scotland and England clash at Celtic park in what’s likely to be a feisty friendly. Viewing figures will probably be considerably higher than for England v Slovenia.

The other game that I was interested in at the weekend was Italy v Croatia. My love of Italian football has been well documented on this blog but Croatia is my adopted home (and team) as my wife is Croatian.

A 1-1 draw in Italy was a good result for the boys in the tablecloth tops but sadly, like a 70s disco act, Croatian supporters got a bit carried away with their flares. The game was interrupted twice as a result, with the players taken off the field for 10 minutes on the second occasion.

This is not the first time such incidents have occurred with Croatian fans (and they are far from the only ones who treat flares as a routine part of the match day experience) and I think it’s time that the authorities got stricter on stamping out flares at games.

The dangers inherent in lighting a flare in a crowded enclosed space (often with children in the vicinity) are pretty obvious. Speaking about the trouble at the San Siro, Croatia’s coach Niko Kovac said: “I was ashamed and I apologised to the Italians after the game. There were families with children up there.”

Let’s hope in future that Croatia’s considerable flair on the pitch is not overshadowed by a minority of fans who insist on the pointless endeavour of lighting flares in the stands.