Pink with embarrassment

russia-world-cup

World Cup Russia 2018, photo by Nazionale Calcio http://www.flickr.com

It was, I suppose, inevitable. Ever since the day that Scotland’s shocking pink away strip was unveiled, it was only a matter of time before they put in a performance wearing it that would leave their faces the same colour.

That performance came last night in Slovakia, which came on the back of a similarly dismal showing against Lithuania in Glasgow on Saturday.

I didn’t see either game; I was flying during the first one and the second was (mercifully perhaps) not shown here in Malaysia. But the results tell their own story and unfortunately it’s a familiar horror story for we Scotland fans.

The World Cup in Russia looks a long way away from here.

It’s never ever a pleasure to call for a manager’s sacking and on this occasion it is made all the harder by the fact that I am a big fan of Gordon Strachan. Upon taking the job he made some real progress of the sort that we have not seen with the national side since Craig Brown’s time in charge.

The problem now is that the progress has not simply stalled, it is being slowly but surely reversed.

Strachan’s decision making has become increasingly bizarre. Chris Martin, good honest pro that he is, cannot be considered an international class central forward. Leigh Griffiths almost certainly is yet the Scotland boss has shown an almost comic reluctance to play him.

As ever, we lack creativity. Young Burke looks like he possesses some but he was omitted from last night’s debacle altogether. Answers on a postcard please (or in the comments below).

In the post-match press conference, Strachan looked crestfallen and lost. His renowned wit was almost entirely absent. Reporters were still probably thinking “whit?” rather than wit following the analysis the manager produced in the aftermath of the Lithuania game.

He suggested his side had been “unlucky”, that the draw may come to be seen as “a good point in the end” and that “Chris Martin was outstanding upfront.” So outstanding that he was promptly dropped for the next game.

It’s understandable that managers defend and protect their players in public. But it’s insulting to supporters to do so in a way that completely mischaracterises the game that they have just watched. Most supporters are nowhere near as knowledgeable about the game as their confidently expressed opinions would suggest, but neither are they fools.

A manager that starts to treat them as such – however inadvertently or noble the intent – will soon lose their confidence. Strachan has now lost that confidence among large sections of the Scottish support and, more worryingly, perhaps also among sections of the squad.

There was the usual rousing talk from the players pre-match, followed by the customary damp squib during it. They have let down another manager and can probably already start making summer holiday plans for the summer of 2018.

I hope some of them choose Russia. They should go to watch, to learn, and to think what might have been.

Of course that assumes that we don’t qualify and the crazy thing is, despite all the doom and gloom of today, the campaign is not beyond salvaging. The only correct observation that Strachan made after the Lithuania game was that it’s a ‘strange group.’

England, lamentable again last night, remain every bit as much strangers to their potential as we are to major international tournaments. Next month at Wembley should be interesting.

Will Strachan still be in charge for that game? I suspect he probably will. Even though I think his time should be up, there’s not exactly a plethora of excellent candidates waiting in the wings.

Strachan has recovered from Slovakian humiliation before but Wembley, for all of England’s glaring deficiencies, is still not the ideal place to check in for rehab.

The clash of the auld enemies will no doubt reproduce all the old blood and thunder but both nations are in desperate search of new answers. After Big Sam’s little mishap and short reign, Gareth has stepped in and been unable to halt England’s southerly slide. He will likely welcome the visit of the northerly neighbours.

The Tartan Army will travel brave of heart and full of bladder. The pink strip can be left behind in Slovakia, but the fear is that those supporters will only leave Wembley feeling even more blue.

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Can England win Euro 2016?

England v France

England v France at Wembley. Photo by Ben Sutherland, http://www.flickr.com

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 www.flickr.com

The Tartan Army. Photo by: Ronnie MacDonald
http://www.flickr.com

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.

No happy return for Gerrard

Steven Gerrard. Photo by: WBUR Boston's NPR News Station www.flickr.com

Steven Gerrard. Photo by: WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station
http://www.flickr.com

The FA Cup final will be played on 30th May 2015. Steven Gerrard celebrates his 35th birthday the same day. It will not be a cup winning party. Aston Villa’s thoroughly deserved victory over Liverpool was built on a performance of vigorous drive and aggression, the sort of drive that has defined Gerrard’s career but was sadly lacking in his and his side’s display yesterday.

The game seemed to pass Gerrard by; he was more peripheral than central to the action. All the energy and swagger was in claret and blue. Liverpool turned up in yellow strips with white towels. Afterwards, Rodgers admitted that his team had been “too passive” and that the occasion had got to them.

Ahead of the game, the Liverpool manager had spoken of a return to ‘Anfield South’ referring to a time when the club used to be very frequent visitors to Wembley. Not so much passivity in those days. Liverpool are already lacking in the leadership department and Gerrard’s departure will leave a gaping hole.

Filling it will be very difficult, especially if, as seems likely, Liverpool do not qualify for next season’s Champions League. The team needs a significant overhaul despite the number of players brought in last summer at considerable expense. As a minimum, a new goalkeeper, at least one centre half, a central midfielder, a wide right player, and a centre forward need to be added.

Rodgers started with Sterling playing at centre forward and three recognised centre forwards on the bench: Balotelli, Lambert, and Borini. Sterling is no false nine and selecting him in that position usually signifies a false start. So it was yesterday with Balotelli brought on at half time.

The Italian’s dismal season continued as he missed a header (in a very literal sense – he failed to make contact with the ball), and was caught offside with such regularity that I began to genuinely wonder if he understands how the rule works.

It would be a big surprise if Mario is still at Liverpool next season. Initially I thought that he was probably worth a £16 million gamble but I was wrong. It’s not a good combination for a centre forward to be high maintenance and low scoring.  At the other end of the pitch, Benteke offered everything that Balotelli appears capable of but so frequently delivers.

The Villa forward scored a well taken goal, constantly troubled the Liverpool defence with his power and pace, and selflessly led the defensive line from the front. Unlike Balotelli though, he was ably supported by willing runners alongside and often beyond him.

Sherwood’s side surged while Liverpool looked as though they had suffered a power cut. Gerrard, so often the repairman, appeared powerless to fix things. Coutinho, by far Liverpool’s best player this campaign, provided a small spark but it burned only briefly before being smothered by Villa’s pressing intensity.

The game was a reflection of Liverpool’s season: not performing on the big occasions, giving away soft goals, and not carrying a sufficiently sustained threat in attack. Rectifying these issues will not be easy and is unlikely to be cheap.

Rodgers must invest much more wisely than he’s done so far. Rumours today suggest that Falcao might be a part of the rebuilding work but his travails at Old Trafford this season have been such that he must now be considered a rather risky investment.

Still, he’s a player of genuine Champions League pedigree and those are in short supply at Anfield at the moment. The excitement of this time last year now seems like a long, long time ago for Liverpool fans. As those fans returned north from ‘Anfield South’ yesterday, they must have been wondering what will happen next, after Gerrard heads west.

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

Stirling University campus. Photo by: John Bostock www.flickr.com

Stirling University campus. Photo by: John Bostock
http://www.flickr.com

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.

Rooney – more respected, less feared

Photo by: Brent Flanders www.flickr.com

Photo by: Brent Flanders
http://www.flickr.com

Wayne Rooney is set to win his 100th England cap next weekend in the European Championship qualifier against Slovenia at Wembley. He will do so as captain. He was handed the armband following Steven Gerrard’s retirement from international football after the World Cup in Brazil.

Rooney is a player who divides opinion. For some he remains one of England’s few genuinely world class players and the most natural leader of the current England side. For others he’s a shadow of his former self who scarcely deserves a place in the England starting line-up.

I certainly think it’s true that he hasn’t fully fulfilled the promise that he showed when he burst on to the scene as a precocious teenager. With the exception of the European Championships in 2004, he has generally disappointed somewhat on the biggest stage at the very highest level.

There seems to be something a bit less swashbuckling about him these days which is not entirely explicable by the passing of years. The look on the faces of the defenders he faces has changed a little: a respectful wariness has replaced fear.

On his day he can still command a game but when he receives the ball these days there doesn’t seem to be quite that same anticipatory shift forward in the seat among the crowd. Di Maria is the one more likely to induce that movement at Old Trafford now. With England, Sterling is a more likely candidate.

Rooney has matured though. On and off the field he no longer embarrasses himself in the way that he once did. He appears more in control of himself, maybe a little bit too much in control sometimes. The leash has been shortened and he’s more disciplined but less dangerous.

Sir Bobby Charlton will present Rooney’s 100th cap (I’m not entirely sure of its origins but a cap has always struck me as a slightly odd thing to reward people with for international appearances). Rooney is a mere six goals behind Sir Bobby’s England record of 49 and there’s a very good chance that he will have overtaken Charlton’s haul by the end of the qualification campaign.

Rooney is also now captain of both club and country. He’s become an elder statesman of the game; entrusted by managers to lead by example and instruction.

Roy Hodgson is quoted today however as saying: “I worry that the responsibility is going to weigh him down.” It’s a strange thing for the England manager to say just a few months after appointing Rooney captain.

How much extra responsibility does the role really entail? The biggest decision that the captain has to make is heads or tails. Most of the other responsibilities (guiding young players, offering leadership on the pitch, communicating with the manager) would all be expected of a senior player anyway and there’s nothing to suggest that Rooney would shirk them if he wasn’t wearing the armband.

British football tends to inflate the role and importance of captain. I get the impression that it’s seen a bit more ceremoniously elsewhere. The fact that Rooney was seen as such an obvious choice for both Manchester United and England says more about his teammates at club and international level than it does about him.

Rooney will probably become England’s all time leading goal scorer. England will definitely qualify for the European Championships in France. Once there, Rooney and England will be respected but not feared by their opponents.

If Rooney does appear weighed down, I don’t think it’s the burden of captaincy that’s the cause. I think it’s much more likely to be the fact that he knows that considerably more of his career is now behind than in front of him and the heights he’s reached, impressive though they are, have fallen short of those that he hoped for and expected.