The Underlying Problem…

29 06 2010

For me, Capello has got it right. His comments about the dearth of English quality coming through the ranks of the top teams really do hit the nail squarely on the head. And it is this which ties in with what I wrote a couple of days ago. The big guns of the England team (Terry, Lampard, Ferdinand, Gerrard) are all on their way out. They should be peripheral figures come the European Championships in 2012 (assuming, of course, that England make it there). The absence of good young players is a concern for Fabio, and only serves to prove, I think, that England should consider themselves at best a mediocre team.

Don’t get me wrong, there is, as Capello has acknowledged, some potential. Jack Wilshere and Kieron Gibbs of Arsenal look promising, but still too raw for the pressures of international football. Likewise Dan Gosling and Jack Rodwell at Everton look to have potential. However, these cases are few and far between. That Capello has admitted he would have taken Zamora if he had been fit is indicative of the level this country is at in footballing terms. Zamora had a good season, don’t get me wrong, but he is not a world-class striker, and never has been. One good season does not compensate for the comparatively poor ones which went before (I think he scored only a handful of goals the season before last in pretty much the same Fulham team).

There is no-one coming through the ranks at the top sides which makes you sit up and think that England may have a bright future. FIFA’s home-grown players initiative may help the cause of the English youth, but being an obligatory name on a squad sheet is very different to being a regular club starter with world-class potential. And herein lies the problem, working out what else can be done? If the genuinely world-class talent isn’t there, there is nothing that can be done about it. All the top clubs are scouting kids as young as 7 or 8, and signing them up. The clubs put these kids through the ranks, teach them and train them in the ways of football, and yet they very often fail to make the grade as a top-class pro. They are just not good enough.

There’s an old footballing mantra which says that if you are good enough, you are old enough. The reason Rooney was picked for the Everton team was because he was good enough for it. Likewise there is a reason why the top teams do not have many Englishmen in them. Because of this, the national team is forced to take players to major tournaments who are not world-class, but are either peripheral club figures (Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips), or just patently not good enough (Matthew Upson or Emile Heskey). Hence, really it should be no surprise that we struggled to a 4-1 defeat in the last 16 tie.

The footballing future of England is not bright, it is barely a dull glow. All the problems in terms of tactics and team selections which I wrote about the other day do matter, but if there is nothing coming through the ranks for the future then these problems become almost minor. It has been very frustrating to hear the commentators talking about the ‘next big thing’ from other nations throughout the tournament, all the while wondering where our ‘next big thing’ is. The point is, our last ‘big things’ have thus far failed, and whilst Rooney (still without a World Cup goal) and Walcott (not even on the plane) may have to carry this label for a little while longer, this expectation is on two players who (especially in the latter’s case) have thus far failed to prove anything more than the fact that they are pretty good  club players. The concern for England should not be about this years failure, it should be about the likely failure in years to come.


Bitter Reality…

27 06 2010

After writing about the fall of France last week, it seems only just that I also write about England’s continuing failing on the world stage. England’s hopes of World Cup glory, almost fatally extinguished when Emile Heskey lunged into Rio Ferdinand before the tournament started, finally ended with a 4-1 defeat to the Germans.

There are numerous things to write about England, and most will be in the next few days. I have just a few thoughts on the state of the national team. The first is that the squad Fabio Capello took to South Africa was flawed. Taking two centre-backs who have had at best mediocre seasons (Carragher and Upson) , and with two nursing continuing injuries (Ferdinand and King), leaving John Terry to fight the world’s best forwards almost alone. Taking and continually using players who have pace but no end product (Wright-Phillips and Lennon), whilst leaving Adam Johnson, a natural left-footed option, at home was frustrating.

This moves me onto the selection process. The continual use of Heskey as a striking option whilst leaving Crouch (who has somewhere near a 1 in 2 goal/game ratio) on the bench was mightily frustrating. The absence of Joe Cole from much of the tournament must also be questioned, although in his outings, he failed to show much to prove he was the solution to England’s ailments. The selection of Carragher and King was bemusing, and ultimately failed to inspire confidence in Matthew Upson, who had a solid, if not spectacular qualifying campaign as John Terry’s defensive partner. Likewise picking, and then dropping Rob Green was another poor moment from Capello. Indeed, his substitutions failed to inspire confidence, further highlighting the limitations of the squad as a whole.

However, the personnel could, and should have worked, in the right system. This is where Capello, who is, let us not forget, one of the games great managers, ultimately came undone. Starting with the bemusing selection of Steven Gerrard, the newly appointed captain, on the left of midfield, and there is only one conclusion to reach: Capello was wrong. Argentina play Messi in his favourite position. Brazil play Robinho in his favourite position (and he once again looks like a world beater after being played out of position in England). Spain play Xavi in has favourite position. The point is made I feel. For Capello to fail to recognise Gerrard’s potential in the English central midfield position seems to be almost scarily naive. The clamour for him to play behind Rooney was there for a reason, yet ignored by Capello.

Moving onto the continued insistence of using wide players. In theory I have nothing against pacy wide men. They can pull the game forward and inspire the crowd and team. So using Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips was not, in itself a bad thing (despite SWP having a mediocre season in and out of Man City’s team). The failure to utilise their pacy potential was a fault in the team. Too often the men were there but not used by the English central midfielders. If England were to use them to stretch teams, then they failed to put this plan into practise. Too often these men were ignored or crowded out. The times they got the ball they had to move inside to allow the attacking intent of the full-backs to shine through. On those rare occasions they managed to beat their man, they had little or no substantial end product.

We have frequently been told about the ‘golden generation’ which seems to consist of Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Ferdinand and Rooney. All failed to have an impact at this tournament (although, to give Ferdinand his due, he never even got there). The label was never going to help the England team, but the frustration is that the players never seem to give the same for their country as their clubs. For me it seems that the players go from being the big fish in their respective club ponds to the international set-up. They all think they are the big thing with the ability to take on the world, without working out the element of being in a ‘team’. There are not enough good team players who are content with being second-fiddle to the big players. They do not work in the same way they do with their clubs because they are used to there being someone who will do the covering for them. At international level there is not this escape.

If we add this to what seems to be a genuinely paralysing fear of playing for England, then the recipe is there for failure. Capello has failed to overcome this international paralysis, despite appearances to the contrary in qualifying. However, for me there is something else which has to change, namely the national psyche.

For too long we have been told how good our players are, and have expected them to be world-beaters. It is time we as a public realised that these players and this team are not a top-four side. They are barely a top 16 side. That is the bitter reality. I feel that if the expectation is dropped by the public, then this will have a beneficial effect on the team. We have, for too long expected too much from the England team. For the 2012 European championships we need to have a lower expectation. A quarter-final might be our best result. Let us not forget that this is pretty much the same team which failed to qualify for the last Euros. They have done little to convince as anything other than a mediocre team, so the irrational expectation and demand that they do well in tournaments is foolish at best. Let England aim for the 1/4 finals in the Euros. That should be enough. We do not have a world class team. We do have world class players, but the two are very different things. Until the two demonstrate that they have been successfully melded together over a continued period of time, we the public, should accept that we are not that good an international side.


31 01 2010

Here are but two more stories I’ve heard today whilst at the lunch-table. Both serve to indicate the silliness of society.

The first involves my dad. Recently he has been caught speeding, again. Because this is not the first time it’s happened, he has been sent to a ‘speed awareness’ course. His colleague went on the same course last week. Apparently the demographic of those on the course is middle-aged business men, who have been caught speeding as a result of their work, not the boy-racers one might perhaps expect. Anyway, the course is very strict. If you are five minutes late, the course supervisor notifies the police and they automatically slap another three points on your licence. Of course these courses are not widespread throughout the country, but in just a handful of locations, meaning, inevitably, people get stuck in traffic getting to them. Which means they then have to speed to get to a ‘speed awareness’ course to avoid getting points on their licence. Makes sense?

The second story is perhaps more serious, and involves the NHS. Shrewbury hospital is in pretty close proximity to Wales. As such Welsh people use the hospital as it’s the closest to them. Of course the Welsh have slightly different health-care laws to the English. One consequence of this is that they can receive drugs without paying that the English cannot. Which creates the situation whereby you could have two people, sat side by side in a hospital both requiring the same drugs to help with their cancer. One can have them free of charge. The other can’t. Of course my dad knows someone on the wrong side of this. They are having to sell everything they can to have have these life saving drugs. Makes sense? It’s times like this you know that the law is an ass.

Money Talks…

17 02 2009

The news today that three high profile English rugby players are moving to France next season comes just a day after speculation Jonny Wilkinson may also be a target for the French clubs. If the three players in question (James Haskell, Riki Flutey and Tom Palmer) are being honest, they are moving to France not for the quality of rugby (which is good, but, I would suggest, only on a par with English rugby), but instead for the amount of cash they can earn playing there. French rugby, unlike in England, has no wage cap, which means the clubs can afford to pay as much as they can afford. Which therefore means they can attract better players to their clubs, players who are trying to earn enough money to help them when they retire at 35ish.

I can completely understand both sides of the coin here. The three players are trying to look out for their futures. That’s fine. The English leagues are trying to look out for the clubs and the fans alike. Which is also fine. The trouble is, the two cannot overlap, unless the wage cap that exists in England, exists worldwide too. Which is obviously never going to happen. The fear is that rugby will become more like football, with players moving to the highest bidders rather than playing for the love of the club or the sport. English rugby has tried to prevent this, which is why there is not the same level of investment in rugby as football, as teams and squads are limited by the cap, and there is nothing anyone can do to overcome this.

The downside is that high-profile players will become more and more keen to play abroad, where they can earn more money. The English leagues are slightly forcing the hands of players who need to earn as much as they can while they are still playing. There becomes little choice once you know a French club will pay you much more to play for them.

So what can the English RFU do? Not much I would suggest, other than hope that players brought through the ranks at English clubs show loyalty to their clubs. I would think though, that there is little hope of this being successful. Therefore, the only option which becomes available to them is to remove the wage cap and risk falling the same way as football has.

Sporting Front…

2 12 2008

There are a couple of sporting issues which have raised their heads over the past weekend. The first is the Rugby Union autumn internationals. The second is the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Firstly then, the autumn internationals which, from an England point of view, have been a dire reminder that our time at the top table of international rugby have long since gone. As Argentina have replaced us as the fourth top seed for the next World Cup in 2011, so we look forlornly on the collapse of the team which had, in the previous two World Cups, won it and finished second. That record, it seems, is not enough to keep England as top seeds for the next event in three years time. As I see it, the problems with English rugby began in 2003. As Jonny Wilkinson slotted home that dramatic drop-goal, things were on the road to collapse. Already a number of players had declared that they would be retiring from international rugby, most notably the inspirational leader Martin Johnson. Others went soon afterwards, pack sniper Neil Back and Jason Leonard. The old guard was on its way out. Woodward probably knew this, the pundits knew this, the team even probably knew this. They had done what they spent much of the previous four years preparing for, that is, winning the World Cup. For them, that was it. The trouble was, that nobody had adequately prepared for what was next.

Over the course of the next five years, England have huffed and puffed, rarely keeping a settled team, with nobody really holding down a position. The next generation were not ready to fill the shoes of those who had been so successful. Yes, there was a degree of misfortune, who could have foreseen that WIlkinson, inspirational backs leader that he had become, would be absent for much of the next five years with injury? I maintain though that England were not properly prepared for the loss of key players through retirement. Those who were to come into the side were not ready, had little or no experience, and subsequently struggled. Anyone care to remember James Simpson-Daniel, who was thrown into the team, struggled and quickly discarded. He still plays an important role for his club team Gloucester, and whilst he still floats around English set-ups, has not been thrown back into the first XV. The remarkable journey to the final of 2007’s final was a victory not for organisation or preparation, but for heart and guts (and was, in no small part built around the return of Mike Catt, who at 36, was the oldest player to play in a World Cup final). Brian Ashton’s team were not, by rights, world beaters. Yet they came within milimetres of winning the cup (after Mark Cueto’s very tight disallowed try).

England have not had a solid, consistant team for many years. In comparison to the big teams (New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa) this is a bad thing. Problems that exist are not worked on if the players are dropped quickly. There is little in the way of reserve players who are able to step up to the grade. Everything that Woodward had done for English rugby has fallen by the wayside. It is hoped that Johnson can now help pull England back into line in time for 2011. That has to be his goal, regardless of the Six Nations. English rugby needs to go back to basics, with a working structure producing good players who can and will step up to the plate when required. Having said that, there needs to be some consistancy too. Johnson needs to pick the same XV as frequently as he can, letting players grow into the team, and learn the roles that they need to play. Proof in point is Danny Cipriani, who was dropped following a couple of poor performances recently. At 21, he has time on his side, and could become a player in the Wilkinson mould. I say play him, it cannot hurt giving him international experience if you are confident he is the future, as most around England are. England need a lot of work, I’m hoping that it is Johnson who can lead the repairs. I am not convinced though.

So onto Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY). The list of the ten candidates was released yesterday, with the Beeb keen to point out that it was drawn up by a panel of independent judges. The list, found here, includes seven olympians, one motor racer, one tennis player, and one boxer. The controversy though is over who has been left out, with various people calling for the likes of Shane Williams (recently crowned Rugby’s best player in 2008), Victoria Pendleton (who took Olympic gold as well as two world championship titles), or Eleanor Simmonds (the 13 year old who beat the world, twice, in the paralympics). Some complain that Lewis Hamilton should not be on the list simply because he has turned his back on British taxes to live in Monaco. Others point to the fact Murray did not actually win a grand slam this year. Others look at the comparative difficulties of the different sports.

I for one think the list is pretty good. The Olympics was always going to dominate, following the success that was had, especially in the pool and the velodrome. Including Lewis Hamilton was a no-brainer either. I am slightly more skeptical about Murray, but to give him his due, he has had an exceptional year. It is impossible to satisfy everyone when drawing up such a shortlist. Those who didn’t make it, failed for a reason, they were good, but not good enough. The results, annouced on the 14 December, will be interesting. My pick would be Hamilton. I think the sheer fact he is a more recognised name will very much help his cause. Likewise I expect Murray to do well, even though the likes of Wiggins, Cooke, and Romero maybe deserve the recognition more. We wait and see.

Out for a Duck…

23 11 2008

Whilst listening to Five Live on the way home from work today, I became increasingly frustrated as we received updates from the fourth one-day international between India and England. This match is an important one for England as they need to win it to stay in the series. Due to various weather problems, the match had been reduced to 22 overs each. No problem thus far.

India, batting first, had had their innings disrupted due to the poor Indian weather. They posted 166-4 off their allocated overs. This therefore set England a target of 167 to win. This was a distinctly makable target for England, who, at the time of writing are on 131-3 after 16 overs. This means they would need 30 odd runs off six overs. This would be fine, except that the crazy Duckworth-Lewis rule means that England are actually chasing 198. This means that they need a much more demanding 60 odd runs from the same amount of overs

The Duckworth-Lewis is one of the most contentious rules in sport. Designed to create a result in the event of inclement weather, it’s authority has never really been questioned. No-one really gets how it works, and no-one really questions the targets that are set. I feel that it is about time that this rule is looked at. The sport means a lot to a lot of people, not least the players and coaching staff who potentially have their jobs on the line (there are various calls from some sections of the media for various players heads following a series of poor performances). If England lose this game they lose the series. The Duckworth-Lewis rule has made it very likely that England will either draw or lose the match, it is virtually impossible for England to win. It is time that this rule was looked at in some detail by those in the power within cricket.

Sticking His Oar In…

11 09 2008

Twice in the past week I have turned on Sky Sports News to see the, by now, frankly distrubing grin of Gordon Brown inanely peering back at me. This annoys me.

I am not suggesting that Brown, or indeed politicians in general, should not be involved with sport, far from it. The 2012 games will see to it that as many politicians as possible jump on the sporting band-wagon in an attempt to improve their popularity with the voters. That is, I think, a given.

What annoys me though is that Brown wasn’t talking about either 2012 or the 2008 Olympics. Far from it. On Monday he was endorsing the chances of Andy Murray at the US Open final (which he subsequently lost in straight sets to Roger Federer). Today he was praising Theo Walcott for the impact he made in last nights win over Croatia. He also went on to praise the other home nations for their results.

To me this is political opportunism of the worst kind. I wouldn’t like to speculate how much of a tennis or football fan Brown is, but it was my understanding that, as a Scot, he much preferred Rugby. So on Monday was he simply backing his Scottish counterpart? Maybe. Instead it came across as almost embarassing that here was our PM talking about something he obviously knew little about (he suggested Murray was favourite for the final, something that no bookmaker backed, and, in the course of time, this proved to be an utterly incomprehensible view as Murray was beaten well by the better player.)

Today he was praising the football teams for the manner that they played in last nights matches. The matches involving the home nations resulted in two wins (for England and Scotland), two draws (for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) and a defeat (for Wales). These are hardly results to write home about, despite the impressive nature of the performances, especially of England and Wales. Again he sounded almost comical, like a parent trying to be ‘down with the kids’. And failing.

Why does he need to say these things? Is it in a vain attempt at winning back the voters, “hey everyone, look at me, I like football, I’m normal, you guys can trust me, fancy a pint?“. Probably. Is it symptomatic of how far national football has declined in recent times, so much so that a victory against Croatia is worth talking about in one of his public addresses? Certainly. Is it necessary, or needed? Nope, but that doesn’t mean he won’t stop trying. Good old Gordon, at one with the English people again.