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An Ageing England Squad

Posted on 02 June 2010 by JamesHamilton

Mike Adamson, writing in the Guardian, points out that this is the oldest England squad to travel to a finals. It surprises Rob Marrs too. The squad’s average age is 28.7, older than England’s awful nadir squad of 1954. It could have been older. Over at Attacking Soccer, Anthony reminds us that Joe Hart has a real chance to become the youngest keeper to turn out for England at the World Cup. Anthony’s survey of Hart’s predecessors throws up something interesting: at their first Finals, most of England’s keepers have been 27 or 28. But the greatest performances – Banks in 1970, and Shilton twenty years later (plus a mention for David Seaman’s pre-2002 performances, especially Euro 96) – have come from men in their 30s.

It’s interesting too, because one story of the 2010 squad is of goalkeeping decline. No Robinson (aged 30), no Foster (aged 27), no Scott Carson (aged 25), no Chris Kirkland (aged 29). Hart is on the plane aged 23.

Of course, form (Foster), fitness (Kirkland, most regrettably) and luck (Robinson and Carson) account for much of this, and in any case, I’ve not heard any great outcry at England’s failure to pack 7 keepers in the bag. But the squad tells that story nonetheless, and there are others.

Survivors from 1998

For instance, who would have imagined, back in 1998, that no fewer than six of that squad would be plausible selections for the 2010 party? Having won nothing for their country in the meantime? Rio Ferdinand went to France as a young hopeful to gain experience, of course, and this is now his fourth World Cup. But Paul Scholes was sought out by Capello, Beckham is injured, and Gary Neville may have been only another right-back injury away from at least a squad place. Michael Owen is injured, and had he not been, there are those of us who can’t quite see why Defoe would travel in front of him. And then there is Sol Campbell’s extraordinary return to Arsenal, and some fine performances which must have at least brought him up in Capello’s conversation.

In 1998, and even more so in 2002, there was a feeling of youth breaking through: Joe Hart aside, there has been nothing of that this time. Adam Johnson has considerable support amongst both fans and journalists, more than SWP. But put up against the ’98 group of Scholes, Beckham, Owen and, but for injury, a 23-year-old Robbie Fowler, and the class gap becomes more obvious. Johnson is a good player. But no one would argue that he is in that kind of class, at least not yet.

It isn’t a failure of England’s young players. Both the U-21s and U-17s have enjoyed great success recently. Arsene Wenger has spoken warmly of the coming generation, now in their mid teens, and even Trevor Brooking has begun to change his tune. It’s more that for Huddlestone, for Walcott, for Johnson, for Carlton Cole even, 2010 is tangibly too soon. If Capello stays, and rebuilds England in time for 2012, their time will come. Don’t worry for Walcott: take comfort in the criticisms that Joe Cole and Cristiano Ronaldo had at one stage. He’s not the first talent to be accused, when young, of having no game or team awareness.

Unfulfilled Potential

A look at previous squads reveals that even in this most consistent and medal-laden of England cores, there have been drop-outs. What an exciting player Kieron Dyer once was – a match for Lennon and far superior to SWP. And how promising Jermaine Jenas too – possessed of a captain’s temperament and the energy of a Roy Keane. All he had to do, it seemed, was bulk out a little. There are others: Jonathan Woodgate, once considered worthy of a starting place at Real Madrid, but always, heartbreakingly, injured. In an alternative universe, somewhere, he has 80 caps and has partnered King at the heart of the England defence for the best part of six years.

Missing Front Men

And how many strikers – Michael Bridges and Alan Smith stand out, two men who looked the part at first, but were carried away by injury and bad luck as time went by. Dean Ashton, a man in the Alan Shearer mould, never got a chance. There are so many nearly but not quites: genuine Premiership strikers who look just a little lost in a three lions shirt. Will Bobby Zamora be one? Already paid-up members from the post-98 era: Darren Bent, Andy Cole, Kevin Philips, Andy Johnson, Franny Jeffers, David Nugent..

Reasons for optimism

This England squad would do superbly well by reaching a semi-final, but I’d settle for a quarter: Gerrard is already coming out with the “we can play better than this and we will” comments familiar to anyone who followed the 2006 campaign and the 2008 qualifiers. But Capello does seem to know what he’s doing – as has been pointed out elsewhere, Ericksson’s “first half good, second half not so good” has been usefully reversed. The United States will beat England and win the group, but beyond that – not banana skin, more landmine – there are only three teams who are really streets ahead (the two South Americans plus Spain) and if England can avoid them, find form and find goals, they’ve a three-week stay ahead of them.

And there is a story for the manager to tell them. There is still, just about, a narrative here. It’s one more thing that Capello has given England: plot. Once it was that a brilliant European manager would find his talents just a little too young and too soon for 2002, but 2004, 2006… and then 2006 came and went empty, to be followed by a kind of John Major interregnum, a downward spiral, corrosion, chaos. Now there are rumours of one last twist in the story, perhaps even a shot at redemption. Lampard will show his tiny grandkids that Ayia Napa video, chuckle, and say, but let me tell you how it ends..

When Capello was appointed, Micah Richards looked forward to hearing his new ideas for England…

The Passionate Sergeant-Major

After Hoddle, after Ericksson, came the calls for a manager who understood the players, who showed his passion: a traditional man who could motivate the team, a bulldog. And this we learn, like Micah Richards, from Capello: that there are no traditional bulldog managers left in England, that these, like so much else, we now have to buy in from abroad.

For all that, I do owe an apology to those journalists who called for this after Ericksson. They didn’t expect to get what they wanted quite in this manner, and neither did I. But, nevertheless, it does seem to be working, and by working, gives the lie to a lot of what I’ve written here in past seasons. But never mind. Anecdotes from the Capello days, when they finally start to leak out after 2012, will be worth that and more. I hear he won’t let them have tomato ketchup…

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World Cup 2006: The Press Have Got It Wrong

Posted on 31 May 2006 by JamesHamilton

Judging by some of the press reports – well summarised by Football365 as “Panic Mode” – on England’s 3-1 victory over Hungary last night, we can more or less forget about our winning in Germany this year. It’s for all the usual “reasons”, most of which I think are bunk:

  1. “Eriksson is an over-cautious manager who doesn’t bring the best out of the players at his disposal.” There’s a lot to say about this, but let’s just look at the cautious manager who is the first in living memory not to ignore our most skilful players because of their lack of work rate, who introduced Rooney at the age of 17 and brought in Ashley Cole after a mere handful of Premiership appearances. The same one who beat Argentina in a competitive World Cup Finals match with a team lacking Gary Neville, Steven Gerrard, any kind of proper left-sided player at all, plus injury-hobbled versions of Owen and Beckham.
  2. “Eriksson’s substitutions aren’t daring enough to win matches”. This makes the assumption that there are coaches out there who are doing exactly that on a regular basis. Apparently, Scolari did this against England and won the match – “boldly” substituting Figo because, “unlike Eriksson”, he “isn’t afraid of big-name players”. No, Scolari “won” the match with a deal of good fortune – namely, a good disallowed goal, the loss of Rooney, and penalties. Frankly, there’s only so much a coach can do with substitutions – he can’t guarantee that the player he sends on will do what he wants, he can’t account for what the other coach will do, and there are only so many replacements he can make. Shouting from the touchline is tricky, too, for all that our journos put such importance upon it. For one thing – you just can’t be heard above the crowd. Players who aren’t close to you have to take what you’re saying from other players – ever heard of Chinese Whispers? – and, of course, they have to understand you.
  3. “With only one more practice game before the World Cup, we’re still looking for answers”. Actually, most World Cup winners continue to do this long into the tournament itself. I’m going to devote the rest of this piece to some examples of what I mean:
  • Geoff Hurst made his debut for England in February 1966. He played in the Quarter Final against Argentina because of an injury to Jimmy Greaves. Hurst scored in that game, but it was goals from midfield in the next match against Portugal – a brace by Bobby Charlton – that got England to the Final.
  • Italy last won the World Cup in 1982, famously due to the goals of Paolo Rossi, who had been recalled to the team late in the day after two years out of football. Italy drew all three of their group matches, reaching the next round only on goal difference. Rossi didn’t score in any of those games.
  • Germany’s second World Cup win came when they last hosted the tournament in 1974. In their group matches, they were well beaten by East Germany, and struggled to beat both Australia and Chile. The German training camp, a virtual fortress owing to threats from terrorist groups, was riven by disputes over money and at one point the manager, Helmut Schon, threatened to send the entire squad home and play with a second string side.
  • Argentina – winners in 1986 – played only three teams of any quality to lift the trophy, and possessed only one world class player in Maradona. Against Italy in the group stages, they could only draw 1-1; against England, they failed to score until halfway through the second half and even then only through the most famous non-goal in the tournament’s history. Even in the Final itself, against Germany, they let go a 2-0 lead (and let’s hope this year’s Final is anywhere near as good as that one).
  • I don’t need to point this out, but Brazil in 2002 were poor, and were lucky to meet England’s string-and-sellotape side in the heat of the day. The other sides they met in that tournament included Turkey, twice (who were unlucky to lose, twice!) China, Costa Rica, and Belgium. Compare England’s fortune in facing Sweden, Nigeria, Argentina and, of course, Brazil. In terms of the quality of teams at that tournament, it’s arguable that without the match against England, Brazil would have had no proper test at all, and you might well regard that game as the tournament’s true Final.
  • France, in 1998, had a superb team, coming into its own, but a coach who the press didn’t trust with the job. And indeed, after cruising their group games (in spite of Zidane’s red card against Saudi Arabia) France squeezed through only on penalties against Italy, and came through – just! 2-1 against Croatia, not really having had the best of the game in any sense.
  • In 1994, the story is all about Italy, losers on penalties in the worst World Cup Final ever. In their group, they finished THIRD, having lost to the Republic of Ireland and only drawn against Mexico. Only a late Baggio goal got them past Spain; in the semi-final, they might have been pleased to meet Stoichov’s Bulgaria, but after running up an early lead (shades of England-Portugal in Euro 2000) spent most of the game under siege.

The point I’m making here is that teams never cruise World Cups – and the winners never go into them with everything neatly planned out. The tournament is always a chapter of accidents, and the new, longer-format tournaments even more so.

I can see no teams who are coming into these Finals in better shape, or with things more settled. Even Brazil. Their astonishing forward line is there right enough, but once you get past them, the remaining five outfield players are deeply inferior to their English counterparts.

The press have it wrong. We won last night, with ease, and Crouch scored a first-class goal to go with that other first-out-of-the-balloon candidate, Beckham, who was fantastic. This might still be our year.

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