Steven Gerrard, no EPLs and having the football we want

As I write this article Steven Gerrard, Liverpool footballer, is preparing to play his last match at Anfield after seventeen years as a professional at the club.

Gerrard’s exit is the final story in a Premier League which seems to have long since been decided. Chelsea have won the league – Oh Chelsea – and Burnley & QPR have been relegated with Hull City to follow probably.

I say probably because it would seem that given the choice between devoting its 24 hour news coverage to the fate of Hull City, or the play offs, or Gerrard’s closing career in English football the media seems to have decided that the England midfielder is the story to cover.

And of course this gave rise to criticism on Twitter because – well – there is nothing in modern life which does not beget the fury of people on Twitter. This criticism is summed up in the idea that the coverage is excessive considering that Gerrard had not won the Premier League championship.

EPL

When I first heard the phrase “EPL” I knew that something truly ghastly had entered the conversation on English football. As an abbreviation for English Premier League it makes perfect sense alongside the Scottish Premier League, The National Football League, Major League Baseball and so on but its creation as a term in common usage denoted the internationalisation of the top flight of the English game.

“How many EPLs has Gerrard won?”, “He won UCL!” and so on. This is the lingua fraca of discussing the top of English football on some places. I do not suggest you discuss football on the Quora website but if you do prepared to be amazed by just how remote the discussions are from the mechanics of week-to-week supporting of Bradford City.

But let me be clear this situation of internationalisation of the English Premier League support is not an issue because Americans want to watch Manchester United or that people in Indonesia want to follow Liverpool. It is an issue because those Americans and Indonesians are in American and Indonesia.

They are far away

Far away and not likely to ever go to Old Trafford or Anfield but able to follow their clubs remotely through websites and live TV streams. They can commit a good deal of time to their support and by virtue of their financial contributions in shirt sales and so on I’d support an argument that they had paid their dues.

(I use the term “their” advisedly, I’m not arguing that they are less fans, or that their support is less genuine.)

However the mechanics of supporting a club you will never see – or may only see once or twice – are different from those of watching a team week-in-week-out. I know this from my experience following Japanese side JEF United in addition to Bradford City.

For City I appreciate attributes from players such as the effort they give when trailing by two at Peterborough United, or how they try motivate their team mates to sneak a victory at Rochdale when a draw would be a perfectly acceptable result. The moments which tell you the most about a player or a team are those which are not lingered on by TV cameras. The walk back after a concession, the speed of which a player gets back to his feet, the look on his face when a team mate makes a mistake.

I have none of this information when following JEF United. I have stats. Goals scored, assists, number of EPLs won.

Framing the debate

Drop into a global “EPL Talk forum” and the discussion is almost entirely about stats and not about character which, in my opinion, frames the debate of football entirely in the wrong way. In my opinion the number of EPLs that Chelsea had one was not as important as the character which Bradford City showed.

(As an aside it was interesting how easily Chelsea recovered from that defeat in the FA Cup fourth round and how little impact it made on their profile, globally or nationally. I believe that was because there was no context to the statistics that the game offered. It was impossible to make sense of stats like how much money Chelsea cost compared to City when the disparity was so large, it was impossible to make sense of it so it was ignored.)

This debate framed poorly values different things at the top of the Premier League which attracts a great many supporters who are not regular attenders of games than it does at lower levels, and for supporters of teams at the top of the Premier League who do attend regularly.

It is hard to argue that the regular attenders pay for football – TV money, advertising and so on pay a good chunk of the bills – but when chunking up and down the Motorways its easy to imagine that regulars are showing a level of commitment that demands that the coverage of the game be set up for them.

This may be an illusion – a factor of the white lines late on a Saturday evening returning home – but the idea that football coverage is for the benefit of people other than those who go to games is not something which is oft considered. We assumed that the explosion in football coverage that came in the last twenty years would be for the benefit of the same people who have season tickets. We were wrong.

We do not have the football coverage we want.

Gerrard

Steven Gerrard has some remarkable achievements as a Liverpool player – UCLs and so on – but talking to people who go to Anfield his contributions are more marked in the way that City fans have considered Stuart McCall and Gary Jones in the past, and consider the likes of Andrew Davies and James Hanson now.

The tributes to him as he prepares for his final game at Anfield are the odd mix of a football event which has some resonance with supporters of clubs up and down the country and something which appeals to the debates of the EPL Forum.

These moments are rare, and when they come they highlight the distance between these two sets of value, and how wide that distance often is.

Aaron McLean and the heroes of failure

The collective view of history

There is a view of history which holds that if there had never been a Genghis Khan, a Joseph Stalin, a Pol Pot, then the course of the world would have been drastically different. No Mongol hordes, no Cold War, no pogrom.

This is the individual view of history.

There is a competing view that suggests that those three people, indeed any person of history, is only of history because of the rising and falling of collective events. That if it had not been Genghis Khan then someone else would have been credited for leading the hordes, and history would have remember their name instead. That large groups rather than an individual caused the world to turn.

This is the collective view of history. It is less exciting, but probably more accurate.

From Pol Pot to Pulis

Stoke City’s rise to the place of mid-table in the Premier League is largely down to former manager Tony Pulis, and Pulis puts any success he has had down to a recruitment policy based on character.

When speaking about Ryan Shawcross Pulis commended the defender’s character – which is to say his desire to win football matches – saying that a team was built on players such as Shawcross.

“You can have other players who don’t have that (character),” Pulis added, “but only for eighteen months and then you have to move them on.”

The heroes of failure

Why do Bradford City supporters not curse the name Benito Carbone? Why is Ashley Ward’s time at the club given a light disregard when the memory of Mike Duxbury can cause grown men to froth at the mouth? What is it about Darren Morgan that has some City fans reserving a place in the inner circle of failure which even Aaron McLean – seemingly leaving City this week – need not fear reaching?

And what is this word scapegoat which is applied in defence of McLean? Has his treatment been unfair? What are the mechanics of failure at a club like Bradford City that can lionise one player and condemn another.

And let me start by saying…

When Aaron McLean leaves Bradford City, few will be upset. McLean has done well in the past proving his ability but did not do well at Bradford City. The sort of ability McLean is credited with is rare for Bradford City players over the last decade. Few players have been criticised for want of motivation rather than ability.

More common in the last decade have been the players who have shown a level of effort that defined their abilities. The words “give everything” are used about James Hanson, Gary Jones, and Andrew Davies. Players like Barry Conlon, Matthew Clarke and Lee Crooks were never said to be shirking, just that they were poor footballers.

McLean gets to nestle his name alongside Ashley Ward, Nicky Summerbee and Bobby Petta in the players who idled away their talents rather than had no talent to begin with.

In the worst possible way

Aaron McLean arrived to replace Nahki Wells. Wells enjoyed a meteoric rise at Bradford City. His speed and eye for goal were impressive and he played a role in taking City to Wembley twice in three months. After an early exchange of distaste for his choice of clubs following City it seems that Wells has settled back into his place in the hearts of City fans.

One might speculate that the fact that Wells has joined a Huddersfield side in the year they have achieved next to nothing is his saving grace for City fans. Were Town in the play-offs and Wells the architect of that, then things may be different.

But Wells is not an architect. The type of player he is – they are called “finishers” for a reason – puts him at the necessary end point rather than the engine room of a team. Wells was the end of a team of Gary Jones, Rory McArdle, James Hanson et al. Those players were the big characters who pushed the team. Wells, Nathan Doyle, Will Atkinson, Carl McHugh were (seemingly, and by virtue of their exit) the “eighteen monthers” that Pulis talks about.

Being Phil Parkinson

Losing Gary Jones was inevitable. Phil Parkinson probably joins with the rest of City fans who watch the skipper playing for Notts County and wonders if there was another year in the now 37-year old midfielder, but giving him that extra year is a delay of the inevitable need to replace him.

Losing a player like Gary Jones from your team – be it from age or transfer – matters more than losing a player like Wells because of the type of strong character he is. Bringing in or building a replacement takes time and may not be achieved. Those old enough may remember the attempt to replace the massive presence of Stuart McCall with Iain Banks and wince at the memory. If you are younger, read “Gary Locke” for Banks.

It is Parkinson’s hardest job and while developing Billy Knott may be a long term solution, one suspects the City manager has concluded that he needs to bring a character into the side and is working to that end. At the moment though Parkinson puts out the team he has and that team has some qualities, although is lacking in others.

Who does not love Xaviar Barrau?

Who was the scapegoat in David Wetherall’s relegation side which was the worst team Bradford City have fielded in my lifetime? Who carries the can for those feeble months? Not Wetherall, and not his players. Spencer Weir-Daley’s many misses against Leyton Orient and Omar Daley’s giving up of the ball on the wing are critical memories but on the whole the players are not criticised. Kelly Youga (injured during his time at the club) is fondly remembered. Who does not a place in his heart for Xaviar Barrau?

Wetherall’s side were simply too poor for scapegoats. To single out one player is to allow a club and a culture at a club to be freed from blame. No one points the finger because no one has enough fingers to point.

Likewise relegation from the Premier League is never assigned to a group of players, and the likes of Benito Carbone are heroes of the club. Circumstances dictate that a scapegoat will not be found, at least not on the field.

Parkinson’s team are not so outgunned as those two examples. The are far better than Wetherall’s side for sure, and the rest of League One is – in relative terms to City – not as good as the rest of the Premiership was in 2000.

Phil Parkinson’s team are closer to success. Indeed at the moment City win and lose on the basis (seemingly, but probably not in the opinion of the management) of individual actions. Billy Clarke puts the ball an inch lower and Oldham away is a good point; Christopher Routis heads a ball into the stands against Sheffield United then City get a battling point with ten men and so on.

Just as two years ago Rory McArdle’s determination was the difference between winning and losing against Aston Villa in the League Cup semi-final. When the difference between success and failure is small there is a temptation to assign it to individuals and individual actions.

Stevie Gee

Importantly though one can only justify assigning success to individuals when margins are small. A scapegoat is the player who did not apply the marginal difference. The opposite – a player who applied the individual difference between success and failure – is what he call in football a hero

Watching the career of Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard is watching that that theory in action. In European Cup and FA Cup finals (both of which ended 3-3) he has been heroic because he has been the individual difference between success and failure.

Last season his defensive slip against Chelsea – an individual mistake – seemed to cost his team the Premier League title. “If he had not slipped” is said with a misty eye by many, but few ask what would have happened if (now Liverpool’s) Dejan Lovren foul on Daniel Sturridge in November 2013 in a Southampton 1-0 win at Anfield had been given as a penalty.

Scapegoating is arbitrary.

Had Aaron set off in time

Aaron McLean’s first game at Sheffield United for City – a 2-2 draw – had the striker almost score the goal which almost built his confidence and almost put him on a run of goalscoring, and so on.

McLean is in poor form, and plays like a player in poor form, and many people (not me) consider that the problem City face at the moment is the need for a finisher. The logic follows easily that McLean, a finisher, could be difference between wins and defeats.

My view of football is increasingly more inline with Pulis, and it is more inline with the collective view of history. When Nahki Wells was scoring for City it was not because of his abilities so much as because of the team’s abilities (which he was a part of) and had you dropped Aaron McLean in then, McLean would be the “Goal Machine” his name so cruelly rhymes with. If you put Wells into the current City team, he would struggle.

The team struggles because of the recrafting job that is needed on its core following Jones’ departure. and the wider break up of the “History Makers” team that Phil Parkinson built. The eighteen months were up, and now Parkinson starts again. The manager is not back at square one, and the fact that the gap between success and failure seems bridgeable is a frustration, and causes this illusion.

Nahki Wells was a hero of Bradford City’s success.

Aaron McLean, because of his place in our history, is a hero of failure.

Jamie Lawrence, the workaholic

Jamie Lawrence is approximately 60 metres away from me when he picks up possession inside his own half 67 minutes into an FA Cup tie with Grimsby. 10 seconds later, and I and dozens of people around me are hugging the Jamaican international following a sensational weaving run past numerous blue shirts than ended with the ball passed crisply into the back of the net.

It is a glorious solo goal and – in the days before football was breached by health & safety guidelines and players weren’t sent off for celebrating with fans – Jamie has chosen to run to the part of the Kop where I stand to celebrate with us supporters his special moment.

Lawrence only ever scored 14 times in his 170 appearances for the club, so this strike – which ultimately proves the winner in one of the last genuinely exciting FA Cup matches before the magic of the cup began to wane at all levels – can be viewed as a peak moment in his Bantams career. Certainly Jamie is fondly remembered for the occasional brilliant goal, such as against Norwich that same season, and West Ham and Tottenham in the Premiership a year later, but it wouldn’t be his first quality to come to our minds when we recall the Londoner’s time at Valley Parade.

Jamie was a battler, with a commendable work ethic that stood out even in a team featuring the likes of Stuart McCall and Wayne Jacobs. He would give everything he had to the cause, running up and down the right flank defending as equally effectively as he attacked. Most of us fans lapped it up – a rare real life example of the myth that we’ll always get behind a player who might not be the best, so long as they put 110% effort.

Not everyone agreed though, and in some ways there was almost a snobbish attitude displayed by Lawrence’s dissenters. Jamie was a poor player with limited ability, they argued, but he gets away with not being given a hard time because he hides behind his work rate. In the days when Peter Beagrie struggled to win over the crowd and was at one stage packed off on loan to Everton, some argued Lawrence should be criticised as widely too.

Yet Lawrence’s work rate and application levels stood out to me as inspiration rather than a disguise. Sure he wasn’t the greatest player in the world, but without working so hard on his game and displaying such passion, those skilful qualities he did possess would never have been seen either. Lawrence grafted to win our trust and respect, and once we supporters, team mates and management built up our faith in him we were rewarded by ever-improving levels of performances. While other members of the 1997-98 mid-table first division squad were left behind by the bar been risen the following season, Lawrence kept pace and became a key figure in the club’s promotion to the Premier League and successful survival in the top flight the year after.

The lessons we can take remain as relevant today as they were then. Without working hard, mastering the basics and showing the right attitude – none of us would progress so well in our own careers and even in life. I’ve personally learned from Jamie that demonstrating an aptitude for hard work can get you a long way in winning over people; and the greater responsibility and promotions you crave – offering you the chance to really show your worth – are the rewards. In contrast I’ve seen other friends go into a job believing they are above it and then failing to put in the effort or focus on improving, leading them to fall at the first hurdle.

Not all footballers can be as good at taking on players as Lawrence (I remember him selling Steven Gerrard a dummy once), nor are they capable of curling the ball into the top corner from 30 yards like he did at West Ham in 2000. But there’s no reason why any player can’t look to emulate him in the effort levels they put in on the pitch and at the training ground.

Sadly, players that came close to matching Lawrence’s work rate have been few and far between in recent years.

So I loved the fact I got to hug Lawrence at the front of the Kop that day. Because his stella goal was the result of him trying and succeeding to overcome personal failings and win over doubters; of recognising the need to improve and taking responsibility to do so; of building up confidence in yourself and in other people’s minds.

And of how anyone – if they work hard enough – can surprise themselves and those around them in what they are truly capable of.

Clayton Donaldson and Bradford City: head vs heart

To the unobserved, the battle to secure League Two hotshot Clayton Donaldson’s signature would place Bradford City as rank outsiders. Championship outfit Coventry City, newly-promoted to League One Chesterfield and moneybags league newcomers Crawley Town are among a host of clubs said to be chasing the 29-goal striker; and so the appeal of a failing League Two side which has recently struggled to pay their players would seem limited.

Yet the Bantams have an emotional attraction to Donaldson that no other interested party can match, and newly confirmed manager Peter Jackson is hoping romanticism can override career progression or opulence in swaying Donaldson to head to Valley Parade. Born in Manningham and having grown up in the youth set-up until being shown the door at 15, Bradford City has one distinct advantage over all the other clubs trying to secure his signature – he has actually dreamed of playing for them.

But will that be enough? The psyche of a footballer is one we supporters regularly struggle to understand. While we will all have shared childhood afflictions of wanting to play for our football club, somewhere along the line that passion for one team seems to disappear in professional footballers and an outlook that a club is an employer, rather than an institution, takes over.

Sure we supporters, in our own careers, can sometimes hold a special affection for our employers and be loyal enough not to move on, but a job is a job and ultimately it’s up to our employer to keep us happy or we’ll get itchy feet. Many footballers seemingly view clubs in a similar way.

Yes, it’s a privileged career and most decent footballers know and appreciate that, but one can imagine the sort of frustrations we have with our own jobs and employers being replicated by players: “The wages are rubbish compared to what we could be earning elsewhere”, “I hate the boss”, “I’m sick of how we’re treated.” However special it is to play football, it is, at the end of the day, their job.

So footballers who have gone onto truly live those childhood ambitions of becoming heroes for their club are few and far between. Wayne Rooney still talks of being an Everton supporter, but didn’t stick around at Goodison Park for very long. It’s difficult to argue with his reasoning either, as he prepares to take part in his third Champions League final for Manchester United this evening. But as he hopes to score the winning goal against Barcelona, who’s to say he didn’t harbour childhood dreams of playing in the European Cup final for Everton?

Meanwhile Steven Gerrard, Liverpool born and bred, continues to play for his underachieving team. He’s had some tempting offers to move on in the past and came close to doing so, but he’s forgone career progression and trophies to continue flying the flag for Liverpool – at times truly appearing as though he is walking alone with a bunch of average team mates. His had a great career for sure, but somehow the fact he’s arguably the finest English midfielder of the past decade isn’t widely recognised because he’s not at the summit of his sport. These days he doesn’t even get to play in the Champions League.

Does Gerrard care? Probably, but playing for his beloved team is more important to him.

But it’s not just about who you grew up supporting. Stuart McCall didn’t support City as a kid, but no one would dispute that his feelings for the club are as strong as any of us supporters. Michael Flynn will have even less reason to care, but despite failing to hit the heights last season the way he conducts himself on and off the pitch demonstrates 100% commitment to our cause. Jackson has recently stated he wants to find players who truly want to play for City, and although he wanted to release Flynn he probably has the ideal man to build this vision of a team around.

Disappointingly in recent years, it’s rarely been the case that City players have been bothered enough about playing for the Bantams over another club. Two years ago I personally felt hugely sad that Dean Furman and Nicky Law opted not to sign permanently for City, after successful loan spells. Furman in particular was very popular with supporters, and his reasoning not to stay on at Valley Parade – because he wanted to play at the highest level possible – seemed unfulfilling when he rocked up at Oldham.

Sure it was a division higher, but with crowds at Boundary Park half the size of City it hardly looked a glamorous step up. Instead he could have remained at City, built on his reputation and became a true cult hero at a football club who would be talked about for decades after.

Similarly Law – who was said to have been put off from signing for City by the reduced likelihood of a promotion push that next season (2009/10) – chose Rotherham for the Millers’ greater potential and more lucrative salary. Two years on Law remains in the same division as City – though in fairness he might have been part of Blackpool’s Premier League adventure after Rotherham turned down a bid from the Seasiders 18 months ago – and his career has only minimally progressed.

So what of Donaldson? If you were in his shoes, would you want to re-sign for a club who once rejected you and who seem unlikely to rise up the leagues in the near future, just because it’s your hometown? Would you not want to play in the sizable Ricoh Arena for Coventry against clubs like Birmingham and Cardiff, two divisions higher? Would the no doubt lure of higher wages at Crawley persuade you to move South, talking up how impressed you are by the club’s “ambition”?

There are a number of similarities to City’s chase for Donaldson and the hunt for Michael Boulding three years ago. Boulding had scored 25 goals for a relegated League Two side, and a host of clubs made advances. City, in a much stronger financial position and publically talking up achieving back-to-back promotions, were a leading club in the chase. Boulding signed, but it didn’t work out for a number of reasons. While Boulding argues otherwise, you wonder whether he cared enough about City when the chips were down. Certainly he was too often anonymous in games for my liking.

This time around City, with Donaldson, are somewhere near the back of the queue to sign him. If the decision is taken by the head overruling the heart, the Bantams have no chance. But if the desire to be a hero at the club he grew up supporting – in front of his family and friends – is more important, Donaldson will be coming home.

And for Jackson the pursuit of Donaldson is a no-brainer. Because, if he gets his man, he can be confident Donaldson will be signing for reasons he wants all of his team to personify next season.

How far with the lesson of Germany reach?

Self flagellation has always been popular in English football and when the national side returned home from a World Cup 4-1.5ing by Germany the press and players had already begun to whip itself in a freeze of internalised loathing showing the defining characteristic of the media approach to the game: That the game is played by England and other sides are the subject of that.

So when England play well – nine out of ten in qualifying – it is because of our abilities and when we lose it is the lack of those which is the problem and credit is never extended to the opposition. Watching Germany ram four past Argentina though could cause cause for a pause. However poor one might feel England were either Argentina (and Australia) were equal to that or – perhaps – there is something worth noticing going on in Joachim Löw’s side.

There has been a consensus that the Germans – who played a central five in the midfield with an average age of just under 23 years old – have stolen a march on the World because of that youth and freshness and there is much to be said for the way that they have blooded their younger players. 25 year old Schweinsteiger is on his second World Cup. So is Wayne Rooney, scratch that idea then.

Much is also made about the formation which Fabio Capello – and Diego Maradona – employed compared to Löw’s Germans and suddenly the word “fourfourtwo” is becoming something of a negative in the English game. One can almost hear now managers up and down the country being charged with the idea that they – like Capello – lack the imagination to play a more exotic tactic and one can expect three months of randomly thrown together formations up and down football.

Freakish results will mark the start of the season as teams who deploy something more “characterful” than the 442 which has fallen from fashion. As Clough said “There is a lot of rubbish talked about tactics by people who would not know how to win a game of Dominoes.”

Not that this will effect Peter Taylor who has signed the players and settled on a 433 at Valley Parade and City can make hay as League Two players are deployed in fanciful ways to little effect. Finding a way of playing and sticking to it is perhaps the most important thing.

On the fourfourtwo one can say that while it may have faults when playing three games every four years in the World Cup in the cut and thrust of two games a week for nine months the simplicity, adaptability and ease of the approach is the reason for its enduring popularity. Week to week football requires not a surgeon’s tool but a Swiss Army Knife, which is what fourfourtwo is.

The German’s 4231 – originally a formation played in Portugal because of the freedom it gives to the kind of attacking midfielder that that nation excels in producing such as Luis Figo, Joao Pinto and his brother Sergio – is nothing especially new.

The lesson of the Germans is not in tactics but in the deployment of players within those formations. The heart of the German side is Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira who play the deep set midfielder role in a revolutionary manner. Popular conception has it that the two in a 4231 should be holding midfielders and ball winners but Löw’s pairing are more box to box players capable of tackling and getting behind the ball for sure but also able to be used as a spring board for attacking play.

For Schweinsteiger and Khedira there is no need to look for a passer after taking the ball – the pair are equipped to play in the three more forward midfielder – increasing the speed of the counter attack and its accuracy. What they loose in not having a Claude Makelele they gain in rapidity of play creating a nod to total football ideology. As Schweinsteiger plays the ball forward so Mesut Özil or Lukas Podolski or Thomas Müller can drop back and tackle.

This is a stark contrast to the approach that many – myself included – have to for example the English midfield which agonises over the choice between attacking players like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard and ball winners like Gareth Barry. The roles are as split as centre forward and full back but not for Löw’s Germans.

There is a plan for sure and positions – this is not total football Dutch style – but the less rigid assignment of player roles gives a fluidity which England, Australia and Argentina have been incapable of living with. The jobs are done in that German engine room but – crucially – the players who do them have the ability and remit to do each other’s tasks.

Even Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano – as fine a pair of specialised players as one could see – looked old fashioned and stolid in comparison and as Schweinsteiger surged to the left touchline and set up a second goal it seemed obviously that if Germany could prevent Messi emulating that then Mascherano simply would not attempt it.

The granularity of positions – especially in the midfield – has become something of a mantra for modern football and one recalls Lee Crooks and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson but struggles to think of them both as “midfielders” rather one as a holder, the other as an attacker. The same could be said about Dean Furman and Nicky Law although perhaps not about Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock.

Indeed whatever lessons are emanating from the German side at the moment Peter Taylor seems to have adopted. His midfield trio next season are Flynn, Bullock and Tommy Doherty and none of them fit easily into the idea of being players only able to – or only ready to – performing a single role.

It remains to be seen what lessons the game as a whole take from World Cup 2010 and if those lessons create a path to success but City seem to be ahead of a curve that is coming and should that bring the same rewards for the Bantams as it has for the previously unfavoured Germans then next season could be a good year indeed.

England and the Spirit of Sir Bobby

Before the days of frustration seemed to overwhelm English football in the mid-1990s when the clichés of losing to the Germans and overpaid players under performing started to loom large in the popular mindset there were two World Cups in which are said to have excelled.

I recall them as halcyon days myself. Whatever I will say about my parents I will never criticise the slap dash attitude to bedtime that meant that unlike many of my schoolmates I was allowed to stay up until two or three in the morning watching as much of the Mexican World Cup of 1986 as I liked and saw everything up to and beyond The Hand Of God.

When the Italian World Cup of 1990 came around I’d finished my GCSEs the aforementioned parents were on holiday in Bulgaria and I had nothing to do in the summer except watch football. They were glorious days that ended in Rome, on penalties, with Gazza’s tears and Sir Bobby’s clenched fist of regret.

If only, it seemed to say.

Those days are recalled as a silver age by England FC. Not Moore and co in 1966 at Wembley but the next best thing with unfair exits at the heart of the mythology of both. A far cry from Fabio and a team which struggled to put three passes together in a row in South Africa.

Perhaps not. In 1986 the English started against Portugal – do not let the name scare you these were a third rate European nation then – and a win was expected but did not come. Indeed I can recall clearly seeing the ball sweep in from the close side and be finished untidily at far post by a rather portly looking chap with a moustache. England had threatened in the game I recall but ended with nothing at all.

Then came Morocco – a place that at the time I associated more with a cartoon Mole than football – who were the minnows of the group a fact illustrated by the way that they had two players to a sticker in the Panini album.

The minutia of the game – played in the early hours – eludes me but the major moments are burnt into the mind. Bryan Robson – who was a one of a kind player in his day – went off injured clutching the shoulder Sir Bobby Robson had begged Manchester United to allow him three months off to have an operation to fixed and about five minutes later Ray Wilkins was sent off for what some might call throwing the ball at the Referee although others would say that were the round thing to have hit a snail on the way to the man in the middle then it would have stopped so weak was the hurl, clearly not a red card offence but a red card was given.

I remember half time in our house but only when I’m talking to my therapist.

One point from two games and England where nowhere. The fans who had paid to go to Mexico were demanding that the FA or even the Thatcher Government pay for them to get home and most certainly for for Sir Bobby Robson to be sacked. Having failed to qualify for Euro 84 it seems that Bobby – or Booby Robson as he was christened back then – and England would part company not long after.

Peter Beardsley was thrown into the side and Gary Lineker got a hat-trick against Poland and then the rest soon became a glorious history that does not record the pressure that Robson resisted that would have had him take the ageing Trevor Francis over Beardsley nor does it recall how and why Robson arrived on his pairing of the two, of deploying the uniquely useful Steve Hodge to do the running with Glenn Hoddle did not.

Robson – Sir Bobby – found his team after two games because his plans had to change.

Four years later Robson was a dead man walking. He had handed in his resignation from England and in the run up to the finals had been exposed as having an affair. Euro 88 had been woeful with England losing all three games and the pressure had told on the England manager.

The opening game saw Gary Lineker give England a good start with a scruffy goal but Jack Charlton’s Irish side ground the game down into an unattractive slug fest in a nasty wind and the game finished 1-1. A week later and during a 0-0 draw with Holland which saw England put in a good display also saw Bryan Robson once again be injured out a tournament.

The quality of that Dutch performance is understated and a strike from Stuart Pearce bulged the goal but was ruled out for being struck from an indirect free kick but there was a confidence that came from that display in 1990 which can not be said to be here in 2010.

Nevertheless there are three commonalities. Firstly that England had two draws in the group from the first two games and secondly that neither Robson nor Capello’s side had been behind at any point. Lineker and Steven Gerrard gave leads which were pulled back in the first games before goalless draws in the second.

Thirdly after two games – and to use a phrase which became popularised after the semi-final which resulted – the players went to the manager and “had a word

The England players had decided that the team – as it was – lacked fluidity being a 442 with Peter Shilton in behind Paul Parker, Terry Butcher, Des Walker and Pearce; Paul Gascoigne and Steve McMahon partnered in the middle of flank pair John Barnes and Chris Waddle; Lineker and Beardsley up front. They told Robson that they wanted to move to a three at the back formation – adding Mark Wright – which would allow Parker and Pearce more freedom.

The machinations of the change are lost in football history. Butcher was injured when Wright played and scored against Eygpt but by the time the second round make with Belgium took place and David Platt scored his king-making late goal England had switched formation away from Robson’s choice to what the players wanted. That flexibility proved the making from the man to the legend.

England’s players enjoy a full and frank discussion with Fabio Capello enjoying the full public backing of his captain John Terry – who we recall got nothing of the sort from his International manager – who it is said are keen to see the Italian change from the 442 which has brought him so many honours to a 433 that includes Joe Cole on the left of a three up front.

It remains to be seen the results of such a suggestion. Sir Bobby Robson was able to be flexible to the needs of the matches ahead of him and the demands of the squad and in letting the players make the decision for him he signed over an ownership of the team to them. Invested in the selection perhaps Robson made the result matter more to his players because they felt more of an authorship of the team.

Perhaps the spirit of Sir Bobby – involved in advertising this World Cup – comes in the manager handing over some responsibilities inside the camp to his players? Capello’s high-handedness is a long way from that put very much what was wanted after “Stevie and Frank” and the regime of McLaren which was seen as too close to the players. Often the solution to the last problem becomes the current problem.

Indeed it remains to be seen how these first two games of the 2010 World Cup will be recalled. Portugal and Marocco, Ireland and Holland are but footnotes in bigger stories and it is not so much the result of the meeting, but the match on Wednesday and any that follow it which will dictate how Capello’s story is to be told.

Disillusioned

The World Cup evokes so many happy (and not so happy) memories. Some of my first memories are from the 1982 tournament hosted in Spain. I collected the Panini stickers, remember Bryan Robson (who’d have thought that he’d go on to manage Bradford City?) scoring inside the opening minute against France, my dad telling me that the hosts had been beaten by Northern Ireland, David Narey scoring a belter against Brazil (although Scotland still lost to Brazil) and Italy beating Brazil in an absolute classic game.

Roll on four years to Mexico 1986. England make an awful start and only qualify for the second round following an inspired performance by Peter Beardsley against Poland. Most people will tell you that it was Lineker’s hat-trick against Poland that got us past the first round but Beardsley was superb against Poland. Then we all remember Maradona’s hand of God goal and his amazing goal verses England in the quarter finals.

For me, Italia 1990 brings back the best World Cup memories; probably because we progressed to the semi finals but also because I’d finished my A-levels that year and the summer of 1990 was carefree. I have vivid memories of half dozen school mates piling round to one of my parent’s mates house (I still attend Bradford City games with him after all these years) to watch the second round game verses Belgium. What a nerve wrecker – there we were expecting penalties when up steps Gascoigne and that now famous commentary “…and chipped in and volleyed in and it’s there by David Platt, and England have done it in the last minute of extra time!” Superb! There we all were in a wild heap on the floor hugging each other whilst Waddle (who’d have thought that he’d go on and play for Bradford City?) and Butcher did a dance on the pitch. Then we had Lineker’s two penalties to squeeze past Cameroon in the quarter finals before Pearce and Waddle failed to score against West Germany in the penalty shoot in the semi finals. And all of this backed by, in my opinion, the greatest football anthem “World in Motion” by New Order.

Obviously England didn’t qualify for USA 1994 but I’m sure that we all remember Michael Owen’s wonder goal against Argentina in France 1998 and Beckham’s penalty in the 2002 World Cup to gain sweet revenge against Argentina following his sending off in France 1998 against the same team.

Lots of people are excited about the prospect of the 2010 World Cup commencing this Friday with the hosts South Africa entertaining Mexico in the opening game of the tournament. However, at the moment the prospect of the World Cup isn’t sending me into waves of emotion at all. (My wife thinks that I’m ill.)

Why is this?

  1. I’m completely disillusioned with Capello and his team selection. Why did he not pick a naturally left sided midfielder in his 23 man squad? We’ve experienced it before when the left side of midfield has been a problematic position for England. It’s a shame that we don’t have a Waddle or a Barnes. If Capello thinks that he can play Lampard and Gerrard in central midfield together, it won’t win us the World Cup. Erikkson tried the two of them together and it didn’t work then. I hope that I’m wrong about Capello but I don’t think that we will win the World Cup in South Africa. I think that it was Mike Ingham whilst commentating on the recent friendly game against Mexico who said something along the lines of “In Little Britain style, I don’t like it” when referring to Gerrard playing on the left side of midfield.
  2. I’m fed up with players being over paid. Infact, Deloitte has produced a report which shows that Premier League clubs spent £1.3bn on players wages during the 2008/2009 season. This is shocking. I also believe that some players have the wrong attitude and are too arrogant including some of the 23 players who have been picked to play for England in South Africa.
  3. Every advert, whether it’s on television or radio, at the moment is based around football. It drives me crackers.
  4. The hype that surrounds the whole tournament. It’s like Christmas with the event being “bigged up” months before the actual event. It’s all to do with money and is so commercial. The romance seems to be draining away from what is meant to be the biggest and greatest sporting event on earth.

I’m sounding like Victor Meldrew; a grumpy old man. Hopefully, when the tournament finally begins, my cynicism will disappear and my emotions will kick in. But for now, the most important day during the World Cup is 17 June when Bradford City’s fixtures come out and we can plan our trip to the Lamex Stadium!

The problem with John Terry and the England captain

I don’t know the number of people who want John Terry removing as England captain and how that has increased since the confirmation that he might be – well – a bit of a git but I’m not one of them.

That is not because I think that Tezza and his wandering eye should be forgiven for his antics that seem set to lead to Wayne Bridge pulling out of his England role of being a reserve to Ashley Cole. It was that role Bridge perfected at Chelsea and one struggles to recall any player who has ever so clearly put being paid over being played. 129 games in the last seven years is a waste of a career and the fact that he has yet to play more games for the clubs who offered him the big money to leave Southampton than he did for the Saints is a damning statistic.

Bridge’s level of ambition aside it is not that Terry’s behaviour should be forgiven it is that I would never have picked him for the England captaincy in the first place. Steven Gerrard is a man who leads on the field, he near single handled won the European Cup one season and to me always seemed an outstanding candidate.

That said Gerrard was involved in a brawl in a bar and while he was cleared of any wrong doing legally had he been England captain would he have been called to account for the company he kept and the fact he was out drinking until the wee small hours? Others talk about Wayne Rooney as a potential England captain. If he had the job would he be required to curb his on field emotional outbursts to stay within the remit of skipper?

The problem with Terry’s role and the position of England captain in general – the position that Red Tops are calling for Terry to lose – is that for all the decrying over how poorly the Chelsea man represents the country neither Terry, England boss Fabio Cappello or the bosses at The FA could point to a job description for the position.

Naturally on a personal level we can all come up with a list of what we consider the most important things for the armband wearer to have and probably the vast majority of them would not include sharking on team mate’s better halves but there is no set of guidelines – as far as we know it – which the FA can point JT at and give him a cast iron reason why he should lose the position.

Should such a job description exist then the same people who are calling for Terry to be hoisted by the yard arm – The Red Tops – would have been the people who when David Beckham was England skipper would have been saying that the position should be all about the results on the field and the winning mentality within the dressing room and nothing about the personalities outside it.

As with the use of nameless “sources close to” Terry while objecting to super-injunctions the media are perfectly prepared to indulge in any double standard to sell newspapers.

Bradford City have had four captains this year: Peter Thorne, Zesh Rehman, Michael Flynn and – on Saturday – Simon Ramsden and most City fans have an idea of who they believe is best suited to the role although it might be worth noting that in Saturday’s 2-1 comeback all four were on the field when the goals went in.

In football leaders are Heaven sent while captains are often titular. Short of putting a rag in Stuart McCall’s mouth Rangers could not have stopped him showing the same leadership he did at City even though other players had the armband. Good teams have many people who are prepared to lead and taking the captain’s role from John Terry will not stop that ability coming through on the field.

Moving forward one suspects that despite the furore of the weekend this story is a seven day wonder and by the time South Africa comes around England will have largely filed John Terry and Wayne Bridge alongside the Steven Gerrard scrap, the Frank Lampard radio phone in and numerous other Earth shattering events that are supposed to have forced action from the national squad but in retrospect hardly wobbled the needle on a Richter Counter.

Moving forward – and before anyone else is given the armband and named England captain – it might be worth a set of guidelines emerging as to what the requirements of an England captain are and what is considered to be outside that remit. If the job is about representing the nation then why remove Beckham from the job? If it is about results then why even discuss Terry’s future?

Until a set of criteria exists that the occupant of the position has to work within then we are going to forever be trying the Captain accused in Kangaroo courts, deciding on an ad hoc basis what we want the job to be.

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