Euro 2016: Group B – England v Slovakia

England never learn, do they?  How many times must they botch up the group stage before they realise there is an advantage to be gained from finishing top of your group, especially if that group isn’t particularly strong.  Was the final group game, when England needed a win to finish top of their group, really the time to make 4 changes – 6, if you include scoring super subs Vardy and Sturridge starting the match this time?  Would it not have made more sense to maintain momentum through continuity by starting with the same just-about-victorious team against Wales and then testing the subs and resting key players where necessary?

But then Roy has made something of a habit of making baffling selection decisions, from leaving fleet footed Vardy sat on the bench against Russia when the team was crying out for pace to scare the bejesus out of the ageing opposition defenders, to not starting Vardy and Sturridge against Wales when it was clear to everyone and their dog that Sterling and Kane needed to be replaced.  To be fair to the England manager, the team started well against Slovakia and created some good chances against a Slovakian team who were happy to play Hadrian’s Wall in their own area, and how different things might have been had Vardy taken his chance when put through by a over the top ball rather than shoot straight at the keeper.  A Lallana shot in the first half was also parried by the keeper and later on, Dele Alli was unlucky to have a shot blocked on the line.

Yet there was no disguising England’s often ponderous build up play which enabled the retreating Slovakians to get back in ample time to block England’s attack, nor the lack of width and penetrative movement necessary to unlock such a stalwart defence.  As the match wore on, England became increasingly ragged and disjointed, and seemed to be playing futile ‘knocking heads against brick walls’ football.  So not much of a surprise that the score ended 0-0.  For a team that have created an astonishing 65 chances over the 3 group games, ironically England have lacked a cutting edge, playing more like toothless tigers than marauding lions.

So now, as a result of coming second, England find themselves in the tougher side of the draw with the might of France, Spain, Italy and Germany.  And Portugal may yet join the ‘Side of Death’.  There is only one way this usually ends – heroic effort marred by some unlucky, unfair, controversial incident and/or penalties.  Is it really going to be any different this time?  Why, oh why, do we do it to ourselves?


Euro 2016: Group B – England v Wales

This match proved (if proof were actually needed) that Roy Hodgson got his team selection wrong for the Russia match and he got his team selection wrong for this game.  Inexplicably, he started with the same team that let slip a win in the opening match against Russia, even though the whole country could have told him that Vardy and Sturridge should have started.

It took a goal from Wales, scored by  who else but Gareth Bale, from how else but a free kick, for the penny to drop.  To his credit, Hodgson made the necessary changes early enough – at half time – to give his subs the maximum time to make an impact.  But then it’s funny how the most conservative of people can become emboldened when their job is on the line.  What should have been a logical team selection thus became a desperate gamble.

But boy did his gamble pay off!  First Vardy, with the predatory instincts of a natural born striker, was standing in the right place at the right time – ie the 6 yard box – to fire home an equaliser.  Vardy was though standing in an offside position but luckily for England, the final ball to him came off the head of Welsh captain Ashley Williams so, rightly, the goal stood.

By now Wales had parked a whole fleet of double decker buses in their area, and it looked like England had left it all too little too late.  But this tournament has started a fashion for late late goals, and this time thankfully it was England doing the gazumping.  It involved a moment of individual brilliance at the death from their other substitute, Daniel Sturridge, who, after an intricate 1-2 with Dele Alli, jiggled his way past a gaggle of Welsh defenders, getting a little lucky along the way as he stabbed the ball past the keeper.

So it is England who get to enjoy the domestic bragging rights – just about.  Let’s hope Roy has learnt his lesson.  If we can have our best players on the pitch from the start against Slovakia, then there is every chance England can get the 3 points and finish top of their group.  Winning consistently involves making brave decisions when you have everything to lose.


Who’d be a football referee?

Do footballers harbour a secret longing to be thespians?  Modern footballers give such convincing Oscar-worthy performances in surreptitiously manhandling their opponents and theatrically conning referees into giving them decisions, they put real actors to shame.  Is it any surprise then that their mendacious antics should result in frustratingly inconsistent refereeing, as occurred in Sunday’s controversial encounter between Leicester and West Ham at the King Power Stadium, where the hapless referee Jon Moss was slated for his performance.

First, he incurred the wrath of the home supporters by sending off star striker Jamie Vardy for diving; then he infuriated them by awarding West Ham a penalty, and finally he compounded their rage by denying Robert Huth a penalty when the Leicester defender seemed to become the meat in a West Ham sandwich (geddit?).  Perhaps fearing he might not get out of the stadium alive and in one piece, the referee duly succumbed and granted Leicester a reprieve penalty at the death, which Leicester’s Leonardo Ulloa bravely converted – with extraordinary nerve – to salvage a precious point in the title race.  Cue delirious scenes from Leicester supporters, but subsequently, self-righteous indignation from West Ham and scathing criticism from the pundits – those leviathans of intellectual debate otherwise known as ex-footballers – who castigated the referee for inconsistent officiating.

Every decision he made, or didn’t make, was minutely scrutinised and peremptorily condemned as either too lenient or too harsh.  However, no reference was made in mitigation of the players pushing, pulling and grappling each other like WWF wrestlers and diving around like Tom Daley wannabees, making the referee’s job a complete nightmare.  No, it was all the referee’s fault, and the players were mere innocent victims of poor officiating.

To add to the scapegoating, yesterday the England manager Roy Hodgson waded in by defending the blatant dive by Vardy which saw him sent off, suggesting he was ‘unbalanced’ and fell.  Really?  So unbalanced that as fell he also managed to raise both hands in the air in a lame appeal for a penalty?  Even worse, Hodgson then inexplicably chose to excuse Vardy’s consequent, frankly disgraceful, berating of the referee.  Apparently, the striker’s reaction was understandable.  So, verbally abusing the referee and disrespectfully jabbing his finger in his face is ‘understandable’?  Roy Hodgson seems to think so.  According to Hodgson: “He has reacted like human beings sometimes react….He has called him a few names. But he is a human being and that can happen.”  So as far as the England manager is concerned, it’s ok for a footballer to harangue a referee because he’s only human.  But it’s not ok for the referee to get perhaps a few marginal decisions wrong because he’s human as well?  Then he deserves all the opprobrium he receives?

If footballers didn’t cheat, dive, push, grab, yank, strangle and otherwise assault one another and actually played to the spirit of the game, perhaps they wouldn’t get so many decisions going against them.  If managers admonished players instead of defending them for egregious behaviour, perhaps players would be better behaved and the referee’s job would be made easier.  If the footballing powers that be relinquished their antediluvian mentality and belatedly entered the 21st century, and joined the rest of the sporting world by bringing in video replays to help beleaguered referees, then perhaps we might have less refereeing controversies and fairer results.

But then what would the football community have to moan about?   Where would they hang their grievances?  Who would fans and managers blame for their team’s bad results, who would the players take out their frustrations on, and what would the pundits have to argue about?  Sadly, it would seem everyone in football prefers to play the blame game rather than the beautiful game.

No summer Euro jaunt for Rashford, please Roy

Another United match, another delectable goal from young, gifted and Red Marcus Rashford.  After helping United reach the FA Cup semi final on Wednesday night at Upton Park, with a mazy run and classy finish reminiscent of a young Ryan Giggs, the precocious Rashford was at it again on Saturday, scoring his 7th goal in 12 appearances with a peachy flick, to earn United the 3 points and relegate an indifferent Aston Villa to the Championship.  In a turgid season, Rashford has been one of the few bright points, together with goalkeeper David De Gea’s best human impression of a brick wall (surely the sole contender for our player of the season) and Anthony Martial’s authoritative presence in front of goal.

Should Rashford continue to sparkle to the end of the season, and even more, help United win the FA Cup for the first time in 12 years, the quiet murmur for Rashford to be included in Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the Euros in France will, I fear, grow into a deafening clamour.  There is a danger that Hodgson may be influenced into heeding the public clarion call and giving Rashford a last minute call up.  If the England manager should acquiesce, he would be wrong to do so, for playing Rashford too early could ruin him.

Marcus Rashford is 18 years old.  He has never played international football.  He hasn’t even played a full season for Man Utd, for goodness sake.  How can he possibly be expected to carry the (probably deluded) hopes of a nation into a major international tournament?  Yes, the burden of unrealistic expectation will be inevitably placed on his youthful shoulders, irrespective of his inexperience, because unrealistic expectations are always put on England players, no matter what.  The media and Joe Public will expect Rashford to come off the bench and produce the same match defining performance for England that he has been doing for United.  Worse, there may even be a call for him to start should England struggle early on or pick up a few injuries.

There is no valid reason to risk plunging Rashford into the maelstrom of international football on the cusp of his nascent career.  Hodgson has plenty of young up and coming players at his disposal whom he has tested in international waters and who can be relied on to do a job for England.  Rashford needs to spend the summer recovering from his Premiership exertions, enjoy some important down time relaxing with family and friends, and then prepare for pre-season in readiness to play a first full season with United, probably under a new manager.

Once the new season is under way and a new England qualifying campaign begins, by all means introduce Rashford, gradually, into the team at a time when there is less pressure and he is free to play unburdened, so he can demonstrate his abilities and develop new skills.  This way, there is less danger of burn out or picking up injuries.

Ultimately, as a United fan, I don’t want Rashford’s glittering potential to be tarnished by being rushed prematurely into the hurly burly of international football by desperate England fans.  England can wait.  Rashford’s well-being and United come first.