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6 England Squad Takeaways

The most fitting adjective I can think of for Gareth Southgate’s squad is sensible, I’d have preferred scintillating but sensible will have to do for now. With such exciting prospects at youth level ‘doing for now’ seems to be where England are right now. There were few surprises so what can be read into this selection?

That’s a lot of players

28 in total! The message is clear if you didn’t get in and you’re not in an England youth squad, injured/ short of fitness or suffering transferitus then you’ve got a lot to do if you want to go to the World Cup.  Only 2 players have been dropped Ben Gibson (now of the Championship) & Fraser Forster (England’s number 5!) Forster’s Southampton teammates Nathan Redmond & James Ward-Prowse are amongst the few who might have been expecting the call and didn’t get one, must do better lads!

That’s a lot of goalkeepers

Southgate’s insistence on picking 4 keepers is on the face of it odd. But there is some logic to this, for the first time I can remember the England Goalkeeping jersey is up for grabs. Previously it’s been a case of 2 similar level goalkeepers fighting for the gloves; Seaman & Woods, Seaman & Martyn, Green & James and hmm Carson & Robinson. This time it’s anybody’s to claim, Jack Butland is favourite but Jordan Pickford is rapidly improving. Joe Hart’s still around and officially number 1 making Tom Heaton the fourth man.

My suspicion is if Hart doesn’t get picked for any of the next 4 England games he’ll announce his international retirement, I just can’t see him wanting to travel to a World Cup as third choice a role I could see Heaton filling. Much of next week’s back pages will be dominated by this issue as we wait to see who’s wearing the number 1 shirt in Valetta next Friday.

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New boys added

Only 2 new call ups; Harry Maguire & Nathaniel Chalobah. Maguire was a surprise to some but his early season form has been great. He’s clearly got a range of passing and composure on the ball that Southgate wants- bad news if you’re Chris Smalling and perhaps explaining the exclusion of Swansea’s Alfie Mawson. With Maguire following Michael Keane into the squad England suddenly don’t look so dependant on John Stones converting promise into performance as a ball playing centre back.

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Chalobah’s call up was widely predicted. 18 months ago it looked like the precocious midfielder would suffer the same fate as Josh McEachran- endlessly miles on the Chelsea loan treadmill followed by a career in the Championship.  But Chalobah has finally made it to Premier League regular with a move to Watford. If he continues to develop I suspect Vicarage Road will only be stepping stone to a bigger club but for now he’s playing well and likely to win his first senior cap to go with the 97 he has at junior level.

Midfield worries

Whether it’s 3-4-3 or 4-2-3-1 the central midfield pair is England’s biggest problem. Chalobah’s call up means we have 3  holding midfielders (Chalobah, Livermore & Dier) and Jordan Henderson, if Henderson’s unavailable who comes in? Against Scotland the midfield was too cautious and lacking creativity because we had 2 holding midfielders against a side happy to defend, these 2 qualifiers will provide a similar challenge.

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There are extenuating circumstances with Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley & Danny Drinkwater all currently unavailable whilst this World Cup will probably come too soon for the likes of Lewis Cook, Harry Winks & Tom Davies, we’ll just have to make do for now.

World Cup Winners kept back

Nobody from England’s victorious Under 20- World Cup side has been promoted to the senior side, but 13 of that squad have been selected for the Under 21s. It’s a smart move from Southgate, keeping a winning group together (for now) and letting them develop at the next level of the international pyramid.

Previous England managers would have picked Dominic Calvert-Lewin straight away, but that’d have been short sighted. Had he been picked he’d have sat on the bench and maybe got 15 minutes for his debut, whereas now he’s likely to play twice for the Under 21’s- the first a tough away qualifier in Holland, which will he get the most from? Exactly.

Welcoming back the Welbler

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Danny Welbeck is back- 18 months and a major injury recurrence on from his last cap. Welbeck was a favourite of Roy Hodgson due to his versatility, he may well have a roll to play next week, particularly if England go 3-4-3: where he fits anywhere across the frontline.

Welbeck needs to make an impression next week, he’s got Lacazette & Giroud ahead of him in the Arsenal striker pecking order and his recent run in the side has been largely due to the absence of the returning Alexis Sanchez. Might he need excusing from England training to finalise a late move to Everton or if desperate Newcastle?

Was Rooney called up?

Gareth seemed a lot less sure than Wayne that he’d have been recalled. Rooney claimed the manager was going to pick him on announcing his retirement. Southgate meanwhile side stepped the question saying he was under consideration. He went to hail Rooney a legend and state he would ask him to come back if needed, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

 

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Farewell Wayne

 

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Imagine my surprise when the article I was writing about the merits of Wayne Rooney’s imminent England recall were torpedoed by the announcement Rooney was retiring from international football.

It’s the right decision for Rooney, for Everton and probably England too. Rooney has got himself in condition, found form and is rekindling his old flame with Everton, good luck to him.

The challenge of a 38 game league campaign plus cups plus Europa League is a sizeable undertaking for a 31 year old without the additional demand of internationals. If he ends  Everton’s 22 year trophy drought it will provide a final flourish to a glorious career.

Yet somehow Rooney has never quite become the loved figure his record seems to merit. As has been poured over this summer following his departure from Old Trafford, he left Manchester United with the clubs goalscoring record, a truckload of medals and accolades but never seemed to quite have the love of the Old Trafford faithful afforded Charlton, Best, Law & Ronaldo.

His England career will inevitably be summed up with this sort of sentence- He’s England’s record goalscorer and he never delivered in a major tournament. It’s the Rooney paradox.

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Rooney arrived with England to tremendous hype- the final piece of the golden generation jigsaw, the superstar to bring glory to England’s hugely talented side. Rooney’s first tournament with England was by far the best- setting Euro 2004 alight with  three stunning displays and 4 goals from the group phase. But then came the first metatarsal injury in the quarter finals and his tournament came to an abrupt end.

In 2006 he suffered another metatarsal break at the tail end of Manchester United’s season and the nation went into a month long ‘will he won’t he go debate’. What’s alarming looking back at the 2006 media furore is I can’t remember a single journalist or pundit giving serious consideration to what England would do without him. But it seemed the nation didn’t need to worry, Rooney was training and declared ‘injury free’ by Sven so it was panic over.

Of course the term ‘injury free’ was carefully selected and really meant he wasn’t match fit or even fully recovered. He was kept out of England’s opening game but brought off the bench in the next and it became evident quickly he was at best 50% fit, his frustration grew and ended in a red card in the quarter finals.

The biggest scar on Rooney’s England career (and many others) came in South Africa in 2010. Rooney arrived at the tournament England’s great hope, but left with 4 appearances no goals and no assists. Again a pre tournament injury meant he wasn’t 100% fit but that didn’t explain why he suddenly couldn’t trap a ball, his post match rant about supporters after an insipid 0-0 draw with Algeria didn’t help his standing.

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Fabio Capello kept faith with Rooney for Euro 2012 qualifying and Rooney rewarded him with goals, but in England’s final qualifier for Euro 2012 Rooney picked up his second England red cad- with a 2 match suspension slapped on as punishment. England started the tournament well picking up 4 points from 2 Rooneyless games, new manager Roy Hodgson brought Rooney back straight away but again a lack of match sharpness told. Alex Ferguson always maintained Rooney needed games to reach his maximum level and was not a player who could make an immediate impact, it’s hard to argue with his assessment.

And so to Brazil 2014, Rooney’s last chance to make a major impact at the World Cup, sadly the England squad of 2014 was a pale imitation of 2006 with few major stars. A tough draw did for Hodgson’s limited side but notably England’s only goals came from a Rooney cross against Italy and his neat finish against Uruguay, had he been in a better side maybe that would’ve been his tournament.

In 2015 Rooney became England’s record goalscorer by despatching a penalty against Switzerland in Euro qualifying. By the time England arrived at Euro 2016 a new generation of strikers were available to England: Kane, Rashford & Vardy. Hodgson shuffled Rooney into midfield with initial success but when England crashed into the Icelandic iceberg Rooney was heavily criticised.

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In 2016/17 Rooney’s form faded and new England manager Gareth Southgate wisely dropped him, Rooney to his credit took it professionally and got on with it. Ironically  Southgate wanted to recall Rooney this week when Wayne decided it was time to go.

It’ll be interesting to hear Southgate’s thoughts on Rooney at tomorrow’s squad announcement, was the proposed recall with the World Cup in mind or a reward for his club form this season? Southgate had always maintained he would recall Rooney if his form merited inclusion.

Part of the conundrum with England was his various England managers (he played for 6) had different ideas about where to play him; Sven saw him as a deep lying forward, Capello an out and out number 9, whilst Hodgson eventually put him in central midfield having previously played him as a striker, wide attacker and number 10.

Another issue was Rooney’s lack of tactical discipline, he always seemed to follow the ball rather than hold his position, the worst example coming in 2014 against Italy where he wad deployed on the left of a 4-2-3-1 but failed to provide Leighton Baines with cover and Italy cashed in.

All that being said Rooney was a fine player for England lighting up Euro 2004, many a night at Wembley and dragging England’s chestnuts out of 1numerous qualification fires. While he was never quite the Leo Messi he was once hailed but he was a great international player.

I’ve said before he reminds me of former Spain & Real Madrid striker Raul- a creative forward with an eye for goal who left the Bernabeu with a bookful of records and a suitcase crammed with medals. For Spain he enjoyed a hugely credible career playing 100+ times and setting a new goal scoring record but was never quite the  national saviour he was hailed and never got beyond the quarter finals of a major tournament- sound familiar?

Interestingly Rooney’s resignation statement ended with this reference “One day the dream will come true and I look forward to being there as a fan – or in any capacity” referring to the possibility of England winning something. Is he hinting at a coaching career? Maybe not but it’s important Rooney passes on his knowledge of international football to England’s next generation and remains visible at St George’s Park perhaps helping the juniors or even just giving talks about his England career.

Rooney was a great servant to England and Gary Lineker was probably right in saying we have under appreciated him. But it’s the right time for England and it’s most famous player to move on.

 

 

 

 

 

Scouting England’s winners & losers- Premier League Week 1

It’s a World Cup season so which England hopefuls caught the eye this weekend and who wishes they hadn’t.

Winners
Jamie Vardy

After a poor 2016/17 campaign Vardy looked to be slipping out of England contention whilst Leicester signed Iannacho and retained Slimmani. But against Arsenal Craig Shakespeare opted for the old money of Vardy & Okazaki- they repaid him with 3 goals. Vardy torched Arsenal’s shaky back 3 with his searing pace and deadly finishing. Only 13 PL goals last season suddenly feels a long time ago.

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Wayne Rooney

This was always going to happen, Rooney does love a debut goal and from his number 10 role Rooney not only scored, he produced his best all round display for well over a year at Goodison Park. It’s too early to talk about a recall but Rooney remains in contention, it’ll be fascinating to see how he gets on at the Etihad next week.

Premier League - Everton vs Stoke City

Kyle Walker

Man of the match on debut, Walker couldn’t have asked for much more. Far tougher defensive tests await but Walker confirmed what we already knew- he’s the best right back in the country.

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Kyle Walker-Peters

The under 20 World Cup fullback was one of only 2 members of that squad who started this week. He gave an assured debut display for Spurs at Newcastle.  Maybe worth checking if there’s a Kyle Walker III in the Tottenham academy.

Jay Rodriguez

After 3 horrendous injury ravaged years Rodriguez gave a fine, energetic performance on his West Brom debut. Didn’t notch a goal but an encouraging display none the less.

Marcus Rashford

Playing as a left forward rather than central striker, Rashford terrorised West Ham’s backline with his pace and direct running, Lukaku rightly grabbed the headlines but Rashford was sensational.

 

Losers
Rob Holding

Ok playing in a back 3 with 2 leftbacks (1 on debut the other Monreal) always looked like a hiding to nothing, but Holding was rotten. He looked caught in no mans land between Mark Albrighton (who he failed to close down for Leicester’s second goal) and the front 2, he gave away possession looked uncertain throughout and was subbed after 66 minutes. What on earth was Callum Chambers thinking sat in his suit on the Arsenal bench, ‘where’s my agent?!b*$tard must have died’ at a guess.

Demarai Gray

Reports of Riyad Mahrez’s demise appear greatly exaggerated. Gray needs minutes but he won’t get them sat behind Mahrez.

Jermain Defoe

Needs to score 15 goals this season to get one last shot at a World Cup, not easy to do if you’re sat on the bench, can he play in tandem with Josh King? Eddie Howe appears to have his doubts, worrying.

Gary Cahill

Red carded 14 minutes into his club captaincy, at least there’s no danger of him being injured when Southgate announces his first squad.

Jonjo Shelvey

Utter fool! Shelvey has always been prone to a meltdown but his straight red for standing on Dele Alli was barmy. No danger of those 2 playing together for England anytime soon.

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England Playing Stat

Number of player available to England starting PL games this week- 70 (32%)

England internationals currently unavailable: 5- Clyne, Trippier, Rose, Shaw, Lallana, 

 

 

 

World Cup Memories- Mexico ’86

For me the summer of 1986 was about 2 things; finishing Primary School and watching my first World Cup.

In the pre Premier League era live football on TV was pretty much limited to the FA Cup final so for football mad kids the World Cup was heaven sent.  My last days of primary school were largely spent trading swaps from the Panini Mexico 86 sticker album; I vividly remember trying to trade endless duplicates of Pat Jennings in a futile attempt to acquire Brazilian superstar Zico.

The constant flicking through the sticker book also meant the image of World Cup mascot Pique remains indelibly printed on in my mind.

When the action kicked off I was quickly disappointed by holders Italy- much talked up by older kids who remembered Spain ’82, Paolo Rossi and all that, in 1986 it was the same players just 4 years past it. But two surprise teams bolted out of the traps in Mexico. First there was the now defunct Soviet Union who pummelled Hungary 6-0 in their opener, then midfielder Vasily Rats scored a stunning long range goal against France, and then came Denmark.

Unlike their victorious Euro ’92 side the Danes of 1986 were spellbinding to watch with star strikers Preben Elkjaer & Michael Laudraup rampaging through defences in the early days of the tournament. They also sported the perfect mid 80s pinstripe and chevron jersey.

Strangely both the Danes & Soviets crashed and burned in the last 16 against unfancied sides as I learned a great World Cup cliche: don’t peak too soon! Both clearly did but provided some great memories along the way.

Denmark’s rise was particularly surprising given they were drawn in a group with Germany, Uruguay & Scotland introducing me to yet another cliche ‘the group of death!’ It was from here the Scots introduced me to a further wellwarn cliche: Scotland will always find the unluckiest possible way to miss out.

It’s often forgotten the Scotland team of 1986 was managed by a certain Alex Ferguson, who’d taken temporary charge after the tragic death of Jock Stein in their final qualifier. Defensively they were strong enough for Ferguson to omit Liverpool captain Alan Hansen, the midfield featured a wonderfully moustached Greane Souness and the creativity of Gordon Strachan whilst the forward line of Steve Archibald, Frank McAvennie & Charlie Nicholas didn’t lack firepower.

As it turned out, the Scots first ran into the Danish juggernaut and then faced West Germany, Strachan scored early to put them ahead but the Germans proved too strong and the Scots went down 2-1.

But still qualification could still be achieved with a win over Uruguay who’d just shipped six against Denmark, it couldn’t have started much better with Uruguay defender Jose Batista red carded in the first minute for an appalling foul on Strachan. What followed was 89 minutes of Scottish attacking and agricultural Uruguayan defending with Uruguay kicking their way to a 0-0 draw and a second round berth.

But my enduring memory of that game came in the aftermath when the BBC tried to get some post match reaction from the Tartan Army outside the ground and one angry fan barked “I hate Uruguay! I hate ’em so much I hope they get through and play England and I hope England win! That’s how much I hate Uruguay!!”

And so to England, drawn in Group F the tournament was a week old before we got started and it wasn’t a great start, England began against Portugal with high hopes and they dominated possession for long spells, looked in control but conceded on the break 15 minutes from time, 0-1 on dear.

If the first game was bad the second was a disaster. Against Morocco England should have eased to victory but Captain Marvel Robson succumbed to a shoulder injury and midfield partner Ray Wilkins was bizarrely sent off for throwing the ball (accidentally) at the referee. The game ended 0-0.

The knives were out for Bobby Robson, it was England’s worst start to a World Cup since the 50’s and he needed to rework his entire midfield and attack. His solution was to bring in Peter Reid, Steve Hodge, Trevor Steven & Peter Beardsley, dropping Mark Hateley & Chris Waddle. The reshaped team was a gamble but it took only 8 minutes to pay off with Gary Lineker turning home Gary Stevens’ cross, by half time Lineker had a hat trick and England were through.

Suddenly England had a star in Lineker and a team set up perfectly to maximise his poachers instinct with Hodge and Steven providing width and Beardsley able to provide clever through balls from his deeper forward role. 

Sadly for me we’d gone on a family holiday and I only saw the game next day (due to the late kick off times In Mexico) and found out the result from Derek Jamieson’s breakfast show. 

Onto the last 16 and I was still in Cornwall, most expected England to sneak a win and despite a shaky start England again won 3-0. Lineker now had 5 goals and was set for the Golden Boot.

And so to the quarter final and the most infamous moment in English Football history. In footballs ‘where were you when Kennedy was shot’ moment I was watching it on the telly with my dad. It wasn’t until full time that I realised it was handball, watching it live in realtime was very different to looking at the photo everyone remembers- he was devilishly quick!


Everyone knows what followed; Maradona scored a brilliant second, Lineker pulled one back and almost equalised. England were out whilst Maradona went on to lift the trophy.

I think the main reason the infamy of that goal has endured for so long is Maradona’s obvious pleasure in it, he’s never shown any regret at what he did, it’s hard to believe Pele or Cruyff would have reacted with such glee, nor was it Maradona’s only handball moment playing for Argentina (he would later handle the ball whilst clearing off his own line).

When Thierry Henry later handled against Ireland in a 2009 World Cup playoff, it was clear even on the night Henry was embarrassed and whilst never actually apologising for it he clearly would like to expunge the incident from his career, Maradona by contrast has often revelled in his.

The day before England played Argentina I witnessed my first great World Cup match; Michel Platini’s France against the Brazilian Samba boys. 1986 was probably the last chance to see the Brazil at their beautiful best, Brazilian sides since have concentrated on string defence combined with pace and power, back in ’86 it was all flair, tricks and samba soccer. Facing them The European champions and their dynamic midfield quartet of Platini, Giresse, Tigana & Fernandes.

The game ebbed and flowed, the crowd a sea of yellow & blue- Argentina may have had the best player but these were the two best teams. Amazingly only one goal apiece was scored with the French triumphing on penalties. 

Everyone expected a Platini/ Maradona final, Argentina made it but the French fell foul of another great World Cup cliche: German efficiency. West Germany made it almost unnoticed into the last four, perhaps France underestimated them or maybe they were exhausted from the epic win over Brazil, whatever the reason France were subdued in the semi and went down 2-0.

The final proved entertaining but slightly underwhelming (the second part of that assessment could be applied to every World Cup final since.) Jorge Burruchaga scored the winner 6 minutes from time after the Germans had fought back from a 2 goal deficit, Argentina were champions and my first World Cup experience was over.

Mexico ’86 had everything, great games, brilliant players, colour, atmosphere and controversy. It was a heady cocktail that cemented my love of the beautiful game and it’s biggest event.

A year later my local library got a Mexico ’86 book recapping the  tournament in A3 size prints of the matches, the book spent much of the following year on loan to me. I remember very clearly the last picture in the book- of 2 fans in the Azteca stadium after the final whistle of the tournament, both stripped to the waist with their backs printed, on the first fan ‘Adios Mexico ’86’ on the other ‘Ciao Italia ’90’. The summer of 1990 couldn’t come around fast enough.

 

Ranking England’s centre midfield options

England’s biggest problem position going into a World Cup year is central midfield. Whether playing the default 4-2-3-1 or Plan B 3-4-3 the 2 in the middle remains a problem. We have plenty of options in the wide areas and a potentially great number 10 in Dele Alli, but holding and linking midfield roles are wide open, here are the runners and riders to solve the new riddle in the middle;

  1. Eric Dier– There are still concerns about Dier’s distribution when closed down and his two summer internationals were poor. But Dier remains England’s best defensive midfielder since Owen Hargreaves. Nailed on for next summer.4808794
  2. Jordan Henderson– An injury hit season raises questions about Hendo’s reliability. But he remains England’s best link-man between defence and attack. Needs a big season at Liverpool but in the squad at the very least.
  3. Jack Wilshere– When fit and firing England’s best midfielder, but Darren Anderton was fit and firing more often than Wilshere. England v Russia - Group B: UEFA Euro 2016Doesn’t look like he’s staying at Arsenal, of the potential suitors Sampdoria look the most appealing (playing in a technical slower paced league should work for him.)
  4. Jake Livermore- We can consider this season a failure for young English midfielders if Livermore is still 4th on this list in May. A solid defensive midfielder Livermore is for now in as the plan B Eric Dier, as I said-for now.
  5. James Ward-Prowse- The Southampton man had a good Under 21 championship, if he retains his place at Southampton under new boss Pellegrino he’s a shoe in for England this September, and Harry Kane will be pleased to knows he takes corners James Ward-Prowse Sweden Under-21
  6. Nathaniel Chalobah– finally plucked from the Chelsea loan farm, Chalobah picked smartly with Watford, a club with a dynamic young manager and where he’s already spent a year. Clearly on Southgate’s radar a good start to the new season should see a first cap.
  7. Tom Davies– Had a great breakout season last term, tellingly Everton requested he didn’t play for England this summer. But faces stiff competition in The Toffees new look midfield following the signing of Classen from Ajax. At 18 has time firmly on his side and may well spend next season in the Under 21s.3F0D077200000578-0-image-m-6_1491587755427
  8. Harry Winks– Tipped for a big season Winks faces tough competition in Spurs midfield but is working for the best talent developer in the game. Winks may eventually be the player that knits the England team together, but must be given time.
  9. Will Hughes– Finally getting his Premier League chance in tandem with Chalobah. Has power and a nice range of passing, having put his injury problems behind him will be one to watch.
  10. Lewis Cook- England’s World Cup winning captain (never get tired of saying that) endured a tough first season at Bournemouth mainly due to injury having previously racked up 85 first team appearances with Leeds. This season he should be more prominent, how much may determine how quickly he rises up England’s age group squads. Under 21s seems the logical step for this season but Cook may just be the most talented young midfielder England have got.
  11. Ruben Loftus-Cheek– Has enormous potential and wisely loaned out by Chelsea. At Crystal Palace he may find himself in direct competition with Jason Puncheon- so no guarantee he’ll start. Part of the problem with Loftus-Cheek is we just don’t know his best long term position, deep lying playmaker? Number 10? Or centre forward? We should get the answers this season.1368293-29359812-1600-900
  12. Fabian Delph– He was an England regular before moving to City. Delph had been unlucky with injuries and now playing for a manager who doesn’t rate him. Needs a move fast!
  13. Danny Drinkwater– Southgate doesn’t seem to rate him, needs a return to his title winning form to get back in, should be helped by the arrival of Vincente Iborra in Leicester’s midfield.drinkwater-england
  14. Michael Carrick- He’s 36 and has only accumulated 34 caps, but football’s Mr Marmite is guaranteed to get a mention every time England or Man Utd fail to pass the ball well (so pretty often last season). Surely his time has passed.
  15. Tom Cleverley- The Panda Cola Xavi is still hanging in there although his career trajectory tells it’s own story (Man Utd- Everton- Watford). But before he takes the next step in that sequence (Derby County), Cleverley will be the senior man in an intriguing Watford midfield with Hughes & Chalobah and if Marco Silva’s magic touch could work for Lazar Markovic then who knows?

Remembering the Managers- Graham Taylor

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When Graham Taylor sadly passed away earlier this year English football paid him a heartfelt tribute. It was well deserved for a man who by all accounts was honest, decent and gave so much of himself to the game.

As a club manager Taylor achieved minor miracles taking Watford to the FA Cup final and Aston Villa to second in the league. He was one of the early champions of black English players nurturing the careers of John Barnes and Luther Blissett. But it’s hard not to think part of the reason the media praised him so much in death was their vilification of him life.

As England manager he suffered a torrent of abuse from the tabloids that went far beyond constructive criticism of his teams. But criticism of his selections and tactics were justified. He arrived as England manager in the summer of 1990 on the back of England’s most successful World Cup since 1966, initially Taylor stuck closely to Bobby Robson’s blueprint that had worked well at Italia ’90. Robson had switched to a 5-3-2 formation at the World Cup, Taylor’s first few friendlies followed the same formation and he only made minor personnel tweaks- replacing the retired Peter Shilton with Chris Woods and handing debuts to Arsenal fullbacks Lee Dixon & Nigel Winterburn.

But Taylor was a devout 4-4-2 man who’s sides usually played long ball tactics. By the time England played Ireland at Wembley in the autumn of 1990 England had riverted to type and things started to slip. Creative players most notably Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley were overlooked and in came Arsenal target man Alan Smith, one dimensional   wingers Andy Sinton &  Tony Daley and most bizarrely jobbing midfielders Dennis Wise, Gordon Cowans & Geoff Thomas.

In the 1991 FA Cup final Taylor suffered a hammer blow when man of the moment Paul Gascoigne suffered a cruciate ligament injury to the knee. Without Gascoigne Taylor’s side lacked any creative spark and England laboured through qualifying relying heavily on the predatory instincts of Gary Lineker. Eventually a Lineker goal in a 1-1 draw with Poland saw England reach the finals in Sweden.

England arrived in Sweden having lost only once under Taylor’s management but his squad selection for the finals caused dismay. Unsurprisingly he left out Beardsley and Waddle but leaving out golden boot winner Ian Wright shocked fans and critics alike. He also suffered poor luck with Gazza still injured John Barnes was also crocked together with his first three options at right back; Dixon, Paul Parker and Gary Stevens. His solution to the right back crisis was to play centre half Keith Curle in that position with no other option selected in his squad.

Curle lasted an hour of the tournament at right back, narrowly avoiding a sending off against unfenced Denmark, England drew 0-0. In the second game against France England were again solid but unspectacular- not a surprise for a team who deployed Carlton Palmer as the midfield general. A late Stuart Pearce free kick smashed the French crossbar but England again drew 0-0.

It was now all or nothing against hosts Sweden, a win and England were through anything less and Taylor was a dead man walking. It started well with England finally scoring a goal courtesy of David Platt. But a half time tactical switch from the Swedes saw England overwhelmed, in need of a response Taylor made the most infamous substitution in England’s history. He took off Gary Lineker (who was retiring at the end of the tournament) and replaced him with Alan ‘Smudger’ Smith, needless to say it didn’t work and England were beaten 2-1. The knives were out and the turnips adorned The Sun’s from page

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Taylor’s response was to go more direct for the World Cup qualifying campaign, a tournament Taylor claimed he was aiming to win (not the smartest statement to make when you’ve called up Brian Deane.) If the tactics and relationship with the press were bad unbeknown to everyone Taylor had agreed to let a film crew follow his every move through qualifying.

Qualifying got off to shaky start as England were pegged back by Norway at Wembley, a similar followed in the spring of 1993 as England let slip a 2 goal lead against Holland. By this stage Stuart Pearce & Alan Shearer were out injured and England faced a tricky away double header to Poland & Norway in the summer qualifiers.

A late equaliser from Ian Wright salvaged a draw in Poland but England then lost 2-0 in Norway. What everyone remembers from these games was the darkly comic documentary footage of Taylor and his staff on the England bench “It’s made for Wrighty to come on score I say it’s…” ,”Nigel just play it as you see it” and “Gazza’s f@$ked” were the moments that entered documentary legend whilst Taylor’s England headed off for a summer tour of the US where things got even worse.

A year removed from the World Cup England played a warm up tournament against the USA, Brazil & Germany. The first game was against the unheralded US, England produced another listless performance and and went down 2-0 with even Alexi Lallas managing to score, the low point cam when the live feed was temporarily lost by ITV and back in the studio they could at least confirm for Ron Atkinson the Americans hadn’t scored a third. ‘Yanks 2 Planks Nil’ roared The Sun and so it went on. England did play better against Brazil and Germany but finished last in the tournament. By now Taylor’s Spitting Image puppet was portrayed captaining a team on ‘A Question of Sport’ having selected to play “A watering can and a packet of cereal!”

In the autumn England hinted at a comeback, in Les Ferdinand Taylor had found a striker who had the power and pace to thrive in his direct system. With Gazza back to form England crushed Poland 3-0 at Wembley. It all rested on getting a draw away to Holland, but crucially Ferdinand was injured and Gascoigne suspended. We all know what happened next; Ronald Koeman should have been sent off for hauling down David Platt but stayed on the pitch and scored the decisive free kick. Taylor wandered the touchline like a lost child and berating the fourth official, England went down 2-0 and all that remained was for Pearce to concede the quickest goal in World Cup history to San Marino and Taylor’s reign was over.

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Taylor blamed the poor refereeing for the loss in Rotterdam and therefore failure to qualify. It’s true the referee was awful in that game but failure to qualify was down to England not holding onto their leads at home to Norway & Holland- win those games and the Rotterdam game would’t have been relevant.

In keeping with his high character Taylor resigned rather than waiting for the sack and a big cheque. He’d failed, he admitted it, he tried to move on. Soon after the infamous documentary aired and the phrase “Do I not like that!” entered footballing folklore.

Taylor did restore his reputation by eventually returning to Watford and helping them into the Premier League for the first time since the league was formed. He worked as a World Cup pundit for the BBC, providing some insightful analysis and picking up an OBE before retiring, his passing was marked with respect from all quarters

Looking back it’s hard to separate Graham Taylor the manager from the documentary star. Taylor came across as a nice guy out of his depth and cracking when the pressure intensified. Broadcast in the days before Sky Sports News it provided a shocking window on the relationship between managers and journalists.

Watching it again it’s striking how loutish the press appear and how little support Taylor got from his coaching staff or the FA. It’s unfair to judge the contributions of Laurie McMenemy & Phil Neal on the small amount of footage we got to see but neither seemed to offer much in the way of insight or tactical opinion. Neal in particular was lampooned for simply repeating Taylor’s instructions to the players from the dugout whilst sat beside him. The FA meanwhile seemed to consist of a set of old school blazers sat behind a highly polished board table. In the aftermath of England’s failure and the documentary they were rightly savaged by the press.

Looking back I think the worst part of Taylor’s time was Euro ’92 when he picked a starkly dull squad whilst better players were simply ignored for not fitting the system, with the right back shambles showing the often repeated mistake of England managers of placing square pegs in round holes. His selections did get better although at the time I was annoyed at the constant exclusion of Matt Le Tissier, a player who later on neither Terry Venables nor Glenn Hoddle could fit into their teams, so he was probably correct on that one. One ongoing problem I saw with his teams was an over dependance on a talisman (Lineker early on, Gascoigne later). The plan always seemed to be have a disciplined organised team and wait for Gazza to produce a moment of magic, when it didn’t happen or he was injured (as was frequently the case) England lacked a plan b.

Of the 9 permanent England managers I’ve seen come and go (and last longer than 67 days) three were clearly better than Taylor and 3 were definitely worse. What makes the Taylor era look so bad was it was sandwiched by England’s run to the semi finals of Italia ’90 and Euro ’96. Indeed many of Taylor’s players from 1993 would go on to play for England through to the end of the 1990s.

Perhaps the best way of putting it is to say Taylor was simply employed by the FA at the wrong time- his old school tactics came just at the time England were starting to employ a more progressive approach, surely they knew what kind of football Taylor would deliver, didn’t they? I’ll remember Taylor has a decent, likeable figure and a manager who gave his all but came up short, and at the time I did not like that.

New Season- England manager’s to do list

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With a season to go until the World Cup Gareth Southgate has plenty to do. Here’s the key things he chronologically needs to sort out before the World Cup.

  1. Pick a captain. The importance of the captaincy is of course massively overstated, it seems to be important to some of the press and fans (expect Five Live phone-ins to be lit up with black and white cab drivers insisting it’s the biggest decision the manager will ever make) but ask any player or anyone associated with football outside of England and they’ll say it’s not important. However it’s daft to have Wayne Rooney; a player not currently in the squad listed as captain. Harry Kane appears the most likely option as the current Tottenham captain and one of only 2 players guaranteed a place in the side (the other being club mate Dele Alli). Southgate can save himself a lot of grief in the press by picking his captain before the Malta game this September.
  2. Qualify. Obvious and the absolute minimum requirement for an England manager as Steve McClaren, Graham Taylor and even Sir Alf could all testify. England’s remaining away games are against the two weakest sides in their group (Malta & Lithuania) whilst the only sides who could realistically beat England to top spot (Slovakia & Slovenia) both have to visit to Wembley. If England win both their games this September they may find themselves needing only a point from the two October games (Slovenia Lithuania) to ensure qualification. Given the issues to resolve within the team before the World Cup Southgate would benefit from using the final qualifiers as glorified friendlies. England really need to avoid the playoffs given the at least two from Italy, Spain, France, Holland & Sweden will be there with the likes of Croatia, Portugal and Ireland currently sitting second in their qualifying groups.
  3. Decide on a number one. Joe Hart’s tenure as automatic first choice goalkeeper is surely over despite Southgate public backing his man. England have two highly talented young keepers in Jordan Pickford & Jack Butland but neither has played a Champions League game (although Pickford will play in the Europa League this season) and 4 caps between them (all Butland’s). Southgate’s problem is he has to choose between these 2 players quickly in order to give one of them enough caps before the World Cup. Fraser Forster and Tom Heaton complete England’s current complement of ‘keepers, the number one will be largely decided by club form but Southgate has to get it right.
  4. Find a centre back pairing. England has struggled in central defence at their last two tournaments, Southgate needs to find the right combination for a back 4 and preferred trio when flexed to a 3-4-3 formation. At present Gary Cahill is the only guaranteed a place even in the England squad despite ongoing concerns over his international pedigree. John Stones is a hugely talented playmaker but needs a much improved second season at Manchester City whilst Michael Keane made a good start to his England career but must adapt to a new team at Everton. Chris Smalling & Phil Jones appear to be fading down the Manchester United pecking order, England under 21 trio Callum Chamber, Alfie Mawson & Rob Holding will all press their claims and Harry Maguire may come into the equation following his move to Leicester. England have plenty of options but must blood combinations that will work.
  5. Central Midfield conundrum. England’s central midfield places look wide open. Only holding midfielder Eric Dier and the often injured linkman Jordan Henderson look squad certainties. The other veteran options are Jack Wilshere (perma-crock), Fabian Delph (Man City B team), Michael Carrick (turns 37 next July), Jake Livermore & Danny Drinkwater (neither international class) whilst Southgate clearly doesn’t trust Ross Barkley. That may lead Southgate to look at his youth options: James Ward-Prowse, Nathaniel Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lewis Cook, Will Hughes, Tom Davies & Harry Winks are all possibilities but all will need to get regular starts for their clubs and take their chances when they come. At the moment it’s anybody’s guess who will make it.
  6. Promoting Youth. Unlike 2006 or 2010 when players were more or less guaranteed places year in advance this squad will likely contain surprisesI’ve mentioned numerous young options above in England’s problem positions, however I’d estimate only 10-14 players are locked into the squad, that leaves plenty of opportunity for up and coming talents, especially with a former Under 21s manager now in charge. Kieran Trippier, Nathan Redmond, Demarai Gray, Tammy Abraham & Dominic Solanke lead a lengthy list of young players who may just breakthrough the International glass ceiling.