The Euro draw
The draw for the European championships next summer took place today. Sighs of relief all round at England’s draw: France, Ukraine (joint hosts with Poland) and Sweden. Far from easy, but worst case scenario with the seeding would have been Spain, Portugal and France. Group of Death (there must always be one and it usually involves Holland) is… Holland, Germany, Portugal and Denmark. Not easy for Ireland either: Spain, Italy and Croatia. A group of near-death. And then for completeness, the Group of Life, or maybe, of the East: Poland, Greece, Russia, Czech Republic.
Can we qualify from our group? Should surely, but here are some grim stats from the Opta Joe tweet (which I recommend) :
- France are unbeaten in their last five games against England. They won four.
- England’s win ratio against Sweden is only 32%.
- Ukraine are the only team to beat England in the last two qualifying campaigns. And they are the hosts.
- England have never won their opening game of a European Championship. Lost four, drew three. This time it’s France.
Opta Joe likes to end with a single word that sums up the stat. Put these four together. Stuffed.
But if we do get through to the quarter final, is it an exit to Spain or Italy? Please not Ireland! It’ll be on penalties. Probably Spain, assuming they top their group and we come second in ours. Saw an Opta stat the other day. England have been in seven penalty shoot-outs. Won 1, lost 6. But the one win, in Euro 96, was Spain. And we did beat them the other day… Victorious!
Welcome back Martin O’Neill
While it’s always sad to see a football manager being sacked – always the scapegoat for players’ poor performance – it’s good to see Martin O’Neill back in the Premier League. I like his passion for the game – it’s in his eyes – his fierce insight, his humour. I like the way he gets the best out of teams, gets them playing football which may not be the most beautiful, but is exciting. He plays simple lines, usually 4-4-2, making the most of the all the pitch, breaking fast, staying organised. A Northern Irishman playing a classic English style, the style that won English teams – Liverpool, Villa and of course, Forest, the team he played for under Brian Clough – a lot of European Cups in the 70s and 80s. Is the style outdated now? Well, it’s out of favour with the big teams at the moment, but they often revert to it when desperate for a goal towards the end of a game. Its main weakness, if the midfield stretches too wide, is that the centre of midfield can be overrun (see English national team on many occasions). But played intelligently, with the second striker dropping back where necessary – in that hole – and at least one wide man tucking in when necessary, then it’s not actually so different to any of the in-vogue formations.
O’Neill is now criticised for his time at Villa. Three sixth places in a row. The fans would probably give anything for that now. Had there been a bit more money at the club, he probably would have been in with a shout of a fourth place finish. Like Everton, Tottenham in recent times, maybe even Newcastle this season.
How will he do with Sunderland, where he knows there is no more money for players? Well, Steve Bruce has bought a lot of new players, and most arrived with good reputations, so a bit of organisation, a bit of motivation and I’m sure they’ll turn it round. I’d go for 10th place this season.
I feel a bit sorry for Steve Bruce. He’s not well liked amongst fans – ex Man Utd, whinges a lot about refs, has been quite disloyal to sides in the past. But listen to him talk, and he’s very honest, clearly in love with the game, a good man. The media has been saying he hadn’t moved with the times – the new formations and tactics, the technology on the training pitch, understanding his players as individuals, and so on. I don’t know how true that is, but there did seem a pattern (before this season) of Sunderland starting well then falling away. Fitness issues? Motivation and strategy when the going gets tough? Hope he gets another club, anyway – the Championship might suit him best.
England rugby – don’t blow the inheritance
The revelations from the leaked report on World Cup failure last week were pretty stunning by any standards. Of course they were selectively reported – the good stuff, if there was any, was conspicuous by its absence. The players’ disdain for the coaches (except Graham Rowntree), the claims of poor preparation, the favouring of established players (especially those who’d played with Johnno in the 2003 World Cup), the focus on money and endorsements, the general lack of discipline, was staggering. After all that time preparing together, how could that have happened? Or maybe because of all that time together? What screamed out was lack of leadership: both at the top, but also within the playing ranks. And lack of self awareness – everything was someone else’s fault. We, the viewers, could see the lack of leadership on the pitch at the World Cup. It was surprising. Now we can understand why.
So Johnno went, but no replacement yet, and probably only a stop gap until the summer. No surprise, as the leadership at Twickenham is in disarray. There is no-one, really, with the authority to appoint a new manager, or head coach, or Director of Rugby, or whatever the bloke who picks the team and gets them to play is called. So we will wait until the summer and then get someone like the South African, Nick Mallett. That will be fine, if he is backed up by strong coaches and is supported properly by the blazers – with no-one briefing against him the moment England lose a game, as they will.
The opportunity must be taken to sort out management at all levels, because there are so many good young players waiting to step up. Just to take Quins: George Lowe, Jordan Turner-Hall, Sam Smith, Seb Stegman, Joe Gray, Joe Marler, Luke Wallace, Chris Robshaw, to name a few. And not to forget Danny Care, Ugo Monye, Mike Brown. In fact, convert Nick Evans to an Englishman and play the whole Quins team! All the top teams could probably roll off a similar list. Some of the players mentioned may not be quite good (or big) enough in the end, but there is such rich talent out there. Please don’t waste it Twickers!
It’s hard to comprehend what might have compelled Gary Speed, the Wales football manager, to take his own life. Outwardly he had so much going for him. It really did look like he was giving the Welsh team a new lease of life, with players like Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey leading the way. I don’t really want to know what caused that terribly sad outcome. I hope it stays private, with his family and close friends. Chances are that at some stage something will find its way onto the internet and into the press – the journos will only be doing their job. I’d rather, though, that we just remembered the excellent midfield player who was brilliant in the air, who won a Premiership winners’ medal with Leeds and played 86 times for his country. And the up and coming manager who was beginning to make his mark in Wales.
The outpouring of grief and shock, the eloquent tributes, the flowers, all showed the esteem in which he was held. But it spoke of something else too: the sense of community amongst footballers and fans, which is so often overshadowed by the venality of today’s game at the top level; and a sense of awakened understanding that even rich, successful footballers can have problems. Only the day before Gary Speed’s death, the Guardian’s “Secret Footballer” was writing about it; Stan Collymore has been tweeting about his own experience. Footballers-are-human-beings-shock, not just the arrogant semi-gods and yobs that they are mostly portrayed as – images they often encourage. Maybe something good will emerge from all of this: a greater humilty and sympathy on all sides? Oh, I doubt it, but one can but hope.