Wednesday, June 29, 2016

England's exits

Whilst not all Scots have a chip on their shoulder when it comes to their neighbours - just most of them - the over-the-top jingoism, particularly if there's optimism that the Three Lions will do well - does the head in.  It seems to be only football that's affected; coverage of rugby and cricket, for example, is objective; for European Championships and World Cups, any partiality seems to be overcome by an urge to think and behave like Ian Wright.

All that "Justice for the England eleven!" and "Young lions" crap - copyright Clive Tyldesley - makes watching the matches almost unbearable even if one is neutral.  So watching them get their comeuppance for treating Iceland - who beat Holland home-and-away in qualifying - like a pub team was proper schadenfreude.

So I imagine my fellow countrymen wouldn't mind a wee nostalgia trip through England's last 10 major tournament exits since they came so close to glory at Euro 96?  I would have liked to expand it to include the Do I Not Like That era, but this site has done a fabulous hatchet job on that already.  It's worth reading just for the "GO LES! HIT LES! HIT LES OVER THE TOP!" clip.  And the reminder that Carlton Palmer played for England...

And yes, I'm well aware that Scotland haven't been at a World Cup or European Championships for over half my lifetime.  But at least that means the world isn't watching when we screw up.

Anyway, here are England's last 10 major tournament exits, ranked from least embarrassing to most humiliating...

10. Euro 2004
Frank Lampard's extra-time equalizer against hosts Portugal might be the only time I've ever cheered an England goal.  I just couldn't help it; this was an epic game, not least because of an incredible individual battle between a young Cristiano Ronaldo and Ashley Cole on one wing which just about finished even stevens.  Frankly, England would have won comfortably but for losing Wayne Rooney (possibly, at just 19, in the form of his life) to a first half injury.  Replacement Darius Vassell wasn't quite as threatening.  Helder Postiga - then on Spurs' books but a million miles away from their team - came off the bench to equalize late on, then Rui Costa lamped one in off the bar in the second half of extra-time before Lampard struck and forced penalties...which went exactly as you'd expect; the hapless Vassell was the villain this time.

2004 (June 24) Portugal 2-England 2 (European... by sp1873

9. 2006 World Cup
The draw couldn't have been much more favourable, yet England huffed and puffed through games against Paraguay, Trinidad & Tobago, Sweden and Ecuador before meeting the Portuguese in the last eight again.  Missing several suspended players after the Battle of Nuremberg, Portugal should have been there for the taking, but it was a terrible game with Wayne Rooney's red card after an hour for a stamp on Ronaldo the only significant incident.  And so penalties again...and this time Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher (why the hell was he taking a penalty?!) all missed.

8. Euro 2012
I wonder if expectations have ever been lower for England in a major finals?  With Roy Hodgson taking over shortly before the tournament, and so short of talent that Martin Kelly was called up as a late injury replacement, getting to the quarter-finals was a pretty solid effort.  So too was taking Italy to penalties, though I'm not sure Andrea Pirlo actually let his opponents touch the ball that evening.  But we all know the shootout drill - Ashley Young and Ashley Cole were the ones to bottle it this time.

7. 2002 World Cup
I remember watching England-Brazil in my dressing gown at about 7am, and being rather worried when Michael Owen took advantage of Lucio's error to open the scoring...and rather relieved when Rivaldo finished off a brilliant team move to equalize.  And then came that Ronaldinho free kick.  Did he mean it?  No chance.  Did David Seaman have a complete disaster.  Oh, yes.  If England had won this, they'd have had to beat Turkey and a mediocre Germany (thrashed 5-1 less than a year earlier) to win the whole thing.  Opportunity missed, no?

6. 1998 World Cup
Oh, how I enjoyed Dan Petrescu's winner for Romania in the group stages...a little over ten minutes after Kevin Keegan celebrated Michael Owen's equalizer by pronouncing that "there's only going to be one winner now, and that's England".  Victories over Tunisia and Colombia ensured a place in the last sixteen, where Glenn Hoddle's side, inspired by Owen, led 2-1 before Argentina's clever set-piece routine produced a goal for Javier Zanetti.  And then, of course, came David Beckham's infamous red card.  Despite that, they were unlucky not to win in normal time.  David Batty's shootout miss (Brian Moore: "You know him better than anybody. Do you back him to score?  Quickly, yes or no?"  Kevin Keegan: "Yes.") sent them home.

5. 2014 World Cup
It was actually England's misfortune to be drawn in a group with two very decent sides in Italy and Uruguay, and to play the latter before Luis Suarez felt the need to bite someone.  They didn't play badly against either, but lost both 2-1 and suffered the ignominy of being eliminated before the last group game against Costa Rica.  At least they outdid Scotland by getting a draw in that one.

4. Euro 2000
Only a draw was required against Romania to get out of the group, and when Kevin Keegan's side came from behind to lead 2-1 at half-time it all looked rosy.  However, Nigel Martyn (deputising for an injured David Seaman) made a hash of a punch which allowed Dorinel Munteanu to equalize just after the break.  And then, with Romania toiling and the game petering out, Phil Neville earned himself free drinks for life north of the border after his stupid tackle gave away a late penalty.  Ioan Ganea converted, and that was that.

3. 2010 World Cup
Whilst there was nothing quite on the scale of The Sun's Euro 96 'ACHTUNG!' headline, there was plenty of the usual jingoism ahead of a clash with Germany in the first knockout stage.  Given England had been hopeless in the group stage - Rob Green's howler against the USA a particular highlight (immortalized below in Lego!) - and the Germans impressive, this was taking setting oneself up for a fall to the extreme.  I had a couple of mates round, with a plan to have a few beers if Germany won; we had cracked them open after twenty minutes with the score already 2-0.  Of course, had there been goalline technology they'd have pulled it back to 2-2 and it would have been game on.  But they didn't.  And, ripped apart on the counter-attack, they got gubbed 4-1.

2. Euro 2008 qualifying
Ah yes, the Wally with the Brolly.  In a tight group - they actually only finished ahead of Israel on goal difference - England lost in Croatia following a disastrous back three experiment and a glorious Paul Robinson error, and then toiled on astroturf in Russia.  So they needed a draw at home to Croatia (who were already through to the finals) to qualify, only to fall 2-0 behind within 14 minutes.  Inevitably, there was a goalkeeping blunder, this time by Scott Carson, who fumbled in the opening goal.  However, second half strikes from Frank Lampard and Peter Crouch seemed to have saved the day, only for Mladen Petric to nick a late winner for Slaven Bilic's side.  A day before this game, I wrote a blog (in the early days of this site) suggesting England could win Euro 2008.  Back then, I clearly knew nothing about football; very little has changed.

1. Euro 2016
What can I say?

(PS - I can't help being tempted to do a Scotland equivalent of this article.  It's only fair!)

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Deja Vu, Again

Let me start by making full disclosure; Gordon Strachan has always annoyed me. 

Ever since he competed with the genius that is Graeme Payne for the title of “Best Short Ginger-Haired Midfield Schemer In Dundee” in the mid-seventies (*further amusing anecdote at end of this piece), he’s annoyed me.  He was annoying at Aberdeen.  I didn’t care what he got up to at Manchester United and Leeds, but he annoyed me again playing for Scotland as part of a serial under-achieving team from 1980-86.

But I’m a wee bit more than just annoyed now. In fact, I’ve very annoyed. I’m very annoyed because of his poor attempt at managing Scotland to Euro 2016, but even more annoyed at some of his ridiculous utterances since the afore-mentioned tournament started.

The excuses and deflection around Scotland failing to qualify for this much-expanded tournament are being continually exposed for what they are, an attempt to deflect attention from his woeful management.  And each and every time he comes up with some pearl of wisdom, various teams produce performances which knock Strachan’s pathetic self-denial into a cocked hat.

Let me paraphrase:-
Scotland’s a small country, doesn’t have the player base” Unlike Croatia, Iceland, RoI etc

Scotland need to find a Bale-like superstar” Much like Northern Ireland and Iceland found one. Wait a minute . . .

Scotland doesn’t have enough players playing at a top level”. Like Real Madrid’s Michael McGovern and Barcelona’s Josh Magennis.

By not having Rangers in the top league, Scottish football is weak”. Ah yes, the glory days when John Greig and Barry Ferguson were lifting the World Cup, Richard Gough chaired Have I Got News For You and John Fleck was sold for £80,000,000.

The fallacies of the above positions taken by Strachan have been brutally ridiculed by many more on social media, and quite rightly so.  Nevertheless, media heartthrob Strachan just can’t help himself coming out with ever more ridiculous statements.  Let’s savour some recent in-a-hole-stop-digging pronouncements;
I know that for a fact, that we are better than some of the teams there and we have proved it”
Really?  When have we proved it?  When have we done it when it really mattered?  How can anyone take that sort of horseshit seriously?  The RoI did it when it mattered.  Poland did it when it mattered.  We didn’t.  We never do.  And that sort of jaw-droppingly idiotic statement suggests that it may be a few more decades before we do “prove” anything again.

Another display of Strachan’s seeming detachment from reality was also apparent, when talking about his assistant coaches Mark McGhee and Stuart McCall;
Neither of them can work computers or do a presentation and that might be against most managers these days” 

What?  They’re being unfairly victimised due to their refusal to adopt modern methodology for trying to improve performance?  Is that what you’re trying to say, Gordon?  Outrageous!  Luddites of the world, unite!  Never mind that the management teams of Italy, Spain, Germany, and doubtless Croatia, Iceland and Albania probably have plenty of coaches who can work computers and do presentations, who needs ‘em!  Proper football people don’t!

The sad thing is, we’re stuck with him for the foreseeable future. I have no confidence that we’ll not just see more of the same from the national team – the unwillingness to experiment, the selection of old favourites regardless of fitness or form, the unaccountable selection of lower league English players while decent Scottish players are simply ignored (you won’t be needed for a while Graeme Shinnie), his fixation with James Forrest – I could go on.  And on.

There is no danger of qualifying for the next world cup. Nothing is going to change the way he picks a squad, sets up a team, works out a strategy for beating better teams.  The success of many so-called small nations in France should be – indeed is – a massive embarrassment for Strachan and the SFA. 
You’d be hard pressed to see any sign of it though.  But never mind.  The manager’s pawky sense of humour** is loved by the media, so everything is okay.

Dream on.

*My brother (@knickerjelly for some bitter ramblings on architecture, sport, drink if you’re interested) played in a golf pro-am with Strachan when GS was manager of Coventry. Obviously, he took the first opportunity to tell Strachan that Graeme Payne was a better player. Turned out that Strachan’s famous sense of humour had apparently been left at home that day.

**Ignoring the fact he comes across as the sort of supercilious little arse with no self-awareness that you do your best to avoid in the pub. 

Peter Clark saw Dundee United win the league at Dens in 1983. His wife suspects everything since has been a bit disappointing.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Another lost decade?

Isn't time supposed to be a great healer?  Well, for most Scots, watching Euro 2016 is becoming more painful, not less.  Wales have won a game.  Northern Ireland have won a game...with a squad that contains more SPFL players than Gordon Strachan would pick for one of his Scotland squads.  And Iceland drew with Portugal.  Iceland, which has a population slightly smaller than that of Fife.  I wonder how a combined Dunfermline/Glenrothes/Kirkcaldy XI would have got on against the Portuguese.  One wag on Twitter suggested that the Fife team "would win at shoplifting".

So no wonder there is an awful lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth coming from the Tartan Army just now.  It's eighteen years - more than half my life, depressingly, since we last reached a major tournament.  Out of all the other UEFA countries that have previously qualified for a World Cup or European Championship (and still exist) only Israel have waited longer...and they weren't part of UEFA when they qualified for a World Cup.

The itch isn't ending any time soon, I'm afraid.  As much as we hold on to the romantic prospect of stuffing England, our qualifying group for Russia 2018 is a killer.  Euro 2020?  That'd be great, given that Hampden is getting to host some games.  But the truth is that, as hopeless as the national team is now, it's likely to be even weaker by then.

Things are bad enough now - so bad that geriatric Gordon Greer, released by Brighton at the end of the season, is still considered a viable option at centre back going into these qualifiers.  The only Scots likely to be regulars most weeks for English Premier League clubs (a pretty reasonable barometer for quality, in my opinion) are Allan McGregor, Andrew Robertson, James McArthur, Darren Fletcher, James Morrison and Matt Ritchie.  The former two are with a newly promoted side.  And depressingly, the latter two are Scottish only by distant ancestor.  Oh, and Fletcher is 32.

But we have lots of youngsters coming through right?  Um, er, well, er, no we absolutely do not.  Eight players currently aged under 23 have Scotland caps: Robertson, Kieran Tierney, Stephen Kingsley, Callum Paterson, Oliver Burke, John McGinn, Barrie McKay and Tony Watt.  How many of those do you think could establish themselves at a club in the English Premier League in the future?  Not many, I reckon.  The most likely candidates are the former three...all of whom play in exactly the same position.  So unless we find a formation which involves playing several left-backs (over to you, Craig Levein) it doesn't look good.

The 2010s are going to be a lost decade for the Scotland national team.  Part of that is down to massive failures by the managers, Craig Levein and Strachan.  In turn, one could also blame their employers for such rotten appointments, though the failures of Strachan were harder to predict than those of Mister 4-6-0.  Northern Ireland are reaping the rewards of appointing a talented manager who can make the team far more than the sum of their parts due to organization and attitude.

But the lack of quality players can't be laid at their door.

Take Iceland, and it's population of 300,000.  There have been a wealth of articles explaining their success in developing players; it comes from an enormous investment in facilities and coaching.  Every school seems to have a full-size artificial pitch, and a large indoor pitch.  Kids from the age of 3 upwards play several days a week, taught by coaches with UEFA licences which are funded by Iceland's FA.  There is one qualified coach for every 850 people in Iceland.

In Scotland, where coaches have to pay four figure sums out of their own pockets for courses, that ratio is about one for every 12000 people.  And, of course, our facilities are rather less impressive.  In Inverness for example there are just two full-size artificial pitches and nothing indoor that is better than a gym hall.  There is one indoor astro pitch in Dingwall, I suppose.

I mentioned this to my father the other day, and his response hit the nail on the head.  "That's because football isn't a business in Iceland".  That may not be completely accurate, but it explains sufficiently why making clubs responsible for youth development isn't a wise move here.  Academies cost a lot of money; how many gems worth seven figure sums are they going to produce each year?  There's also the short-term need for first team success; signing a veteran player often seems a safer option than risking an untried youngster.  Even Celtic, with their desperate need for Champions League football, haven't felt comfortable blooding youths (Kieran Tierney is the exception) during their four years of barely-contested dominance.

Maybe I'm being overly optimistic, but the signs are that Brian McClair, the new performance director, has identified this.  His moves to heavily streamline youth coaching so that a smaller number of more elite kids are looked after by a smaller number of more elite coaches looks like the right way to go.  Whether the clubs - each of whom still believe they will unearth and unleash the tartan Gareth Bale, and therefore make a mint, without putting in enough money and effort to do so - will agree is another matter.

It's also not clear if the SFA will throw their weight behind McClair here.  Stewart Regan says the right things, but that has been the characteristic of his tenure as Chief Executive - lots of clever-sounding words (I bet he even uses buzzwords in conversations with his family) but barely any action.

There's no doubt that there is no quick solution to the Scotland national team's travails; the current doldrums will continue for a few years yet.  But decisions taken now will determine whether the 2020s end up being a lost decade as well.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.