Clickbait? You betcha!

Hey. Front-loading this (from last night) with a sentence on *that* presser-invasion. That presser-invasion by the England Women players may have been the best moment in the history of sport.

Now read on.

Feel like doing something cheap and inflammatory – much like the fella Kelly and the fella Bronze did, late-on, for England. (They are blokes, right? Or could it be they just pretended to be, at the death there?)

So yeh how about that cheapest of cop-outs – the Player Ratings thing – along with some comments? Let’s get at it…

EARP. 8.5: tournament score 8.5.

May have been England’s best player of the tournament and was ver-ry solid again tonight. Commanding under the high ball; had no chance with the German goal. Does she score extra style points or lose some, though, for the Loving The Camera thing? Comes all over a bit David Seaman/Jordan Pickford when she feels the lens upon her. Whatever: good work. You stay down there for ten minutes gurll, if ya can get away with it.

BRONZE. 6.25: tournament score 6.

This may be the best, most dynamic athlete and *player* in the England squad and she may know it. She’s off to Bayern next, no doubt seeking ‘a new challenge’ and a purse commensurate to her talents. (Most of which is fine, of course. Except possible inflated ego and limited loyalty). Bronze is a worldie who has spent much of the last two years either playing soo faaar within herself that she is almost absent, or being wasteful or under-focused (particularly defensively) given the immense talent she has. Poor tournament, given the success of the team and shockingly blokey cynicism (reffing the game/looking to inflame/amateur dramatics in the last ten minutes of extra-time). Should certainly have been booked for that nonsense. So yeh. We see you, Bronzey. We don’t need you thinking you’re a male Premier League Legend. Get playing.

BRIGHT. 8.679. Tournament score 9.

May be England’s most limited player but Player of the Tournament nevertheless. A Rock. The Stopper. The Lioness Army on her own, pretty much. *Maybe* might have closed down Magull earlier or better for that German goal but otherwise a close to flawless competition for the erm, Rock Stopper.

Williamson. 7.8. Tournament score 7.231.

Hugely accomplished player and excellent foil for Bright. Reads the game, can thread passes. Goodish but not at her peak in this adventure.

DALY. 7. Tournament score 6.9.

‘Honest’, old-school full-back. Meaning likes to clatter wingers and do that defensive graft. Limited composure and quality on the ball. Will battle.

WALSH. 6.572. Tournament score 6.572.

Holding midfielder who can play. But didn’t, all that much. Can see a pass but didn’t, all that much. Lacked presence, both physical and in terms of influence.

KIRBY. 6.1. Tournament score 6.3.

Fabulous player who has had significant health/fitness issues. Lucky to have seen this campaign out, having been scandalously absent in certain matches. Real shame she barely featured again tonight: Kirby oozes quality and skill and composure when purring. This evening, on a stage made for her, she barely made a pass.

STANWAY. 7.82. Tournament score 7.28.

Mixed again, from the playmaker. Not as ineffectual as Kirby but not convincing or influential in the way her team-mates, fans and coaching team might have hoped. Got drawn into some of the spiteful stuff and rarely picked her head up to find a killer pass. Good player marginally below form.

HEMP. 6. Tournament score 6.

Surprisingly low? Not for me. Hemp is a tremendous player, who does torment opponents week in, week out. But she started nearly every match looking paralysed by nerves and (as well as making some good runs and the occasional threatening cross) she ran down faaaar tooo many blind alleys. Fully understand Wiegman’s No Changes policy but Hemp’s mixed contributions were so obvious that she might have been dropped in another high-flying side. In short, another underachiever given her ability.

MEAD. 6.75. Tournament score 7.243.

Golden Boot winner: scorer of a couple of fine goals. What’s not to like? Mead’s wastefulness wasn’t at the level of her co-wide-person, Hemp but her early contributions tended to be somewhere between woeful and mediocre. So nerves. When she settled or didn’t have time to think she smashed the ball in the net. So significant plusses. But I maintain she was significantly down on her capacity.

WHITE. 6. Tournament score 6.

Fine all-round striker who lacked her edge. Good movement but missed chances, including an early header tonight. Intelligent, crafty, even but neither involved sufficiently in link-up play nor the Fox-in-the-Box she aspires to be. She may not care, but not a great tournie for Whitey.

SUBS.

RUSSO. 6.75.Tournament score 7.45.

She’ll (and we’ll) always have that backheel – probably the Footballing Moment of the Year(?) – and she featured well on appearing around the hour. Has a certain physicality White lacks and does threaten magic. Wiegman will be feeling pret-ty smug, I’m guessing that her Russo Project delivered.

TOONE. 7.82. Tournament score 7.49.

Beautifully-taken goal, against the grain of the match. Historic, I guess. Is a talent and, like Russo, has the gift of sparking something. Quite possibly unlucky not to have started games: was quietish, mind, apart from the goal.

KELLY. 6.2. Tournament score 6.2.

Bundled in her goal but like most of us half-expected it to get ruled out for the way in which she fought off her defender. Then went mental. (Think her goal was probably legit but would it have been given in Berlin, I wonder? The officials were consistently poor, were they not?) Have no problem identifying as a Football Purist so thought Kelly’s repeated and deliberately inflammatory way of ‘going to the corner’ was literally foul. An awful way to finish a good tournament.

Don’t care if folks think I’m being embarrassingly retro if I say it’s a slippery slope, that, down to where the scheisters in the Bloke’s Big Time hang out to ‘draw their fouls’. Cheap shot after cheap shot – unnecessary. The manifestly higher levels of fairness and respect in the women’s game are important. Don’t fall in to shithousery, please. Thought the lead pundit on the telly-box – former England keeper – was appalling around this and her pitifully one-eyed view of the game, generally, was unedifying.

SCOTT. 7. Tournament score 7.

Scott’ s brief for some time is to run around for a limited period of time and rob the ball, then keep it simple. She tends to do that well. She’s feisty, too. Fading memory – was it her, wassit her?!? – of a Classic Moment when argy-bargy broke out and Scott bawled “FUCK OFF YOU FUCKING PRICK!!” into the face of one of our European sisters. Guessing our Jill is a Brexiteer.

WIEGMAN. 7.985. Tournament score 8.972.

Clearly a good coach/manager of people. Don’t entirely buy the Oh My God She’s a Genius meme, because England were outplayed for too long by Spain and Sweden (and for some periods tonight) without sufficient reaction from either the England players or their coaching team. But she’s good, and she couldn’t do more than win the bloody thing, eh? Apparently she’s a right laugh, too. So maybe add a full point to those scores, on reflection.

PRESSER INVASION. 10.
The best, funniest, most human thing a daft bunch of wunnerful football stars have done for aeons. Magic.

OVERVIEW.

MASSIVE that England have won a tournament. Weird, you may think, that they have won it with half the team underachieving. But I do think that. #WEuro2022 has been a good, often fabulous comp with an ordinary final won by a team who maybe had a little luck. So what’s new? Most tournaments go that way, in fact many are poor quality, in truth and have a duffer of a showpiece.

It was important and often thrilling that we saw some top, top footie, with real quality, composure and skill at this event. France were outrageous at times; Spain gave England an hour lesson; Sweden and the Netherlands were tremendously watchable when at their best. But England went and won it; scrapped and flew in there and battled and then won it. They are to be congratulated. Here’s hoping we can look back on this in a wee while and bring out the ‘l’ word – legacy, dumbo! – without rolling our eyes (a la London Olympics, etc, etc).

I’m thinking this could be huge for women’s sport all over Europe, not just in Ingerland.

Field of Dreams.

A challenge, this: to wrangle with the conflictions around Flintoff and somehow appreciate fairly the reality-docu-dip that was his “Field of Dreams”.

Let’s blast away at the opening concerns, and indeed the opening credits. Crap intro which ladles on the Freddie-lurv and traduces the state of the game as it stands. (Of bloody course cricket is dogged by elitism – I spend half my life trying to oppose or render it obsolete – but it’s not THE most privileged sport in Britain. Let’s not start with a shameless dollop of clickbait and a slack falsehood: that debate is important).

Get that this is ‘popular TV’ but not sure that means we need to launch with Sun readership-level positioning of the central issue; that faaar too many kids are either denied the game entirely, or are rendered ‘irrelevant’ by lack of facilities/coaching/dosh. Wonderful that Frederico is (belatedly?) struck by the need to do something… but c’mon, let’s have a wee look at the thinking or motivation behind that. Then we can un-pick the socio-economic/class-based problems and hopefully look with clarity at the pitiful, possibly unsustainable failures of leadership.

Do I doubt the quality of Fred’s feeling for the game, or his impulse to pitch in and use his profile to put something back? Absolutely not. Would I have preferred it if he hadn’t made a documentary series off the back of that concern – i.e. if he had quietly but maybe more magnificently done all of this stuff off-camera? (Yes).

On the one hand Flintoff’s generosity shines through, here but it’s also the case that the former cricket-god has form for being relentlessly attention-seeking: in short Fred’s made more appalling telly that almost any man alive, and much of this seemed to be driven by a deepish neediness which may spring from his own, heavily-reported issues. (Issues I am absolutely not under-estimating. I’m just speaking plainly). Flintoff, like many great sportsfolks, has both an ego and some not insignificant baggage.

Flintoff also authentically has that Northern Way of being good and being honest. He is genuinely concerned for and genuinely proud of the mixed bag of dysfunctional ‘nutters’, borderline depressives and fabulous ‘under-achievers’ that make up his group. There are legitimately poignant (and even important) stories intertwined with the inevitable gather towards comradeship/achievement/growth.

Speaking as a Northern Lad (originally), brought up with sport in the blood and hugely conscious of the role it can play, it struck familiar chords. I didn’t grow up with or encounter Afghani immigrants who had cut their way out of lorries not knowing where the hell they were. I did, however, grow up (in the fullest sense) with lads who were allegedly ‘a waste of space’ everywhere but the sports field. I have coached a million hours in Community Settings and am proud to know people who spend their lives doing what Flintoff did – offering that way in. I know cricket can be a platform, a shelter, a right bloody laugh.

So I welled up, listening to lads who are nearly lost; imagining my kids on the streets; seeing Sean’s clandestine brilliance so dismembered by circumstance.

Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams” is enjoyable and compelling but flawed – of course it is. Fred’s that way himself (and so say all of us). Cricket is neck-deep in privilege and therefore dysfunction but this join-the-dots shuftie at ‘estates’, idylls and elite private schools, may not have added much to the urgently necessary discussions around administrative change and resolving inequality. (To be fair, that probably wasn’t The Brief).

Fred, and the essential team of (community) coaches who (though largely absent from our screens) clearly effected much of the cricket development, did some great stuff. I love and honour both them and the game, for that. The obligatory former SAS hunk threw in a team-building exercise that might have taken gold at the Blokey Back-slapping Olympics and Our Lovable Rogues *really did* make progress, not just as cricketers but as citizens.

Fred got some scallywags got off the streets, off their arses and (yes) inspired them to *do something positive*. Some fell in love with the game. Some made much-needed mates. Perhaps most importantly, about half of them joined the local club after the TV Caper was done. Flintoff used his clout, some of his personal wedge and an infectious lump of encouragement to make a difference. To paraphrase him, late-on; it may even be that the listening, the offering, the life-changing malarkey was waaay more important than any win over a bunch of toffs could be. This was bigger than cricket.

Pic courtesy BBC TV.

London Calling. Or Falling? Or Stormed?

So waay too late, I went to an Olympics. Or an Olympic stadium. Aeons after the world loved London, Ingerland – ten excruciating years, in fact, by my reckoning – I’m there.

Now, somewhere between dystopian weirdness and jarringly-immediate come-uppance – and shit, at the moment of writing! – the fat, privileged, idle, laughing-stock who has robbed us of our very authenticity, preened the very worst of our national prejudices and creamed-off much of our silver for his pals in Stockbrokerville has been presented with a significant hurdle. Come the end of the day he may be spent. And this may be a turning-point back towards a kind of general decency and respect: a kind of England most of us could sign up to *at some level*.

(Yes, friends, I live in Wales so yes there are a million sub-clauses and qualifications inferred here. Don’t be insulted if I fail to itemise them?)

Meanwhile, *switching*, West Ham – the football team – smacked of a kind of earthy loveliness long before the London Olympics changed their geography as well as their profile. They were Bonds and Hurst and Peters and Brooking and Clyde Best. Their whole spirit was somehow characterised by the rolled-down socks (but metaphorically rolled-up sleeves) of that first-named club icon. So they were liked.

It’s absurd in 2022 to use phrases like ‘attractive football’; worse still to associate that with abstracted, rose-tinted community goodness but as I look around the acres of ‘park’ now home to the Happy Hammers, the clash of values, vistas and jazzed-up-verbals is somewhat mind-blowing. The mind drifts. The New Universe is built of gravel and murals. A metallic bowl, in cream and concrete and claret; opened-out spaces to accommodate a world of visitors; the greyish hinterland of planned policing.

I get there early so as to find stuff: Stratford, the stadium and a pub in Hackney Wick. It’s quietly thrilling to see so many Town milling about, more than two hours before kick-off. Already clear Solihull Moors gonna be swamped, on the terraces – or, ahem, in the seats.

Yes. I’m Grimsby and I’m there because I’m Grimsby. Despite being in West Wales for the whole of my considerable adult life. (Hands up, schizophrenic don’t cover it: proud of family and mates but substantially estranged from Ingerland. Particularly now). A National League Play-off Final has drawn me to The Smoke, not the prospect of a Boris be-heading, or the Plat Joob – which I have openly unsubscribed from.

Don’t blame me if the kaleidscopic madness of everything is conspiring towards another action painting. Blame them murals.

22,000 in the ground and towards 15k of them are GTFC. (No kidding. This may merely mark the size and history of the respective clubs but it feels incontrovertibly good, as a Town fan, in the building). Solihull – fair play – make a nonsense of this by quietly massacring a limp Mariners side for twenty-five minutes. They do all the ‘playing out’. They do all the ‘ball possession’. All the stuff we’ve been demanding, over beer and fodder in the local hostelry, they do.

Town have a fella called Fox in central midfield. He gets his head up. He gathers and looks – more than almost anybody in the National League. He should be playing alongside Clifton and he/they should be getting the ball. Hurst, the Grimsby manager, lacks the game intelligence to see this. Solihull boss the game faaaar too easily and Fox falls back on the easy role of dogged interceptor and header of midfield bombs. Clifton has a mare throughout. He’s not the only one undermined by nerves, tiredness and/or poor strategy but it’s a particular shame in his case.

Moors nearly murder us (see what I did there?) in the opening half-hour. Instead the lead at the interval is a manageable 1-0 – the eight foot twelve striker Kyle Hudlin inevitably nodding home just as folks were beginning to slide off for pies and pees. It’s been mixed fayre – and it remains that way – with Town’s dominance off the park barely reflected in the relatively uninspired action on the pitch.

It’s the National League; I get that. Guys are nervous and in the Mariners’ case, entitled to be drained. (Already two EPIC knock-out games ticked off. Remarkable, exhausting games). But there is a lot of poor, wasteful play and percentage-wise, a fair lump of that comes from Sousa, who, despite being gifted, seems to specialise in infuriating profligacy and Smith, who cannot pass. Others under-achieve but if I were to brutally dissect… those two guys seem the obvious candidates for release*, before the deeep breath and go again thing, in League Two, next season.

*Fully understand that some Town fans will powerfully disagree with this. Sousa’s dancing and Smith’s resilience have made a contribution. But for me they aren’t players for the next step.

The Town Faithful, perhaps blithely confident that somehow the Mariners will find a way, make their presence felt, periodically. And periodically, McAtee, the Boy Most Likely to, looks likely. Then he scores.

Seventy minutes gone, with Town threatening in bursts. McAtee beginning to look a tad laboured – been playing hurt, I’m guessing. A threaded pass offers a yard. He nails it, calmly threading the angle across the keeper. A million agents make another note. The lad may be in the Championship promptly; cruel for Town but plainly on merit.

We get our third consecutive bout of extra-time. Their right-winger gets his eighty-fourth cross in, unopposed by Amos. There is space and Town have thrown on the alternative, pacy strike-force to snatch this before pens. Abrahams is racing lustily around, Dieseruvwe showing the occasional good touch. Hurst’s late positivity feels like a healthy gamble.

The trauma of pens is avoided in probably the most predictable of fashions. Even though National League defenders spend most of their professional life defending aerial threats, (my) recent experience has been that they ain’t that proficient at doing it. (Witness Wrexham, here… and everything). A long throw is piled in to the six-yard box, from somewhere east of Lowestoft. A yellow-shirted neck cranes cruelly but the ball glances dangerously on. Maguire-Drew launches and gets a nudge. 2-1 Town.

Us part-time supporters (and Englishmen) go ballistic. It’s a ver-ry special eruption of pride, defiance, community. THIS TEAM have really triumphed. THIS TEAM really did refuse to lie down – serially. McAtee, soon after, is talking about 11 months of non-stop graft. The lad’s exhausted but wonderfully free of the arrogance that might come once somebody gets in his ear ‘about his worth’. He’s loved this club and loved this moment. He’s seen what it means to ‘these fans’. This is legitimate joy.

Anybody casting an eye over the decent sports press will have seen the columns that Jason Stockwood has been filing. They’re a kind of Decent Capitalism-Plus. The chairman gets it: people; value; patience; belief. I can’t argue with his support for Hurst – though in strategic terms I think he gets things wrong. But what the hell? There is something profoundly right – though indescribable – about Grimsby Town battling/earning/enabling an immediate (but endless, agonising) return to full-time, professional football.

Let’s draw no daft equivalence between that wonderful storming and the one the bloody nation(s) need. Travelling back to Wales, the issues, the anger, the surrealities will only garishly multiply. My ears have popped, bursting out of some West Of Ingerland tunnel. Deep breath and I’ll be all over the news channels.

Six Nations under one groove…

L’eau: c’est claire et bleue, n’est-ce pas? (Did I get the feminine thing, right?)

Clear blue water. It feels that way, the morning after: France at a higher level. With Matt Dawson’s recent description of Scotland as ‘world class’ looking ever dafter – or evermore like some kind of weird but familiar (and peculiarly English) Existential Guilt. An over-compensation.

Murrayfield was swiftly quietened. Then England Wales felt and often looked slightly Division Two, with Eddie Jones’s crew again looking like a team that lacks identity – quite possibly because Eddie Jones changes the line-up every time they step out on the park.

The hierarchy seems clear, then: France ten points better than everybody else, with Ireland and England closely matched, behind. Les Bleus go to Cardiff – where they should win – and host England, who may yet offer a challenge. Should Natural Justice prevail, however, the best and most entertaining side in the tournament will win a Grand Slam. Few would deny them that.

Scotland have closed a metaphorical gap, to their credit, in recent years, but remain reliant on inspirational sparks from the crowd, or from hearty, ball-carrying individuals. It’s notable – and disappointing for us neutrals – how Hogg and Russell have underwhelmed, thus far. Wales, meanwhile, are somehow both close to a slump… and occasionally brilliant. Here are my two live blogs, from Saturday.

Du Pont! Generously waiting a full seven minutes before dancing and smashing through the hosts. Classically ‘French’ try – meaning all-court rugby of a particularly expansive species, made by the scrum-half’s endless, penetrating break. Murrayfield stamps its feet quietly and shakes out the cold. May be resigned, early doors.

A minor response – an important response – as Russell knocks over a pen but within another five or six minutes a second, genuinely glorious try from as France surge, sling, then bundle over in the corner. After fifteen, the visitors lead 12-3 but have already minced most of those absurd expressions of confidence from pro-Scottish pundits. (C’ mon: it’s been obvious. Scotland were fortunate to beat England, they are an improved side but still a relatively moderate one AND NOWHERE NEAR AS GOOD AS FRANCE. Whatever happens from hereon in).

The wind is blowing strongly, in Scotland’s favour – assuming you accept that a following wind is a boon. The thought strikes that Hogg’s monumental kicking game may be key to keeping this close ’til half-time… but beyond that?

Scotland managing set-pieces okay: they rob a line-out and van der Merwe opens his legs. Encouragement. Then a Big Moment. Jaminet launches at the high ball but clumsily mis-judges. Yellow? He is maybe fortunate. What the full-back’s error does do is offer real momentum to Scotland. They capitalise, after an extended period of pressure: Darge powers over after a tap penalty. After the extraordinary expression of superiority from France, in those initial exchanges, the scoreboard reads 10-12. Ridiculous and rather wonderful. *Perhaps especially* given the growing sense that a few French heads are reverting to stereotype: i.e. lost under pressure.

Scotland again get the penalty upon contact: then France strip the hosts. Then a knock-on, from Jaminet – who, in fairness had to reach behind himself in the attempt to gather. (Poor pass). Incredibly, we reach 35 minutes (in about 12) and this entertaining harem-scarem feels even. No phases, lots of excitement.

AAAARGH. Clear green water for van der Merwe then Hogg must surely score?!? The pass is out front… a teaser… a killer. The skipper can’t get there but can’t stop himself reaching and knocking on. Could decide the match, that – a score then and even I might believe in a ridicu-grind towards a Scottish victory. Instead, we approach the half and France have a line-out on the twenty-two.

The first opportunity is missed, strangely because of a slightly lazy long pass, form the godlike Du Pont. No matter. France, well into red time, keep this alive and scorch diametrically towards the other corner. Pace and power again combine, as Fickou barges over and in. (Perhaps that might have been defended?) Whatever. 10-19 may flatter France a tad… but surely does represent the relative strengths of the sides?

Second half. France score early (so I’m looking wee bit smug). Danty may have been a tad fortunate with the bounce but again, that sense that Natural Justice is at work: an improved but out-gunned Scotland are being, yaknow, out-gunned. 10-26, now.

Half of you may not like my dismissal of the Scots: it ain’t personal. I rate and respect the development and the skill and spirit (especially) they are showing again, here. But they are not The Contenders some of the Top, Top Pundits have been saying they are. And I do think that’s been obvious – even when they’ve won games, showing a healthy mix of ambition and of guts.

France are kicking a bit like France; otherwise the differential might be bigger. It’s blowing, at Murrayfield but our friend Eunice is long gone. Notable that Russell is having little influence; a kind of non-developing theme, in this championship?

Have Scotland suddenly tired? The French winger Penaud suddenly has acres to jog into, unopposed. One of the weirder ones – and surely dispiriting, for the team in white? Converted, so we now sit at 10-31, in (whatever the French is for) mullering territory. La Marseillaise; magnificently.

The game does that thing where it goes into Inevitably Scrappy Mode. Scotland have no choice but to look for tries, and battle courageously. France seek unanswerable superiority through multiple phases which the hosts, to their credit, deny them. It’s a clear away win and has been, arguably, since the fourth minute. The breakdown is contested manfully, to limit the damage but Penaud again finds a paddock available as Ntamack kicks serenely into space. 36-10.

Finally, something for the locals to cheer. Kinghorn runs… and runs… and offloads to the grateful VDM. Thrilling but almost irrelevant. A knock-on in midfield prompts the whistle. 17-36: away win, of the convincing variety. Warburton waxes lyrical about France, who come to Cardiff on 11th March to entertain us – and *I do mean* us. I’ll be there!

Les Bleus are earning the right to be talked about as world-leaders. That’s unknowable or un-provable, surely, as yet(?) but they look like a side that could go to-to-toe with the icons of the South. Meantimes, they must be targeting a Grand Slam, to cap off an exhilarating championship. It’s what they deserve… and I strongly suspect most neutrals would welcome that eventuality.

England versus Wales.

Smith gets us going. Great hoist. England have it, just a few yards out but concede the penalty… before claiming one in return. Easy kick for the glamour boy – drilled home. Jones’ Posse looking bright and aggressive: the worst chant in world sport gets an early airing by way of erm, encouragement. A second penalty, again exactly where the fly-half would’ve wanted. 6-0; all a bit easy.

Sniff of an opportunity, for Wales. Tompkins pings a probing punt forward but nothing arises. Decent defending, from Daly. (A-and the Alliteration Overload Award of the week goes to)…

A sudden burst of pressure offers the visitors hope, via scrum then line-out, deep into the twenty-two. Longish advantage before Biggar opts for another throw in the corner. Lawes robs it!

Wales notably unhappy with the refereeing: not just their skipper ‘having words’. Cuthbert breaks but concedes a penalty on contact. But some encouragement for the red shirts, who are shading things, in this wee period. It remains 6-0, after 15, however.

Gorgeous step and no-look pass from Marcus Smith electrifies the midfield. Again, within seconds, Wales have offended but the England pivot narrowly fails to capitalise. (Kickable, nine out of ten). A mixed game, quality-wise, with limited phases. Randall looking confident, mind.

Ewels within an inch or six – hands under the ball. Prolonged break for a review of Williams’ sly mitt. The full-back is binned, eventually, and England are five metres out. Scrum. Rinse and repeat, messily, infuriatingly – consider re-setting the lawsingly.

Wales get the pen; Sinckler standing but getting no sympathy from the ref. Best part of ten minutes near the Welsh line but almost no rugby. Finally, Wales clear. Injuries and spillages. Basham rips brilliantly, Lawes gets one in the eye but still almost no rugby – or *only* rugby of that competitive-but-suffocating variety. Cowan-Dickie subbed, injured, on twenty-four minutes. Another scrum. No sense, in truth, that Wales are a man short.

The visitors surge, Cuthbert dismisses Nowell faaar too easily but another error follows. Scrum Wales, in a decent, central position. Ambition, from Biggar as he tests opposing wingers with a floaty, cross-field kick. Nothing results but the clock has ticked down. Slade’s neat step almost threatens but it’s a tectonic clattering from Curry that ultimately offers Smith the chance to increase that lead. Slotted nicely from thirty-five yards.

Now Liam Williams is back. He may be happy enough that the board confirms an increase of only three points in England’s favour. Given that conditions are perfect – really perfect – I’m wondering (after 35 mins) if this game is going to reveal the relative (that word again) mediocrity of both teams. (That harsh? Perhaps. But this is ordinary fayre).

Finally rugby breaks out. Phases; movement; threat. Smith is absolutely at the heart of it, bursting intelligently, drawing and popping, utterly justifying his place. He thrashes over a simple pen. England go in 12-0 up.

Ugly, ugly, strategic, deliberately sapping breakdown work, from England. Part of the Great Grind? Fair enough. It may be the way to win this.

OH GAWD!! Uber-clanger, from Wales gifts Dombrandt a try. The number eight has only to catch the shockingly fluffed line-out and his momentum will carry him through. He catches, he stretches and the lead goes to an inviolable 17-0, as Smith misses the kick from wide.

Wales do respond, with some sustained attacking – well, relatively, but inevitably the visitors cough up possession. Pivac will be angry, never mind disappointed.

As with Scotland, so with Wales: we get spirit. (Then we get the Royal Bloody Family).

The game feels gone but Williams throws a sharp one out to Adams… and the flyer finishes clinically, as he tends to. 17-5, 25 minutes remaining. Surely not? Wales have found some purpose. A further try is not unthinkable. And then who knows?

Line-out five metres out. Phases with some control. A TRY SEEMS LIKELY. Tompkins, deservedly, gets in. With Biggar being characteristically emphatic from the tee, Wales are flying and the margin is only 17-12. Youngs comes on for his record-breaking appearance. England need him to manage this.

A little territory, for the home side. Cuthbert breaks out but is isolated and expertly crunched by Nowell. Penalty. Smith – at the furthest extent of his range, you suspect – converts, for an eight point lead. (So important). Marginal, but that may have been against the grain of the match; certainly of the half.

Wales offend at the line-out after a clearance from Slade. Kickable. Smith again delivers calmly. Nine minutes remain. 23-12. Commentary team quite rightly making the distinction between the margin on the scoreboard (eleven points) and the ‘lack of (real) authority’ in England’s performance. Untimely pens and/or recurring pens have cost Wales.

Two minutes left and Wales looking to make some statement of defiance. Line-out routine. They have a penalty. England asleep as Hardy taps and goes. In! Jones will be angry and disappointed – particularly as Wales will have one more phase of possession. 23-19. Tension where there was none.

The visitors retain and auto-circulate, showing tremendous resolve – and skill under pressure. Williams does brilliantly to stay in touch… but Wales again contrive to concede possession. Game over? NO!! Lawes concedes a deliberate knock-on (and pundits all agree he should be yellowed). Ridicu-tension, now.

After a near-epic spell of edgy, competitive, necessarily expansive rugby, England get their hands on the ball. The roar of relief can be heard in Brighton. Were Wales ‘hard done by?’ In the sense that they were better and more threatening in the second half, yes. But they lacked both the top-level sharpness and discipline to hurt England enough. And England lacked authority. Some drama, belatedly but this was mixed fayre from two unremarkable sides.

Where were you?

Where did that reference to The Mekons come from? Oh yeh. Twitter. Those profound, weedy, ridicu-lyrics: somebody posted. As did I, ’bout lunchtime, Sat’dee.

Meanwhile it was sleepless sleep, in the howling, battering gale and watchful half-skewed relentless triptych-vision. Daft, undulating, golden, white resort-sports for the White Stuff Generation on the one screen, footie and/or cricket on the other. Maybe radio too.

The rugby, you have to watch. Even if you absolutely do, now, fall into the category of Six Nations Dilettante. (Yup. Sadly. Having previously followed club action/the wider game, I now find myself unable, somehow, to grab a hold. Too busy; too much else). But this, despite mixed or even lowish standards, is a good tournament. Never more so than when the green/red/navy danders are up, the tribalism off the scale and the gales a-blowing.

England slaughtered Scotland for an hour, without turning dominance into points. Then Smith – the Hoddle, the Poster-boy, the Soft Centre – was withdrawn, as the stats (probably) or the GPS (possibly) said he was 0.023 down on something. Despite having just raced thrillingly across the try-line, thereby raising the flag for poetry and instinct in a way only probably he and his opposite number could even contemplate, Marcus was pulled: Jones and his 1400 sub-coaches looked to Ford to ‘manage the thing from here’.

That moment of soul-crushing pragmatism prompted the ancient-but-righteous gods of joy, IRN-BRU and twinkling perversity to gather immediately around and hoist their kilts. The hitherto impregnable Cowan-Dickie wilted in the maelstrom, pansy-patting the ball forward and out of play, to deny a possible score for the foaming, lurking Graham. It was both a robbery and a moment of grace: the penalty try being awarded, apparently, as punishment for the deliberate, if barely-controlled slap at the ball, without consideration for whether the attacking player would have gathered in cleanly and touched down. In that sense, controversial. Morally, a win for the resurgent jocks and all of us.

Meanwhile, before, Ireland stunned Wales. *All the ingredients were there*, as they were in Edinburgh. Febrile ether; gale; beery breath. Plus a marginally more complex ‘national relationship’ between the protagonists. (They tend to be Celts together after proceedings. During, there is *feeling*). Ireland launched and never came back down – or hardly – the intensity of the thing being simply too much for a mediocre Welsh side, who could not, despite keeping the score respectable for 40 minutes and more, compete meaningfully across the park.

It was a series of impressively purposeful, urgent flurries by the hosts that wore Biggar’s side down. The new Welsh skipper has a mighty, doughty spirit to go with his management skills. Even he was found shaking his head in disbelief and disappointment, late in the game.

Zoom out; remember. (Christ it was only yesterday!)

Pacing the energy-use was key, eh? And re-fuelling with care. Early alcohol was deeply unwise – it generally is – but throw a healthy pile of nosh and a tactical kip in there and you find yourself upright for The Cricket, later. (Upright in bed, anyways). Aus have won the toss and are asking Heather Knight to carry her team through another onslaught. She can’t. Nor can Sciver, the other Significant Hope.

England bat, understandably but also illogically – the series has gone! – with caution. Winfield-Hill is both dreamy-good, with her expansive drives but also unable, with her early partners, to garner more than three an over. When her coach Keightley and her 178 sub-coaches know that Healy will coast nearer to six, from the off. So it’s reasonable madness, from England. They splutter to a chillingly disappointing 120-odd all out: Winfield-Hill gets her customary 30. It’s never-in-a-million-years a competitive total.

But I slid towards fitful slumber at about the twenty over mark. When England were still below 80, from memory. Rafters clanging. Sea rumbling. Had to lie side-on and perch a pillow over my head to blot out – just a little – the sound. Felt both bit like smothering yourself and retreating into childhood and adventure. Oh, and final phone check – just to turn off, really. But yeh, twitter…

When I was waiting in the bar, where were you?
When I was buying you a drink, where were you?
When I was crying home in bed, where were you?

When I watched you from a distance, did you see me?
You were standing in a queue, did you see me?
You had yellow hair, did you see me?

Mekons.

Ted Lasso.

Two series in, so what do we think?

We think it’s pret-ty close to wonderful. We think it’s gobsmackingly surprising that something which we feared was gonna reek of America(na), of franchises, of that whole dumbing-down of the universe by checking in so constantly with the Gods Who Dance With Schmaltz turns out to be a rampaging, intelligent, bright and even poignant force for good. (Good telly; goodness in humanity).

We have fallen about, and blubbed. We’ve darn-near turned off – maybe when Ted’s made-for-American TV-isms have flown irritatingly over our heads again… but then been utterly compelled, both by the humour of the Overall Thing and by the brilliance of the sporting intel.

Say what?!? Sporting intel? Yes, even when – as always – the live sport can seem clunky and in danger of failing the myriad authenticity tests so immediately and rightly hoisted by pedantically maniacal fans like my good self. (We know footie. Don’t fuck wiv us*). YES, sporting intel, because whoever is writing/directing/playing/making this stuff does understand football (enough) and, remarkably, coaching, too.

*In fact the live sport here is waaay better than most; though admit the bar has been set appallingly low by almost every football film or series in history. Players can play, mostly, ‘live’ matches are 80% there and the changing-room vibe is decent, plus.*

Ted Lasso (the programme) makes a zillion jokes about Ted Lasso (the coach) not knowing the rules, the history, the zeitgeist in which football booms and busts and yaknow, breaks us. But – in case, friends, ya missed it – this is all knowingly done. The outstanding awareness and generosity and wisdom embedded in the Lasso Method – coaching as transformative, civilising mission, which *really does* look to empower players/individuals, through appreciation, prompting, enquiry, support – utterly squishes any idea that this Dumb American is some under-informed fraud. NO. Ted is a wonder-coach; that’s what this story is about. A bloke who, despite being absurdly out of place, re-defines the quality of that place… by being wonderful… and sophisticated… and deeply, inviolably human.

Everything is faith. That corny, hand-written sign above the door, that says BELIEVE. That ethos, where something we might need to dare to call brotherhood (and critically, authentic sisterhood) grows, becoming essential to the execution of strategies on the pitch and the veracity of the drama beyond it. If there is a tension around Ted’s flirting, or outright crazy street-meme-dancing with and through banalities-which-might-be-profundities and vice-versa, somehow it works. People love him and he bloody deserves it. We’re mercifully and pointedly not hearing anything about god, here, but the series is an ode to faith.

(Minor note. I’m a sports coach so do have some knowledge of how teams are selected, motivated, organised. It’s clear to me that Ted/the writers have a good understanding of where coaching is. Lasso’s relentless good-humour should not obscure the objective – which goes beyond any kind of ‘good guys can win’ schtick. Ted is enacting a very contemporary thread towards building ownership/decision-making/power within the player. The camaraderie and the community-of-souls thing is of course a necessary co-host to all this developing positivity. But the leadership smacks of informed, elite-level choices towards empowerment).

So Ted is a humble genius and a daft idol. Vulnerable, through family breakdown and trauma – separated, father a suicide – prone to anxiety attacks which we see, on camera, in a popular TV series. Further evidence that this world-franchise-monster is overwhelmingly a force for good in the universe. (Except that’s daft, right?)

This is a Big Television Event and it has resources. Unlike many hiked-up projects that might fall into that category it shares the quality and the stories around. Hard to find a character that isn’t well-drawn, generously developed, real enough to make us laugh or cry or root for them. (Can’t stand Awards Ceremonies so didn’t watch the Emmys but apparently it won a shedload. No wonder. Great casting, looks excellent in almost every scene, scripts top-level).

Coach Beard is brilliant – lugubrious and wise and kinda delusionally-in-lurv. He gets ‘his own episode’. Rebecca Welton is stunning and hilarious and extraordinarily multi-dimensional. Her relationship with Keeley Jones, who is willing herself rather magnificently towards Being Someone, whilst oozing with love for those around her, is knock-out and frankly, emosh. Lots of this is frankly emosh, whilst knowing exactly how close it tiptoes to that aforementioned schmaltz.

In short – because I really could go on, about Coach Nate, Mae in the pub, those daft three Greyhound supporters and Miss Fuckwitch and (Our New Hero) Sam Obisanya and (That New Pantomime Villain That I Ju-ust Think We Might Finish Up Loving) Jamie Tartt – you need to make an effort to see Ted Lasso. On Apple TV. It’s popular but grown up. There is sex – and especially via the softening but formerly hardened street-warrior Roy Kent – there is lots of fu-uck-ing language. So what? More importantly, this is a ludicrous but self-aware and ‘issues’-aware smash. A celebration. A reminder that cynicism – probably ours – is bad and that love stories can be good.

Mady Villiers – in the flow.

So, Mady Villiers then. Even in defeat. Electrifying and watchable, ‘stoked’ and stoking the energy of the crowd with her youthful, skillful, thrillingly-coordinated contribution.

Most folks coming away from Sussex County Cricket Club on Saturday night will have been smiling and re-living the genuinely multiple moments of brilliance from the England player – even some of the few visiting or Brighton-resident Kiwis, you suspect. (The White Ferns won the match – deservedly – through better and more consistent work, but even their Player of the Match Sophie Devine brought less extravagant pazzazz and performance to the event). Villiers, meanwhile utterly shone.

Elite women’s cricket is soaring in the background but in a sexist universe it still, of course, finds itself categorised (by men of a particular sort, obviously) as Almost The Real Deal But Not Quite. Blokes who look and sound like me – ‘sporty’, ‘authentic’, ‘experienced’ – own this territory as much as if not more than they own everything.

So a) they wrongly and inadequately judge male and female cricket as some hierarchical homogeny b) they know exactly which one is ‘best’. Oh and c) many of these guys really are arseholes  –  look at social media/listen in the pub but (even) the ones that aren’t reside in the Flawed Geezer sector of humanity. (I flit, inevitably, between both male states, hoping to keep my foothold in the Flawed-but-trying subsection).

Male cricket is allegedly ‘best’ because The Blokes bowl quicker and hit harder and throw themselves around in the field more athletically. Physiological difference makes this (ahem) an Undeniable Truth. Bullshit. It may be a convenient truth but good luck trying to de-authenticate Marizanne Kapp’s recent bowling performance (Hundred, final) or South East Stars’ openers Smith and Cranstone, batting in the weekend’s Charlotte Edwards Cup Final. And maybe take a look at Sophie Ecclestone’s left-arm slow. *Etcetera*.

The point is it’s futile, unwise, unhelpful and plain wrong to go comparing. Just watch without prejudice. Or – because I get that machismo-thing (or that baggage-thing) may get in the way of that aspiration – do your best. I’ve chosen to follow elite women’s cricket around for some years now and I find it truly compelling: there are even some plusses to the Sexual Politics side of this – the sense that despite everything, women’s cricket is manifestly, irresistibly on the up.

Back to Villiers; partly because the most legitimate criticism of the elite women’s game has arguably centred around fielding standards. (Know this is more flawed thinking – a kind of concession to that matrix of bullish negativity – but think there is *also* something of a fair cop going on, here). Skill levels and agility levels in female international cricket or women’s pro’ cricket are not always where they might be. Too many mis-timed dives over the ball, too many catches dropped.

Much of this can be simply accounted for. Lack of experience – maybe particularly under lights. The ver-ry recent advent of full-time professional contracts. Skill Development under way, rather than culturally ingrained (as per the blokes). Coaches and players in the women and girls’ pathway the world over are grafting with real integrity and purpose to get to where Mady Villiers is. Maybe they are conscious that brilliant movement will better appease the sceptics? I hope they feel more that there is something wonderfully liberating in throwing yourself around and that this in itself is the driver towards increasingly exhilarating sport.

At Hove on Saturday night, Mady Villers was prowling and diving and catching and slashing magnificent throws in to the stumps. At one stage, with the equally outstanding Danni Wyatt stationed to her right – and both, therefore, within about thirty yards of where I was scribbling – it felt fab-yoo-luss to be in the presence of such intensely-tuned athletes. If you wanted authentic, high level sport, it was patently in front of you. If you wanted frisson and raw but heightened entertainment, ditto.

I am posting a picture of Mady Villiers throwing, at the head of this blog. It’s a cheat in the sense that this pic – robbed from ECB, from memory – was not taken on the night that Mady announced herself as a presence. That was Hove, Sat-dee Sept whatever-it-was. (Go find some highlights, maybe?) Here, in this frame, Villiers is ready to go/flow/throw.

As a coach/sports-fan/bloke, I love this pic. It reeks of urgency and focus and magnificent, grooved movements. It’s bursting through stuff. Love the left foot raised as the heel is placed. Love the wide, elastic base and that sideways-on position. Love the game face and the high, throwing elbow. Love the gesture of the left hand as it flips and points and feels for the target. Love that the chest and core is clearly being flexed and opened, ready for the lashing-through of that right arm. Love that she’s gonna bloody sling this, hard.

Am aware of the dangers of extrapolating out – searching for symbols. But (quite possibly because of my flaws or guilt or certainly my *viewpoint*) it feels not irrelevant that this is a young woman. Mady Villiers. Showing the universe that she can really do this.

Points of Interest.

How many times do coaches find their best team by accident? Feels like a lot – across sports. Today, about twenty-five minutes in, with Finn Russell making Test Rugby look an absolute lark, it seemed that Gatland had joined that long illustrious list of flukers.

Biggar, a magnificent, hearty, consistently excellent manager-of-the-game had succumbed, after ten. Russell – palpably the brighter, more twinkletastic star – looked immediately what he is; a more complete footballer. The Lions, immediately and with relish, adopted Plan B (Finn scratchmix inna dancefloor stylee) and rugby broke out. The Sherrif scored. The Boks had no answer.

And then, ultimately, they did.

Points of interest and possibly contention. Why was Russell not a starter? (Or Hook, Grealish, or Hoddle?) Because they represent, apparently, a risk. The *best, most gifted players*. Percentage-wise. They fall victim.

They fall victim but then the coach or captain chooses to ‘make statements’ rather than take easy points. Meaning bigger gambles, probably, than those around selection of the best footballers you have. Work the algorithms around that baby, I’m still in a froth; have been since yaknow, whenever.

The Lions should have won the deciding Test, earlier, by half-time. There really was a period when the Boks had no answer to Russell’s Running Rugby – an Accidental Gambol. Suddenly the Irish genius Henshaw – switched to 13 but still finding an exhilarating burst of flow and freedom – came into the game. The forwards popped and crackled… and recycled. It seemed that in the knowledge of Russell’s multi-dimensional brilliance, the guys in red honed-in on a way of playing: perhaps they were thinking that this is the only way Ar Finn can do this? Whatever; it worked and maybe crucially they were playing, rather than ‘executing’. This was rugby not strategy – or felt and looked that way.

Coaches and captains may be making calls about how far they push for killer moments (as opposed to taking points), or there may be a kind of all-in squad policy to go ambitious, go for the statement. Certainly belief in The Process is rife: players across sports being asked to go back to that sacred well. It may be a great hypothesis but it may also be bollocks of the most obvious kind, predicated on masturbatory over-coaching or dumb machismo. Amazing, contradictory stuff: High Philosophy and weird, primordial denial of that which is surely unarguable – the needs of the game situation.

Whether Gatland or Alun bach or the whole posse opted as one for bold kicks and subsequent lineouts (and scores, ideally) we may never know. We cannot even know if the eminently presentable penalties spurned would have been converted. However, it seems likely that a critical distance could have been established between the two sides. Maybe *after that* might have been the time for the visitors to express some superior confidence?

One of the more delicious ideas to emerge from this series is whether or not a kind of Barbarian approach from the Lions might have prevailed. It did, after all seem like whenever the away team threw the ball around they brought not just excitement but a very real threat. So imagine Russell playing throughout. This might have brought Watson and Hogg into the games – might have brought tries, victories and – who knows – a smile to the face of world rugby? But of course that wasn’t Gatland’s brief.

There is a case that the option towards lineouts/driving mauls/theoretical tries cost the Lions the series. There is a case that Liam Williams – who, I emphatically thought should be restored – cost the Lions the series. (Failed to put Adams in, catastrophically/made a right hash of trying to stop the winning try). There is a case that Gatland only got anywhere near his best team on the park (and that strangely this precipitated periods of both dominance and entertainment) when fate intervened. So funny ole game.

The South Africans are clearly a force but I can live with your accusations of naff partisanship after my next, final, inflammatory notion… that they are both unlovable and led by donkeys. Surely neutrals would have viewed much of this series as poor – possibly as anti-sport? Much of that hard grind and all of the matrix of cheap mind-games and cynically dislocating ‘theatre’, were (let’s remember) choices? But yeh: coaches, eh?

All Our Fuss.

An addition: after the event. In the light of the despicable racist abuse of the players involved, a sentence about England and its gammons. If any clown thinks my view of events (below) is in any sense a criticism of any of the players who stepped up to take penalties, then they are stupid as they are prejudiced. Similarly, those who created mayhem and violence of any sort, or posted or in any sense sympathised with the bigoted filth that arose, predictably, online do not speak for me. In fact they make it almost impossible – for me any many others – to identify as an English-born football fan.

This post contains *opinions* – chiefly criticisms of Gareth Southgate – but it is as anti-racist as he is.

Here’s what he should have done – he being Southgate.

In the short term, he should have quietly but firmly told Saka and Sancho they weren’t taking pens. And somebody on the staff should have told Rashford that long and winding run-up was too daft, too convoluted and too involved to be the preamble to generational glory. Those three game lads will carry the guilt but it was an obvious series of howlers, from the gaffer.

Anybody who knows football knows you need a few touches to warm up the senses – perhaps particularly if you then face the cold reality of a dead ball to strike, early-doors. Howler, then, that in his conservatism and unwillingness to act, Southgate fails to give Rashford and Sancho meaningful time on the pitch. Howler – no matter how much the players themselves may have clamoured for the moment – that Southgate misreads the magnitude of all this, and allows Sancho and Saka to step up. More senior, more solid players should have been tapped-up weeks ago.

During the prelude to penalties, there had been a sense of scramble – perhaps there always is? But it looked like the order was still being thrown down, by the England Manager and his chief aide Steve Holland, right at the last. Could be they were deciding on penalty takers 8, 9 and 10 but wasn’t a good look. And despite Mancini making a gaffe of his own – by allowing the wretched Belotti, who has been woeful on each of his appearances – to fluff, entirely predictably, his effort, the maths worked for the Azzurri. England got beat on pens again.

Perverse to blame Sir Gareth? I think not. Or at least I am prepared to continue the no-doubt unpopular and admittedly rather severe arguments I’ve been making for weeks/months/years. Southgate is a great manager but dispiritingly pragmatic coach; a man whom we are right to love and cherish for his worldliness and contemporary suss… but still, despite that theoretical generosity, a relentlessly one-dimensional football man. England hid away their talents, once more.

The best team won, on the night – even after an electrifying start for the home team. Italy slaughtered England for much of the second half, either side of a deserved equaliser. If Chiesa had not been sadly withdrawn due to injury, you feel he personally would have extinguished the Three Lions, in Ordinary Time. (3-1, I’m guessing). As it was, England dragged it out, before showing a little spirit as the thing ebbed towards that sapping denouement.

But Southgate had again been frozen into inactivity, compared to his opposite number. There were no England subs when the universe cried out for them. (Southgate barely does subs: subs imply proactive thinking). Mancini, meanwhile, swapped everybody, as his players strode forward. England belatedly brought on Sancho but even that felt like a sop: something you can do ‘safely’ because he’s out there, on the fringes. Then came Henderson, for a tiring Rice. Grealish, as always, appeared to ‘make a rescue’; when it felt like the game had gone. Feeble stuff, from those allegedly directing the England camp.

England played well in the first half. There was some energy, some purpose, even if there was comparatively little in the way of joined-up play. Again this reflects the manager’s penchant for the seeing-out of games as opposed to fluent football. Whilst I have to respect that this pragmatism evidently got his side to the final – and the semi, at the World Cup – I absolutely reject this as a life-choice. Playing Not Much Football is life-crushingly dull. It may even, despite appearances, be dumb: we will never know what a team coloured by Grealish and a free, flicking, flashing Foden might have achieved. Maybe it might have both entertained us and won the bloody tournament.

Gareth chose not. He opted for the safety of six or seven defensively-minded players and a system that spoke to the gods of Care and Management. Yes, there were times when his players flew a little: Sterling, though pale last night, looked a worldie for much of the tournament. Kane looked a player again, for the first 45. Elsewhere, how did the creative players fare? (Who were the creative players, actually?) England’s culture was again so steeped in What If They Do This To Us(?) that we saw very little of Mount/the wingers/any truly sustained attacking play.

The best team won. They won, ultimately, in a shootout that was manifestly mishandled by England but Italy should have won earlier. It was a stunning and deserved triumph for Mancini, who has not only made the Azzurri almost unbeatable again but has made them more watchable than at any time since… I dunno… 1966?

England’s tournament was arguably another stepping-stone: but perhaps only towards that rather miserly acceptance that games of football are there to be managed, not enjoyed. There will be claims of heroism and spirit: these are exaggerations. A goodish team has done well – without looking stylish or fluent. Neutrals will still be wondering what all our fuss is about.

Player/Manager ratings: out of 10.

Southgate – as Manager, 12. As Coach, 6.

Pickford – 6.5. Spent the night bawling, as always and lashing the ball 60 yards up the park. Clearly under instruction, but he ensured England lost possession within 25 seconds of gaining it. Ridiculous.

Trippier 6. Had his vengeful head on. Odd. Only occasionally involved.

Walker 8. Solid, athletic, calm.

Maguire 6.5. Weirdly changeable again. Some woeful, nervy touches and some of that upright elegance.

Stones 6.5. Ver-ry quiet. Not sure if that was good.

Shaw 7.5. First-half great, later barely contributing, going forward.

Phillips 7. As always, got better – or worthier? – as things progressed. Ran forever but few memorable passes.

Rice 8. England’s best player for an hour. Actually ran past people but – as expected – lacked that killer incision.

Sterling 5.5. A significant disappointment. Look what Chiesa – his oppo’, arguably, in the Player of the Tournament stakes – did.

Kane 7. Excellent for some of the first half; then too quiet.

Mount 6. Ran but made few contributions with the ball.

A Sacrilege.

I’m up for maybe fifty percent of the Southgate love-in. No, seventy percent.

The bit that says he’s an outstanding manager – but maybe, possibly not coach.

The bit that’s utterly, utterly behind his messaging about race, diversity, honouring the Black Lives Matter campaign.

The stuff that without being overtly political, is pissing all over the gammons and the government.

I’m also absolutely behind the idea that you need to judge the character and the nature of players, and build with them. In some cases this might mean trusting them to come good – gambling that their faith in you and your culture will produce. In other cases, folks get passed over or dropped… because this is professional football.

Southgate is something of an exemplar, on these terms; he gets Bigger Pictures – well, some of them – and he is generous enough to insist they – or some of them – count.

But life is complicated. It’s ridiculous, surely, to look at England FC and see the whole as a simple, shining light? Even if all the players were/are completely united behind Sir Gareth’s entirely compelling aspirations towards equality and respect. Even if it’s right to be righteous in the face of stinking privilege and prejudice (at government level and in the general population), it doesn’t make sense that – as some of the more delusional columns are suggesting – Southgate is leading us towards a brighter, fairer dawn. He isn’t – he can’t.

The England Manager is doing a wonderful job of many things but – to take one example – he cannot divert or control or persuade away the likely jeering and booing of the Italian national anthem tonight. In short, his dignity and grace, inspiring though it is, cannot undo the wider malaise.

Out with it. We have the most amoral PM imaginable, leading a shamelessly corrupt government streaked with racism and bile. The country – England – is more loaded up with contempt for The Other than at any period in a lifetime. The best Gareth can do is make a wee dent, show a better face to the watching world. The campaigners within his group will likewise do their skilful, progressive bit but as so often, only the converted may be listening. Southgate/Rashford/Sterling/the Universe deserve better.

Life is complicated and we wish it could be more just. Southgate’s philosophical stuff is wonderful but only The Mood will change – and probably only then if England win.

Let’s talk footie, then, briefly. I have consistently argued that Southgate’s conservatism – I know, ironic, but that’s what it is – around managing games out rather than playing great, attacking football disappoints me. His ‘pragmatism’ re Rice and Phillips. His ‘ruthlessness’ re Grealish. I hear (how could I not?) the argument that Winning (or in tournament football) Winning Through Is What It’s All About; but for me, nah.

The undeniable fact that Ingerland have gotten through to the final does not mean fitful and relatively negative displays in the early rounds, or seven defensively-minded players against an ordinary German side or no Grealish and minimal Foden was unarguably right – either ‘ethically’ or in football terms. Nor does it mean that selection or even strategy was right, over all. It just means that it worked over these few tournament games and they got through. (Unpopular note: England again had an almost suspiciously easy draw).

Who’s to say what a genuinely ambitious side, with James and Chilwell as genuine flyers and Foden and Grealish as genuine players, might have done?

No matter how good Shaw or Rice, or Phillips might have been, there was another way. Fascinatingly, we might see it as a more generous, more holistically enriching way… but this would set it entirely at odds to the Gareth Project: would make it a sacrilege. It may be outright dangerous to suggest that Southgate Himself has been a tad disingenuous in describing the squad’s alleged commitment to entertainment and excitement. Sure, the excitement has happened but more, in my view, via the winning than the doing.

(*Notes*: Italy have come through playing the most positive football we’ve seen from the Azzurri for decades. Which may mean nothing).

Southgate is a thoroughly good man – too good for most of us. I would love him more completely if his approach to the football had been as generous as his approach to his Public Duties.