The bowlingatvincent.com Multinational Corporation Review of the Year – 2022.

bowlingatvincent.com – literary wing of the Protest Channel that is @bowlingatvinny – had a strongish year. (I know ‘cos I just looked back). Except that it accidentally traduced the original purpose of the whole damn enterprise, which was to roar about sport and art pretty much alternately. I may reflect on this.

Of the fourteen blogs during 2022, five were about football. I rather unpicked Wales’s World Cup Adventure, got into United and Ten Hag (v West Ham), covered England’s Lionesses v USA and through their Euros win and watched my home town Town at the Play-off Final. Astonishingly, of the eight zillion opinions and tactical judgements I expressed through nerve-janglingly live coverage of all these occasions, I can – even in the allegedly sobering light of day – find none that were wrong.

  • Contest. And then maybe not? I was dead right that Wales needed to play better and that Bale should retire from (certainly) international football and probably club action, too. Now.
  • ‘Where are Wales? What level they at? Are they heroic over-achievers, in a cruel, more heavily-endowed-with-everything kindofa world? Or what? Where’s the Wales Place, in footballing terms – and maybe the other stuff? Football-wise, are they brave and bold, or are they ungenerous and perverse? Are the ‘limitations’ enabling or stultifying? Where do, or should Wales pitch themselves?’
  • I was right to note with some embarrassment that the USA – not Argenbloodyteena – ‘slaughtered’ Wales in the first 45 minutes of their campaign and that for all the justifiable gas about a rare and wonderful World Cup appearance, Page’s ‘pragmatic’ conservatism disappointed. Sure, Wales have few great talents (so responsible caution blahdiblah) but the endless holding patterns only seemed to undermine both individual performance – no surges; no racing adrenaline for player nor support! – and the essential hwyl that has carried Wales for aeons. It was all a bit lame.
  • I nailed the Rashford Thing and the signs of re-growth, under Ten Hag, in Holding Players. Elanga was similarly *seen* and Fernandes un-picked, en route.
  • …’quality-wise, there was little difference. In the first ten both Casemiro and Eriksen showed glimpses of their rarified best, either threading or spraying fabulous passes into feet, offering real hope that the mythical(?) corner into Team Flow and Sumptuous United-ness might yet be turned. But no’. 
  • In Things Have Changed I trumpeted the stunning transformation in women’s football, in England, and by implication, beyond. Ingerland ‘bossing the yanks’ said it all, after a decade or more where North American soccer all-too-serenely ruled over us amateurish Brits. I noted the ‘supreme equanimity and humour (as well as tactical intelligence)’ of the new gaffer – Wiegmann.
  • More controversially, perhaps, I mischiefed-up the Euros Final, fearlessly calling out relative under-achievement, performance-wise – even in victory – on the day. (Come ON. Don’t you get bored of the faux euphoria that massively over-inflates the *actual performance(s)?* It’s perfectly possible and generally the case that trophies are won in ordinary games by ordinary performances. This in no way deflates the fabulous significance of the achievement).
  • So, in Clickbait? You betcha! I do argue that recent SPOTY winner Beth Mead was one of several who were mixed, rather than brilliant, in an absolutely brilliant tournament win. I correctly identified that presser invasion as ‘the best moment in the history of sport’ and named Millie Bright Player of the Tournament… because she was.
  • Finally – well, previously – I *actually went* to the home of West Ham United FC, to cover the Mighty Mariners. Great day/crap game.
  • ‘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 Other Channel, now sportslaureate.co.uk , carried more football but bowlingatvincent.com was always the home for rugby. Life and *things* – like cricket, mainly – have regrettably drawn me away from funny-shaped balls but I managed to post homages to the egg on three occasions.

Despite being a Likely Phoney – male, middle-aged, possibly voyeuristic; at best a flawed dilettante – I watched a good deal of the Women’s Rugby World Cup. It was sensational. England may not have produced to their absolute peak but they have been utterly magnificent – frighteningly, powerfully so – for two years. France are not far behind. And then there were the homefolks.

  • The final, between England and the Black Ferns, had to somehow bear comparison with the semi, between New Zealand and France, which may have been the best rugby match of all time. I wrote rather wryly about the Black Fern’s ultimate, inevitable win; again creating mischief, again misunderstood. England had a player sent off – rightly, under the rules of the modern era. It (the offence) wasn’t malicious and it happened so early that the contest was effectively re-drawn as a training-ground routine. England held-out wonderfully gamely but were done, from the moment of the card.
  • ‘The second half may have been as colossal as the first. It was an exhausting watch, with the defiant visitors floating through chunks of time, before selflessly, heroically heaving against the inevitable. Both sides naturally made changes and inroads. Both scored. But the universe had been shifted. The crowd knew it. England were overhauled, before striking back. Then overhauled. With three points in it, the battered visitors kicked for the corner rather than look for the three points that would bring extra-time’.

I wrote two posts on (men’s) Six Nations stuff, back in February. They stand up, too. One of them channelled both The Mekons and Dylan Thomas: it also morphed into part-coverage of Eng women v Aus, at The Cricket, with ‘Rafters clanging. Sea rumbling’. It’s likely that I was in a caravan, in one of those storms, at the time, so it wasn’t Heather Knight who was fearing airborne adventure. Oh: I may or may not have been drinking.

There were but two artsy posts. One on Freddie Flintoff’s TV caper and the other around the Sensationalists/YBO’s art and lifestylery. I am critical of both… but right… as you will see… if you go back through. I’m really not sure what caused the apparent shift away from The Arts: they remain at the core of my life and my learning. I still believe I have some contribution to make, to reviewing and/or ‘criticism’.

From Sensationalists: people who might convince us: ‘Morons at the Mail, poor or tokenistic arts education and profound levels of ignorance have engineered a situation where we are a) visually illiterate b) suspicious and small-minded and c) too bloody lazy to stand in front of an artwork and let it do its job – beguile us, transport us, challenge us. This, for what it’s worth, is my context; the belief that art matters and that artists carry that privilege of being our conscience with courage and often a deep, deep, incorruptible honesty’.

From The Sublime to…

The unfortunate truth is I felt compelled to write upon multiple occasions – well, four – about the Tories, or Our Government. These are angry pieces.

In more than one of these blogs I savage Johnson and regret not a word of it. Plainly he is the worst Prime Minister of my medium-considerable lifetime. In A Christmas Puppy? I almost dare to bid an un-fond adieu.

‘So could the Age of Embarrassment finally be over? Might the Bumbling Buffoon, the Etonian Mess really be done?

It’s possible. In a characteristic veil of porkies and shameless, conscience-less swerves between the reported fact, his Urgent Gatherings and the forbidding fridges of a life lived in cosseted anarchy, Johnson really may have spent himself. It’s possible. The lies and the deceit and the vile uncaring will of course go on, endlessly, but it may be that his time in the Real Spotlight is over’.

I am content, foolishly, perhaps, to judge him morally as well as describe his practise, which has brought chaos, death and shame to an increasingly grubby kingdom. There is surely a kind of Shakespearian wickedness, an epic foulness around his skiving off from the first five COBRA meetings, in a world emergency, in order to a) sort his ’women problems’ and b) finish writing his effing book. This is un-caring – not needing to care – on a truly appalling level. It’s absolutely him.

So I’m fuelled with hatred and contempt, for Johnson and his thin acolytes. There are dishonourable mentions for the whole filthy clan: Mogg; Truss; Kwarteng; Hancock; Cummings – and by implication for the quietly grotesque hinterland, into which the likes of Dido and Mone hope to disappear. They appall and offend me, as does the xenophobic Brexit catastrophe and the ongoing, raw corruption across those VIP Lanes, corporate favours – particularly the gaze-averting re our scandalous water industry – and the whole, humiliating House of Lords gravy-train.

My dismembering of the Tories is less forgiving, less funny than (say) Marina Hyde’s – deliberately so. I fully accept that driven, polemical writing of this sort may contribute little to the task of ‘turning things around’: but forgive me if I simply bear honest, angry witness. Despite the fact that nobody’s paying me to do this, it does feel like ‘my job’. (Plus lacerating hostility may not necessarily devalue the writing).

The year, then. Set in a matrix of an Ingerland that feels like it’s unravelling further – or at least the brink seems closer.

Thankyou to all who do read. Regulars, who may have a sense of how ‘niche’ I remain, will understand that there are times when I am tempted to either give this malarkey up, entirely, or to further streamline, by gathering all the writing and twittering into one place. This may yet happen, but might curtail my ability to speak the truths I want to speak. We’ll see.

Anyhow. Please do continue to visit the two websites and, if you would, RT on the Twitters – that’s oxygen, for us bloggists. In case you’re wondering, if energy permits, I hope to produce a sportslaureate.co.uk Review of the Year, too.

Love and heartfelt thanks to all: have a wunnerful New Year.

              Rick.

Things have changed.

(Pic via Daily Mirror).

First half and it’s England who are bossing the Yanks. Wow. Yes, those Yanks, who’ve been light years ahead for a decade. But suddenly – or is it suddenly? – things have changed.

The change of regime has plainly been a factor, here, as is the inevitable turning of the talent cycle. England *do* now have a clutch of ver-ry good and very experienced players who are playing, for the most part, in a Women’s Super League that is almost unrecognisable from the division of even a couple of years ago. The environment, the context has surged electrifyingly forward, skill-wise and particularly in terms of composure – just watch the matches on the tellybox. The subtle movements, the retreating into space and opening-up of angles is so-o much more sophisticated than it was. Bright, Greenwood and Daly have all transitioned from relative journeywomen to relative ball-players.

Wiegman must also take huge credit. Not just for the delivery of the first major silverware since the age of the dinosaurs but also for the cultivation of a high level of execution. And consistency. And ease, at this elevated parallel. England were nervy and ordinary as recently as the early stages of the Euros but the gaffer’s supreme equanimity and humour (as well as tactical intelligence) was surely a major factor in the development of a more fluent, confident side. A side that floods forwards relentlessly and fearlessly for 40 minutes, against the United States of America.

It’s 2-1 England, at the half, after Hemp bundles in and Stanway slots a pen. The England midfielder had earlier dwelt criminally, if momentarily, on a weighted pass from Bright that she simply had to biff away, first touch, under the imminent challenge. Instead she tried to ‘do more’, was caught, and the brilliant Smith cracked home. VAR may have robbed the visitors of their second equaliser but the home side deserved (if that’s even a thing?) their lead.

After an old-fashioned bollocking from Ted Lasso – I jest, of course, though a) they, the U.S. needed it and b) he was knocking around – the Americans turned up, post the interval. They were better, for 20 minutes. The game and the stadium quietened. Or it started to moan more, at decisions, in frustration.

Kirby – who has been on the margins – is replaced by Toone. There has been an absence of heads-up football. That sense of potential reality-check (for England) builds. Rapinoe comes into the game, without exactly influencing. Both sides make errors as the frisson, the contagion develops. Toone gets tricky *with a view to drawing a pen* but the ref rightly waives away. The pitch appears to have shrunk, or players are somehow less able to find and revel in space.

In recent days, there have been serious revelations about widespread abuse of professional female players, in the States. A horrendous, shadowy narrative that we can only hope will be shifted towards justice and resolution by powerful voices in the game such as the now-veteran American playmaker (and public/political figure) Megan Rapinoe. Tonight, on the pitch she again stands out, but more for her strikingly purple barnet than for any of her *actual contributions*. The movement is silky and assured but the effect minimal. Even she can’t string this thing together, entirely.

Stanway symbolises the whole drift by easing with some grace into the red zone then clattering agriculturally wide. The standard of officiating drops in sympathy with the play. Having emphatically and instantly given a penalty, the ref has to concede that the backside of an England player is not the extended arm she presumed it to be. In short, a howler cleared-up. There are multiple subs – this is a friendly, after all – and the (on reflection) ultimately below-par Rapinoe is amongst those withdrawn.

Late-on, Toone is wide, in space, in the box. Player of the Match Bronze finds her but the volley is medium-rank. Similarly, Smith lazily under-achieves with a ball that drops invitingly twelve yards out. Hmm. Neither side can find their players.

When the whistle goes, it’s clear the crowd’s loved it, anyway. (With the ole scoreboard saying 2-1 England and the statto’s confirming 23 matches undefeated, who am I to argue?) I won’t argue. England are in a really good place – women’s football is in a spectacular place – with improvement, development and quality visible for all to see.

Yes. Let’s finish by repeating that. Two of the best teams in the world. A massive, near record-breaking crowd and quality visible for all to see.

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.

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.

Denmark.

It’s surely more difficult for us than the players. They sleep, eat, ‘rest up’ then play. We, meanwhile are scurrying from bank (to sort post-separation dollars stuff), to garden (token hedge-trim), to the kitchen (to sort something crappy but Do-able Before The Game). It’s hell, right? Whilst Luke Shaw’s been absent-mindedly picking his nose and wiggling his toes in them dodgy red slippers, we’ve been ratcheting-up the wiredness factor. We’re exhausted from running down the clock… which hasn’t *actually* started.

Six-thirtyish and too late for a kip. Wine o’clock, possibly.

Denmark were ver-ry good whenever-it-was and they have a Reason To Believe. Maybe two: Eriksen and that whole ‘Small Nation’ thing. Why wouldn’t they be raging, magnificently and with quiet, comradely expectation at the prospect of delivering yet another axe to the unsuspecting back? England the footie team may not be complacent but the universe around sure is. Schmeichel’s icy put-down is merely one sign that their opponents – The Visitors – are rooted and ready and implacably determined. Denmark aren’t thinking of springing a surprise. They’re looking to outplay the home side – make a statement of togetherness and defiance and power.

This is one way it could go.

Another is that the England gaffer excels himself, by throwing off the Quiet Man Cape and donning the metaphorical chainmail. He roars; he sprays; he waves his spiky-mace-effort. His players are transported, inspired. They race and carve and consume, unrelentingly. They rout. The full-backs are winged maniacs and Our ‘Arry is a savage-beaked, swooping Griffin. We see myth play out, not match. We see Sterling galloping and Maguire gallumping. It’s like some epic, nation-defining tapestry. The lad from Liverpool scores again, for chrissakes.

Pause for that drink – my first, I promise.

The first rule of Big Match Club is don’t watch hours of pre-game punditry. (I’m still on Wimbledon). You know the ex-England posse will be drifting in and out of Delusionville: urging positivity and expression and directness, with – yaknow – straight faces. ‘Just hoping the lads will play with freedom’.

(Methinks Southgate worked out some time ago – dispiritingly, as I have said before – that you don’t need to play football to win tournaments: you need to manage games. He may be right but this doesn’t stop me dreaming – to coin a phrase – that Ingerland might break ranks with that entirely rational but mildly suffocating philosophy and go wild inna free-range stylee. Surge forward and look to outscore opponents who – whilst being worthy and competent-plus – have fewer talents to call upon).

I confess to being an outlier but I really do almost dread this more than defeat. Pragmatism and patience? COME ON!! Give something sustaining and enjoyable to the tournament, England. You owe us one – or five, or six. You’re in your house. Bring it down in a hail of voices, a cacophony of irresistible energy. Holding and waiting and ‘seeing out’ is such an under-achievement. 7.33.

Not sure about Wrighty’s glasses.

England have gone 4-2-3-1, with Saka back to have a gambol. Might have preferred 5-3-2 with genuinely flying wing-backs but Saka and Sterling might, of course surge into those spaces. Would love to see the latter stay involved and deliver a masterclass. Denmark are expected to be 3-4-3 but imagine wide players will swiftly drop in to make that a defensive 5. Am really looking forward to seeing if they can play nerveless, expansive (or at least controlled) football. Hunch is that we might see England play a lot of that slowly-slowly stuff that feels like a kind of capitulation. Hope I’m wrong.

7.53. Just get past the anthems then it’s sound up, yes?

Are people seriously booing the Danish anthem? What the f*ck are we, exactly?

Matterface. A concern?

Pleased Mount’s in there. He likes to run straight. Waiting on a killer one-two involving the wee man, or a threaded ball that breaks the line. Wonderful to see so much of that from both Spain and Italy last night – pinged, ‘vertical’ passes.

First rash one of the night; “We can beat the Danes, there’s no doubt about that.” Dixon. England racing in to press, early doors. Dead right, in this cauldron. But whilst England are bursting, Denmark execute a few slick passes – importantly, you feel. Great ball in, from Kane almost puts Sterling in on goal. High tempo, from England, encouragingly.

Walker uses his body well: then, with Stones and Maguire utterly absent, shepherds the ball back to safety. (Worrying moment, in fact: Walker’s pace and strength may have just saved his colleagues’ blushes). Mount is running but should do better when entering the box, on the right. Over-runs but draws the corner. Poor delivery from the Chelsea man – doesn’t beat the first man.

Sterling is skipping inside and should blast: scuffs it – decent chance. Twelve minutes and England dominant. Significantly, it’s bright, it’s energetic. Shaw looking confident and looking to pick passes. But then two errors and two half-chances… and the concern that despite conceding nothing, England do offer chances. Crowd sounds great; proverbial extra man for England – particularly if they keep the revs high. Sixteen minutes. Nil-nil.

Sterling is fouled – pushed, in the back – but falls down like something out of Punch & Judy. ‘Draws the foul’, according to the commentator. One or two England errors in central midfield, deepish, or deeper still. Slight concern? Twenty-two minutes. We have a breather.

For the first time, Denmark enjoy a little ease, in possession. They straighten, visibly. Saka maybe needs a kick.

A further half-chance for the visitors. As Germany did, they are asking questions. Game has evened up. Saka makes a nuisance of himself and gets a foul – without shaking off that sense that he’s not yet in the game – or on his. Dolberg shamelessly overacts after a minor cuff to the face. Mount was a tad clumsy but it was hardly an assault. Embarrassing – but rife, yes? Denmark appear to be dragging the England back four central, presumably to expose wide areas as a result?

Half an hour and *that foul* proves costly. Could be Pickford doesn’t cover himself in glory but a beautifully whipped side-foot strike from Damsgaard finds the net -stunningly – from best part of thirty yards. Fabulous hit but a) it was a decent distance out and b) it did not find the top corner. So arguable whether the England keeper has got that right. But to reiterate, lovely connection – and not completely out of the blue.

There is danger here, because the game is already quite open; or more particularly, the England defence (again despite that miserly record) looks porous – disparate, even. More goals, either on the break or via phases of play, feel possible. The threat is all from Denmark, suddenly.

Oof. Sharp move gets Sterling free but Schmeichel saves. A minute later and Kane finds an angle and Saka is racing and cutting back. Yet again it’s Sterling who can finish. (In truth he doesn’t need to: Kjaer, the retreating defender can only help it in). 1-1, against the very recent run of play, but England will take that. They needed it. Quality not as good as last night but excitement right up there. Crowd re-find their voice.

Kane dropping deep to get hold of the ball. Have no issue with that. Fine passer and happy to see him in the game. As we get to half time it’s been full-blooded, racy and even. 1-1 it is – and that’s a fair reflection. Mute button.

Looking at highlights, Sterling smashing straight into Schmeichel’s mid-riff was a real miss, but no argument with the general notion that Denmark have been at least as dangerous as the home side. Those pre-tournament concerns about the durability of England’s defence are *in play* here, to the extent that it feels likely that Denmark will score again. Is it fair to suggest that whoever wins this will start the final as underdogs? Less true it that team is England (because of the venue) but this is a notch down from Italy-Spain.

We’re back. Pickford – who has generally thwacked rather mindlessly long – thwacks mindlessly long: twenty five yards ahead of the England attack. Poor. Is he having one of those days? Lots of extravagant bawling going on. Meanwhile Maguire is booked for raising an arm into the headed challenge. Very questionable call. Time stands still for the bonce protocols. Lots of space in the midfield. Dolberg benefits but Pickford saves, with a strong wrist. But offside, in any case.

Denmark on top. The England keeper does one of those (ver ver contemporary) ridicu-punches, when he might surely have caught the cross. Doesn’t help to settle the nerves. England respond with a tremendous Maguire header, which Schmeichel does outstandingly well to push clear. Little sign of control, from the Rice and Phillips axis, or threat from the wide players: are England going to need to notch from a set-play, here? Denmark remain the more likely.

From nowhere, Sterling and Shaw do the old overlap routine: we know it’s coming but you try stopping it. Denmark couldn’t but the cross squirts to safety: the corner comes to nothing. Not his fault, especially but Saka has been a relative passenger: Mount, Rice and Phillips have exercised minimal real influence.

An hour in: the crowd try to ‘do their bit’. Partly because they can feel England need them. Interestingly, the Danes make three subs – a bold commitment. And now Southgate is looking to Grealish. A lame cross from Saka may signal his withdrawal… and it does. (Could- and might – write a three zillion word thesis on Grealish(e)s in English Football. But that’s for later. He’s on, to a huge roar, and probably playing wide left again).

Twenty minutes remain. Denmark marginally ahead on points but we’re into a scrappy spell – so often the case after multiple substitutions. Grealish draws a foul and a yellow. Moment of controversy as Kane falls in theatrical style. If he hadn’t, he might have been awarded the pen. Rather poor game now. Barely any spells of possession. Seventy-six minutes. Spot-kicks likely?

Maguire almost puts Grealish in and Christensen stretches so-o far he has to be withdrawn, soon after. Phillips drives but always wide. Mount is lucky to draw a foul: referee’s been mixed. Shaw overhits the free-kick and the crowd quietens – because this is messy, now. That bloke from the Villa can’t chest down – his second poor touch – but I’m feeling for him, somewhat (and guessing I’m not alone). On belatedly and therefore opportunities squeezed: not ideal.

Eighty-five mins and Denmark settling. They at least are effecting some sequences of passing. Some. They’ve made five (5) subs to England’s one. May be a masterstroke from Southgate or may be a further sign of his essential conservatism. The crowd are baying, with some disappointment, now. Six minutes of extra time.

Some excitement as Sterling gets wide but Phillips blazes over. Can see the tension in the faces in the crowd. Kane lies down again on contact. Shameless but the foul is given – out wide. Maguire rises but an easy gather for Schmeichel. Extra time proper upcoming, with neither side showing much quality and only occasional flickers of urgency. Anybody could win this but neutrals will be thinking both Spain and Italy were waay better. (I’m thinking that). England – theoretically the stronger side – have failed almost completely to impose themselves.

Finally, Foden. Grealish slightly into panto mode to draw a further foul. Meh. Kane fashions a half-chance but Schmeichel palms clear… but at least England are threatening. Rice and Mount withdrawn for Foden and Henderson. Some passes, for England. Shaw is back in the game. Corner.

Feels, for the first time for maybe an hour, that a goal may be coming for England. Maguire nods and then Sterling has a yard but drives high. Just the sense that Grealish may be starting to strut. Denmark seem content to soak it up: feels risky.

Sterling races with just one thing in his mind. He gets it. Pen. First thought – he dived – or at the very least he was plainly seeking it. (Get that this is different but not a fan of falling on contact. Again I may be an outlier but when players seek above all to wait for any touch and fall, my heart sinks). This will be both ecstasy and tragedy of sorts… Kane fluffs it, as if to make it even more painful for the Danes, but scores with the rebound. Awful way to win this. Half-time.

Wrighty covers up the deception. Neville may be right in saying England deserve the goal – they probably do – but the manner of it was deeply unsatisfactory for some of us. Sterling has been arguably England’s best player – without being consistently good – but he may have sparked a major philosophical discussion. Meanwhile the crowd sing “It’s coming home”.

Grealish is withdrawn. If that’s a defensive move, it’s dreadful, in my view. It may be an injury. Denmark have lost a little of their sparkle. Matterface patronises them, appallingly. Kane falls out wide and is ‘astonished’ he neither got the foul nor the throw.

England ‘seeing it out’. Brathwaite shoots but Pickford can push past. Corner. Foden might release Kane but Schmeichel reads it. The Danes press. Another corner: five minutes remaining. Blissful phases and luxurious into-the-corners, for Henderson, Foden, Sterling. OH-LAYS. Sterling is greedy when a pass might just end this.

And then it’s over. Joy for a home crowd.

As a fan and an England fan I have mixed feelings. Sterling did what most players are doing. He surged with just that one thing on his mind. Not to smash the ball home but to feel the faintest touch… and go down. Neutrals will condemn him: I will merely say that it’s an unfortunate way to win. My headlines will not be ‘glory, glory’, they will be ‘England win it; they were mixed’. They found a way but again the opposition, for much of the game – despite being away and despite being theoretically outgunned, in terms of personnel – were entirely competitive. Congratulations – genuinely – to Denmark.

So Southgate has indeed got his crew to the final. And in there they may even explode into glorious animation. He will know, though that Italy have quality, and that his policy of offering the opposition a good share of possession will face a sterner test yet. Denmark, for the most part, looked as good as England. Italy, should England sit, may look better.

Minor post-script – for better, for worse. That pen. Sterling is entitled to go searching for a penalty, I get that: it’s not against the rules, as such. But I personally think that aspiration sucks, compared to the historic instinct to simply smash the ball into the top corner. Understand not everyone agrees.

The matter becomes then whether it was actually a foul – and yet somehow the judgement of the officials becomes (arguably) doubly important. A) Because they are charged with judging correctly under the laws and b) because there now may be weightier, more abstract considerations creeping in, which may include that which is within or without of the spirit of the game. (Aaaargh, I know!) We may even be confronting what is right or wrong: at best there is unavoidable baggage. (In saying this, again I get that the referee is only really judging on the actuality or otherwise of the foul. But there may be cheating here – or at best cynicism – and these are *factors*).

For me it was blindingly obvious that Sterling was only ever interested in a penalty – which may be irrelevant – and I think there was no foul committed. So no penalty on either the ‘moral’ or corporeal level. We, as punters or refs, must then consider whether to give a foul against Sterling, for invention/deception and/or maybe even whether we book him… or just have a word.

Beyond the event, I have long been an advocate of penalising players who bring the game into disrepute by diving or attempting to deceive the officials. My panel of ex-players (or similar) would be looking closely at this and either having their own words, publicly, to express their dissatisfaction, or applying a sanction.

Sterling, whom I accept has often been the victim of prejudice or misjudgement, is unfortunately at the centre again, but he’s put himself there. Some pundits may be saying what he did was clever. I think it was shit – and yes, anti-football. The Whole of Ingerland may be celebrating, but the way of it has made it the thinnest of wins.

Ukraine.

Pre- game, what were your expectations? Did you do that thing where you know enough to know that (this) England squad is three goals better than (this) Ukrainian squad but still feared another tense one? Of course you did. And of course you didn’t – because England are at the centre of the world’s wildness. There is nothing and everything exceptional about them – about us. We love dogs and still hate the Germans. It’s wild.

England are the best-led/worst-fed/punchiest/most feeble. Their fans are the best/most decent/most racist. Southgate is god/is good/is god-awful. These are the Truths we throw in the mixer. We go to tournaments and don’t play any football. We get handy draws. We don’t deserve Bobby Robson, or Bryan Robson or Gareth Southgate – but we do deserve Gazza: we ARE Gazza. We are onion bags.

For a minute there, I lost myself. Call it euphoria; call it National Delusion. Call it an absolute thumping!

In Rome, England wallop Ukraine, 4-0. Wow. Sterling beats a cluster of theoretically Sterling-assigned defenders and flips a cute pass: Kane toe-pokes home. Anvil-head stuffs one across the keeper: dooff! Luke Shaw gets yet more crossing-practice in and ‘Arry nods another. Ridiculously, The Bloke Who Cannot Score flashes in, from a corner. Four flippin’ nil! Meaning Dreamland.

Do we need any (or is there any space for any) un-belief? Criticism? Reflection? There’s probably no room but let’s do some, anyway:

Wonderful, energising win. Joyful.

Poor opposition – but we knew that – that’s why we said England are three goals better to everyone within earshot, for the last three days.

Smart tactics, if we assume a 4-0 means things went overwhelmingly right? (We don’t assume it; we look at it, meaning…

The ability to switch formations is a significant indicator of certain strengths. Understanding; nous; confidence, maybe. Flexibility that might be useful, over a tournament. Belief in The Process).

Southgate is arguably world-leadingly good at setting out and following his process. He is generous and idealistic enough to let the trust flow. And yet this radical, contemporary, open philosophy is underpinned by – or maybe dogged by – a less appealing pragmatism. He may be both faultless philosopher and (when it comes to the *actual footie*) a relative cynic.

Sterling may be the most obvious example of a brilliant player who has benefitted – or is, now, some might say finally – from his gaffer’s trust. The City star has been one of the finest players in the Premier League for years, but has a) been off, for months and b) (some might say) has under-performed, for England – like so many others, over the decades. That weight-of-the-shirt thing, preposterously, given England’s non-centrality to the *actual drama*, has been a genuine presence.

With regards to tournaments, this accusation upon Sterling – driven, I accept, by racism in some quarters – may have some merit. Raheem – now an impressively mature man and something of a touchstone for progress on many fronts – has played to about 60% of his capacity, in Euros and World Cups. Like England, you might say. He’s gone there with expectation around him but been unable to do the football bit. Like England. If last night’s demolition of Ukraine signalled anything, let’s hope it marked another casting off point, for the lad from Wembley.

But amidst all the justified euphoria, where are England, really? A step closer, of course.

Southgate’s extraordinary mixture of dignity, cutting-edge understanding and (for me, rather dispiriting) conservatism has gotten Ingerland home – possibly twice – for the Business End.

I might still argue that England have played relatively little compelling football and that good teams might yet unpick their defence. (The stats and the tables might guffaw in the face of this view and I understand that Southgate’s Enlightenment is predicated on his knowledge that a) you don’t have to play football to win tournaments and b) what really counts is managing games. However, my strong preference – given we have Foden, given we have Grealish, as well as Sterling, Kane, Mount – would be to look to dominate, pressurise, flow, rather than manage).

The Germany game, despite being a key win, was instructive on many levels. Once we’d got past the booing of the opposition’s national anthem by thousands of morons, a decidedly low-grade German side, featuring a Muller now fully three years beyond his sell-by-date and Gnabry(!) as first impact sub, quietly bossed the first half. Both Muller and Werner should have scored in the game and had Garetzka, when lumbering clear, had either the will to strike – rather than draw a pen – or the pace to free himself, the result might have been very different. Accept it wasn’t but also re-state my central argument that the Southgate Disposition, for genuinely competitive games – to see out periods and nick goals – is, despite being a heavily considered and no doubt stat-based one, also vulnerable.

England will almost certainly look to drop back into an effective 5-3-2 against Denmark and play with caution but purpose. Understand that but don’t like it much. Would prefer if they did what Italy did to Belgium. Engage with energy and pace. Not recklessly; not without responsibilities fully factored-in; but with a view to dominate and the potential to emphatically out-score your opponent. (I will add that I wouldn’t want England to plainly invent contact and injury in the way several of the Italians did, so disgracefully, the other night, as they cynically sought to see out the final period: this was Old Italy and it traduced the brilliance of their earlier contribution).

It was thrilling to see the Azurri go so expansive, urgent and un-Italian: would both enjoy seeing England do that against Denmark and actually believe it suits the personnel Southgate has available. Plus England are home. Plus – and I know this is laughably naïve – enter-bloody-tainment.

Could be that I am again an outlier in seeing plenty holes in the English Dreaming. Repeat that this is more about optimism – the faith in skill, energy, talent – than miserablism. England went from managing the tournament to potentially storming it, last night. Now, onwards. I hope they keep – or maybe invent? – some irresistible faith.

And yet I moan.

Previously, on bowlingatvincent.com

I got shredded for using the language of a fan and saying stuff like Scotland are crap. (When actually of course this is offensive to some).

Folks mistook me for a) an out-and-out England supporter and b) someone who has that English Exceptionalist arrogance going on, when I spend a good deal of my waking hours cringing with embarrassment at the state of our (English) delusions. This Three Lions squad has players… but how good is it, really? *Scrunched-up face and/or WTF face emoji*.

Also, I eviscerated Southgate for his essential conservatism but then agreed that ‘we probably don’t deserve him’, in the sense that his brilliance around culture, social awareness, responsibility, visibility and message – and maybe even coaching theory(?) – is so laudable and obvious that it feels like maybe the universe should somehow reward the fella. And yet I moan.

England beat Germany. I get that many will like the sound of that: I do a little, myself. 2 – 0. And it is commonly believed that there is a pathway to Bigger Things, opening up. This may be true. Let me throw some ideas at this; at the notions around that prospect and this win.

Here’s a quote from the man himself, after the game:

“We talked about bringing enjoyment to the nation and afternoon’s like that are what it’s all about. The players were absolutely immense right through the team… It was a tremendous performance”.

I think this is both understandable, given the euphoria but also genuinely weird. And plainly delusional.

Just how much did Southgate’s team speak to you, sagacious reader, of ‘bringing enjoyment?’ Arguably 7 (seven) defensively-minded players. No Foden or Grealish or Mount – all of whom bring a surely richer, higher, pacier, edgier edge-of-the-seat factor than some of those who actually got picked. The whole utterly designed for a kind of ‘patient’ pragmatism – for which read ‘nicking a goal and holding out’. Like the away side. At Wembley. Against a genuinely (genuinely) average German team.

So. Enjoyment? And immensity? Could possibly argue Stones and maybe Walker had something powerfully resolute about them. (Maguire, for me, played like a pussy – sorry, fans-speak again – for much of the game; seeking petty fouls and remonstrating with the referee like some petulant, highly-strung academy starlet. He also should have scored with a simple, committed header, had he not had one eye on an incoming challenge). Before the two goals the second half performance smacked more of passive inconsistency than roaring patriotism. The first had started reasonably but then been essentially mixed, with Germany looking better on the ball.

But let’s get back to the team. Don’t take issue with the formation, with three centre-backs, particularly, nor the personnel. Walker’s pace, Stones’ comfort on the ball and reading of the game, together with Maguire’s typical composure and ability to thread a pass made complete sense. The theoretical wing-backs – Trippier and Shaw – were similarly hardly controversial selections.

However. factor in the raging certainty – given Southgate’s propensity in this direction – that these ‘flying wingbacks’ would be a whole lot more fixed, and deep, than flying and then add Rice and Phillips in as well and there is a strong argument that Ar Gareth is not, in fact, that set on enjoyment. Or if he is, he just means winning – winning being the same as enjoyment. (Call me a grass-chewing, horizon-fixing hippy but I question that).

Here are a couple of hunches. Saka was un-droppable after the previous performance: the coaching team might not have picked him but he gave them no choice. I don’t personally see why this precluded the inclusion of Foden or Grealish or both but Southgate was looking to ‘shore things up’, not open up Germany and the game in a way that might have been, yaknow, enjoyable. Grealish is not Glen Hoddle but his career for England may be similarly conflated with the idea that skill is a luxury: that it may not, percentage-wise, work out. Ditto pace: Saka, after an encouraging start, was ineffectual and therefore placed himself at number one in the queue for substitution.

I have no argument with the removal of Saka – the game, after his briefly twinkling start had passed him by – but smiled another wry smile when the incoming Grealish was again stationed wide left. Of course he can or might affect the game out there but does it not feel truer to say that Southgate lacks the courage to stick him into the Real Playmaker’s Role – ravishingly, excitingly, entertainingly central? Indeed, given the (surely unarguable) comparative failure of England to gel and to flow in the previous games, should the Villa man not be picked from the bloody start?!?

On this broader theme – and apologies if I labour this deconstruction of the association between the concept of enjoyment and, erm, Southgate’s soul – but… Rice and Phillips? Against a mediocre German side? At Wembley? When maybe Ingerland haven’t actually offered anything of sustained import, excitement and quality-wise to any tournament since ooh, Bobby Robson(?)

How necessary are Rice and Phillips? Particularly when you have all those other bastions of immensity, behind them? I know this sounds hopelessly unrealistic but when the gaffer’s talking about thrilling the crowds can we not have a conversation about generosity… and energy… and spirit? (To be clear, this conversation need not be entirely about woolly, qualitative stuff – but also efficacy. Methinks England might play better and do better if they think – for want of a better word – ‘creative’).

Funny how you can sound like Morrissey – i.e. ridiculous and miserablist – whilst punting evangelically ‘purist’ views out to the universe. Ho hum. Somebody godda do it.

The point I’m failing to make is something about caution. Southgate is dispiritingly cautious – despite his articulate protestations around national glee. Some of us think this is not just disappointing but tactically unwise. England’s best players, their most threatening players, are Kane, Sterling, Foden, Grealish: maybe Saka might join this list, soonish. These players would enjoy it more, be more successful and generate more overwhelmingly positive vibes in the home stadium if they played attacking football. (Remember that?) England do not remotely play attacking football, in tournaments, under Southgate. They do not even look like they seek it.

Today England beat Germany two nil. A fabulous result. But the performance was again stodgy. Germany should have scored at least twice – Muller and Werner calamitously guilty – and had Goretzka found any groundspeed or intent he might added two more when gallumping clear. (He, like Sterling, opted to throw himself forward in search of a penalty, rather than try to burst the net).

This was a cleansing win but not a triumph of style nor a statement of manifest intent. It was just another mixed effort that lumps England into the next round. Theoretically, it might be said that the draw has ‘opened up’: Southgate’s team, frustratingly, have not.

Nice.

A nice bright start in a nice, bright Nice. A high camera-angle may be exacerbating the weight of the shadows and the zing-factor of Sweden’s yellow and the white of Ingerland: it’s clearly baking there but maaan, I’m close to reaching for my shades, here, too.

Could be the same for Steph Houghton, who pops a pain-killer early on, following a blow to the head.

There’s some decent but unthreatening bluster-at-pace from both sides, then Sweden score. Greenwood, fortunate to be restored ahead of Stokes in my view, fails to clear an innocuous cross and Asllani accepts the gift.

Barely a minute later, Greenwood is again exposed by a simple lob forward and Jakobsson very nearly beats Telford at her near post. The keeper almost comically shins the ball back into her own net, following the rebound off the woodwork. Could be that England’s left flank is being targeted.

In fact, everywhere is being targeted. Sweden are all over the Lionesses. To the extent that a second goal – beautifully curled in by Jakobsson – is appropriate reward for their first quarter dominance. In truth, the defending was again hesitant and the tall, fleet-footed striker was allowed significantly too much time and space to engineer the arc for the far post.

In the 27th minute, England fashion a sweet move but there is again a sense of passing responsibility as the killer moment approaches: Kirby is off-side whilst attempting her tap-in.

Kirby’s next contribution is a kind of perfect opposite. The moment she receives the ball, wide right, is the moment the instinctive rush for goal begins – solo. Jinking in, she shapes for a left-footed curler and executes perfectly: class goal.

Before the Swedes can settle, Ellen White has an ‘equaliser’. Only she doesn’t. She may be unlucky to be adjudged to have handled a ball that runs up her body whilst she’s under challenge.

The England centre-forward had seemed to have rolled the defender legitimately – and there was no appeal from Sweden – but the ball may have contacted White’s arm (as well as, quite possibly, the defender’s). An unlucky turn of events and another example of VAR getting something right… that may not have needed referring.

It’s surprisingly physical: Sweden doing their fair share of old-school clattering, as if to emphasise the competitive nature of a fixture that we all regard (if we’re honest) as relatively meaningless. The TV reminds us that England have won only three of the last 20-something fixtures between these two and Blackstenius, Jakobsson and those behind seem pret-ty intent on preserving that intimidating record.

Last kick of the half and White, for once, shoots feebly when in at the angle. Half-chance only but going in level after a period in which they were largely either swamped or hurried could have been huge, for England.

Bronze has barely featured but for a single, characteristic drive, Parris has been absent and the midfield has been principally in retreat. Defensively there have been errors both on the flanks and between the central defenders, whose relationship seems less certain, understandably, than the first-choice pairing of Houghton and Bright.

Telford – asked to pass, pass and pass, rather than hoof – has it seems never really settled. A re-cap at the break: whilst the performance did improve, that lack of calm, of fluency is perhaps the standout feature and concern.

Better start to the second half, from England. Mead is soon withdrawn for Taylor, who may add more of a threat, centrally. But can the increase in energy, positivity and level of possession transfer into real control?

It appears so. As Bronze forces a corner on the hour, England are on top and finding a little sustained flow. Kirby shimmies again and puts Taylor through… but she’s plainly off. The midfielder has played at a level, finally, that she will consider acceptable.

The much-vaunted Bronze-Parris combo, however, has been ineffectual. The full-back is looking to burst forward, possibly in frustration at the lack of dynamism in front of her. In the 65th minute, this nearly costs England, as Bronze over-runs, is dispossessed and Sweden are in on that left flank. No damage.

Enter Carney, inevitably, on the 73 minute mark. The retiring maestro is there for sentimental reasons but she is also a real candidate for Person to Make a Difference By Threading a Brilliant Pass. (Which is what England need – someone to find that moment of quality – of clarity).

As the game stretches Jakobsson smashes in a worldie of a cross, which is just about cleared: England have to gamble and they are.

We’re seeing flashes of the possession-based game Neville wants to play, in this second half – there were none in the first – but I am struggling to remember a meaningful contribution from Lindahl, the Swedish ‘keeper. There really has been very little carved out.

Scott, Carney, Kirby are busy centrally but still not able to get White or Taylor clear. I wonder, now that Mead and Parris are both departed, if their best chance is a sharp one-two or a lung-bursting run from deep, such is the stoutness of the Swedish defence.

Bronze’s frustration continues; she gives away two unnecessary free-kicks but still finds herself unmarked with the ball falling to her twelve yards out. She volleys well enough but the ball zeroes in on Fischer’s forehead – cleared.

Zigiotti could finish it but hits Telford’s legs. Moore is rightly booked for checking her gallivanting opponent. The ref blows. A moral victory for the Lionesses, who win the half on points – but they lose the game and the medal.

Carney notably retains her calm after the whistle; she looks more angry and disappointed than sad. The Swedes, meanwhile, are emotional. Good luck to them. They deserved this. England’s tournament? Hmmm, let’s think.

Neville has done well. After the scepticism and outrage regarding his appointment, I think he’s answered most critics. He is clearly heavily invested in this: he gets it and his manner as well as his manners have been close to impeccable.

His view of a united squad, all contributing has been largely successful. His view of how this England should play is fine enough too – just maybe compromised (as so often in sport) by individual frailty or inability to rise. 

His bankers – Houghton, Scott, Bronze, possibly Bright – have been committed and strongish but not world-beating. (The fourth-place finish is bang on, wouldn’t you say, for these players, in this tournament?)

Disappointments and frustrations include the VAR stuff, Bronze’s seven-out-of-ten (for a nine-out-of-ten player), Kirby and Duggan and Parris. Successes would include White, not just for her goals but for her intelligent centre-forward play and, more broadly, that sense that there is a pattern there to aspire to – one which is beyond most of the teams in this World Cup. There are still places to go.

Finally, both these teams have made a contribution, here, to the Big Picture Stuff. Women’s football – women’s sport – is surging. The development, the profiles, the quality, the entertainment is now more visible day-by-day. If there is any disappointment for England maybe that will pass, as players realise and appreciate that they are making this game, their game, authentic and real and compelling.

To hoof not thread.

Part of me wishes – honestly – that Jack Wilshere would just go out and have a few beers and smokes and be him. Then bundle his way past a protesting Woy-in-a-wight-lather (okay, cheap but doncha just kinda resent that flustering pomp thing Hodgson’s got going?) and on to absolutely dismember some half-tasty international opposition. Singlehandedly. In a tournament game. With little flip passes from the outside of his left boot. Threading DNA molecule-like clusters of wall-pass-to-the-power-of no-no-no-he can’t- YEE-EESSSSAA like some cack-handed and slightly boozy Fabregas. But then part of me wishes he would just give in to his fate as a perennial crock; put us out of our misery; break all available limbs in a rash challenge leapfrogging a bollard outside some niteklub in Prague and have done with it. We deserve that, surely – to be put out, right out, of our misery?

This billowing pro and contra emotion around Wilshere is all about… what? When did it start?

In the very beginning something about him stirred us. When he first dinked a tiddlywink of hope into our Ovaltine. When he first semi-loped (can small blokes lope?) and semi-swaggered onto the park in the white of England. We some of us sat bolt upright on the couch for the first time since the Wicker Man. We put away the bedtime drink and reached for a cool beer. In Wilshere it looked like we’d finally found one.

Not only did he have that slightly retro Landun schoolboy(ish) confidence fing abart ‘im – the whiff of catapults in playgrounds or blotting paper splatted expertly into the khazi ceiling, or fizzing past teacher’s ear, he oozed, crucially, excitingly, with what we tend to lamely call ‘culture’. He was so comfortable in possession there seemed little doubt he might actually actually express that higher thing, that football. But perhaps the binary peaks in our relationship with this phantom tightened early around the simple unpatriotic truth; that his was a Spanish Stroll, surely and this was therefore unlike us? It was likely better than us, better than the turgid precedent for tarnished gold but could it prosper in the Three Lions kit?

Plainly with Jack the potential was there to burst exhiliratingly through the fusty limits of what had been us into something better and – please god – more competitive. That caressing of the traditionally renegade sphere, that invented time and space, that fifteen yard passing range, that coolness in the clamour. He spoke of other worlds, of brave new everythings where Ingerland played – competed – with Alonso/Xabi/Schweinsteiger. Momentarily, he really did. At the end-stop of our fifty-year deathlike dearth, it just seemed possible that we might have one but experience having traumatised us, we waited quietly.

We waited and symbolically or otherwise the poor lad got crocked. No – he actually did get crocked – for a living, it seemed. Season after season. In practical terms the granddaddy Gerrard simply dropped a gear and the axis with Lampard persisted – hopelessly – and the national side of Ingerland went on being the national side of Ingerland; woeful; emasculated; subtle as an air-raid; dense as a docker’s sandwich. From before Sven to Fabio to Roy we all traversed together the saddening terrain from one cliché of a failure to the next, with all of it predicated on that raw inability to treasure the ball – to hoof not thread.

With every fibre Wilshere enacted his understanding of – his protestation against – that dumbness. But he was never there, or he never had ‘a run at it’ – injuries gnawing away at both his momentum and our belief. With every absence, with every ‘lay-off’ for the ῠber-Gooner we the resigned flopped out again with another miserable beer and more carcinogenic snacks. Rather than being the pivot at international level, the boy barely featured.  Cruel.

At Arsenal too Wilshere flitted and flattered, his Wenger-approved neatness and penchant for centrality being only sporadically key to their easy, double-clutched movement. Like his club though, there was maybe was/is something one-paced about his game; pleasing mid-gears, so much fluent transition but a lack (alack!) of murderous high-voltage. But I find myself in the past tense…
The possibilities for England still  include saviourhood/irrelevance/absence through injury. As always, availability for selection will define things.
The juicy prospect of a critical role at the rear point of a midfield diamond aired itself recently. Given that Sterling of Liverpool featured at the prow of this formation, a Gor Blimey tingle ran through some of us. We all know (and I imagine even Hodgson knows) that Jackie Boy is happiest asking questions of a central defender thirty/forty yards from goal. However, his brilliance at collecting and feeding and moving and threading with bodies around him equips him beautifully for the (deeper) Let’s Get This Baby Movin’ role too. He is good enough to not just carry the metaphorical water but also the expectation. He is close to England’s finest at (say it again) treasuring the ball and building a threat. So let him have a whole lump of possession and (with Sterling at 10 in front) the other buggers better watch out.

That the blend, the detail of this is still palpably unsorted by the England hierarchy tells us plenty, I would argue, about Hodgson’s lack of foresight. Henderson suddenly appears to be a nailed-on starter and this perhaps alleviates some of the fears around Wilshere’s lack of focus defensively-speaking. Much depends on how much width and creativity (or constriction and ‘control’) the wider two of the four diamond players are asked to provide. Sterling has already earned the right – ahead of Rooney, incidentally – to be the free spirit taunting the space immediately in front of the opposition centre-backs. Does this really mean that we have to be (as it were) culturally cautious elsewhere to allow for this luxury?

Hodgson may feel that he has to ‘protect’ our admittedly ordinary back four by opting for durability more than creativity but how ‘bout he told the defence to grow some and the essence of the diktat became about us with the ball? How ‘bout he/we stopped to count the number of defenders in his side and concluded that two of them probably don’t have to mark anybody for eighty percent of the game? And Gary Neville demanded intelligent pressing and brilliant – international level brilliant – defending with or without a shield?

In other words rather than denying expressivity in our own team by selecting surplus minders in our midfield could we not trust those who can really play to play? Huh?

Qualification for the next major tourney should be straightforward enough now following a good win in Sitzerland.  Hodgson has the slack he needs to be positive, to mould a brighter way forward.

The Spanish Era may be over but not in the sense that it remains clear (now and always) that quality of touch/vision/passing are the keys. Not how or if you ‘can tackle’. Not capacity to perspire in the name of the shirt (even.) Quality of touch and the presence and confidence to play and treasure the ball is it.

Wilshere if fit (yawn!) must play central. He could play deepish and own the team strategy. He could. He could blossom and so could the new generation. They could. But the fear remains that he simply won’t get the chance. Because his ankles seem knackered and the culture – our culture, not his – still works against him.