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.

Southgate and England.

It’s early and I’m angry. I have better things to do – better things to save my precious energy up for and yet…

England. Football. Let’s start with the gaffer.

Southgate has grown into a superlative manager of the political, social and philosophical around England Football. As somebody said quite recently – in relation to his Dear England missive – ‘we don’t deserve him’. (Certainly those donkeys who boo the knee don’t).

But then there’s the *actual football*.

Here, Gareth is floundering as badly, pretty much, as all those before him. Specifically and particularly in that sense of failing utterly to relieve the players of that ‘burden of wearing the shirt’ thing. (I note to the universe that this is in fact the first and primary duty of the coach – to get his or her players comfortable and confident, individually and as a group, with the task in hand; namely to play well and, ideally, win football matches). Southgate continues the long line of coaches who have singularly failed to get England to offer good-quality, competitive football, in tournaments. (And if you’re raising your eyebrows at this because you think England were great at the last World Cup, then maybe, oh donkacious one, you best leave me here).

I get that it seems absurd that I am going to be suggesting, here I know better than The England Manager… but the fact is I – or we, we being plenty of you and certainly the four lads in my most exclusively sport-tastic whatsapp group – do. Because we can see from our blissful, comparatively innocent distance, that England remain over-coached, under-inspired, unable to surge and express. We can see them obeying the dumb mantras towards ‘staying patient’ and ‘drawing them out’. We know that this is such an obviously one-dimensional universe – that of the Whiteboard Coach – where the belief in a supra-personality (the Team Pattern) squishes the life out of the buccaneering individual.

Southgate is not alone in believing that his process will pay off, if his players continue to believe. Guardiola is similar in that his doctrinal faith in his own carousel of wonder and movement and calculation (actually) is beyond contradiction – is theoretical flawless. The difference is that England’s dancing is Dad Dancing, in comparison to City’s. In other words, it’s so clunkified and slow and predictably, lifelessly un-free, that even crap teams like Scotland can resist its pedestrian charms.

Let’s stay with this arguably unhelpful City analogy for a moment. Firstly in order to note that even the God Of All These Ambitions, Guardiola, keeps tripping himself up by over-thinking – typically, in Champions League mega-matches. Secondly, to underline this idea that City generally twinkle wonderfully because somehow their manager has freed them to do it. Now of course the burden of wearing the national jersey – any national jersey – is significantly more massive than that of a club, but (again) the primary job of the coach is to select the right blend of humans and broad or specific strategies to facilitate effective, fluent expression of talents available. Has Southgate managed that? Does that sound like a description of England?

Against Scotland – who competed in exactly the way that we all knew they would – England lacked verve, personality, guts, fire, pace, imagination. Why? Because of a certain level of feebleness, as individuals, and an obvious, embarrassing, un-generous, spirit-crushing over-reliance on thin beliefs around patience, pattern, ‘inevitability’. Sterling and Kane jogged listlessly around thinking ‘it would happen eventually’. Rice and Phillips played out the same, unthreatening pass-routine believing that in time ‘space would open up’. Mount looked for the ‘points of weakness’ they’d no doubt spoken about all week – those and very little else… because beyond the brief. England, despite having fine players on the park, looked like a bunch of drugged automatons again.

They all take the rap. Southgate for over-seeing another capitulation to fear and un-ambition, the players for lacking the spunk and the natural urgency that you would hope would naturally course through them, in a derby and a tournament. Pretty pitiful failures, both. Predictable failures, both.

Southgate’s selection was interesting – revealing, inevitably. Drop Walker, after his twenty-minute ‘mare the other night and drop Trippier for failing to influence. Keep the Faith with the rest. Stick with a back four and two anchor-midfielders: so six defensive players, effectively. Against Scotland.

Did he contemplate going three central defenders with two genuinely flying wing-backs? You should bloody-well hope so. But did he press that P for positivity button? No. No Chilwell and Reece-James to set a-racing, to lift the crowd and light up our evening, against opposition who have McTominay at centre-back, by the way. (Him who, yaknow, never plays there). For an England team that has arguably been characterised by spinelessness, in tournaments, for decades, this was another willowy, thinly-conservative selection.

So I’m fascinated in what Gareth actually believes in. Not that I doubt his sincerity – not one bit. I just don’t get what it is that he’s seeing, from his players and from the performance of his strategies. Any clown can see that Sterling has often, despite being brilliant, been somewhere between ineffective and woeful, for England, in tournaments. He was again last night.

Any clown can see that the central issue is lack of pace and confidence – of spark. And yet two relatively one-paced holding players. Any clown can see that that whole thing of strikers pootling aimlessly about, ‘saving their energy for the red zone’, is cobblers: because that breeds predictability, lack of touch and options and zero excitement – zero surge. And yet, in their arrogance, coaching staff and players play out that dumb charade of efficiency and effect… to no effect. England become laughably easy to play against.

Because life is complex, it may yet be that England fluke their way through and then accidentally find some form. They may even win the fucking tournament. They do have players. But they were again a deeply dispiriting watch, last night.

Party of my anger about all this is because the friends I am staying with – in Bristol, for the cricket – who are rather wonderful people but not huge football fans, sat through that garbage and could barely believe their own boredom. They were actually shocked by how dull England were. Against Scotland. In a major tournament. Why didn’t Kane seem interested? Why did Rice (and all the defenders, actually) do everything so slowly? WHERE WAS THE URGENCY? Any clown could see there was none. Just a kind of un-belief in something that plainly wasn’t happening.

Southgate is a wonderful man and a top, top manager. But probably a mediocre coach. Fine to aspire towards a kind of Group Accountability and a Faith In The Process – these are fabulous, intoxicating, legitimate theories. But you have to select the personnel and bundle, bawl or hug them into something which works. Absolutely respect Sir Gareth: but the bloke is too uninspiring, too conservative, too timid a coach, to set Rashford, Grealish, Chilwell, Trippier or whoever racing. Thus the holy grail of developmental process is ultimately hollow: once more.

Southgate may well personally deserve more and better but whilst he withdraws Foden – the nearest England had to a bright spark – to stick Grealish on (belatedly and wide left), and whilst he replaces Kane with Rashford, like-for-like, instead of withdrawing the ineffectual Sterling, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he’s just another sophisticate, fiddling unconvincingly?

England played Scotland and Scotland probably deserved to win. If you were to do that marks-out-of-ten thing the Three Lions (pah!) team rating would be 3. Only Mings and possibly Foden would have scored above 5 or 6. England were lousy.

Wor Jackie.

I’m not sure I liked him, much, early doors. Certainly *that team* with the brilliant but spiteful terriers Bremner and Giles, plus the pre- (quite reasonably) sanctified ‘clogger’, Hunter, was right up there on the Most Despised list, for most of us. Leeds. Led by the sheepskin-coated cynic, Revie.

Big Jack/Wor Jackie was a Proper Member of that club… and yet his rascaltastically steady giraffe thing endeared himself more to the masses, I think, than most of his colleagues. That and the events of 1966.

Let your mind flash back, if it can. Did not even the gorgeously gifted Eddie Gray have a nasty streak? Was there something bit grating about Madeley’s smoothness? Wasn’t Allan Clarke essentially rancorous and even the unprickly Lorimer a bit – yaknow – lary, somehow? Wasn’t our dislike, despite the inevitable raw jealousy, rooted in something palpable?

Charlton was guilty of being ‘Leeds’, too, then: so we’d roar when he got physical. But I remember him more for a kind of upright doughtiness than any persistent evil. It felt as though Big Jack was always too close to mischief and what we’d now call #bantz than sustained malice, to be a full-on Leeds Bastard – not that he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) ‘look after himself’. He was classic English Number 5 in that he stopped people playing: marked them. Sometimes, yes, physically.

There was something else, too. That brother. The surging saint from Manchester United – the *actual player*. This made him/them or presented the Charltons as a Football Family; a rather special one, yes, after ‘66? Bobby was god-like – that charm, that quiet grace, that fu-ck-ing goal against Portugal!

Jack was bound in there, part of the glorious package but nobody understood him as a great player. He was good: he was a solid, international stopper but he was hardly Rio Ferdinand, never mind Alan Hansen.

Of course Jack was of his era, when the job description didn’t include easing stylishly into midfield, or threading searching passes into the false nine’s feet, or even (arguably) looking comfortable on the ball. Charlton J stopped you: he was a presence and he was ‘strong in the air’.

(Minor diversion. In a shockingly out-of-character burst of research, have looked at the Bleacher Report’s top ten England centre-halves. Interesting. [Here – https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2098444-ranking-englands-10-greatest-world-cup-central-defenders ].
Guess where Jackie is? Number 3. Ahead of Rio Ferdinand and behind John Terry and Bobby Moore. The whole bundle feels a relatively weak line-up to me, with only a few players – and I do mean players – of really high quality. Charlton is one of several who were effective rather excellent or richly, broadly skilled).

But this is sounding rather negative and I don’t want to be that – Wor Jackie doesn’t deserve that. The point I am making about Charlton J is that he was a tower; a resolute, indomitable, reliable English Centre Half of a high order, at a time when football was different. Not worse, or less demanding, but different. He was outstanding, engaging and could plainly be the heartband soul of almost anything.

According to our friends at Wikipedia, Charlton played 628 times for for Leeds, scoring on 70 occasions – a striking contribution for a defender. This in a 21 year career at the club. (Whoa: read that again – twenty; one; years). He also gained 35 England caps between 1965/and 1970, scoring 6 times. So the bloke was a threat, right, at what we used to call set-pieces? (Now set-plays).

These figures – in particular that proud, stoic, loyalty to Leeds – tell much of the story. The numbers, the years, the trophies speak to his utter, committed, authentic footballer-ness. As of course, does the Northumberland accent, the characteristically robust wit, the stature of the man in every sense. And we haven’t yet mentioned his career in management.

Big Jack had to be a Manager. He was always a leader, of sorts, even without the armband. Led by example, knew the game, was charismatic, was tough.

Those, like me, who remember the TV documentary from way back that showed him a) charging about the dressing room with the lads, todger-swingingly starkers and b) urging a youngster to “show me some aggression, son” still hold those memories close, amongstbothers. Absurdly, wonderfully macho stuff.

It utterly figures that this English icon could and did become and Irish legend. (Who else might ever fall into that particular category?!?) Charlton proved yet again that belief and togetherness and a ‘way of playing’ – a euphemism for simple, achievable patterns – can trump higher levels of quality in your opponent. Ireland had some players but they were driven to the World Cup Quarters by ‘Wor Jackie’s’ spirit… and method.

In my understanding of the phrase ‘Wor Jackie’, there is the association or assumption that ‘Wor’ implies, if not actually means, ‘our’. It’s for bellowing in approval at one of ours. Turns out that Charlton J’s powerful contribution, rather than being parochial, went inspiringly international, went beyond Northumberland and Leeds and England, because folks loved and followed and trusted his truth.

John Charlton – full name, what else? – strode manfully through a football life, keeping it simple, keeping it real in the way that only an irreducibly working class man might. He had more ‘chin’ than his brother, was a tad more abrasive, but ultimately shared that same wondrous humility.

It was another age when England won the World Cup: I smile when I think of Jack Charlton facing (say) David Silva, in a different dimension. Manchester City’s serpentine genius might ask a few questions of the Leeds man. One way or another I’m guessing the old warhorse would let it be known that he was a force – and “never mind yer poncy tickertackie”.

Wor Jackie was of his time but what a time he made of it.

The Rugby World Cup Final.

Jonny. Pre-game. Almost worryingly earnest, as so often. Turning his analysis into yoga, players out there behind him. Then ‘that wry smile’ – Farrell’s, not Wilkinson’s and a ‘break’. ITV: okaaay but also weird.

But what a good, solid and sometimes *actually inspiring* tournament this has been. Japan the clear winner, for their childlike embrace of the thing, for their politesse and their Proper Rugby Passion too. (Oh – and their team played arguably the most entertaining rugby in the tournament).

Rugby, World Cup Finals, in Japan. Strange how intelligent administration, free from bias or bung can turn out well, eh FIFA, eh ICC? You get to expand the game and enrich the experiences of everybody, pretty much, from spectator to waiter. The sport benefits.

The sight of Japanese, young and old, belting out the beautiful but relatively inaccessible Welsh national anthem has felt wonderfully symbolic of the potential richnesses – rarely located but found here – that the confluence of sport and peoples can aspire to. Simply, rugby does goodwill particularly well. Japan seems to have done it magnificently.

To the game.

Unusually for me, no live updates. Wanted to watch. What follows is therefore some abstracted thoughts…

 

South Africa and England may be high on the list of unloved rugby nations but ultimately there was a heartwarming bundle of That Good Stuff washing around Yokohama and the airwaves, at the whistle. The Boks had freed themselves up and begun to cut deep and wide, as England, disconsolate, near-humiliated England slipped into hopelessness.

The scenes at the culmination of an emphatic win – the rainbow of joy and wider-spread satisfaction around the host nation for a supremely hospitable tournament – may camouflage the fact that this was a game in which only one team turned up: South Africa.

Questions will inevitably be asked about tactical matters: how could the Boks dominate so completely a game that they entered as underdogs? Was this not an obvious case of one coaching team out-thinking another? Did Jones not know the go-to strengths of Erasmus’s side? Of course he did. But this was a World. Cup. Final.

England looked overawed from the start. Arguably not every player, of course but there was that awful error/contagion/überangst coursing right through them. Painful for Eddie Jones and his backroom staff to see, as they will surely have wanted and quite possibly expected to replicate the carousel of brilliant, confident attacking that characterised their start against the ABs. Instead there was simple error after dubious choice: they were more woeful than mixed, as exemplified by Youngs, on ten minutes, hurling a pass metres high and wide of any colleague, metres into touch. Wow. Shocker.

For Sinckler, the young English prop, there was barely time for nerves. Pre-game, I had a hunch that his personality, his wit, indeed, may have a real influence on this encounter. The fella’s sparky and spunky in a good way: strong but also somehow nimble. He left the pitch, cruelly accidentally concussed, on four minutes: England would miss both his bulk and his capacity to defy, to intervene.

Apologies. This may all underestimate the early power and control of South Africa – who were immediately ahead on the board and looked likely to stretch that lead further the more the first half continued. (Pollard missed a straightforward kick/there was a pret-ty continual siege going on against the England defence, albeit all over the park, as opposed to close to the danger zone).

In the ether, much had been made of the Erasmus plan to stifle and smother but without being electrifyingly expansive in the first period, South Africa went through a certain level of positive phases competently enough – unlike England. Continually and consistently, often via de Allende or Le Roux, the Springboks threaten to threaten.

The men in white, by contrast, for whom I thought Daly (most obviously) and both halfbacks underachieved, either through error or conceding possession too cheaply, were unrecognisable from the week previous. The opposition today were magnificently robust, it’s true but if Game Plan A for England was to hoist (without effectively chasing down) and re-set, as soon as this was patently neutered, surely the halfbacks must initiate another challenge, or twelve?

Youngs and Ford disappointed, in this respect. And yes I know they my have put many man-hours into that Plan A, and that the coaches may have over-egged the need to keep faith with it, but when Am, de Allende, Etzebeth, Kolisi and co are smashing you back decisively on nearly every contact, surely it makes sense (when it’s a known strength of your own) to look to play at pace and with width?

Instead, Pollard and wee Faf could dictate the nature of the play… because they had both momentum and – courtesy those box-kicks and ‘clearances’ – possession of the ball!

Simplistic? Maybe. Less arguable was the palpable superiority of the Boks, not just around contacts but notably and maybe surprisingly at line-out and scrum. Even accepting that the reffing of scrums often seems arbitrary, the concession of penalties by England in this facet of play was both a) remarkable b) completely reflective of Springbok dominance. England were repeatedly smashed.

In line-outs, too, the English were alarmingly out of synch, given their previous high standards. If the throw from George was caught, the movement around – the development – was clunky. The fizz from Underhill, Curry and Vunipola(s) remained well and truly corked.

England escaped the first forty within range, somehow. (6-12). But the imagery was set: blurs and errors and lack of flow from men of The North, and a deep, formidable squeeze from t’other side.

For a few minutes, into the second half, we almost had a game: England almost roared. After the inevitable fifty-odd minute personnel changes, the South African scrum was almost shockingly vulnerable – momentarily, as it turned out – as Marler or Cole or somebody similarly heave-tastic forced a pen. Farrell profited, bringing the scores to 9-15 but then crucially (possibly) failed with a toughish but kickable effort from about 45 metres. Before any meaningful momentum could be gathered, Daly sliced poorly into touch, England conceded a further pen after the line-out and Pollard pinged over.

If those exchanges settled the match, it was the two South African tries in a delirious and exhilarating last fifteen minutes that delivered the flourish. Am threw a peach of a no-looker to put Mapimpi in, then Kolbe danced with some ease round a somewhat movement-restricted Farrell, following a crunching, ball-spilling tackle on Slade. The South Africans (and maybe the competition?) got what they deserved: a stylish, joyful kindofa win.

I’m not big on stagey celebrations or presentations but how could we not enjoy the Bok Party? With its *stories*. How could we not raise a glass to Kolisi and to the idea of shared, enlightened progress? And also how could we not note the South African skipper’s gracious acknowledgement for the stricken Sinckler, moments before rising to collect the World Cup, himself?

Wow. Rugby can be great; sport can be great; people can be great. Nice work, Japan – nice work.

Quarter-finals. Facts & fascinations.

  • Ok. That’s done then. Probably, the best four teams are through – though around that the Irish might do whatever the Irish equivalent of quibbling is.
  • Just now, unloved South Africa squished the wunnerful-joyful hosts, once the early carousel had been closed-down. Disappointing for neutrals, given the electrifying entertainment Japan have provided but guess we do want the strongest teams in there at the death. (Don’t we?)
  • South Africa looked strong, in the same way Wales have been strong, over the last eighteen months or more. More durable than delectable: more efficient than effervescent.
  • The Springboks – are they still called the Springboks; feels somehow vaguely politically unsound? – will play Wales in a semi which could either be a reactionary bore-fest or a full-hearted classic.
  • Two wee interjections, at this point. 1. I’ve lived in Wales most of my life and want them to win the tournament. 2. Some of this stuff, below, which fascinates me 👇🏻.
  • Short memories. Almost everyone in Wales was actually rather contemptuous of Gatland & ‘Gatlandball’ a couple of years ago. He & it were dinosaur-tastic in a profoundly unattractive way.
  • The miserable Welsh performance in a medium-dramatic but poorish quality game against a fitfully revitalised France was a disappointment on several counts. Chief amongst them was the Welsh retreat into box-kicking/set/defend.
  • Wales have played some rugby in this tournament but they are plainly primarily concerned with playing within themselves, to a limited game-plan. They believe it’s a way to win: the evidence would suggest they are right.
  • In defence of arguable Welsh defensiveness, notably against France, they were without one of the great players of the modern era – Jonathan Davies. Davies is ‘class’, with and without the ball. I suspect he is more critical to Wales’ defensive shape than we give him credit for and his rare mixture of intelligence, subtlety and raw courage in attack is often powerfully, often discreetly influential.
  • I am also pret-ty convinced that Biggar is playing with restricted movement – playing hurt. (Wags might say Danny Boy always looks that way; him being the relatively fixed point of the whole Gatlandball organisation. He can’t sprint, we know that but he looks unusually sluggish, just now, to me).
  • *See also Liam Williams*. Picked for his lion-heartedness and inspirational qualities. Should be under genuine pressure now, for a place, from Halfpenny.
  • Next weekend Gatlandball II will face-off against another side likely to play conservatively. Understand that approach but am I/is anybody else looking forward to seeing that kind of game? God no; we’d rather watch Japan any day of the week.
  • Except this is Tournament Play. And much of the drama is/was always going to be of the nail-biting kind. And though my preference for glorious, expansive rugby holds fast, I’ll be as feebly hypocritical as the next man in the moments that matter. 
  • *Plus*, Wales’ obstinate refusal to get beat is, in its own way, magbloodynificent, yes? Romantic, even. It smacks of old-school, matey defiance as well as cultivated belief. I like that – the former.
  • On the subject of match-defining moments, mind, how many thought the TMO and ref swept past the possible forward, as the ball was ripped, immediately before Moriarty’s killer try? I had a slight sense that the adjudicators didn’t really fancy getting caught up in too much scrutiny of that. In short, France may have been robbed. (Discuss over sake/beers).
  • That drama aside, the Wales France game was almost shockingly ordinary in comparison to the first hour of England Aus. (Yes! I am going to do that thing where you mindlessly compare how A played against B and then judge how T (playing U) would have done if they played at that same level… against A, (assuming A retained their B standard, as it were).
  • If Wales had played like they did against France, against either England or Australia, they would have  been battered. There was simply no comparison in intensity or quality. Gatland must and will lift his posse before the ‘Boks.
  • Yes. England versus Australia, for an hour, was scarily, magnificently competitive to an extraordinary degree. It was a fierce, fierce, structured rampage. It was awesomely modern. Both teams looked Absolutely Top Level – and neither France nor Wales did. Know what’s great, though? This prob’ly means nothing.
  • The All Blacks, expected to win, destroyed Ireland. De-stroyed them. Their skills, their power, their athleticism was simply unanswered. All Ireland felt hollowed-out as the absurdly dominant ABs ran all over Schmidt’s men. If clinical can be beautiful, it was that.
  • The watching world took a breath, looked again at the draw, almost felt sorry for England (almost) – and resigned itself, actually, to another New Zealand tournament win. Who will they beat? Wales, I reckon.

Women’s World Cup: Nederlands v Italia – & everything.

Live-blog; being updated and ideally improved as the afternoon/evening proceeds. Might mean it’s worth reading twice, six hours apart… or might mean nothing. 👊🏻

Blazing sunshine apparently, in London and visibly in France but not here. Actually quite a relief to sink back into the settee and squint into that dazzling screen, for Italia versus Nederlands, on an immaculately striped pitch looking strangely lush, given reported temperatures.

We’re off. Several minutes of rushes and errors; familiar banks of orange; Miedema still walking about the place; and did I mention (perhaps not, it might be foolish) how gratifying it feels to see a black woman (Gama) skippering the Italians?

After 17 minutes Bergamaschi rather hurries, rather fluffs the first significant chance, merely gently hoisting a knock-on that she might have waited on, then smashed home. Despite the heat, there’s not much measurement of things, so far.

Not long after, the same striker cuts in from the right, creates space for a left-foot screamer but executes an ego-shrinking scuff. But Italy have gone ahead on points, in an admittedly rather mediocre bout, thus far.

Last night, in contrast, we were treated to a fabulous, deliciously-heightened occasion, with the home nation beaten in the end by a U.S. team that surely reaffirmed its status as the most powerful side in the world. Rapinoe, that symbol both of sparky liberal activism (off the pitch) and sparky-but-powerfully-efficient authority (on the pitch) scored twice as the Americans snuffed out the French Dream.

Diani kindof epitomised the cultural difference. The French forward was swift but infuriatingly imprecise – raw in a way that Morgan or Rapinoe or anybody in white just wasn’t going to be – USA doing streetwise and competent or better, much more than they were ever going to do ‘frenetic’. (This doesn’t mean the visitors weren’t ruffled; having established a 2-0 lead they were challenged, brilliantly at times, by a French comeback prompted by the consistently excellent Henry).

Bottom line, the stronger team came through, in my view with reputation and expectation enhanced. Their organisation and athleticism seems a notch higher even than that of an encouragingly developing England, to the extent that the main hope for Neville’s side really might be that the Yanks have been drained from the standout occasion of the event so far, sapping as it was – Le Grand Match, as it was widely described.

But back from that truly exhilarating and hopefully inspirational action to Holland-Italy: 0-0 at the half, with a four-out-of-ten performance from the first named. Both disappointing and a little surprising, as the women in orange have more quality and greater depth of quality than their opposition this afternoon.

Perhaps the extreme conditions suited the Dutch less well? Might figure. Whatever, the six-out-of-ten Italians would be sucking more contentedly on their ice-lollies (that’s what we do in a heatwave, right?) during the break.

Second half and Holland are better by a percentage. Not entirely a surge but a quiet reversal. From a corner, Van de Donk finds Martens, who has acres just outside the box. She shapes to curl… but finds the top of the bar. A goal, however, *may be coming*.

Wow. Spitse drills a boomer of a free-kick from best part of thirty yards, striking the outside of Giuliani’s right-hand post – reminding me (I think) of Arie Haan or somebody clouting it from four miles distant in the Mexico(?) World Cup. Holland increasingly dominant.

On the negative side… well, let’s start with a positive. Refereeing standards at this event are up on previous tournaments. However, the officials are (amongst other things) spending waay too much time in protracted, sometimes overly animated ‘discussion’ with players. They need to be saying less and enacting the laws more promptly. Onwards.

Miedema scores. Miedema who has yet again mooched about moodily and barely broken the proverbial, despite egg-frying heat, has nodded… and notched. You don’t know whether to hate her or love her. She is a lazy, flukey, pesky-in-an-irritatingly-non-irritating way kindofa something. She does nothing but score. She’s a bloody genius!

In the 79th, van de Gragt nods a second. Thirty seconds later, Miedema could drive a third but no. But now it is feeling ver-ry different. Like the game is up.

Italy respond with some urgency but little belief (and because, frankly, of that lack of quality) fitfully. They can’t sustain the effort, the possession: they are generally two-nil worse than Holland. Often that means nothing; today – the day that Miedema once more scoffed in the face of meritocracy – today it felt just enough.

 

Germany Sweden. Expecting a German win, because you do. They start though they expect exactly that. Sweden should be pret-ty durable but they may not be able to resist the predicted wave of attacks. Maybe.

Magull half-hits a free-kick which Lindahl takes comfortably. Then some reaction.

Sweden rush forward repeatedly, with some commitment and not a little ingenuity. It’s an important sign that this won’t be what we used to call ‘Backs and Forwards’ in the good old days. Germany are going to be tested, defensively, rather than merely resisted. Good.

Ah. Then Dabritz drives, centrally and flips a delicious pass into the box. It’s bouncing but Magull adjusts and shifts beautifully before crashing home. Great goal, for Germany.

Great stuff (though). On 22 minutes, Sweden equalise. They have been playing with intent – like their opposition – in a game that’s sharp, open and promising. Both defences look porous, both sides are pleasingly proactive – ‘attacking’.

Second half. What we need is a Swedish goal to really stir it up. The wonderfully-named Stina Blackstenius obliges, profiting from a palmed half-save following a cross from the right. Now we have the model scenario – Germany, a hungry, determined, energetic Germany, chasing the game.

It’s becoming too bitty, though, to be a classic. On the plus side, both teams have heads up and are looking forward – are trying to play Bright Football. On the other, it’s not quite happening. Popp and Dabritz we know can be lethal… but the links are missing somehow.

Blackstenius nearly punishes a German error. In masses of space, attacking the centre from the left flank, she has only to skirt Hegering and she’s in. The centre-back times her tackle.

As we wait during a further drinks break, the sense that Germany need to raise this is growing. Despite a certain level of good possession they aren’t hurting Sweden. Indeed they no longer look the more threatening – just the more comfortable on the ball.

On 80 minutes this is urgent; still Germany pass and manoeuvre. Oof; a big moment as Popp is clattered by the keeper’s arm in an aerial challenge. Lindhal is lucky – she was clumsy and she cannot have known that Popp was marginally offside. VAR gets this right and we move on.

The goalkeeper makes a further error, failing to clear another right-wing cross but Oberdorf’s header is cushioned agonisingly wide. Germany are going for broke now – at the risk of conceding.

Dabritz has a half-chance but her left-foot shot across Lindhal is easily gathered. Six minutes of added time.

Hegering, thrown forward, can’t get over another inviting chip to the far post and nods over. Jakobbson, released, heads for the flag. The lines-person makes a hash of a corner/throw thing. Time ticks out.

A final threat peters out (should that be pieters out?) and Sweden are through. Seemed unlikely but this has been no fluke: hard-won, marginal, but no fluke. They beat a better team by being determined, well-organised and hugely committed. They will play the Netherlands in the ‘other semi’, believing that they are close to something remarkable.

The bulk of the universe has been focused heavily on the England/USA/France side of the draw and naturally now that England USA match-up will again draw most of the watching world’s attention. Whoever wins it will be favourites to win the tournament.

Because of their athleticism, experience and mental toughness, I imagine this will be Rapinoe & co. However, because of Houghton and Scott and White and Bronze, I do not rule England out. Further, because of Miedema, Blackstenius and the capacity, in sport, for belligerent, beautiful, baffling, magical lunacy, I’m *just not sure about this*.