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.

London Calling. Or Falling? Or Stormed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where were you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mekons.

Mady Villiers – in the flow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.