Carnival time?

Yes, surely, in an ‘everything’s relative’ kindofaway. England’s qualification for the Brazil finals will justifiably set one or two congas swaying – and why not? Hodgson’s team (if that’s what it is?) certainly succeeded (if that’s what it was?) by saving up or inventing their best two performances of the group stages for the consequently notably un-jangling end . As though all along they just maybes had a better sense of theatre than we did. Well good on ’em.

Over a genuinely entertaining and sometimes spicily competitive 90 minutes, a full England side did effectively on this occasion rise to the challenge presented by a thoroughly committed Polish group and their likeably raucous supporters. The atmosphere was palpably that of a proper game of footie, largely, it has to be said, because of the volume of – I think we’re talking nearer 25,000 than the 18,000 generally quoted pre-match – and the hearty defiance emanating from (if my translating skills serve me well) Lech Walesa’s Red and White Army. There was that pulse here; the thing that sets us aflutter. And god it was good to have that back.

In the first half in particular, this was an old-style ding-dong; a spectacle and a frightening test for the cardiac health of the management teams. Ludicrously open – with Cahill and Jagielka apparently only communicating via carrier pigeon – and with Townsend or a Lewandowski or two quick to exploit retreating space. To everyone’s credit – players, managers and fans in the ground – this had knock-out excitement and the feel of a knock-out match. (Which it wasn’t, remember, for the Polish contingent.)

The now local or visiting Poles brought into the thing a charge whose only negative was the predictable but clearly unnecessary whistling of the home team’s national anthem. Beyond that, they made a magnificent contribution to the evening’s sport. Including, perhaps, raising the tempo as well as the atmosphere of the game to a level that may have suited the England players: in particular the thought strikes that given the sense that the only viable mode of operation was via high octane engagement, the traditional retreat into hesitancy and plodding predictability was denied to the fellahs in white. A lovely thought that; who knows, or could know how much the nature of the game was determined by tactical preparation… as opposed to beery Central European breath?

Afterwards a dramatically shorn, former trawler skipper name of Keano again belied his national stereotype for waxing lyrical by soberly deadpanning stuff about ‘big players in big matches’ – meaning Gerrard and Rooney. And he was largely right. Those two will gather most of the plaudits for a performance that generally kept the English Disease – of coming over all donkacious and crap when the pressure’s on – at Kenny Dalglish-style (i.e. palming the bear-like defender) arm’s length. In interview, the England skipper may be as dull as the brilliant Scot but last night his relentlessly omnipresent force probably was the difference between the sides. Whilst Rooney’s influence gathered slowly, Gerrard was simply there – everywhere – from first to last. Without being exemplary or truly inspired he more than anyone delivered the victory.

Pre kick-off, a disproportionate lump of our time/airtime had been snaffled up by a certain WBA fan casting around blindly for meaningful/topical subject matter and alighting on the subject of Hodgson’s alleged bravery. Apparently the Brainy But Dour one (twice) threw off the shackles in choosing Townsend. I don’t quite see it that way, not buying (myself) the notion of significant cultural change in the soul of the England Manager implied by the esteemed Mr Chiles’ line of thought. Ar Andros clearly has the potential to be that boldest of choices but softest of targets – The Luxury Player – but the now pretty standard inclusion of six defensively-minded players plus the creaking port-cullis that is Hart allows for a certain slack in the girlie attackers capacity to protect the castle keep.

For those who haven’t got it, the inclusion of two holding midfield players as the hardcore lance-merchants in the central-but-deepish areas of the pitch enables or licenses dafter, more frivolous stuff up the pitch. Like Townsend gambolling or Rooney flashing and flicking; Sturridge loping and loosing that shimmy-stepover; the riskier, bamboozle-heavy and ideally more penetrative offensive stuff. Lampard and then Carrick, therefore, made Townsend possible agin Montenegro and Poland. It was relatively pragmatic decision-making, seen in the whole – a whole where Wellbeck’s lack of goal-threat but tremendous willingness and Rooney’s ability to chase were acutely factored in to Hodgson’s careful pattern. Roy hasn’t, in my view, converted.

And I don’t fully accept that the fact of the qualification following two goodish performances vindicates Hodgson. Whilst this may be the start of something, it may also be another in the series of perceived new dawns which have directly contributed to English complacency around the game. We remain – as surely evidenced by the bulk of this qualifying campaign and certainly by the tournaments that have preceded it – a fascinating but dreadful example of the proud fool, unable and unwilling to actually adopt patently more skilled and successful and downright necessary strategies from elsewhere. Because we never quite accept we have to learn that (foreign) stuff. Because (I suspect – hilariously) we still think there’s something worryingly unmanly about being able to twinkle or caress, or just be comfortable in possession of the ball.

But that’s again the Wider Issue. One which can only be addressed over years and following the radical overhaul of the coaching system. Being undeniably pessimistic about this particular matter, I intend to simply skirt past this one as though it fails to intrude with any relevance. (But man it does… and it is relevant… bigger, for me than the World Cup. I just don’t want to depress either myself or you by going there again this morning. Let’s get back to last night.)

For now we can enjoy – and I do mean that – the sense that our lot not only turned up but played. Played a 65/35 part, I reckon, in a bloody good game of football. And showed some promise – through Townsend’s directness and will to engage and Rooney’s returning quality and Baines’ brightness and busy-ness. Through a much-needed display of convincing collective spirit. They’ll need all that in Brazil.

I’ve now seen all manner of cobblers and conjecture over the possibles and the ‘realistic targets’ for England in South America next year.  The Telegraph even had a ‘Can We Win the World Cup?’ thing going on!?!  Jaysus!! 

I return to my earlier point about radical and meaningful reform of coaching nationwide and throughout the age-groups being substantially more vital than a decent showing by our First XI in Brazil.  Even if Rooney and co had an inspired outing there.  Yes, there is some hope that the younger guys in the squad might yet thrive, despite conditions and the likely spookily alien walk-dart character of the games.  It is also true I think that the general standard of play is relatively ordinary at tournament level – sometimes even through to the defining stages. 

So there is some hope – there is some real hope that an energised, positive England side may perhaps over-achieve in the manner of an England rugby team of recent vintage, rather than bomb out amid the usual ignominy.  If this sounds a weary sort of optimisim then maybe… that’s what it is.  I hope the attacking players in particular fizz with confidence and belief; I just don’t see Hodgson facilitating that because I fear he lacks generosity, dynamism, inspiration – deep awareness even.   These things the English game itself clearly lacks.

We’re left with issues we cannot and should not duck.  Yes England had a real good night last night.  But the football matrix here is still a shocking and pretty depressing mess.

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Fruitcake is not the only fruit; (cake).

Mixed feelings aboundeth; should I go or stay/stick or twist/put up/shut up/disengage for the good of… something? Nah. Too much to be said and shared and okay, argued about. So let’s return to England. Please.

England the non-footie or anti-footie footie team; the Quarter Finalists(!) the redoubtable heroes, the cursed-blessed former Show Ponies now Honest Workhorses. ‘S about them again. And you – precious, brilliant or psychologically semi-detached you – you wot I heard holding court or fumbling with nerves or ranting with sweet delusion on that there phone-in – you… need to wind yer neck and listen. And then start shouting again; that’s fine. (#yourturn. That’s fine.)

Ahem. (In through nose/out through mouth… And GO!!)

The fruitcake-in-a-barrel torrent ricocheting down the plum duff river of our sporty-consciousness (5 Live/the back pages/the TV coverage) is a moody but eloquently kaleidoscopic wonder, is it not? Part home-cooked cobblers, part luminescent hope of the most exotic kind. Full of angular detritus, lobbed groundbait, eels. Right now there’s no escaping the whirl of it; the eddying and sometimes edifying snaffles of glorious opinion. Deranged or inspired, upon football generally or specifically Hodgson United – that all-new all-old construct seeping through the Euro2102 fixture list in a style offering encouragement both to the suicidally purist(ic) and the naively gaye. How one match – let’s say England v Ukraine – could be the source of so much impassioned verbage of such contrary or counter-attacking nature is… is absolutely bloody amazing, actually.

I’ve written caustically about my fear and loathing for the trend now being set by Roy and his Roverlets. The essence of it – the 2 crushing banks of 4, the absence of anything approaching that which many of us identify (without a smidge of pomp) as ‘football’ – feeling offensively reactionary to me at least. A sadly convincing photofit of/for the criminal Brit-footie-cultural inadequacies around and against which a consensus had formed moons ago. (Because we all know it’s utterly inferior to the genuinely richer and more beautiful ‘continental’ game, right? Even if we continue to make the argument that there is a place for English virtues). Spain/half of Europe (by the looks of this tournament) have played/are playing far better footie than our lot; but was this the case even before Roy got his hands on Stevie G’s rampaging instincts?

Yes!

Here I pause to differentiate between this aforementioned, elevated and now unarguably successful quality – in the example of Spanish Tippy Tappy Genius – and quality in terms of excitement.

Often ‘British’ football is of course packed with incident in a way that makes its Spanish or Italian counterparts seem frankly pallid. But this is another matter – so move on…

And yet… hold on there matey; isn’t it true that Gerrard has been by some distance England’s best player in Euro2012 thus far, thereby undermining opposition to his reinvention as an enforcing hod-carrier rather than flamboyant er… expressionist stonemason? Hasn’t that, that one instance within the reconstruction of an England side been an unqualified success?

Quite possibly. Except that this tightening of understandings and opportunities for the Liverpool man has been symbolic of the more damaging straight-jacketing (as opposed to mere ‘organising’) of his manifestly less able colleagues. I repeat my assertion that England have unsurprisingly played absolutely no football worthy of the name because of the rigidity and cynicism even of their system as well as because the players have been poor in everything but team shape and graft.

Roy Hodgson has gathered his forces swiftly together and this is clearly some achievement. They do appear to be listening to him and to be working for a shared purpose, with some conviction, in a way that sports journo’s on the spot respect and admire. (I do have a theory that because of this there is something of a softening in general critique of RH’s tactical stuff but perhaps this is the Morrissey in me breaking out?) But hasn’t the argument for retreating to ‘English’ virtues long been lost – or more precisely, is it not abundantly clear that skill/composure/comfort in possession are not only essential for betterment but integral to definitions of success?

What winning means and constitutes is always a fabulous wormy can of; but this campaign has for me a slightly depressing undertow – the unsettling feel of deceptively and shlocktastically crude bawling from the England FC touchline – even if expressed by the crypto-urbane, linguistically enhanced Mr Hodgson. The demands being for a stranglehold, for an avoidance of freedom, for a Parkeresque scurry and a prod towards safety. Then a retreat to the dullest kind of ‘stall-setting’ this particular euromarket has witnessed. Such a demand, such a coarse bellow for not losing, not losing at any cost, with no other notion of progress than getting through – even with an ordinary England Squad – rubs up against heartfelt footietruths as well as the very notion of the beautiful game itself. Hence my (laughably haughty?) concerns.

Maybe I’ve just been bad at keeping some perspective; maybe I’ve been cutting when I should have been fairer. However, this is the prerogative of the fan – and believe it or not – I am clear that I remain a football fan and that everything I ever write – scathing or soaring – is contingent upon an absolute belief in the power and the beauty even of this daft game. I do therefore contend that I still have the optimist’s argument here.

Hey look at what strikes me. The Parker-Gerrard axis has been key to England’s topping of their group. I like both. But Parker has been by his standards – by any standards – disappointingly sloppy in possession. In fact the entire team’s capacity to fail to execute simple passes in any sequence has in truth been pretty alarming. Like Parker, like Young, like Rooney was against Ukraine; virtually all of them – wasteful. Sadly, the raw talent of Oxlade-Chamberlain was clearly made vulnerable too by the occasion; his very few opportunities being characterised by schoolboy fumbles – much like his predecessor in the role of Crowd-Stirrer, Master Walcott. Wellbeck worked the unforgiving solo striker thing rather well; on occasion he was coolly intelligent as well as generous with his workrate. Would that he would have consistently held the ball up/treasured it. Like the internationals do.

Details. Hodgson will look long and hard at the facts and figures and mileages and percentages and he will judge – long after this event. For now he says the right thing. I have no personal animosity towards him or any of his players (though I accept in fanlike fury I have discharged abuse) and I fully understand his regression to that which he thinks they know. I do however, take issue on a fundamental level with his alleged ‘philosophy’ – if this is it. For this, for me, really is close to embarrassingly dumb. Win or lose against the Italians.

A joyful-lethal instinct?

Para one – where our scribe yet again froths foamaciously about hearty and enriching nonsenses…

Bright Young Things quite rightly draw our attention and sometimes our love. For one thing it’s kinda fashionable to associate yourself with something that dashes or darts, or expresses something profoundly exciting in its rawness. For another, real talent – the expression of sport-glorious proto-genius – does light us all up, yes?

(False) para two – where things get unusually but temporarily focussed…

Take that boy Oxlade-Chamberlain. In a matrix of relative dullards and rammed Ikea-crafted pegs in predictably worn oaken holes he almost shineth. There is, with him (alone?) the wonderful possibility for something un-James Milner; meaning that, AOC has what JM, in his current maturity(?) almost completely lacks – a subversive whiff of impending inspiration, or the god-given wherewithal to stumble in glorious haste upon it. Possibly accidentally.

A post, then…

And possibly unfortunate or plain daft to make comparisons between these two Wingmen – the City man being essentially now an extension of the shape of things rather than a protagonist in his own right, the young gunner an occasionally unwieldy and at ‘this level’ naive unzipper of the crisp files of technocoachdom. Guess who I like most, out the two?

Oxy boy, of course. With his extravagant pace and directness and sometimes unplayable verve.

Even a fairly unschooled and dispassionate understanding of footballstuff assumes/evokes/infers some appreciation of the sportslife-enhancing boogie that naturals such as he hipswingingly perform. Naturals, when in the full flow of their electrifying ease, can utterly expose the stodgy, the ordinary and sometimes even the good. Because there is no answer to the kind of movement and joyful-lethal instinct they express. No answer – not even from top-draw defenders – not when the sap of confidence is risen and the ball is possessed so by the will and the spirit of that liberated charge. And yet…

England and Sweden has just finished. And the Boy Wunda didn’t feature, other than in the role of timewasterupper, as the ticks and tocks were being counted out. (Perhaps predictably, he fluffed his only meaningful opportunity, when failing weakly to control a through-ball; if confident, he might have taken the ball easily into his stride and lashed it gleefully home like some kid in a park. But he didn’t.)

And this is why I have been clear that despite the uplifting frisson/the succulence around his potential, Hodgson was quite right not to pick Oxlade-Chamberlain in the starting 11; sadly. Like Walcott – more of him very soon, for obvious reasons – the Arsenal fledgling divebombs still too often and too crassly for top level international football; or, er… for England. The fact that this is clearly a matter of confidence deficit rather than talent deficit may be used against the Manager/Mr G Neville Esquire (arguably) once the side shuffle homewards.

Not that this fixture came near that aforementioned higher category of sport. As many of us expected, it was poor; poor but hugely enlivened by goals – good goals even, from England. And that other juvenile – Master Walcott – was central to the England ‘recovery’. Much of what I have said or suggested about AOC applies to TW. Except that Theo has skilfully played himself out of contention for the first team over a fairly long period of time now… allowing AOC to get a sniff of that right-wing birth now occupied by Milner. Theo, for me, has failed to grow up on the pitch; staying cute’n cuddly in an oh let’s make allowances kindofaway when we needed his pace to grow a beard or something. Seriously Theo, we have had to conclude that you should be better than this by now.  And maybe… so should AOC?

Perhaps it’s a very deep one this. The question whether we should, as a nation now freed-up by the general revelation that We’re Shit And We Know We Are, experiment/and/or encourage our imperfect but exciting youffs? But is it worth bringing them on? Are they – these specific flawed gemlets – worth it? Can we bear all this cringing (our cringing) as they scurry down obvious blind-alleys or commit heinous sins of wastefulness in possession? Do the shocking miscontrols send you slightly nauseous like they do me? Ought we in a fit of wage-conscious pique to pitchfork them or flay them in the streets? Or give them a restorative Horlicks and tuck them up with a Mwa on their startled brows? These suddenly feel like matters of philosophical import rather than mere team selection, do they not? And remember we are relatively unshackled in this, because we ARE shit, yes?

That was the overwhelming conclusion, surely from the Sweden game? They were awful and we were like some some Scarfeian satire, some throwback to days when Jackie Charlton bawled at kids to ‘show me some aggression’. Terry could barely jog, but ‘fought through it’; Gerard again played so far within his gifts I imagine he used Lucas on a bad day as his role-model; Young broke his record for most wasteful moments and Johnson may need to be dope-tested again. BUT… the score was 3-2 in favour of the blues/skyblues/Oxford/Cambridge/whoeverthatwasexactly representing some mythical ‘us.’ And we need to rally round and be grateful.

There are – there always are – mitigating circumstances and I will almost certainly not, therefore, abuse the management team. Hodgson – an honourable man and a solid, perhaps even quasi-sophisticated coach – has barely got to know his charges. His choice (I assume?) of Gary Neville most of us approve of and his squad for the most part picked itself. Extraordinarily, these guys are pretty close to our best available. The particular crushingly naff 4-4-2 – awaiting or in the process of righteous deconstruction as I write – is Hodgson’s own and we can actually see why he’s done that thing. (Because we’re crap.) There’s a tournament to avoid utter humiliation in. (Un)fair enough.

The individuals involved in tonight’s Sunday League knockabout may have some kaleidoscopic sense of the paucity of their encounter but I fear are so depressingly-convincingly up their own botties that even the filmically pregnant pauses during conversations with friends – the thin ‘you’re doin’ great, mate(s)’ – may not pierce the squad bubble, let alone emerge on the flipchart of their team consciousness.

Almost no football was played tonight. But England, mighty England bore on.

Cup Feeling

The ‘build-up’ to the FA Cup Final – how long? Did somebody not bother to tell ITV that – ludicrously – the kick-off was hoiked back to accommodate god-knows-what-or-who? So they started blathering about lunch-time as usual and just kept on, presumably with the producer making windmill signs and mouthing just keepit going!! until kick-off arrived aeons later. By which time the TV audience is so bloated with nacho-consumption they’ve lost the will to live, or on the lager equivalent are so paralytic they think Roy Keane is Simon C and that the big girl’s blouse up front for Chelsea is Aleesha D. I had twigged (LOL?) we were evolving into a dumbed-down species of highlight-obsessed couch-spuds but… c’mon people.
More seriously – like hoogely/anthropologically importantly – does anyone have that real Cup Feeling anymore, I wonder? The one where dressing rooms around the isle go quiet as the radio chunters out the draw? Or where small boys skip joyfully round the living room on hearing ‘Liverpool away?’  Do they?  When the semi’s are played at Wembley? When most of the playing participants did not (now) grow up with this gorgeous fervour – indeed nobody, I suspect, grows up with it now in the way that we did – when it meant something?

How could it be the same when the powers that be schedule the kick-off for tea-time? Tea-time being – in terms of world history never mind the FA Cup – a footie-free zone in much the same way that Christmas Day, to my pretty certain knowledge, is a pancake-free festival. So audible harrumph here and like… what is occurring?
An Opening Ceremony, that’s what! With a magnificently appropriate (i.e. sickeningly glammed up) Abide With Me cherrying the naff freezer-cake. If only those flash geysers of flame that puncture the skies of North West London as the players begin their arrogant, or humble, or nervous walk to the pitch could be toppled sideways, torching the chavvy pomp of it mid-chew of its pineapple Wrigleys.
But okay the game, the game. No surprises that Fernando is on seat-warming duty again for Drogba; only this time he is genuinely unfortunate, having finally suggested the artist/striker formerly known as Torres may be cracking that hard horny eggshell. Chelsea start better. Predictably perhaps, a whiff of Sunday League from the red midfield leads to an early goal for Ramires, as Spearing’s poor touch leaves an opening. Chelsea’s burst forward is converted by the baldy-pacy-wiry one after Reina leaves his near post a tad exposed. On balance, 1-0 at the half-hour mark about right.
Chelsea seem more composed, more purposeful, less nervous. Pretty early, the sense from Liverpool fans is that they anxiously yearn rather than hope for more than mere possession; they want the ball to threaten; it doesn’t. As things develop – or not – a moment of haplessness again seems more likely than a moment of inspiration from any of the five strung across midfield. And the red support groans. Even Gerrard has that pallid look; things don’t link. We all think of the league table. The game eases to half-time.
The second chunk mirrors the first in the sense that Chelsea get a desperately easy goal – Drogba this time the beneficiary. Lampard has threaded a pass too comfortably and the Ivorian thesp has turned merely adequately and scuffed a left-foot shot through Skrtel’s legs beyond Reina. The kind of goal that turns your stomach as fan/manager/nutmeg recipient. The thought arises that Chelsea might get 4 if say Kalou was something like.
However, he ain’t. And neither – famously – has been that lanky no.9 for Liverpool. Yet on he comes, quite rightly, though not altogether in the expectation that he will change the game. Out of absolutely nothing, the ball breaks to the much maligned one in the Chelsea box. He proceeds to calmly – if slightly laboriously, if this is possible? – skin John Terry before lashing into the roof of the net. Thus the Pool go from the verge of a hammering to the lip of glory in a transformative, pony-tail bobbing slo-mo.
We, the extra-tribal to this fest, like this; partly because Carroll has at least something boyish about him, something naive, despite that clearly inadequate, over-fussed and ill-advised barnet. (But most Top Players have those, right?) He looks, on this occasion – very much to his credit – like someone who both understands and cares about the FA Cup and it’s great, actually, that he (that?) makes a difference.

This variously described giraffe/dinosaur/hetero-retro-centreforward comes on here to course about in a convincing, even occasionally lung-bursting fashion. He heads things; he frightens the metaphorical horses; he scores and has one spookily adjacent; so adjacent the post-match stuff and much of the next twenty years on Merseyside will be dominated by that particular header. If another 16 camera-angles go on to ‘prove’ that it was a save from Cech, it will rank with that Montgomery moment for Sunderland, thereby making a legitimate contribution to Cup History.
In short, Liverpool were awful then courtesy of Carroll, right back in it. They pressed for an equaliser and it never came. Henderson busied himself to almost no effect, Gerard and Suarez were ineffective to the point of listless. Elsewhere Kalou yet again showed his almost complete package of inadequacies, squandering opportunities to break and to score as Chelsea faded with the unity and purpose they had shown earlier, under the red but B Category crypto-onslaught. The final score, at 2-1 to Chelsea, was absolutely right, assuming that non-goal was correctly called. So… cue that further debate.
Despite its limitations – its obvious lack of fluency and relative vervelessness – a better final emerged than the lousy fare generally served up for this particular showpiece. Few moments of quality, none of significant shame. Chelsea in the first period cruising at a level unlikely to be attained by their opposition, you felt, but Liverpool honourably competitive at the ‘death’. No Torres. Drogba – who was again present rather than good in my opinion (sorry – IMO) and who again was greedy rather than generous, will collar most headlines… along with a disappointed rather than a disappointing Carroll.
Many Blues won’t be stopping too long to contemplate their underachievement in the second period but some will. Because running counter to the silvered but shallow and nonsensical time-shifting from the FA and …whoever, and despite the pre-match evidence for age-relevant Olympic-smudged taste-shafting, there is an appreciation of quality alive in the game. Fans want to win but they want to drape themselves in some association with glory too – implying something wonderful as well as and beyond winning. The nature of the cup – this FA Cup, this proper cup! – is conducive to that magic, making it precious. So less of the tampering, eh?