England v USA

So much for Capello’s transformation: it was the soul-sappingly familiar England last night, unable to pass the ball efficiently or be sufficiently sharp to overcome inferior opponents. Reassuring early promise subsided into muddling mediocrity until a final flourish almost convinced me that we were unlucky. Even if something had gone in, it would have served only to paper over the cracks.

Green’s mistake might end his career, never mind his tournament. The tabloids, scenting headlines and blood, will not be nearly as generous as the pundits on both channels, but it will be nothing compared with the assault from fans behind each and every away goal next season. For years, Campbell scuttled away from the touchline at the Lane but keepers suffer particularly badly because of course they can’t escape the crowd so easily, however much they may be intent on examining the markings on the 18 yard line when the ball’s up the other end. Chelsea’s excellent Peter Bonetti was taunted to the end of his career after the Germany game in 1970, and that was in a much gentler age: ‘Bonetti lost the World Cup, and so say all of us..’. How Green might wish for something that gentle.

His error was down to technique – he didn’t move his feet. Even when he saved later from Altadore, his technique was exposed, this time he did not get his hands together quickly. However, the decisive factor in the match was England’s failure to sustain their control after the euphoria of Gerrard’s excellent opener died down. Instead of passing our way forward and retaining possession, we played the long ball too often (Ledley being guilty a few times, sad to say) and never settled into any rhythm. The US had come with a pressing game and we fell right into their hands. They certainly had the better chances until our last late attacks, and we were fortunate that Altadore remembered everything he learned at Hull last season.

I’m part of the Guardian’s World Cup Fans’ Network, which is a lot of fun but in my case proved only that I can’t concentrate on the game and tweet at the same time. To my twitter followers not interested in football, I can only apologise for the assault on your in-boxes last night. Wasted here, though, because you won’t be reading this. Anyway, my England preview is still up there but has been cruelly manhandled. Just before I retire to the nearest garret, existing for the rest of my days suffering for my art, the original welcomed both Milner and Heskey into the team. Heskey did well as target man but you knew that run and shot was less the 5-1 against Germany and much more about his unerring ability to find the keeper. I also noted how many of the squad had been off-form, injured or both this season. MIlner was one of the few exceptions, until the tournament itself. Clearly he had not recovered from his illness. I wonder if in his understandable eagerness to play he minimised his condition to the medical staff.

Gerrard was excellent but he can’t be expected to do the job of two people, however hard he tries and often succeeds. Rooney grew increasingly frustrated as he was restricted to a central role. When he broke out of the shackles later, he became more influential but in coming deeper, no one took his place further forward.

Now to Spurs. Ledley King’s awareness, timing of his interceptions (you can’t really call them tackles) and his pace over ten yards equip him to excel at the highest level, where he deserves to be. In wanting so desperately for this to be his moment, where the nation and the world could at last join Spurs fans in marvelling at his quality and dedication, perhaps I had deluded myself into believing the legs are stronger than they are. The regular games at the end of our season weakened not strengthened those weary muscles and straining sinews. I feel for him. And for an England back four denied pace in the centre.

Lennon played well. He’s worked very hard on his distribution and decision-taking, the result being that he can take two men over to him as cover, then play a simple ball inside where others can exploit the resulting pace. There’s value here, as well as in him flying down the wing, but against the US he underestimated his ability to get past his man and should have done so more often. he used that burst of pace so well at times. His teamplay and passing were impressive for the most part.

It was an ideal situation for Crouch, coming on to face a Championship defender, but it was a pointless substitution because no one supported him. Two good headers were wasted because no one was near him in the box.

The noise, the infernal buzzing in my head, ceaseless, night and day, can’t think…. And that’s just my neighbour renovating his house. The best part of the World Cup, the giddy days of intoxicating optimism and heady solidarity before a ball has been kicked and it all goes wrong, it’s over. Back to reality. Hard graft rather inspiration is required to get out of a group, and we have enough of that to stagger into the next phase. Let’s march on together to inglorious defeat in the quarter finals.

It’s the World Cup You Know

Having spent most of my adult life whinging and cursing at England teams with all the cohesion and familiarity of a park-up team on a Sunday morning, it’s unsettling to watch a squad that plays consistent winning football. And just as I get comfortable, it could all be flushed down the pan.

Last time I went up to Blackheath with my mate John Browning, I was first pick, on the basis that this newcomer must be a hidden talent because I was wearing clean socks. Frankly that had more logic to it than the selection policies of certain England managers over the years.

It’s all down to Capello. He understands the importance of retaining English virtues of high intensity and tempo, rather than aping the so-called more restricted style that pundits will mistakenly tell you suits international football. At the same time, the players understand him. Remain disciplined and keep possession. He’s accomplished a feat hitherto regarded as impossible in England circles; the players pass to each other. And the squad are obviously scared witless of him, which I like.

However, in recent months the majority have been injured, off-form, or both. Knackered isn’t on the list only because so many have been relaxing on the treatment tables of Europe. Forced to renege on worthy assurances of not taking injured or untried players, key men like Ferdinand and Barry have not only been included, they are covered by other rehabilitees like King and Joe Cole, while Capello has barely been introduced to several other squad members. Carragher long ago forfeited his right to a part of this, yet back he comes. The weather’s turned for the better but the thought of Rooney’s absence still brings me out in a cold sweat.

Although I’m genuinely looking forward to the World Cup I can’t get into much of a lather about England, or at least not the frantic anxious delirium with which I approach most Spurs games. I’ve written about this before: https://tottenhamonmymind.wordpress.com/2009/09/08/england-v-croatia/

I invest so much into supporting Spurs, England is a bit of light relief. I want them to win and will therefore feel involved and committed, but the feeling will disappear at the sound of the final whistle, rather than permeate my emotions and behaviour for however long it takes for the next match to kick off.

Maybe that’s a better way to be about football. It will certainly increase my enjoyment of the World Cup itself. I’m looking forward to catching as much as possible and taking pleasure in the game of football itself, rather than being consumed by the desperate desire to win. I’d prefer a great tournament to an England win, but both would be nice.

Tottenham players could have a major influence on England’s fortunes. Our defensive record will be decisive if we are to make significant progress because against better teams goals will be precious and rare. And who better than Ledley King to take his rightful place in world football. His awareness, timing of his interceptions (you can’t really call them tackles) and his pace over ten yards equip him to excel at the highest level, where he deserves to be. Criticised after the Mexico friendly, few people mentioned the almost total absence of Ferdinand who spent most of that match wandering vacantly and left Led isolated. King will partner not Ferdinand, as most assume, but Terry, who will dodge the pitchforks and burning torches of the baying mob and rise to the challenge, at least until we get knocked out ingloriously in the quarter finals, on penalties, and the tabloids unleash the rest of the scandals that allegedly await a disinterested public.

As the nation waits in hushed expectation of the next medical bulletin, let us join hands with our neighbours and friends and implore our gods and spirits to focus on just one single tiny piece of cartilage. That’s the spirit of the World Cup right there: Ledley’s knee brings unity, peace and harmony to the world.

If there’s any spare mystical healing energy around, let it have a go at Barry’s ankle and Rooney’s foot. Both in their different ways are key to England’s chances. Barry is the glue to bind the team together, to ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. His movement is good, his anticipation better, and he can not only break up opposition offensives, his excellent passing, short or long, enable us to move swiftly from defence into attack. Rooney is simply world class, whether on his own or up alongside a partner, our only player who opponents will fear.

So there goes another rule of blogging – I’ve praised players of other teams. Regular readers will need no convincing of my wholehearted devotion to Spurs but sometimes, sitting low on the Shelf, close to the pitch, a few greats stride through matches in a style that creates magnificent envy. In the last couple of years, Barry and Gerrard have performed so well, but it was a privilege to watch Rooney at first hand this season. His was a good rather than great performance but his running, power and dedication was revealed in ways that TV cannot ever emulate. I’m sick to death of the cheap shots in the media or by comics grasping at a mistake he made whilst a teenager in the company of family members who should have looked after him better. Or that impressionist Culshaw, the one whose voices all sound the same, in the Saturday night programme that no one watched. Rooney is not Colleen’s lapdog, he’s his own man.

And while I’m about it, let’s get it over with. Ashley – mate – those things I shouted at the Lane last season, those things I wrote, let’s put all that behind us. I’m sure that you’re a decent bloke, if I got to know you…you’re bang in form and could win it for us.

Rooney cannot win every game single-handedly, although that won’t stop him trying. Which brings me to possibly shatter another blog staple: if I’m critical of the England strike-force, I have to criticise Spurs players. Defoe’s link-up play is much improved but he’s not bright enough to outwit top-class defences and injury has dulled early season sharpness. Crouch will always provide a percentage return but this diminishes in proportion to the defenders’ ability. Anyway, a nudge in the back will put him off and his mere presence encourages the unnecessary use of the long ball. Who would have thought I would be wistful for a fit Heskey? Anyone ever suggest that he start by losing a few pounds?

Oh dear, I feel dirty somehow. Let’s end on a more optimistic note. The one thing that will make England different is pace. No single defender can cope with Lennon in full flight, and if there are two men on him, there’s space in other areas, which Gerrard and a couple of Coles, coming from deep, could exploit. He’s fit and raring to go. Just let him off his leash, Fabio, sorry, yes I know, it’s Mr Capello to the likes of me, just him have a go.

In Praise of Aaron Lennon

A short celebration of Aaron Lennon’s England performance against Croatia last night. His toes have never twinkled more brightly.

After last time’s disparaging comments on the international scene, I ended up thoroughly enjoying the match, glowing with pride as Lennon justified Capello’s faith in him. The England manager is a stern judge, yet his choice over Lennon over the much more experienced Wright Phillips or indeed over another tactical option involving Beckham, says so much about the winger’s growing maturity this season. I noted in Sunday’s piece that despite the attention drawn towards him by his goal, Defoe was perhaps making less progress than Lenny, and I was especially pleased last night with the mental strength that underlies his (Lennon’s) development. He is clearly thinking harder about his game and in particualr about his role as a team player.

The Monument to Our Lenny

The Monument to Our Lenny

The Gerrard header displayed this new found maturity more so than his more eye-catching runs. Lennon did not overplay the position. Instead of setting off on a run, potentially dazzling but liable to end in a cul de sac, as we have seen so often at the Lane, these days he has another option. Running at a defender can obviously pay dividends, but also it cuts down any space that the player in possession has, and space is such a precious commodity in modern football. This is a huge problem in David Bentley’s game, by the way. Before he was ejected from the team, he would gather the ball  in space and run straight towards a defender like a moth to a flame.

Aaron used to do the same, but no longer. Instead, he picked out Gerard and delivered a perfect ball onto his head. Simple in one sense, but it was the choice that was the clever part. It also demonstrates his confidence in his final ball. I admit to despairing last season that he would never be able to cross or pass accurately, and his therefore his promise would be wasted. Now, not everything works but he’s so much better. His play has variation; we have seen him come inside to score for Spurs this season and last night he tucked in to offer a perfect through-ball for Heskey. Again, it’s the apparently simple things, allied to his pace and ability to beat a full back, that is so impressive.

Capello was brave to pick him but Redknapp and his many coaches deserve the credit for his progress. Much was made in the commentary of the lack of a proper Croatian left back (would Corluka have been detailed to mark him?!), but Lennon made room by clinging to the touchline, just as Harry encourages him to do. With good passers in the team, like Gerrard and Barry for England or Huddlestone for us, he’s not isolated. In turn, this creates more space for the rest of team and dilemmas for the opposition back four. If they spread out to mark him, there’s room for other players infield. If they leave him, havoc ensues down the right.

It was such a pleasure to see one of ours play so well. Aaron Lennon is becoming a real force in English football. One man didn’t enjoy watching the game: even as I write, Fergie is worrying about what to do on Saturday. I can’t wait.

England v Croatia

As the World Cup qualifier against Croatia looms, I confess to having little enthusiasm for the England international team. It isn’t outright antagonism (I’ll certainly watch the match), more a mild case of indifference.  Whilst I want them to win, the lack of any excitement on my part serves only to heighten my anticipation of the Manchester United game this coming Saturday, when adrenalin and the desire for victory will create an intoxicating brew.

Notice I wrote ‘them’, not ‘us’. Didn’t think about it, that’s just the way it came out. For some this admission denotes an absence of patriotism bordering on the treasonable, but I’m not alone. Several of my fellow bloggers have recorded similar feelings, and last year when the Spurs Odyssey messageboard www.spursodyssey.com discussed this, a large number of contributors clearly stated that Spurs meant more to them than England. The majority of people I know who are fervent England fans do not support a Premier League team as passionately.

The Croatian contingent at Tottenham poses another layer of varied and complex dilemmas. I really don’t want them to win, but if I am honest I would have liked our three to have all played extremely well. Maybe 4-3 to England, hat-trick for JD and Luka man of the match. No Modric of course, and Corluka obligingly managed to get sent off at the weekend so he can rest up nicely, thank you very much. Obviously he has the same focus on Saturday as I do, but am I the sole Spurs fan who would prefer Kranjcar to play better than Lampard?

This is very different from when I first started to watch England. In those days, Spurs and England both stirred the emotions equally. In my teens in the 70s I attended several internationals at Wembley. Living in West London, I just hopped on the 83 bus, tickets were cheap and plentiful, and Wembley still had that sense of mystery as a special place, kept exclusively for the biggest games, floodlights bathing the fading paint and rusting girders in a magical glow. I wore my Spurs scarf, to show where my true loyalties lay, and puffed out my chest with pride if any of our players did well. Seeing Hoddle score against Bulgaria in his debut was a great moment.

In those days it felt like the fans came together to get behind England, setting aside club rivalries and united under the banner of national pride. No one ever gave me any stick for wearing my colours. Now, club allegiances are more deeply entrenched. The all-consuming Premier League, with the media hype, the shirts, the merchandise and the international stars, dominates football.

The other major change that affects our attitude towards the national team is the way we relate to the individual players. In the 70s and 80s, visiting stars received a fair amount of stick at the Lane but it was nowhere near as strident as it is today. The worst chant I can recall was the one that pursued the Chelsea keeper Peter Bonetti for years after the Germany game at Mexico 1970. ‘Bonetti lost the World Cup, and so say all of us’ was hardly going to have Spurs fans being hauled up in court….

Much of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the players. Their enormous wealth and apparent prioritising of celebrity status over an honest performance has distanced them from the fans. If Lampard delights in displaying his life in Hello magazine, or on his own Orange channel, then dashes over to bait the Park Lane when he scores, then he should also realise the bitterness that such behaviour creates when people are paying a fortune for the privilege of watching him play football.

Ashely Cole was loudly barracked during the recent international against Kazakhstan. The media pompously castigated the fans (or ‘so-called fans’ as they became) for so doing. Supporters are always blamed as being fickle and stupid in such circumstances, but curiously we are not foolish when we turn up week in week out, or buy the shirt, or shell out half a week’s wages for tickets, food and transport. That night Cole got what was coming to him. He was not playing well but more significantly, as was missed by all the media, he had built up a huge groundswell of resentment. This loathsome oick is rich, talented and has a beautiful wife, yet he’s in and out of bed with every passing mini-skirt and chooses to remind us how shocked he was at being offered a mere 60k a week by the Arse. It’s not the money that truly irks me, rather it’s his overbearing arrogance in the fact that in his autobiography he genuinely expected us to empathise with his troubles. Poor old Ashley.

So if we do not unequivocally join hands as one to back Capello’s boys, it is the players not the fans who need to take a hard look at themselves, for it is they who have created a chasm of bitterness that cannot be spanned just by pulling on an England shirt.