Spain stutters through to the final, France ponders the rights and wrongs of stripping surly players of their bonuses and, once again, the national side leaves a major competition, outplayed and outclassed. John McCormick, on furlough in Westmorland, reflects upon the words of his wife and asks “where’s the flair?”…
Honestly, I didn’t intend to write about the Euros. I’ve been on hospital duty for a couple of weeks and although I’ve enjoyed some of the games I haven’t really immersed myself in the tournament. I knew I’d miss at least half of England v Italy, so I set the recorder and off we went to the Royal (hospital, not pub).
I did get back in time to see bits of the second half, extra time and the penalties. That was enough, so on Monday morning I deleted the recording and headed north with my wife for a couple of days of well-earned R&R.
My wife, I have to say, is not a football supporter. It must be over 50 years since she last went to a match, where she handed round the half-time oranges to her dad’s works team. However, she does understand the game and some of her comments, when the Match of the Day theme tune doesn’t inculcate narcolepsy, are very pithy.
So there we were in the Crown and Cushion in Appleby, where the room was bedecked on all walls with England flags and the beer (Douple Hop IPA) was excellent.
The news started playing on the Wall TV behind me and it must have showed the England team returning or Steve Gerrard muttering in his normal inarticulate manner. (I know it’s a digression but he really irks me.
Listen to any of the Beatles, or even Ken Dodd, and compare them to Gerrard. I hold him responsible for developing a generation of incoherent Scousers).
My wife, who was facing in that direction saw these events and asked0: “Do you think they are paying the price for the Premiership buying in flair? All the flair payers are foreign.”
And that’s what gave rise to this piece because when I was woken at some ungodly hour by the early dawn breaking through the ill-fitting curtains in our hotel room I couldn’t stop thinking about her words and started running through teams in my head and thinking about their players.
Let’s start with ourselves. We have developed some class players in recent years. Waghorn may not have set the Premiership on fire but he’s doing OK in the Championship, Henderson has shown enough to merit his inclusion in the England squad and it surely can’t be long before Colback follows him. But would you use the word “flair” when describing them? If not, who fits the bill? The answer has to be Sess and, if he’s still a member of our club, Asamoah Gyan.
Moving on to them up the road, Pardew appears to drool over Ben Arfa and no one can deny that Cisse stirs the pulses. In contrast, their academy appears to produce players like Henderson and Colback. Think Steven Taylor, without a doubt worthy of a first team place in many a Premiership club. But what position does he play, and although he plays with skill does he play with flair? Like Colback, he could go on to defend a point or three and you’d feel confident. But is he a game changer? When you’re 2-0 down with 20 minutes to go is he the kind of player you’d send on in order to get a win? With all respect, I have to say he isn’t.
Moving south we find a host of imports in the top teams – Balotelli at Man City, Van Persie at Arsenal, Nani and Berbatov at Utd. I could go on. Now these clubs do have class players of UK origin; Utd can put Giggs and Rooney on the same pedestal as Nani and Berbatov, but I think I’m making my point, or rather my wife’s point. There’s enough in the Premiership to make us think UK players are good – Gerrard’s cross and Carroll’s goal showed that- but the majority of flair players are imported.
Even in a team as dour as Stoke, where flair has been banned, the most exciting players – Kenwyne, Ricardo Fuller (Jamaican) – are imports. They do have Crouch, and he’s more skilful than many assume, but Stanley Matthews has long gone, along with the Len Shackletons, Rodney Marshes, Franny Lees, Frank Worthingtons and Peter Beardsleys that graced the old First Division. They’ve by and large been replaced by foreign players with skills and vision that our academies aren’t developing.
Should we play to our strengths, then? I’ve already referred to the Gerrard/Carroll combination and to Peter Crouch. That style of play harks back a long way -Tosh and Keegan, Sir Niall and SuperKev, even Crossan and Sharkey. It can be very effective and at the right time in the right games it’s very attractive. It should always be in a team’s repertoire. But surely more is needed.
Roy Hodgson said something about having good young players and optimism about the future. Let’s consider that in the context of four “facts” from the Euros.
* England didn’t lose a game in the Euros over normal time, or even extra time. Only three other teams were unbeaten at the end of the group stage.
* We didn’t look like winning against the better teams.
* Spain managed to get past Croatia a by a single, and some would say dodgy, goal. They only scored one more goal than England in qualifying
* Goal machine Robin van Persie went home early. Holland lost all three game and only scored twice.
It’s dangerous to generalise but what lessons can we learn from these? Firstly, defence is crucial. England did defend well. Yes, they did have luck but they still defended well. It’s because of that as much as anything that they got within a kick of the semi-finals. Holland didn’t defend well and went out. Secondly, possession isn’t everything. Spain can keep the ball but where do they keep it? What do they do with it? They don’t score many more goals because of it. Thirdly, flair players aren’t everything. Holland had them but not much else, and it wasn’t enough.
It’s clear that a combination of all of these attributes is needed to make a successful team. So Roy, never lose sight of the need for a solid defence. Remember, however, that it won’t win games for you.
For that you need to school players in keeping possession and creating opportunities. But, above all, heed the words of my Mrs.
Don’t keep paying the price of importing. Make sure academies cherish players with flair, players who can unlock the tightest defences. Grow and develop them, give them the confidence to create panic among even the most experienced troupers. The Premiership won’t help you. Their owners are largely after instant results and quick fixes and they’ll continue to import. You have a tough job ahead but the fans are with you. Believe me, we want to see home grown extroverts doing the unexpected and impossible. It’s what we go to games for.