MIRACULOUSLY, England emerged unscathed, save for some nasty bumps and bruises, from their final World Cup warm-up against the hit-men of Honduras and, for me, the most significant aspect of that is that Jack Wilshere proved his fitness. In doing so, the tough little Arsenal midfielder declared his readiness to start against Italy next Saturday night.

I have been saying all season that Wilshere is crucial to England’s chances of success in Brazil, while airing my concerns about his ability to stay fit. Well, he’s given Arsenal and England plenty of reason to worry on that score over the past 12 months, but the way he  started to dictate the play when he came on in the second half, with short passing, one-twos around the edge of the box and dangerous runs at the Honduran defence, showed just why he is so important to the cause.

We need a fit and firing Wilshere, a player whose skills can enable England to get behind defenders, which is vital, especially at this ultimate level and particularly in a team that is not operating with width. Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – when, and if, fit – can give us that width, but I feel these lads will come into their own as impact substitutes, in the final 20 minutes, when the opposition may be tiring. I think Roy Hodgson will have a more cautious approach in the opening match, hoping he will be in a position to unleash players like Ross Barkley, Sterling and Oxlade-Chamberlain on Costa Rica from the start in the final group game, particularly if goals are required.

If Oxlade-Chamberlain is not given the green light this week, I would resist the temptation to add another midfielder and, instead, draft in Everton’s fast-emerging defender John Stones, who can fill in with equal confidence at right-back or centre-half. My biggest concern remains with the defence and the worry that if either of the first-choice centre-backs, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill, get injured, the replacements are not adequate.

I am a fan of Adam Lallana, but I don’t think he has done quite enough to start against Italy. I would go with Wilshere in a midfield three alongside Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson. Despite my well documented misgivings about Danny Welbeck’s goals output, I have nothing but admiration for him as a team player, whose athleticism, height and work rate earn him his place alongside Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge at the front. Rooney remains the class act who is yet to shine at a World Cup. He doesn’t seem to have the burst of pace that used to take him past opponents, but he remains a top quality footballer. Let’s hope he brings out his best on Saturday – and beyond.

My team to start against Italy: Hart; Johnson, Jagielka, Cahill, Baines; Henderson, Gerrard, Wilshere; Rooney; Welbeck, Sturridge.

Now, it’s with regret that I have to say this will be my last blog, certainly for the immediate future. I am joining Norwich City, my last club as  a player, as Football Consultant and the club and I agree it would be inappropriate for me to be airing my opinions on football matters while in their employ.

I want to thank all of you who have written or told me in person how much you have enjoyed reading this website over the past 13 months, not to mention the many who have made it plain they disagree with my views! And I want to say a big thank you to my friend of nearly 50 years, Bill Thornton, the journalist who collaborated with me on my autobiography and who has helped translate my ramblings into readable prose here on Director of Football. Me and Bill make a pretty good team, too.



Arsenal an object lesson

THE most reassuring news of the week was the latest contract extension agreed between Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger, a three-year deal that will take the Frenchman’s length of tenure to 21 years. How refreshing to see a club demonstrating its ongoing faith in its manager, and vice-versa. You would hail the situation at The Emirates as an object lesson to all football clubs.

In the social media-driven world in which we live, the criticism of Wenger has been constant – and crass. He has consistently produced impressive, entertaining teams which have qualified for the Champions League with astonishing regularity. Last season, they finished seven points behind title winners Manchester City after enduring by far the worst injury problems of any of the three clubs above them. I’m sure Wenger will make signing a striker his priority this summer and, with a reported £100 million available, I can see a reinforced Arsenal squad making an even stronger title challenge next season.

Without any question, Arsene Wenger is the man to lead the Gunners, most probably to even bigger and better things.


Sterling stuff

RAHEEM STERLING lit up Wembley last night after coming off the bench and energising England with his pace and trickery. The Liverpool star is a “springer,” a player who has rocketed to prominence during a tremendous season for his club and one who looks as though he has what it takes to do well on the biggest stage of all, the World Cup.

Sterling and his Liverpool team-mates Daniel Sturridge – he looks a certain starter against Italy on June 14 – and Jordan Henderson, plus Everton’s Ross Barkley, are fast-emerging young talents who make me feel much happier about our prospects in Brazil than I did six months ago. I don’t for a moment underestimate what Danny Welbeck brings to the team with his height and athleticism, but I do feel that Sterling is a growing threat to the Manchester United forward. He did enough in his cameo appearance to suggest to Roy Hodgson that he will be more than a bit-part player in Brazil.

My big hope is that Wayne Rooney, who I would give only a B rating for his performance, finally has a good World Cup. I know Wayne hasn’t had the best of times these past two seasons, probably suffering from Manchester United’s decline in the last campaign, and people such as his former colleague Paul Scholes and my ex-Manchester City team-mate Mike Channon have even questioned his right to an automatic place in the England team.

Those guys are more than entitled to their opinion. However, I maintain that Rooney remains one of our few class acts and that he must be a starter, motivated as I think he is by the knowledge that his World Cup track record is disappointing. He has had a marvellous career, starting at Everton and burgeoning at United. But he hasn’t quite made the step up to international superstar. At 29, he should be at the peak of his powers and I’m sure he is determined to do himself and England proud this time. We need a Wayne Rooney at his best if we are to get through the group stage and make an impact on the tournament.

Italy, Uruguay – and Costa Rica – will provide stiffer opposition that Peru did last night. The injury in training to Luis Suarez and subsequent knee operation – ironical considering he spent so much time this Premier League season rolling around, beating the turf, while not missing any matches – could prove a boost for England. Uruguay say he’ll be fit, but it’s a fact that anaesthetic takes a a few weeks to completely exit the system and, while Suarez may well face England, it could be that he won’t be 100 per cent.

Overall, I think Hodgson will be happy with his players’ display. Goalkeeper Joe Hart is looking back to his best form and Jack Wilshere came off the bench and proved his fitness. My biggest concerns are that either of the centre-backs, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill, get injured for I don’t think Chris Smalling is of international standard. And it is very important that skipper Steven Gerrard, who turned 34 yesterday, is available at all times. I think Hodgson’s ideal scenario for the first match would be 2-0 up with half an hour to go and get him off. Even better, England win the first two matches to qualify and Gerrard is rested for the final game!


Countdown to Brazil

THE countdown to Brazil starts in earnest tomorrow when Peru come to Wembley and  Roy Hodgson will give us a pretty clear idea of the team he hopes will kick off England’s World Cup campaign on June 14.

I reckon Roy knows the names of nine of the 11 players he intends to select against Italy. They will be goalkeeper Joe Hart, the back four of Glen Johnson, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines, captain Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney – those seven pick themselves – plus Adam Lallana and Jack Wilshere…provided he is fit!

I said at the start of the season that Arsenal’s Wilshere was one of the few potentially world class players we have, but that his injury record is a big worry. Sure enough, Wilshere spent long spells on the sidelines during the campaign, the positive note being that he should be fresher than most players. I believe that Southampton’s Lallana has forced himself into contention for a starting role as a player who can go past opponents, make goals and score them.

It will be interesting to see who Roy selects to partner Rooney up front. Liverpool star Daniel Sturridge, the top-scoring Englishman in the Premier League last season, is clear favourite, but Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck, though not a prolific scorer, gives the team height, strength and athleticism and is the one forward who can be relied upon to win headers.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jordan Henderson partner his Liverpool club-mate Gerrard in midfield, for the two know each other’s game so well. Raheem Sterling has that advantage, too.


Battle for Barry

EVERTON fans, disappointed at the departure of loan star Gerard Deulofeu, who has returned to Barcelona, will be happy to hear manager Roberto Martinez insisting midfield star Ross Barkley will definitely not be for sale, even if he returns from the World Cup as a superstar.

Of course, it’s a harsh fact of football life that every player has his price, but I’m sure Martinez is determined to hold on to young Barkley, who made such huge progress last season. It remains to be seen whether Everton can hang on to Gareth Barry, for me the bedrock of the midfield in his season on loan at Goodison.

Barry, who is clearly being touted around the Premier League by his agent, was happy at Goodison. But Everton, who have offered him a deal, are already a step behind their rivals for Barry’s signature. I’m told that a condition of his one-season loan from Manchester City was that Everton will pay City £1 million if they sign him ‘permanently.’

Next Goal Wins

THERE is a feature film-length documentary currently on release called Next Goal Wins and I can recommend it. It’s about the Samoan national team and their ongoing determination following a record 31-0 World Cup qualifier defeat to Australia in 2001.

This isn’t so much a football story as a tale of unquenchable human spirit as Samoa’s ragtag group of players – and, believe me, they are a diverse bunch – set out on another World Cup qualification campaign. Compelling and moving stuff.


Play-off purgatory

NOBODY need try to tell me about the agony and the ecstasy of the play-offs. I know just how beaten Derby boss Steve McClaren and victorious QPR manager Harry Redknapp will be feeling today, for I have experienced what both men did as QPR substitute Bobby Zamora scored a sensational, 90th minute, winner at Wembley on Saturday.

My Oldham team became the first to lose in the play-offs in 1987 – beaten by Leeds in the semi-final on the now defunct away goals rule – and,12 years later, I was in charge at Manchester City as we won one of the most dramatic matches in Wembley history, beating Gillingham on penalties in the Second Division final, after being 2-0 down going into the 90th minute! I also went on to experience play-off defeat with Ipswich Town.

The cruel irony for McClaren is that, while he was coaching Rangers early in the season, they were playing attacking, expansive football. Then, he left to take over at Derby, who became one of the three best teams in the Championship, along with promoted Leicester and Burnley. Derby were the better side throughout at Wembley, but they just couldn’t get it right in front of goal, where keeper Rob Green had one of his finest days.

Losing in the play-offs is a traumatising experience and it can be hard for the manager and staff to lift the players at the start of the following season. Working on that challenge will be Steve McClaren’s priority over the next couple of months.



Baled out

THIS time last year I was writing about Gareth Bale and the fact that he was, by some distance, the player every big club in England and throughout Europe should be trying to sign. Well, Real Madrid got their man, at a world record £80-odd million – and I reckon they’ll be thinking they got their moneysworth. Bale may not have had the best of games in the Champions League final, along with team-mate and world No 1 Cristiano Ronaldo, but he popped up to head the crucial goal that put real 2-1 up against City rivals Atletico, having scored the winner in the Spanish Cup final two weeks earlier.

The Welshman has hit 22 goals in his debut season, a season that was injury interrupted in the first month or so, and, by playing his part in winning Real their 10th European Cup, he has already cemented his name into the annals of that great club.

It struck me that Atletico, with their chasing, harrying and swarming tactics, are the Chelsea of La Liga, while Real, with magicians like Di Maria, Ronaldo and Bale, are the Manchester City. You have to have fit, strong, athletic payers to subdue talents like Ronaldo and Bale and that’s just what Atletico possess. There is no denying that Real deserved to win, although 4-1 was a flattering scoreline.

While Real are the team of galacticos, Atletico are a team in the true sense of the word, where everyone pulls together and there are no superstars. It is for that reason that I would caution clubs who are contemplating spending huge sums on signing some of the Atletico players. I say that because, when players are taken out of such a totally unified set-up they cam sometimes find it difficult to adapt to different circumstances.

I was disappointed in Atletico coach Diego Simeone’s antics, rushing on to the pitch to confront Real’s Raphael Varane, who had kicked the ball in his direction after the fourth goal. Simeone has done a wonderful job with Atletico and I’m sure some of the biggest clubs in Europe will now be looking at him. However, the Argentinian displayed a dubious side to his character, an echo, perhaps, of his over-the-top reaction to that infamous David Beckham flick at the World Cup in 1998, which resulted in Beckham being sent off and for which Simeone has since expressed some regret.


Best wishes, Yaya!

I’M thinking of writing to all my former clubs to ask for compensation – an apology at the very least – for forgetting to send me a birthday card while I was in their employ! As I understand it – and I don’t understand it, not a bit – this is the essence of £250,000-a-week Yaya Toure’s grievance with Manchester City. Toure, the towering midfielder who drove City to their second Premier League title in three years, is suddenly hinting he may not be at The Etihad next season…because the owners did not personally give him their birthday best wishes last week.

Now, I am a big Toure fan. He was my player of the season, an awesome performer who is world class in several positions and a man who I simply cannot fault as a footballer. But I’m disappointed and perplexed by these expressions of unrest. City have made Toure one of the best-paid players in the world and he is feted by the fans and loved by his team-mates. He is at the club which, more than any other in England, has the potential to conquer Europe in the coming years. Yet, suddenly, he hints he may not be there next season.

It all sounds a bit fishy to me. It seems his agent was first to raise the subject of the alleged birthday snub (apparently, a cake presented on the flight to Abu Dhabi following City’s title triumph was not sufficient recognition of his client’s 31st milestone). Toure initially distanced himself from his agent’s remarks, then corroborated them. All very confusing. The carryings-on of modern top class players never fail to amaze me, but I do understand that agents only make money when players move clubs. For the sake of City’s superb fans, I hope that is not the case here. All I can say is: Watch this space.



Play it again, Sam!

WEST HAM UNITED have contributed to my growing confusion about the attitude of club directors by telling manager Sam Allardyce he’s still in a job, but adding the ultimatum: Play more attractive football next season – and finish in the top 10. I really do wonder where these people are coming from.

Sam Allardyce is as honest a manager as they come. He has been criticised throughout his career for the style of football played by his teams. But Bolton, who he kept in the top flight against all odds for many seasons, and Blackburn, who mysteriously sacked him, were soon relegated after he left. At Newcastle, he simply wasn’t given the chance to settle in and do his job before being axed. He has done everything he possibly could have done for West Ham since joining them in June, 2011, winning promotion back to the Premier League and keeping them there since, finishing 10th and 13th the past two seasons. His task this last season was made all the tougher because record signing, striker Andy Carroll, was injured for most of the campaign.

The top seven clubs have been set in stone for many years. The two Manchesters, City and United, Liverpool and Everton from Merseyside, and the three Londoners, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham. That isn’t about to change. There is usually a springer, a team that leaps from the pack and threatens that established group, and last season it was Southampton. In effect, the Hammers’ board is telling Sam that West Ham must be that springer next season. Well, even if they were to spend £30million on a midfielder and £40 million on a striker this summer – which they won’t – it would be a tall order.

It is laudable for clubs to be ambitious, but they must also be realistic. I think Big Sam has been put under unfair pressure by the Hammers fans and, now, by the board. In fact, I believe he is overdue some credit for the job he has done as a manager in the Premier League. Sometimes, directors and fans don’t appreciate just what they’ve got. Best of luck, Sam.