No clowning around, England!

I am sure Roy Hodgson’s England squad don’t need telling, but, ahead of Tuesday’s must-win clash with Poland, I’m sending them this message, nevertheless: “Let’s have no clowning around at Wembley.” In saying so, I refer, of course, to that fateful night, 40 years ago, when Poland goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski defied Sir Alf Ramsey’s star-studded team, denying England a place at the World Cup Finals in the process – after being branded a “clown” by Brian Clough. Cloughie, presumably, was trying to destabilise the Poles by dismissing their keeper, but the jibe backfired as Tomaszewski produced the display of his life to restrict England to a 1-1 draw, reminding us that any keeper is just as  capable of having a blinder as a horror show.

In that match, for example, Peter Shilton, the best English goalkeeper I played with or against, in a golden era that boasted Ray Clemence, Gordon Banks, Peter Bonetti, Joe Corrigan and the two Phil Parkes’s (of Wolves and West Ham), allowed a tame shot from Domarski to go under his body. And that after the legendary Norman “bites yer legs” Hunter had missed a tackle on the halfway line to let Lato speed clear to set up the goal that killed our World Cup hopes. At the other end, the “clown” Tomaszewski was having the night of his life, keeping out the likes of Allan Clarke, Martin Chivers and Mick Channon. Yours truly, by the way, was watching on TV, while recovering from career-threatening back surgery.

Now, that Poland team sported world class talent in the form of Lato, Gadocha and Kazy Deyna, who went on to be a favourite at Manchester City. The side we face on Tuesday is ranked a lowly 65th in the world – but, once again, it’s a case of England beware! I trust there will be no dismissive pre-match jibes about the keeper who will try to stop Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge in their tracks, namely Southampton’s Artur Boruc, a player who is good enough to relegate Arsenal’s excellent Wojciech Szczesny to the sub’s bench. And we must hope that Borussia Dortmund forward Robert Lewandowski is not sufficiently stung by Poland’s failure to qualify for Brazil that he turns in the type of world-class performance of which he is capable. In short, the danger signs are clear. England must ignore the ranking that puts them 48 places ahead of their opponents, acknowledge the omens of 1973 and knuckle down and get the job done, just as they did against Montenegro on Friday.

I would leave out 35-year-old Frank Lampard because I do believe the demands of two such vital matches in five days are too much for one of his age. Lampard is a superb athlete but this might be asking too much. As my friend and mentor and former Everton team-mate Jimmy Gabriel used to say about the advancing years: “Age is like a screw in your back that steadily comes loose – and, suddenly, falls out.” I am sure Jack Wilshere, left out of the starting line-up on Friday, would do a great job against the Poles, playing alongside Steven Gerrard. I was surprised that Hodgson left out Wilshere, but I must applaud the England manager for his selection of Andros Townsend, who terrorised Montenegro and showed us why he is keeping out not only Aaron Lennon but also £30m new boy Erik Lamela, at Tottenham. Let us hope Townsend can do a similar job on Tuesday. He is giving Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas what we managers call a “nice problem.”

PS. I’m shaking my head in despair at the fuss on Twitter as a result of ITV presenter Adrian Childs’ quip about Polish builders ahead of Tuesday’s match. I really cannot see the problem. Childs’s tongue-in-cheek remark about needing some building work doing is as harmless as jokes about Irish labourers or Asian restaurants. If you are offended by that, then I suggest you get a life!

 

 

England expects

Montenegro, one of the states formed by the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, lie 10 places below England in the world rankings and do not have any ‘world stars’ in their ranks. Yet this tiny nation tops World Cup qualifying Group H, has not lost in three meetings with England – all drawn – since its formation, and its team contains more itches than a tramp’s overcoat. They call themselves the Brave Falcons – and brave is what England must be at Wembley if we are to avoid the humiliation of failing to qualify for next year’s finals in Brazil.

However, I don’t advocate that manager Roy Hodgson throws caution to the wind by tampering too much with his midfield. I have heard suggestions that he is considering dropping 35-year-old Frank Lampard for Michael Carrick or axing Lampard and Danny Welbeck to accommodate James Milner and Tottenham’s promising youngster Andros Townsend. Well, I wouldn’t recommend either of those options. In saying we must be brave, I am suggesting we must be totally positive, but not risky. I believe Hodgson should stick with the vastly-experienced Lampard and Steven Gerrard, supported by Jack Wilshere, and worry about replacing these old soldiers when – and if – we get the job of qualifying done. Make no mistake, this is a tricky-looking fixture and I don’t think it is one to entrust to relatively inexperienced players like Townsend.

Montenegro may not have any superstar names amongs their ranks, but they do have very good players, men whose qualities adorn top European teams like Juventus, Fiorentina and Lille. Striker Vukevic, for example, for some mysterious reason was not a success at Blackburn Rovers, yet he now leads the line in Serie A for Juve, while centre-back Savic is a mainstay at Fiorentina after being jettisoned by Manchester City. These guys are no mugs and players like Lampard and Gerrard must get to grips with them quickly and ensure that England impose themselves in front of an expectant Wembley crowd. Goals haven’t been coming easily for England and we must hope that the returning Wayne Rooney, who will drop off the in-form Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge, can produce the type of dynamic performance of which he is capable. One of the reasons Sturridge left Chelsea was that he did not want to be used as a wide striker, yet he does some of his best work running in from wide areas, just as the athletic Welbeck does. These guys must be urged to tear at the Montenegro defence at every opportunity.

The front runners will be ably supported by Everton’s in-form left-back Leighton Baines whose selection is automatic given the injury sustained by Ashley Cole. The loss of Cole may prove a gain for England for Baines is the more creative of the two, a player who can supply crosses for the likes of Sturridge, Rooney and Welbeck to attack. It is vital that England dominate possession and Baines can play a big part there. Centre-halves Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka pick themselves, but I would restore Glen Johnson to the right-back slot if he is fit. The Liverpool player is far and away our best in that position, though Kyle Walker will do a good enough job if he plays. And, despite all the flak he has taken this season in the Premier League, Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart remains a shoe-in.

This really is what they call a must-win game. The situation is clear: Beat Montenegro and then Poland on Tuesday, also at Wembley, and we will be heading for Brazil. Failure to do so is too awful to contemplate.

 

 

Best of luck, Dan

Dan Ashworth is the director of elite coaching at the FA, the man charged with the job of trying to return the England team to a lofty position in the world rankings by finding a way to produce young players capable of taking on, and beating, the best teams in international football. It is a tough challenge and it is one that I – and I presume Dan Ashworth, too – think can only get tougher after watching the complete break from football that masqueraded as a World Cup qualifier when England drew 0-0 with Ukraine in Kiev on Tuesday. Okay, the result leaves England on top of Group H and with their fate still in their own hands as the final two qualifying matches, at home to Montenegro and Poland, loom next month. Okay, it was as they say in soccer speak “job done.” Okay, manager Roy Hodgson’s options were severely limited by the loss, through injury, of his most potent attackers, Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck. But let us be brutally honest…we are hoping to go to Brazil next summer to contest the World Cup finals and, on this evidence, we can’t string two passes together, let alone three or more!

I was happy to acknowledge that England did a thoroughly competent job when they dispatched little Moldova 4-0 at Wembley the previous week. In Kiev, however, against stronger opposition, but by no means classy opposition, we were incapable of producing the spark that might have broken a grim deadlock created by two fit, strong, athletic teams dedicated to closing each other down. Even Jack Wilshere, the young Arsenal player I admire so much and upon whom so much of our hope for an improved future depends, could not find a team-mate, not even with passes from less than 10 yards. England peaked as an attacking force in the first minute, when Frank Lampard put Theo Walcott through on goal, though it was only a 50-50 chance. The sum total of clear cut opportunities was two, a missed header for each team. Dire stuff, indeed. Oh, for a player of the calibre of Paul Gascoigne, arguably England’s last truly world class footballer, who had the intuitive creativity to turn such a stalemate on its head.

Now, I accept that such players – Barcelona’s brilliant little forward Lionel Messi is the best current example – are born, not made, but there is clearly a category just one rung down from those guys and teams like Germany, Spain and the new kids on the international block, Belgium, are prime examples of nations that have players in it. Little Belgium, population just under 11 million, top their World Cup qualifying group by five points and are certainties for Brazil 2014. Belgium! I know the country is famous for chocolate, but when you bring to mind Anderlecht, Bruges and Standard Liege you have run out of their premier league clubs to name. Yet they currently have 11 players in the English Premier League, outstanding talents like Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Christian Bentecke et al, and their national side is sweeping away all opposition en route to the World Cup finals.

They must be doing something right over there and, so, I suggest Mr Ashworth makes sure he sends scouts to study their methods. The Dutch, with their total football, the Spanish, with their love of possession, the Germans, whose clubs dominated last season’s Champions League, and, now, the Belgians, all seem to be more successful than we English at producing quality players. Somehow, and I don’t pretend to know why, we have lost our way since those heady days of 1966 when a team boasting several players – Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore for sure – who would have graced a World X1, won the World Cup at Wembley. Perhaps the answer lies in part in the advent of sports science and an obsession with physical perfection and the welter of statistics that go with it. I think scouts are brainwashed into making athleticism the priority over ability. Has the word ‘athlete’ superceded the word ‘footballer?’ I recall a match when I was manager of Ipswich when we beat Burnley 6-0 at home and the club statistician came into my office, a frown on his face, and said: “Boss, they out-ran us!” I told him: “That’s because they were chasing the ball for 90 minutes.”

At that time, Ipswich had players who were adept at playing possession football and Burnley’s boys could have run a marathon apiece and still not competed with us. The alarming aspect of England’s display in Kiev was that, in that tight situation, we could not hold on to the ball and make things happen. They say that statistics don’t lie, but they can certainly be misleading. England top their group, but their four victories were two apiece against Moldova and San Marino. I mean, wouldn’t you expect Manchester United to beat Oldham and Bury every time? England have lost only once in 20 matches. On the face of it, impressive. But, when you analyse the limitations in that performance in Kiev, you tend to be sceptical about the story behind those numbers. Certainly, it will be interesting to see if England improve their 14th place  when FIFA produces its updated world rankings tomorrow. We have had to reluctantly accept for a long time now that we are not good enough to contest the world and European finals, but we should aspire to be firmly embedded in the world’s top 10. What is certain is that we have lost our way, while others have steamed ahead, and we can only wish Dan Ashworth well as he attempts the formidable challenge of producing players who will crystallize new FA chairman Greg Dyke’s improbable call for a World Cup win in 2022!

FOOTNOTE: The FA flirted with a charge of double standards this week when they announced they will take no further action against England and Tottenham full-back Kyle Walker – who, incidentally, got a merciless run-around from Ukraine’s Konoplyanka – who was pictured inhaling the drug nitrous oxide during the close season. Now, I am not advocating punishment for young Walker, merely observing that when Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand missed a routine drugs test in 2003 – when he was an England stalwart – he was  hammered with an eight-month ban. And Ferdinand was never shown to have taken any illegal substance.

 

 

Zero tolerance

It is time to get tough with players – and staff – who abuse referees. I propose that the FA and, subsequently FIFA, implement a zero tolerance policy towards those who disrespect officials. I suggest any act of abuse be met with a straight red card and a one-match ban. If there is a re-offence, then a two-match ban would follow, then a four-match ban and so on. I am pretty confident that such a stance would quickly stamp out a problem that has become the biggest blot on the landscape of British football. The sight of players, and often managers and coaches on the touchline, challenging, berating and frequently foul-mouthing referees has become the disgraceful norm in recent years. In short, it is a disgrace and an embarrassment.

This disturbing lack of respect for officialdom is, you could argue, not just a football problem but also a societal disease, something that has developed, seemingly unchecked, over the past 30 or so years. The problem must start in the home, where parents have a responsibility to teach their kids the importance of recognising and respecting those in authority. It also befalls football coaches, from junior through to the pinnacle of the professional game, to bang the same drum when it comes to accepting referees’ decisions without question or dissent. The argument goes, especially at the highest level of the game, that the pressure on managers and players is such that they are entitled to dispute decisions they don’t agree with. But that simply won’t wash.

I watched the British Lions and Australia, hard men all and some of them man mountains, batter the hell out of each other in 80 minutes of pure attrition in their rugby union test match last Saturday. Throughout the fearsome, tension-packed contest there were numerous refereeing decisions and penalties awarded. There was also not a single word of dissent from these magnificent, often bruised and blood-spattered combatants. Seventeen-stone giants were summoned to stand before the official, like schoolboys brought to the front of the classroom, and had the reason for their punishment explained, followed by a warning that worse would follow if they re-offended. To a mountainous man, they listened politely before returning to the ranks. I was so impressed. If they can behave so impeccably when faced with decisions they may not like, why can’t footballers? I’ve heard it said that rugby union is a middle class game and, therefore, that it mirrors middle class standards. That arguments collapses when you consider the heroes of Super League rugby, the game’s 13-man-a-side code and the working-class version, who play just as fiercely and who accept the referee’s word just as respectfully.

Football managers and players in the glaring spotlight of the money-drenched Premier League are under a lot of pressure to retain their top-flight status. And the pressure on players and managers to get into the Premier League, with all its financial rewards, is also immense. It is a situation that produces intolerance of refereeing mistakes – but it is no excuse for it. Quite simply, referees have the toughest job in football. They are men doing a job most people would run away from and they deserve the respect of players and managers. Sure, mistakes are made. But human beings make mistakes, especially when they are making decisions in a split-second and when confronted with the disgraceful diving antics that blight our game. I wasn’t whiter than white in my career. As a cocky Everton youngster I once had the temerity to tell referee Graham Hill I thought he was having a bad game. But I didn’t swear at him. He told me I wasn’t doing too well, either! And when, as Everton manager, I went to David Elleray’s dressing-room to dispute his sending off of Duncan Ferguson in the last minute for foul and abusive language, I was summoned before an FA disciplinary hearing and I wrote a letter of apology to Elleray. They were rare moments of indiscipline on my part and I believe that no team I managed had a reputation for lack of respect for the officials.

Too often nowadays our TV screens are filled with images of players confronting officials and staff ranting on the touchline. It is getting out of control, it is setting a bad example to young people – and it has to stop. Managers must lead by example and players must respond. The late, great Brian Clough proved you can be a winner and still respect the referee. He never criticised the officials and his players knew it would be the worse for them if they did so. With that philosophy, Cloughie’s Nottingham Forest twice won the European Cup! In other words, to use the pressure as a reason for challenging decisions is an argument that does not hold water. Instead, footballers should take a leaf out of those rugby players’ books. If players and managers continue to be abusive to the men in black, then punishment must be instant – and severe. The FA launched their “Respect” campaign several years ago and little has changed. It is time to get tough.

Zero tolerance!

 

Brain drain

Retiring FA chairman David Bernstein has inadvertently thrown up another worrying question with his condemnation of Premier League clubs’ practice of buying non-English players in the transfer market: Namely, where are all the English coaches/managers? Bernstein is rightly concerned that the ongoing influx of foreign players to the Premier League is eroding the development of home-grown talent and, in consequence, the future of the national team. The FA need to urgently address the fact that we are not producing sufficient players of quality who would force themselves into Premier League club squads. However, it isn’t only native players we are short of in England, it is coaches, too. We should be worried about the alarming shortage of top-ranked English coaches at our biggest clubs.

It is an alarming fact that, in the 20 years since the formation of the Premier League, in 1992-93, the title has not been won by a single English manager. The last Englishman to win the League Championship was Howard Wilkinson, whose Leeds side claimed the old First Division crown in 1991-92, the season before the Premier League was created. Currently, we have only four Englishmen in charge in the Premier League, Sam Allardyce, at West Ham, Alan Pardew, Newcastle, and Ian Holloway and Steve Bruce at promoted Crystal Palace and Hull City.  That startling fact, coupled with the decreasing number of English players, means that slowly, but surely, the national identity of our top division is being eroded. As a result, the prospects for our national team are paling. I find that alarming.

Not enough of our retiring top-class players are going into coaching and management and a big factor here has to be money: They have got too much of it. When injury cut short my playing career at the age of 32, I still had a mortgage to pay and three boys to raise and I needed to work. Nowadays, Premier League players of that age have millions of pounds in the bank.  Above all, I wanted to stay in football and, so, I applied for managerial posts and, after losing out to Terry Cooper for the job at Bristol City I was fortunate to land the role as manager at Oldham Athletic, where I spent 12 marvellous years before moving on to Everton, then to Manchester City and Ipswich. At all of these clubs, I was able to bring to bear the experience I had gained as a player at the highest level of the English game, including the national team. Now, it seems our brightest, top quality players are either drifting out of the game or choosing careers in the media. Men like Gary Neville – okay, I know he has a part-time coaching role with England – and Jamie Redknapp work for Sky TV. Martin Keown is a newspaper pundit. These are intelligent guys who played the game at the highest level, who understand the game and could conceivably have become successful coaches. Instead, they chose the media route to ongoing involvement and I can only conclude that the wealth they accrued from their playing days was a factor when it came to weighing the pros and cons of going into management, which is a thrilling, but stressful, business to be in. When you have got financial security for life, as any Premier League player who has been responsible with his earnings will have, the need to stay in football to  earn a living is not a consideration. There will always be exceptions, of course, like Gary Neville’s brother Phil, who retired from Everton last season, and who is on record as saying he wants to go into coaching and management. I can’t help but feel we need more young Englishmen to do the same. I must say, the cause might be helped if the FA were to modify its rather laborious coaching badge course which I could see putting many people off. Too many top class English professionals are leaving the game and not enough potential top class players are being produced. It is a scary double whammy.