England’s World Cup chances? In a word slim!

When a national team reaches a major tournament, there’s always fevered anticipation as to who’ll be in the squad. At least there should be. As a football fan living in England, it’s clear that there isn’t a particularly high expectation of the English team setting the world alight in Russia. The national team has lived far too long on the 1966 victory, and even then only because of a dubious Russian lineman. The teams of the late 80s and early 90s showed promise, but since then it has been all downhill.

Interestingly current manager Gareth Southgate has picked one of the youngest England squads ever to play in a major tournament. Several household names didn’t make it. That’s a brave call, and either sets him up for a major fall when they lose to Tunisia, or gets him a knighthood when they win a penalty shootout against Germany in the semi-finals.

  • Goalkeepers: Jack Butland (Stoke), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Nick Pope (Burnley).
  • Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Fabian Delph (Manchester City), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Harry Maguire (Leicester), Danny Rose (Tottenham), John Stones (Manchester City), Kieran Trippier (Tottenham), Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Ashley Young (Manchester United).
  • Midfielders: Dele Alli (Tottenham), Eric Dier (Tottenham), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea).
  • Forwards: Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Jamie Vardy (Leicester), Danny Welbeck (Arsenal).

Read through the names quickly, and you’d be quite optimistic. With the odd exception, they’re all Premier League first team regulars. Around 75% are from top six clubs, but I can’t help feeling slightly underwhelmed. For a start there are players like Dele Alli. Any Wimbledon fan will tell you that as a former Franchise FC player, they wish he’d disappear into oblivion. My issue with him is that he tries too hard to cheat. He’s young, talented, and immensely arrogant. He’ll get found out at this level.

England’s major problem is defense. There are some OK players, but against the world’s best, I just can’t see them doing well. Even if the likes of Cahill and Jones stay fit. The front line is OK, even if the experiments of having both Vardy and Kane on the pitch at the same time never seems to work. Sterling like Alli dives too much, and Rashford doesn’t dominate games. England’s success depends too much on all players bringing their A game to every game.

Most England fans remember The European Championship two years ago. Back then we were knocked out in the group stage by that major footballing force Iceland! Iceland may not have a team of household names, but they showed that night how 11 players well drilled and playing with pride could upset the form guide.

Southgate’s experiment may well prove to be a tactical masterstroke, but then again it could bring back memories of that truly awful penalty miss against Germany in 1996. Now who was it that missed it again?

Should sporting celebrities be political?

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Such sentences underline the difficulties when determining what is acceptable to say when it comes to topics that are even vaguely political. Of course there are clear cut cases where it is unacceptable. For example, any sportsperson supporting holy jihad. But when it comes to less clear cut cases, where should the line be drawn?

There have been numerous cases of sportsmen and women falling foul of their sporting authority’s rules. Recent cases that spring to mind include:

  • Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer was fined for wearing a “No. 40 decal” on his helmet to honour former Arizona Cardinals teammate Pat Tillman who was killed in Iraq. See this Outside the Beltway blog post.
  • The English Football Association was fined £35000 by FIFA after the England squad wore shirts with the annual British Legion poppy symbol.  See this See Independent Newspaper article.
  • Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, formally manager of Barcelona, has been charged by the English FA for wearing a yellow ribbon in support of imprisoned Catalan politicians. See this BBC Website story.

In the modern big money world of branding, you can understand why sporting bodies get all hot under the collar when people don’t stay on message, but is that acceptable?

You could argue that straying off message is not only against the rules, but also is direct defiance of your employment contract. I’m sure most of us who are employed could find something we dislike about our employer’s ethical, environmental, or personnel policies. But most of us choose to ignore these policies and keep quiet. Whether this is for fear of being disciplined, or just that it’s not such a big deal is irrelevant. By not doing anything, we acquiesce to our employer’s views. If we stick our head above the parapet, we must expect some push back. We’re disobeying their rules after all, whether we like it or not. If we continue to disobey the rules, we must expect the ultimate sanction to be a disciplinary case resulting in dismissal.

So should a sporting celebrity by allowed to speak out? Of course. I’d defend that to the hilt. The real issue is whether they’d do so, if they were to lose their income, fame, and livelihood as a result. Some would no doubt, but I’d suggest that in all the cases above, they know that any fine is small enough to not really matter in the long run. That’s OK too. It gives both sides a win-win. One side can speak out when they feel strongly about something, and the other can cry foul and demand retribution in the form of a small financial slap on the wrist.

Super Bowl LII: The best ever?

If you’re a UK sports fan, you really should have stayed up to watch last night’s US Super Bowl. What’s that? You don’t follow American Football? Well if you had, this game may well have changed your mind. It had everything: pre-match hype, big hits, massive plays, tumbling records, and suspense in bucket loads.

The Philadelphia Eagles came into the game as underdogs, but you don’t get through to the Super Bowl without having something about you. Right the way through the regular season and the division playoffs, they downplayed their chances, but kept on getting results. Such resilience can’t be ignored. The fact that their regular quarterback Carson Wentz was out injured added additional speculation, with the pressure on stand in Nick Foles going up a notch or two.

The New England Patriots came into the game looking for a third successive Super Bowl victory. That this was one of the few records not to be broken on the night, says a lot for the game. Clear favourites and led by veteran Tom Brady, himself a five times winner, they failed at the final hurdle. Even then, they could have won it with the final play of the night.

Prior to kickoff, opinion was divided. The Eagles had man to man a stronger lineup. Players like Zach Ertz, Brandon Graham, Alshon Jeffery, and Corey Clement. In comparison much was made of the Patriot’s Quarterback Tom Brady and Head Coach Bill Belichick. Could their experience carry the team to a record sixth Super Bowl victory? It nearly did.

The game was played at breakneck speed, the Eagles deciding to match the Patriots no huddle offence. With such little time to organise your defence, it is hard to play against. Each side traded early field goals, and you started to wonder if it was going to be one of those strategic defensive battles. Any doubts of this type of game were soon dashed midway through the first quarter, when Nick Foles threw a 32 yard pass into the end zone where Alshon Jeffery made a spectacular catch.

Game on!

In a breathtaking first half there were three touchdowns, and some astonishingly brave plays. Early in the second quarter saw Brady running wide right without the ball. A trick play on a third down, the ball was tossed to him but he just failed to catch it. He was wide open. It was a key moment in the game. When Foles did the same later in the half, but in the end zone and successfully, you just had to step back and admire the audacity of such plays. In doing so Foles became the first player to throw and catch a touchdown in Super Bowl history.

Both teams continued the second half as they finished the first. The Patriots started to except some consistent pressure with Rob Gronkowski adding two touchdowns, and Chris Hogan another. For the first time in the game, the Patriots led. Would they repeat last year’s performance and put the Eagles to the sword? Not a bit of it. Back came Zach Ertz with a touchdown that set up the game for an exhilarating last few minutes.

Brady did his best to get the one big play that could see him win his sixth Super Bowl ring. He used all of his experience to drive the offence down the field, but ultimately came up short. His final hopeful throw into the end zone could have won it on another day, but that day wasn’t yesterday. The Eagles had won with a squad who between them had only seven appearances in a Super Bowl. Brady had seven appearances just by himself!

If you want more evidence of just how spectacular this game was, here’s two more statistics that beggar belief. There were no sacks, and only one punt the entire game. Admittedly Brady’s fumble near the end was a good as a sack in real terms, and Brandon Graham can take real credit for that. It was his hand that striped the ball from Brady’s glove and effectively sealed the Eagles victory.

Now throw in the following:

  • The Patriots became the first team in NFL history to advance the ball over 600 yards and lose.
  • The Eagles conceded the highest number of points by a winning team in the Super Bowl.
  • Brady was the first quarterback in any NFL game to lose after throwing more than 500 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions.

So the Vince Lomardi trophy went to Philadelphia for the first time in the franchise’s history and Head Coach Doug Pederson received the traditional Gatorade bath. Ther’ll be one hell of a party there in the coming days.

I’ve stayed up the watch the Super Bowl on many occasions. Regrettably I went to bed at half time last year with the Patriots being thrashed. I wished I’d stayed up, but I’d work in the morning. This year I booked Monday off, and boy was I glad I did. Getting to bed at 3:30am isn’t everybody’s idea of fun, but this was a small sacrifice to make for what was a thoroughly enthralling contest. It may not have the dramatic impact of the Patriot’s come back last year, but the sheer athleticism, audacity, and strategic brilliance from both sides made it a spectacle that will live long in the memory.

The Wombles at Wembley……. again!

The 14 May 1988 is a day I’ll never forget. It was my Mum’s birthday, and the late spring sun shone gloriously on London to give her an early birthday present.

But that isn’t the reason why this day was so memorable.

That day Wimbledon were playing Liverpool in the FA Cup Final.

Liverpool had just finished the season on top of the league with an impressive 90 points, losing only twice. Their team read like a list of footballing royalty. Despite losing goal machine Ian Rush to Juventus the previous July, they still had the likes of Bruce Grobbelaar, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson, Steve Nicol, John Barnes, Steve McMahon, Jan Mølby, Ronnie Whelan, John Aldridge, and Peter Beardsley. They were also managed by a certain Kenny Dalglish.

By comparison, Wimbledon had finished ninth in the league with 57 points. Their squad of journeyman players, had spirit and (let’s not deny it) some skill, but could they really pull off the impossible?

Where it all began

I grew up in Earlsfield, SW London, about a 20 minute walk from Wimbledon’s Plough Lane stadium. So when I was old enough to go to a football game, there was little choice of where to go. To misquote The League of Gentlemen, it was a local club for local people. It may not have had the allure of Chelsea or Fulham, but I didn’t care. This was my team, and a story of belonging had begun.

I became a Dons fan at an exciting time. Wimbledon had been elected to the Football League at the expense of Workington, having won the non-league Southern League three times running. The next few years were a see-saw of emotions as we changed leagues six times in six years, just not always in the right direction!

1988 and all that

After a rise through the leagues that only Watford has matched, we reached the old Division One for the start of the 1986/87 season. It started well enough, even topping the table by September, before slipping slightly to finish sixth overall. An impressive debut for your first season in the top flight of English football.

Most people expected us to struggle the following season. It was the, “OK we know all about you now, so you’ll have to do something different” attitude. The problem was they still had to deal with our physicality and willingness to give our all. Sometimes playing to your strengths and having the will to win, trumps just about everything.

So come May we were Wembley bound for the first time as a professional club. We’d been there in the FA Amateur Cup Final in 1963, beating local rivals Sutton United 4–2. That was a performance that saw Eddie Reynolds score all four goals with his head; a feat not since matched in any Wembley cup final.

Call it youthful arrogance, but I thought we’d have a change of winning. Much like the final game of the 2012/13 season against Fleetwood Town, where we needed to win to remain a league club, I knew deep down we had a good chance.

The trouble was the 2013 Fleetwood team weren’t the 1988 Liverpool team.

The game wasn’t the best. Liverpool created chances, even scoring in the first half. The fact their goal was disallowed for a foul on one of their players in the build up made you wonder if this was going to be our day.

Then shortly before half time, we won a free kick out left. We were strong from set pieces, so could this be our chance? Dennis Wise dead ball delivery was perfection, as was Laurie Sanchez’s run between Hanson and Gary Gillespie. One glancing header later and it was delirium time.

At half time Dons coach Don Howe played a masterstroke. He’d got towels in an ice bucket half way through the first half. He knew the players would be hot on this sweltering early summer’s day. They’d run their socks off on the larger than normal pitch, and held their own. They’d need to cool down, and fast.

The second half started much like the first.

Then disaster. Clive Goodyear tackled John Aldridge inside the area, and the referee pointed to the spot. I stood there is disbelief. He clearly won the ball. I could see that even from where I was, high up in the terrace behind our goal.

Just like Liverpool’s disallowed goal, it was an atrocious decision.

As Aldridge dusted himself off to take the penalty, I stood there frozen. He couldn’t miss, could he? He doesn’t look entirely confident, I thought. He’s going to miss. Go on John. Do us a favour.

Ha! He did.

A weakish shot was saved by Dave “Lurch” Beasent as he flew salmonesque to his left, in so doing becoming the first goalkeeper to save a penalty in a Wembley final.

If I’m honest, the rest of the game was largely a blur. My all time Dons legend Alan Cork, father of Burnley’s Jack, came on to harass their midfield. Then the final whistle went and I openly wept.

BBC commentator John Motson uttered the immortal line, “The crazy gang have beaten the culture club”, but I just wanted to relive the day over and over again.

The aftermath

It was my Mum’s birthday, and my brother-in-law was hosting a party for her. I was excused the early part, well they’d have had an issue if they hadn’t, but I had to return after the game.

Having celebrated with the 30,000 odd Dons fans at Wembley, I made my way home. All the way people congratulated me on our victory. Walking from the station to my brother-in-law’s house cars beeped their horns in celebration, and shouted out the window as they drove by.

It was as if the whole of the UK outside Liverpool wanted us to win.

Happy days!

The present

As I write this, we face a return to Wembley for an FA Cup game. This time it isn’t a final, just Tottenham in a 3rd round game. Just like in 1988 our form is sketchy, and we face a who’s who lineup of world class players. We’ve a strong team spirit, but is this enough to reach the fourth round?

We’ve won at Wembley before, in fact we’re unbeaten there. I’ve already mentioned the 1963 FA Amateur Cup Final. Then there was the 2015/16 League Two Payoff Final, where we beat Plymouth Argyle 2-0. Played three, won three. That’s a record worth perserving.

I’m taking my nephew to his first Wimbledon match, and only his second ever live game. He’s a Liverpool fan – I blame his parents 🙂 Could this be an omen for a repeat of the 1988 performance? If so Wimbledon, please don’t put us through such a mixture of emotions this time.