Hello again, dear reader. My apologies for such a substantial delay in posting, I’m pleased to see my good friend Mr Mantle has kept this place ticking over, but it’s about time I played my part.

Now there have been a few interesting topics since I’ve been away: Capello and England, Danny Murphy’s mouth, Marlon King’s return to the game and Arsene Wenger’s ‘war on tackles’ to name just a few. However, in this week there is only one place I can start: Wayne Rooney, and Manchester United.

I see Mr Mantle has posted on the topic already this week, clearly taken in by the idea that Rooney was away to pastures new. Now I never totally accepted that idea, and the reason why was Fergie himself. Normally when a player crosses the manager at United he is out the door in less time than it takes Rio Ferdinand to say “drugs test”. However, the key was in Ol’ Red Nose’s language: “my door is always open”.

Let’s be honest here. If this whole argument was about money, there’s no way Rooney would have wanted to leave. Manchester United, no matter how much debt they are in, can and will match anybody in the world as far as wages for top players go. Anybody. And that includes both Manchester City and Chelsea, as well as Real Madrid and Barcelona. When this is considered, you have to assume that there is something else in this whole stance.

It is easy to say (indeed many already have) that Rooney has disrespected the fans and the club by his stance. Perhaps my views are because I’m not a United fan, but I entirely disagree with Hayward and his ilk. I think Rooney’s stance showed him to be at one with the United support, positioning himself with the green and gold campaign seen in Old Trafford each and every week.

“But Mike, he asked to leave…” I hear you ask. Indeed, that he did. But what better way to criticise the club’s owners by demanding a transfer, even when you don’t actually want to leave? If that isn’t a big “we’re going backwards” type of statement, when the best player at the club publicly questions the ambitions of the country’s biggest club, I don’t know what is.

This time last year, Rooney made a public statement which said that he wanted to stay at United for the duration of his career. Had that really changed in just  12 short months? Of course not, and despite the off-field activities of ‘Shrek’, United was as good for him as he was for them.

So now United fans feel let down by Rooney. What I have to ask is ‘why’? Because he questioned where United were going? Because he felt United couldn’t sign the kind of player that’d take another European Cup to Old Trafford? Because he questioned whether United could attract the best players in the city of Manchester, let alone England? Where have we heard this before? At last, one of your biggest players has come out and said exactly the same message as you have all been giving out for years.

Much like Liverpool under Hicks and Gillette, the debt at United is gradually strangling the club. The money that is generated through the turnstiles, the TV revenue and merchandise is now being spent on servicing the ridiculous-near BILLION pound debt acquired by Mr Glazer, rather than being reinvested into the squad or (heaven forbid) reducing ticket prices so ordinary fans can turn Old Trafford into the cauldron of noise it should be (think Celtic Park on a European night.)

I’d suggest United fans should use this as a springboard to continue the campaign to rid the club of the Glazer family. Continue to question the ambition of the club under the Americans. Continue to ask why Fergie isn’t given the kind of cash to match your “noisy neighbours”, especially when you consider how much is made by the United ‘brand’ (I now feel very dirty, thanks.) And continue to ask how you can replace Cristiano Ronaldo with Nani.

Although I do have to be honest here and admit that I find the state of United quite amusing. It’s almost like Fergie is playing a real life game of Football Manager, selling all his best players and signing Steve Guppy in their place. As to whether this is good for English football though is certainly open to debate…

Now the World Cup is out the way, I thought it would be a good month or so before I posted about international football again. Both England and Scotland were depressing propositions, what with the Capello saga and the disgraceful performances in South Africa for the Three Lions, and a European Championship group including Spain and the Czechs for Craig Levein’s boys. A sobering prospect indeed.

Then a week or so ago I had a message on my Facebook wall from a friend asking me if I was planning to write anything about Middlesbrough’s Scottish invasion, and how I thought the players would perform in the Championship. Whilst this was a very good idea (I’ll be posting my thoughts on promotions and relegations in the next few weeks) I thought it better to look at the re-emergence of Scottish players within the English game as a whole.

Now for the last 10 years or so, there has been a real dearth of Scottish talent plying their trade to the south of Hadrian’s Wall, and Scotland have been an atrocity on the park. But this last couple of seasons, a few rough diamonds are beginning to show themselves, and in the more competitive English game too.

As a fan of an SPL club it gives me no pleasure to say this, but the quality of the SPL at this moment is worse than ever before. The game is really struggling as a result of the stranglehold that Sky has on British football, with even the English Championship having more cash than the clubs north of the border, let alone the Premier League. And if Celtic and Rangers can be outspent by Championship teams, what chance do the likes of St Mirren, St Johnstone and Hamilton have in the transfer market? Indeed, I’d argue that Notts County’s current squad would finish above at least six of the teams in the SPL right now (and no, I’m not being facetious.)

However, all is not lost for Scottish fans, and the SPL’s loss is the national team’s gain. The Championship is beginning to bulge at the weight of Scottish players, especially on Teeside, and some are now finding themselves in the Premier League (including Gary Caldwell, to my amazement!) I’m certain to miss a few out, but off the top of my head there is Craig Gordon, James McFadden, Graham Dorrans, Steven Fletcher, Christophe Berra, Alan Hutton and now Charlie Adam joining Fletcher and ‘Heid’ in the top flight. Not far behind are Barry Robson, Kevin Thomson, Kris Boyd, Steven McManus, Ross McCormack, Chris Burke and David Marshall in the Championship.

That’s the vast majority of any Scotland squad, and the experience gained playing against better sides down south can only help Scotland’s chances. Of course, I’m not suggesting that there are no players for Levein to pick from inside Scotland (I’m expecting to see a few of the Dundee United boys get a chance, as will Driver and a couple of others) but being able to mix his squad fills me with more hope that a play off spot in the Euro qualifiers is not out the question.

Some of you will ask ‘why’ I feel like this, and I guess the best answer I have is tradition. In the days when Scotland were a decent side, there was always a core of players who played in the English league. Be it Kenny Dalglish, Billy Bremner, Archie Gemmil or Denis Law, there were good players at English clubs. Now whilst I wouldn’t suggest any of the current bunch deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Dalglish or Law, my point still stands.

In Craig Levein there is a good young manager who most of the supporters are behind, and a widening pool of players to pick from. The exact opposite of England’s current position, although only part of that is Capello’s fault. But now it is down to Levein to mould the side together, and he can learn a few lessons from the Auld Enemy’s failure.

Namely abandon all thoughts of a 4-4-2 system and give the youngsters a chance, whilst trying to maintain an element of experience in the team. So who does he pick for the opening Euro qualifier? Very tough question, but I guess it’s time to don my management hat again. Here goes nothing:





—————————–S Fletcher————————–

It wouldn’t be football if some of you didn’t disagree with both my post and the team I’ve picked, but I’m genuinely optimistic that Scotland can qualify for Euro 2012. And after the misery of the last World Cup, that can’t help but get me just a little bit excited…

A lot can happen in a week or so. Just 8 days ago, England were still in South Africa, very much a part of the World Cup. Fans of the Three Lions were swallowing up every spoonful of Sky’s Premier League propaganda; the country dazzled by a blind belief that 2010 really could be the new ’66. The “greatest league in the World” had contributed to creating “world-class” players for manager Fabio Capello, players the Italian would mould into a team to challenge the world’s elite. Yes, football really could be “coming home”.

Four German goals later and the haze that the Premier League has caused on the English public appears to be lifting. The stranglehold that the Premier League have over the rest of the game in England is finally being both recognised and criticised, and at long last, people are beginning to realise that Sky’s league is killing the national game.

Fans are crying out for fundamental changes in the game, and most of these changes are designed to put the national side first. From limiting the number of foreign players, forcing teams to field a certain number of players under the age of 21, or the ridiculous notion of the State pump funds into the game (this is the same game that already receives over a billion pounds in television revenue, the same game that can afford to pay wages of £160,000 a week to a plainly average Chelsea captain) fans are certain of one thing: they want to see the FA take control of the game back.

If you’ve followed my blog from the start, you’ll be well aware by now that there are elements of the Premier League I can’t stand. The ‘business first’ attitude sickens me, as does the fact the ticket prices are vastly out of reach of the working man. I hate the attitude that many Premier League footballers have, and just how far away from the rest of society they have become. I hate the fact that clubs would rather finish in mid-table than win the FA Cup (OK, an exaggeration, fourth isn’t strictly mid-table but you win exactly the same for finishing there as you do for finishing 17th, so my point still stands. So much for the “first is first, second is nothing” mentality, eh? Let’s see your fourth-place medals, lads.)

I also really dislike the clubs coming out on top in the club-v-country battle, something which is a potentially huge pitfall of the game. What has long-been accepted is Premier League clubs expect national associations to bend to their will. From criticising federations for playing a friendly, to suing them for players picking up injuries whilst undertaking the privilege of playing for their country, the self-interest seeps out of every pore. Clubs force players to pull out of squads with an ‘injury’, only for it to miraculously heal in time for the next Premier League game. Managers even complain about having to release players for competitive qualifiers, something that is clearly entirely detrimental to the national sides.

And whilst this leaves a bad taste in my mouth, I can at least see the manager’s point of view. Yes, it is pure self-interest, but in the current days when almost entire squads are international players, all it takes is a couple of injuries and your season could be over. What I cannot see however, is how that same argument can be used by clubs who are refusing to release players ahead of the Under 19s European Championships, which begins in France next week.

This is an invaluable opportunity for young players to experience the unique atmosphere of tournament football. We’ve all seen the potential pitfalls this brings, be it England’s apparent problems this time around, to the inevitable implosion of the Dutch squad at every major competition since the dawn of time. Squads being together away from their families is hard on the players, yet the more they are exposed to it, the easier it becomes. This offers the players a chance to prepare for that experience, whilst the tournament isn’t paramount of importance, and mostly away from the prying eyes of the media. In essence, this is a dress rehearsal for what is to come.

Not only that, but England’s future generation of players will gain vital experience that only playing competitive football can bring them. This is a tournament of some pedigree, and many of the players on display will go on to become full internationals. Indeed, there are great hopes over players such as Aston Villa’s Nathan Delfouneso, Blackburn’s Phil Jones, and Danny Rose of Tottenham, the winger who burst into prominence by scoring a screamer against Arsenal last season.

In a time when there appears to be a dearth of youthful talent, it is essential that the promising youngsters who are available are nurtured and allowed to flourish. That will not happen by playing for youth sides, or even reserve teams, as much of this squad would find themselves doing. It can only happen by playing genuinely competitively football. Without these players, England’s squad will be dramatically weakened. Indeed, some may question the value in even participating in the tournament without a full-strength side. But there is a more important question here than just the immediate issue of these championships.

If the FA cannot even win the battle with the Premier League over youth team players, what chance do they have of winning the battle for the top players? Are they really so impotent that they cannot even ensure the clubs release a bunch of teenagers for international duty? What power do they have to do what the fans have clearly indicated, and that’s pull the power back from the big clubs?

For anybody who felt the desperate disappointment of last Sunday, and never again wants to experience the embarrassment the Germans caused England’s top players, it is an argument to follow very closely indeed. “Club England”, it’s over to you.

So now the dust has settled and the players have returned with their tails between their legs, it’s time to assess where England go from here. I posted the other day that the game needs a complete overhaul in England, and it appears I’m not alone in my opinion. This move cannot happen overnight and may take many years, but in the meantime England need to move on.

As ever when England struggle, a lot of blame lands in the lap of the manager. Predictably, there are many out there in the press and on the streets who demand the head of Capello. Undoubtedly, the Italian made mistakes in South Africa, and he deserves some of the criticism heading his way. However, he should not carry the can for the team, and I believe he should keep his job. Of course, a manager who has won eight league titles at four different clubs and a Champions League trophy has become a bad manager in two weeks, hasn’t he? No, the clamour for his head is just another knee-jerk reaction, one that occurs to almost every England manager. Even Bobby Robson, the man who took England to their second-best World Cup finish in 1990 suffered the same fate after Euro 88.

And even if he is sacked, who do you replace him with? Harry Redknapp? As much as ‘Arry has said he’d be interested in the job, he’s also called for a young English manager to take over when Capello stands aside. Read into this what you will:

“This guy [Capello] has a fantastic record at club level. But look, we’ve had a go with it now. When he finally moves on, in four years or whatever, surely there has to be a young guy or somebody in this country, surely we have to find a manager from England, an English manager.”Harry Redknapp

Does that sound like “give me the job” to you? No, it doesn’t. And why would he want to leave Tottenham, a club he has just taken into the Champions League? A job where he is a hero, to the possibility of becoming another vegetable caricature? Quite simply, why choose the poisoned chalice of England over the champagne glass of Champions League football at Spurs?

Then there are other calls for Roy Hodgson to take it, the man who is just about to move to Anfield. Again, why would he take the England job, and all the undue stresses that come with it, over the opportunity to turn around the fortunes of one of England’s biggest clubs?

And it also seems like nobody else is going to ask this question, so I will. What exactly is better about Hodgson and Redknapp than Capello? Look at their past records. I’m not going to sit here and dispute that Harry Redknapp is a top Premier League manager. He did an excellent job at Portsmouth, and has continued that at Spurs, but how many league championships has he won? None. How many European trophies? None. A solitary FA Cup sits on his CV, and there is no international experience.

Then there is Roy Hodgson, another fantastic manager with experience managing in Italy, Scandinavia and at international level with Finland and UAE. However, his honours list is limited to a couple of Swedish championships and a UEFA final. They are even all in their 60s, so you cannot make a youth-over-experience argument. All they have over Capello is the fact they are English, and the last time being English was used as a case for appointing a new manager, England got “Schteve” McClaren.

No, not for me. Capello has made mistakes, but as things stand, he IS still the best man for the job. But he needs to learn his lesson tactically and I have absolutely no doubt that he will. There are many who blame Capello absolutely for the defeat to Germany, claiming his tactics were “inept”. Whilst he made some frankly ridiculous substitutions, how Capello can be blamed when an entire back 4 can’t deal with a simple goal kick is beyond me. Or if a back 4 simply don’t mark the opposition forwards. This is not tactical error, this is the players on the pitch letting down the manager.

And this is something Capello will learn. Players that have let him down need to be discarded, and quickly. In the countless calls for the revolution of the English game, many people have stated England will have to “sacrifice the Euros”. I don’t believe this, I think there is more than enough quality to progress to the competition, but it is important to quell the expectation the press normally ramps up.

But Capello MUST bring the younger, hungrier players into the international fold, and begin the process of ditching the ‘Golden Generation’. In my opinion, that should start with the likes of Lampard, Heskey, Upson, and James. I’d also expect him to drop the disruptive former captain, John Terry. I expect this to be controversial, but Terry was ripped to shreds by the Germans. Indeed, many will have seen the irony of English footballers being “roasted” for a change!

I’d also expect Capello to change the system England play, and Rooney will play on his own up front. I’m of the opinion that Capello currently picks a system for his players, rather than players for a system. It is clear he has wanted to fit both Gerrard and Lampard into the same side, yet with Lampard gone this is no longer a problem. He will also have learned that both of England’s best full-backs are better pushing on, and need more cover when they get forward. Two holding-midfielders may be a solution. As a result, I’d expect the new system to be 4-2-3-1.

So who to bring in? Personally, I’d expect to see the likes of Jack Rodwell and Adam Johnson in the next squad, along with perhaps Gabby Agbonlahor. I’d also like to see a new defensive pairing at the back, with two out of Phil Jagielka, Michael Dawson and Gary Cahill. With Jack Wilshere to come in the next couple of seasons, there is still talent out there and the possibility to mould a decent side together. Mix these players with a couple of older heads, and there is still potential for England.

So I guess it’s time to “play England manager”. My team for the Hungary game on 11th August is below.

As always, I’d appreciate your comments.


(GK) Hart

(RB) Johnson (CB) Jagielka (CB) Dawson (LB) Cole

(CM) Barry (CM) Rodwell

(RM) Milner (AMF) Gerrard (LM) A Johnson

(ST) Rooney

OK, this is unusual for me: I’m at a loss for words. Never in all my time watching England have I witnessed such a limp performance in a major competition. Never have I seen a display lacking the basic ingredients of heart and desire that any International side must possess in order to progress. Never have I seen a team of the supposed quality of England’s ripped apart without breaking sweat. And never have I seen a manager of such experience demonstrate such tactical naivety on the grandest stage of all. Quite simply, England were outclassed.

So where did it go wrong? Firstly, I’d suggest there was a problem within the England squad from the moment they arrived in South Africa. There was a clear unease at some of Fabio Capello’s ideas, such as keeping the side “resting” in their rooms from 3-8pm every evening. There’s an argument for keeping the squad refreshed, but creating boredom is never a worthwhile tactic.

Then you can point your finger at the tactics of Capello over the competition. Indeed, I have already done this on this very blog. I felt some of Capello’s ideas were just plain wrong. However, to point the finger of blame at the manager lets the players off the hook. It is easy to question the manager’s future, and his very ability, but this is deeply flawed. After all, before the tournament began, Capello could do no wrong. England qualified in great style, did they not? No, it is not the fault of the Italian, no matter who he picked. Quite simply, the England squad who arrived in South Africa were a shadow of the squad who qualified. Same players, very different team.

However, I think there is a bigger debate to have here. It is time to debate the entirety of the English game. Time to discuss the lack of young talent coming through the “greatest league in the World”, and a time to assess what the priorities of the FA, Premier League and Football League are (for the record, this argument also applies in Scotland.) Is the priority British club sides, or the national teams?

Now, my good friend Mr Mantle has already beaten me to the punch after final whistle, and has stated he would not be behind any rule to limit foreigners in the British game. (I couldn’t help but smile at that considering if this debate was about politics and not football, our positions would be a mirror image to where they are in sport!) However, I have to disagree with him.

I appreciate EU legislation makes it difficult for the football bodies to implement specialist laws limiting foreign players. That said, there is an argument that sport is a different scenario, that multi-millionaire footballers are not “just workers” and that perhaps the laws that help protect migrants in other industries should be dissolved for sport. I am no expert in the field of law, but I am firmly in the camp of limiting foreign players. Unfortunately, FIFA recently accepted defeat in their infamous “6+5” idea, but this is something that needs investigating once again.

The danger of continuing with current trends is that British players become rarer and rarer in the game. Much like the price of gold, this rarity simply pushes prices up for the best “home-grown” players, which in turn feeds their already giant egos. Indeed, this is something which is already happening. Some of England’s “world class” players consider themselves to be the best in business, yet cannot function as a team. Now I don’t know about you, but when I first started playing football my coach instilled the idea that “football is first and foremost a team game. You win as a team, you lose as a team”. So if these players are unable to exist as a team, the idea they are “world class” is deeply flawed as they fail the very fundamental of the game.

But it is no wonder we get so excited about young British players when they are so few and far between. The reality is many of these players are never going to be who we hope and expect them to be (Franny Jeffers, anybody?). Instead, we need to consider how we bring more young players through, and the only way to give them the experience they will need before stepping into the International side is for them to be playing in the top leagues.

If things stay as they are, this will simply not happen. The inflation of transfer fees is quite simply ridiculous (which is why Aston Villa are demanding £30m for James Milner, a player who does not even have Champions League experience). It is no wonder that managers like Arsene Wenger look to the continent for their youngsters as these players can be picked up for tiny amounts. Having more home-grown talent in Britain will force transfer prices down, and as a result, home based players will become far more attractive once again. As a result, the pool of players for the managers of the home nations will dramatically increase, providing more chance of success at coming tournaments.

OK, so that’s long-term. “What happens now?” I hear you ask. Well, since I began typing, I’ve heard Capello is reconsidering his position. This would be very short-sighted, in my opinion. However, there does need to be a refreshment within the squad. At 32, time is up for Frank Lampard. Emile Heskey should never get near another England squad. Michael Dawson should become a regular within the squad. Shaun Wright-Phillips should be dropped indefinitely. The list goes on. There are plenty of players out there who are hungrier and more willing to fight for the cause than some of the overpaid egotistical primadonas currently on display.

It is also time to consider the tactics England use. Many have been crying out for a 4-4-1-1 system, with Gerrard in behind Rooney. I think a better option is a 4-2-3-1 myself, with Barry and another sat in front of the defence, allowing the full-backs to bomb forwards, a runner from the midfield and two natural wingers. One of which has to be Adam Johnson.

One thing that is for sure, though. The time has come for the biggest club-v-country argument we have ever seen. If any of you want to see England achieve success within your lifetime, I’d suggest you join me in the ‘country’ corner. After all, without fundamental change England will just become another Wales. And with that, the demise of a once-great football nation will be complete.

So after all that, Fabio Capello stuck to the same tried-and-tested system. The same 4-4-2, with Gerrard still out wide on the left, with Rooney still in the side, and with Lampard under performing. And Joe Cole, the player many fans and pundits almost begged to see, was still stuck on the bench.

Nevertheless, the England side of the qualifying campaign briefly showed itself for the first time since the World Cup began 13 days ago. A reasonable performance by the side was enough for England to sneak through, but now the real competition begins.

Before I go on, I must say well done to the USA. As much as England fans would have preferred the route provided by winning the group, quite frankly England wouldn’t have deserved it. The USA were robbed of a winner against Slovenia for no reason at all, and had another perfectly fine goal chalked off against Algeria before they got their winner. So good luck to the USA.

On to England, then. I personally believe that facing the more difficult route may actually be beneficial to the England squad. OK, so Germany will be a tough nut to crack (and I’m not going to fall into the trap many mainstream media outlets are by describing who England WILL play, it’s very much a ‘one game at a time’ philosophy here) but they are certainly beatable. Indeed, they have already been beaten once in the tournament, as well as their defeat in Berlin by England last year. So make no mistake about it, Fabio Capello and the England squad will certainly fancy their chances.

However, if England are to get through they must get that ruthless streak back and take chances when they arrive. OK, so England played infinitely better against Slovenia than they had against Algeria, but they still missed far too many chances. England could (and perhaps should) have won the game by three or four clear goals. Jermain Defoe could have put the nerves of every England fan at ease by scoring within seconds of the restart, not to mention the chances missed by Lampard and Rooney. When those kind of chances come against the Germans, they simply must be taken, or the likes of Podolski and Klose will punish England for their profligacy.

One thing that has certainly got my attention though is the words of “the Kaiser”. Franz Beckenbauer has been busy doing Capello’s team talk for him. I hope the England camp retain a dignified silence towards Beckenbauer, and instead simply collect the clippings of his comments and put them up on the dressing room wall. Indeed, I’m certain this will be the case.

As for the starting side against Germany, I now fully expect Capello to play the exact same side. Upson came in at centre-half and did well, and I’d expect Carragher to be unable to oust him from the starting 11. Jermain Defoe has certainly stated an excellent case to start by scoring, but the real star was James Milner. After a nervy opening, Milner was always dangerous for England, and I’d expect him to now be head-and-shoulders above Lennon. There is still a case for Joe Cole to play (especially as Lampard still looks a shadow of the player he is for Chelsea) but I won’t hold my breath. Still, on paper, England have more than enough quality to progress.

Fingers crossed then that Monday morning’s hang-over is one caused by celebration, and not commiseration. And please, no penalties….

OK, my last two posts have been very down about England’s World Cup chances. They have been purely reactive in nature, and have probably demonstrated my abject disappointment in the squad. However, as always my pessimism is short-term. (Maybe watching Mike Bassett: England Manager has cheered me up! There’s always another game!)

The first World Cup I ever recall was Italia 90. England began with a 1-1 draw with Ireland, followed by a goalless draw with the Dutch (sound familiar?) They then managed a 1-0 win over Egypt and progressed through the group stages, and eventually to the Semi-finals.

No matter how bad you feel, how thoroughly hacked off you are, how downright angry you’ve got, England have another chance on Wednesday. A lucky 1-0 win and the tournament kicks off properly. Time to forget about last night’s disappointment and get behind the side.

Let’s just hope Capello picks the right team!