Saturday, 5 June 2010

How Do You Plead? England in the Dock.

The new England World Cup kit, which boasts
unrivalled comfort and freedom of movement,
has received mixed reviews from players
and fans alike.

Having just seen a decidedly porky John Barnes re-enacting his infamous rap on an advert for Mars Bars, it seems the World up is truly upon us. In the spirit of fairness, I’ve decided to weigh up the two sides of the equation and approach the difficult question of England’s World Cup chances from both angles. So, step up the 23 defendants.

The Prosecution

Three Lions on our shirt, Capello’s army, Cape of Good Hope; these and many other headlines will inevitably grace the front and back pages of the tabloids over the next couple of weeks. The problem? They are woefully misplaced, hopelessly over expectant and totally unrealistic. Hope overrides logic every four years as an excited nation gears itself up for a World Cup that will be unlike the last one, or the one before that, or even the one before that as the memories of white shirted losers limping pathetically from the field are inexplicably erased.

A leopard doesn’t change its spots, and likewise the lions on the shirts of our nation’s football team in time honoured fashion will almost certainly fail to roar. The countless disappointments provided by England sides over the years are no fluke; we are simply not as creative as the Brazilians, vivacious as the Spanish, or determined as the Germans. No matter how many times we persuade ourselves that this time will be different, the old ghost of failure looms threateningly over the team bus, as swarms of journalists do their level best to eek out positives from lacklustre group stage matches and narrow qualification to the knockout stages. And it is here that things invariably crumble. Some call it back luck, others a curse, but let’s face it; five penalty shoot out defeats in seven major tournaments over twenty years tells its own story. Whether it’s the stamina, mental strength or sheer grit we lack is debatable, but it’s one or the other. It is not simply a case of bad luck. If it were, then someone up there clearly has a grudge. What we should really be questioning is why we don’t make the decisive impact over 90 or 120 minutes instead and remove the need for the dreaded spot kicks.

Nonsense, you might say. This time, under Capello, we’ve got a real shot. No. And here’s why. To kick us off, the captain and key central defensive figure of Rio ‘I don’t wee into cups’ Ferdinand has crippled his knee after losing a tackle with a piece of turf. Bad start. Not that I would have felt completely secure with him at the back anyway, as his medical record is almost as colourful as team-mate Gary Neville’s, and that’s saying something. No, Rio’s bad season, with the unfortunate back injury that saw him start only 13 times for Manchester United, was always a bad omen. Unfortunately for us, the deputies for his position hardly instil confidence. There’s Ledley King, whose excruciating movement on his rickety knees is one part Sol Campbell, one part dry stone wall. Or there’s Jamie ‘crazy horse’ Carragher, who would still appear two yards off the pace in a stroll on Eastbourne pier. To complete the headache, Capello has drafted in Michael Dawson of Spurs. Yes he’s had a great season, but he’s never even worn an England shirt; is a testing opening game against the USA really the place to toss him in to the deep end?

Staying with the defence, JT will need to be on top of his game (a sight becoming ever rarer) to command the defence. Admittedly, Ashley Cole is superb, but Terry may have a job on his hands to cement over the cracks caused by Glen Johnson’s frequent brain lapses, during which he forgets he’s a defender entirely.

To add to our woes, for the first time in living memory, we have no first choice goalkeeper. David James let in more goals this season than a blind Derby County keeper, and though he had a weak defence in front of him, picking the ball out of the back of the net comes just a little too easy for him. Green too, has soiled a few clean sheets himself this year, so perhaps it’s down to the relatively unproven Joe Hart to sweep up the mess left by Terry and co.

As usual, faith has been put in the blistering attacking force of Emile Heskey, a player justified in his inclusion simply because he ‘holds the ball up well’. Thank goodness, for a minute I was worried they might pick him for his prolific goal record. No, that responsibility goes to Peter Crouch, who despite an impressive goal tally for the national side, is responsible for some of the ugliest goals in international football (the offside handball against Mexico being a felicitous example).

Rooney is the lynch pin, everyone knows that. I harbour doubts over his fitness for the duration of the tournament, and so if you’re going to use your Sun England prayermat for anything, plead for some stamina from undoubtedly our finest player in years.

Let’s face it, England looked shambolic in almost all areas for the first half against Japan last week, and the two own goals we received may have just spent their quota of good luck for the summer. Just to compound our penalty shoot-out fears, the usual dependability of Lampard has vanished just in time for the World Cup, and two misses in a row will hardly aid his confidence going in to the vital knockout phase.

So, with three lions our shirts, and with Jules Rimet gleaming somewhere in a Brazilian trophy cabinet, we stride into South Africa on a gale force wind of expectation. Unlike most, I can’t forget the pain of 1990, the misery of 1996, the disappointment of 1998 or the heartache of 2002. All the more reason for our luck to change, I hear you argue. Unfortunately, I fear not. It’s not a case of luck, it’s about ability, team spirit and strength, and as history has proved again and again, we just don’t have enough.

The Defence

Three Lions on our shirt, Cappello’s army, Cape of Good Hope; these and all the other inevitable headlines will grace the front and back pages of the tabloids over the next couple of weeks. Admittedly, this wave of nationalist fever has been misplaced in the past, but 2010 sees England’s most realistic chance of World cup glory for a generation.

At the helm, we have Fabio Capello. A master tactician, meticulous and thorough, he has a habit of winning things wherever he goes. After a dismal display of leadership from Steve Mclaren, England cruised through the qualification stages under the Italian, winning nine of their ten games including an impressive 4-1 victory away to Croatia, the team that denied Mclaren’s pathetic side qualification to 2008’s European Championship.

Capello has taken time and considerable thought over choosing his final 23-man squad, correctly omitting Theo Walcott and instead opting for the technically superior Aaron Lennon. Even the latest setback, Rio Ferdinand’s withdrawal from the squad with a knee injury, could prove to be a positive for England. His injury problems this season have left him looking a shadow of his former self, and far better for Capello and England that his injury prone body crumbles now and not during a key stage in the tournament. Ferdinand’s withdrawal has also made way for one of the finest central defender in the Premier League this season, Michael Dawson, to step up and bring some much needed youth and vigour to a beleaguered central defence.

In Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole, the England team have a world-class fullback package. The incision provided by Johnson down the right, coupled with Cole’s ability to tirelessly patrol the left flank provide real options for the attacking flair of Rooney and creativity of our outstanding midfield roster. Gerrard will hopefully be given a little freedom to dart in and around the opposition’s defence, working just behind Rooney in a role that has paid dividends in the past.

Like him or loathe him, Peter Crouch offers more than just height in the centre forward role. His remarkable skill for such a tall man allows for multiple approaches in the final third, ensuring England don’t simply have to rely on balls into the box or surges from Midfield by Gerrard or Lampard.

So, we have the team. Now all we need is the luck. Whilst penalty taking has an element of skill, there is a fair amount of luck involved. As we know only too well, lady luck has for far too long been cavorting on the other side of the fence. The penalty defeats of 1990, 1996 and the rest still occupy a painful place in everyone’s memory, but surely our luck must change this time around. My sincere hope is that penalty luck won’t be required this time around, and that we will finish the job over 90 minutes through the devastating presence of Wayne Rooney.

England may just have been dealt a decent hand for once too. A possible last sixteen encounter with Germany has been made a little more comfortable with the withdrawal of captain Michael Ballack through an injury sustained during the FA cup final, which contains a delicious irony somewhere. Yes, Spain remain a huge threat, but the Italians, Portugese and even the Brazilians do not enter the tournament with the strongest of sides, and the Argentineans remain as inconsistent as you would expect under the leadership of Diego ‘awful training sessions but throws a great party’ Maradona.

Despite a lacklustre performance against Japan last week, the England team have the key ingredients for success; a great manager, a solid player balance of experienced veterans and flighty youngsters, plus an impressive winning streak over the course of the qualification period.

The scene is set, and as England stride into South Africa on a gale of expectation, it truly feels that the same wind could see them glide back to our shores in a month’s time holding aloft the greatest prize in world football. Believe it, because it might just happen.