The Germans won’t win it: Here’s how my World Cup predictions are performing

Since there’s no World Cup football on today, I thought I’d use the opportunity to check in on the predictions I made before the tournament began and see how they’re coming along. Continue reading

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And so the Rooney ‘dive’ debate continues

Rooney divingI’m not entirely sure why the Wayne Rooney ‘dive’ continues to be debated from the FA Cup fifth round match between Preston and Man Utd. There was no contact from the goalkeeper, and Rooney – crucially – chose to fall over. He wasn’t forced to fall over. He wasn’t touched. It was a dive.

But players dive all the time. And each time they do, the commentators, the ex-players and the pundits all unite to condemn it and say that it should be stamped out of the game.

Then we’re given the incident in last night’s match, and the ex-Man Utd pundit – and, worryingly, the England manager – both excuse Rooney’s actions and deny it was a dive.

I suspect it was because it was Wayne Rooney. Had it been Cristiano Ronaldo, or Gareth Bale, you can be sure it would be called a dive. If a German player did what Rooney did in the last minute of a World Cup game against England, you can be sure it would be called a dive.

But who did it shouldn’t come into it.

So if we’re going to accept what Rooney did last night was legitimate and fair, then teams will now be given penalties for taking evasive action. The debate around whether there was any contact will become irrelevant, and players will continue to hit the ground under no contact whatsoever screaming ‘But ref! I was trying to get out of the way!’ and expecting penalties.

The fight against simulation takes a sorry two steps back.

On a slightly separate note, get Phil Neville off my television. The sooner he’s strapped into a straightjacket and wheeled away to talkSPORT, the better.

Match action as seen from the east stand.

Leeds’ post-Hockaday era starts with an underwhelming win against struggling Bolton

Today I decided to go and watch managerless Leeds take on winless Bolton at Elland Road. I’ve been living in Leeds for just over six years and this was the first time I’d sat amongst the home fans. I love living in Leeds, but I have zero affection for their football club – not because of some fierce rivalry, but simply because they’re not Grimsby Town.

I’d been to see the Mariners play Leeds at Elland Road in the 2009/10 season in the Football League Trophy. The home side didn’t have to play to 50% of their capabilities to win 3-1 that night because the Mariners were generally useless – particularly Adrian Forbes, who was caught offside 12 times alone in the first half. And that’s no exaggeration.

Today, Leeds won by virtue of a first half goal from former Blackburn full back Stephen Warnock. They didn’t do much else. Adam Bogdan in the Bolton goal kept out a low shot at his near post early in the second half, and wasn’t called upon again. While Leeds broke well, and Billy Sharp chased and harried, they actually created very little. They looked mentally fragile and began running down the clock much sooner than a team that really believed they could finish off an average Bolton side.

Bolton were incredibly frustrating to watch. Lee Chung-yong was a case in point; he strolled through the game, almost as if this level of football was below him. And while it might be, he looked unmotivated and uninterested in taking the game by the scruff of its neck and doing something about it. Too many of the Trotters’ players looked like they were going through the motions.

Striker Joe Mason hit the bar when the game was 0-0. He breezed past Leeds centre back Jason Pearce before seeing his shot tipped onto the bar by home stopper Marco Silvestri. The keeper had a top game; he made a great save at point black range later in the first half and then somehow kept out former Lilywhites marksman Jermaine Beckford’s header deep in injury time.

It’s a shame the action didn’t quite match the atmospehere the Leeds fans generated from behind both goals. The match opened up in the second half and, as a neutral, it just lacked a few more goals. Leeds looked frail and offered nothing in the second half, seemingly happy to hope that the one goal would be enough.

In the end it was, but only because their keeper put in a man of the match performance and Bolton lacked composure when they finally worked their way into the opposition box.

It’s clearly a difficult time for both clubs, which is something that was acknowledged by the Leeds fans, as I’m sure they won’t often cheer their team off the pitch after being dominated in large spells by some underwhelming opposition.

As for Bolton, well,it’s difficult to say what will happen to them. I’m sure that when they grind out a 1-0 win of their own, in whatever circumstances, they’ll improve. They’ve got a decent squad of players for the Championship but it looks like they’ve already given themselves too much to do in order to climb anywhere near the play-offs this season.

God knows what will happen to Leeds. They could make an inspired managerial appointment and climb their way to promotion like Sunderland did under Roy Keane a few years ago. Or they could go the other way, and drop out of the Championship – which is probably the likelier of the two, given that their chairman is a trigger-happy odd ball.

A great sponsoring opportunity missed

Football Conference logoLike most other divisions in English football, the Conference has had many sponsors. On 30 July it was announced, via an astoundingly poor press release, that Vanarama are its latest sponsors, replacing online payment firm Skrill. But one name still lives on. I’m pretty sure it’s not just my dad who still calls it the Vauxhall Conference.

After a quick check of Wikipedia I discovered the Conference’s first sponsors were Gola, for both the 84/85 and 85/86 seasons. Then began the 12-year association with Vauxhall.

I’m reminded, relentlessly whenever England play, that Vauxhall are sponsors of the national team, which is nice, obviously, but I thought it’d be nicer if they could sponsor the Conference too. Not just for nostalgia – there’s a good reason behind it.

“Football is the UK’s greatest passion and we’ve got it covered, shot by shot,” says Vauxhall’s website, proudly. At a time when the FA are desperately scratching around to find ways to improve the fortunes of the national side, it’d be a real statement of intent by Vauxhall if they supported the grass roots of our cherished sport, as well as the very top.

Forget League 3, or whatever else Greg Dyke and his cronies come up with. As a PR exercise, it would have shown a lot of people where Vauxhall thought the investment should have been made. As a company passionate about the sport, it could have led the way.

The division might be the graveyard of a lot of former league clubs, but right now it’s enjoying increased exposure due to the growing success of BT Sport.

And that’s why I think Vauxhall have missed a trick.

A reflection: England’s early World Cup exit

Luis Suarez watches his shot fly past Joe Hart and into the net.England go out of the World Cup at the group stage for the first time since 1958. Although expectations were said to be low, elimination by just the ninth day of the competition – before we even get to play our final group game – comes as a shock. So where did it all go wrong for a side that hinted it might do alright?

Roy Hodgson’s men have come up short both in attack and defence. Not by much, but enough on this world stage. Wayne Rooney has been credited as England’s best player in the 2-1 defeat to Uruguay, but he missed two guilt-edged chances before he finally tucked away his debut goal. As annoying as he is, Luis Suarez very rarely needs more than one chance to make an impression.

The lack of conviction in front of goal was just as damaging as the creaking at the back. There’s a case to make that all four goals conceded in both group games so far came from sloppy defending. England were undone by a simple set piece for Italy’s opening goal, while Suarez’s second on Thursday night needs no further analysis. The mistake was plain to see. In between there were individual mistakes from both Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill, each losing their man despite occupying good positions.

But football matches are decided on such fine margins. Neither Italy nor Uruguay played impressive, expansive football. I’d be surprised if either side progressed further than the quarter finals. Once level against Uruguay I thought England looked in control and good for a point – until that schoolboy defending with just minutes remaining. And against Italy I thought the performance deserved at least a point.

Having said that, we deserved exactly what we got. We weren’t tight enough at the back and we weren’t clinical enough up front.

Then there was Rooney.

Should he have started out on the left against Italy? Probably not. Despite providing the assist for Daniel Sturridge’s goal, it’s not his favoured position and he offered no cover for Leighton Baines at left back. Moving him into the middle for the Uruguay match was a sensible decision.

But in hindsight you could argue it backfired. He might have been our best player on the night, but given the performance of Sterling in that role – and that of the whole team against Italy – was it such a great idea for Hodgson to tinker with the side? Tinker he did – and it didn’t work out.

As my dad said when I spoke to him on the phone, if you were asked to describe the worst way to go out of the World Cup, it’d be to lose your first match to a Mario Balotelli goal and then to lose your second match to a half-fit Suarez goal, gifted to him on a plate. From that perspective, and with just a dead-rubber against Costa Rica to come, I don’t think this tournament could’ve gone any worse for the England fans.

The reaction to the elimination in the media has been varied. I’ve seen some newspapers declare the performance as “rubbish” while others have been more measured in their assessment, claiming that Hodgson’s men gave it a good go but fell just short. The real answer lies, predictably, somewhere between the two (someone needed to say it).

Should Hodgson remain in charge? Yes – there’s no doubt that the national team has gone through a transitional period during his two-year tenure and it’s difficult to build something when you’re chopping and changing the coach. However, another group exit at Euro 2016 – or a failure to even qualify for the tournament – would surely spell the end for Roy.

My Top 10 World Cup moments

You know, I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if England never won the World Cup. Would we still have to endure relentless adverts in the build-up to each competition hinting and depicting imminent success? Would the nation have acted so bullish about our chances each time we approached the latest tournament? Would the earth be spinning at a slightly different angle on its axis? Who knows.

All I do know is what I’ve seen: five World Cup competitions entered, none won, one semi final, two quarter finals and two last 16 exits. Oh, and three penalty shoot-outs that went tits up. Ok, so my memories of England’s World Cup adventures aren’t exactly brimming with fondness, which is why I decided to widen my focus when listing my Top 10 World Cup moments.

I’ve tried to look beyond the obvious in an attempt to offer something different, although some moments really couldn’t be ignored. To say these are in any order would be stretching the truth somewhat, and to say these are my favourite moments would be an outright lie. But they’re moments of sorts; memories that remain rather vivid.

So then, in traditional Top 10 style we start with 10 – or ‘X’, as the Romans would say…

10. Shane Smeltz shocks the Azzurri (Italy v New Zealand, 2010)

Shane Smeltz in action for New Zealand.There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the rise of Rickie Lambert from lower league journeyman to potential World Cup star. But Lambert hasn’t scored a World Cup goal (yet) and, even if he did, he never played as low as the Isthmian League for AFC Wimbledon. Seven minutes into New Zealand’s group match against World Cup holders Italy, Shane Smeltz – a Gold Coast United player at the time – put the Kiwis in front. I’m not sure it was a goal that rocked the world, but it certainly got Radio 5 Live rather excited. Italy equalised but New Zealand held out for a 1-1 draw and that helped Smeltz secure a move to Chinese club Shandong Luneng… where he lasted just five days, before signing for Turkish Super League club Gençlerbirliği. Good luck pronouncing that.

9. David Platt’s extra time winner (England v Belgium, 1990)

David Platt with both arms aloft to celebrate his goal against Belgium.I was just seven years old when England played at Italia ’90 – this is my earliest World Cup memory. It sticks out so vividly because I was allowed to stay up so late to see it. Of course, I had absolutely zero appreciation for the technical ability of the goal at the time – and I probably didn’t quite understand the significance of it being in the last minute of extra time (even if John Motson mentioned it explicitly in his now famous commentary), but I remember it made my dad very happy. What made me happy was that I hadn’t actually watched much of the bore-fest and happened to catch the magic moment during one of the rare occasions when I was looking at the TV screen and not at my amazing Lego construction.

8. Germans lose on home soil in semi-final (Germany v Italy, 2006)

Fabio Grosso runs away to celebrate after scoring against Germany.My dad had drummed it into me over the years that the Germans were experts at doing ‘just enough’. The clearest example of this was the way they were gracious enough to lose against us 5-1 in Munich when qualifying for the World Cup in 2002, and yet despite that defeat they still qualified for the tournament and went further than England. When the moment mattered, Germany knew how to squeeze past. There have been some terrible goalless draws in World Cups gone by, but this one was an exception – and yes, I’m aware it didn’t finish 0-0. It was close, but two late, late goals from Italy dumped the Germans out of their own party, and just like David Platt’s goal had done 16 years earlier, this made my dad very happy.

7. Luis Suarez acts like the despicable bell-end we all know he is (Uruguay v Ghana, 2010)

Luis Suarez handballs on the line for Uruguay vs Ghana.I don’t really have a problem with Suarez deliberately batting the ball away with his arm while stood on his own goal line in this tense quarter final match. I’m sure it was instinctive and I believe that most other footballers would’ve done the same in a similar situation. What I had issue with (and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one) was Suarez’s reaction when Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty that should have taken Ghana through to the semi final. Rather than heading to the dressing room Suarez was allowed to lurk around the dugout area to witness the miss. He then ran on to the pitch after the shoot-out to celebrate Uruguay’s win with his teammates, which really was difficult to watch.

6. The Wink (England v Portugal, 2006)

A close-up of Ronaldo's wink after Rooney is sent off.I don’t think I need to say much on this one – I’d only be repeating what other people have said. Perhaps my favourite reaction to the calculated effort to get Wayne Rooney sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho’s balls (don’t get me wrong, I think Rooney could’ve not stamped on his balls) was that of the BBC’s Alan Shearer, who suggested Rooney should ‘stick one’ on Ronaldo in training – maybe just as Grimsby’s Justin Whittle had ‘stuck one’ on Alan Shearer when Newcastle visited Blundell Park earlier that season for a League Cup game.

5. The referees that were in no way biased (South Korea v Italy, 2002)

Italian players unhappy after the referee sends off Totti.Although I’ve never understood why, it’s some kind of rule that home nations do well in World Cup tournaments (a luxury not afforded to poor old South Africa in 2010, incidentally – they must have upset God or something). But in 2002 the South Koreans must have had more than Lady Luck on their side. Italy, who they met in the quarter finals, had already been on the receiving end of some bad refereeing decisions, before they were knocked out by South Korea in controversial circumstances. Totti received a second yellow card for diving when he had legitimate claims for a penalty, and then 10-man Italy had a legitimate goal disallowed at 1-1 before South Korea scored a golden goal to send them packing. It was ok if you liked drama and weren’t an Italy fan.

4. Dennis Bergkamp’s wonder goal (The Netherlands v Argentina, 1998)

Dennis Bergkamp fires home the winning goal against Argentina.DENNIS BERGKAMP! DENNIS BERGKAMP! DENNIS BERGKAMP! AAAAUUUGH!! Some things don’t need describing or explaining. And it’s better if you watch the moment with Dutch commentary. It’s certainly the best World Cup goal I’ve seen live.

 

 

3. Sol Campbell’s disallowed goal (England v Argentina, 1998)

Sol Campbell heading home the goal that was disallowed against Argentina.I remember watching this match round a girl’s house (I was 15). Sadly, there were plenty of other lads there – and, anyway, she already had a boyfriend. I’m not sure what I was doing there, really. It was back in the day when I retained a sneaky suspicion that girls might just fancy me if I lurked around them often enough. Obviously now I know that practice to be weird and creepy. Anyway, the Owen goal had gone in, Beckham had been sent off, I was insisting that we all listen to the ITV World Cup theme tune I’d bought at Woolworths while we waited for extra time to begin (it got voted down). Sol Campbell’s goal – which was disallowed because of Alan Shearer’s elbows – remains the goal I’ve celebrated longest before realising it was chalked off. It was a pretty embarrassing night all round, come to think of it. I literally have no idea why I’ve put this at 3.

2. Hey Zinedine, your mum’s a whore (Italy v France, 2006)

Materazzi falls to the ground after the Zidane headbutt.That goal Zidane scored for Real Madrid in the Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen was quality, but to be honest I never watched enough European football during my teenage years to know or appreciate how good he was. So I didn’t buy into all the compliments that were lavished upon him. I saw him play well in France ’98 and score that goal for Real, and not much else. In fact I began to dislike him based purely on the fact that everyone else loved him. Was there a part of me that smirked when he was sent off for headbutting Marco Materazzi, out of pure and evil naivety? Yes. “Zidane’s career ends in disgrace!” shouts Motty. “He’s an overrated thug anyway,” I said, proudly and ignorantly, like I was the only one who had ‘worked him out’.

1. Beckham lays an Argentine ghost to rest (England v Argentina, 2002)

Beckham celebrates his penalty against Argentina by pulling on his shirt.David Beckham wasn’t popular when he got sent off against Argentina in 1998. I remember the 1998/99 Premier League season well, and some of the stuff he had to deal with – looking back now, knowing what he went on to achieve – was pretty shocking. And I think we all feel a bit embarrassed by it now, if we’re all completely honest. His road to redemption was long, and after Phil Neville swung a leg in the dying moments of the Euro 2000 group game against Romania to concede a penalty that dumped England out of the tournament, the pressue on Beckham eased. By the time he’d placed the ball on the spot in the group match against Argentina in the stadium that had the roof, he had most England supporters back on his side. And when he slammed it into the net (and Motty started banging on about smashing crockery at home) you could see in his celebration that he had finally overcome something that had been haunting him for years. It was no Psycho celebration of Euro ’96, but young David looked like he was about to cry with passion and emotion – and a lot of us felt the same at that moment.

It was a bloody awful penalty, by the way.