World Cup Woes – how I got it wrong, and how England can get it right next time

Well, my predictions for the World Cup group stages were… well, let’s not beat around the bush. They were wrong. Mostly.

Group A went OK with Brazil and Mexico getting the 1/2

Group B should have been Spain / Netherlands, but with the Iberian Implosion, netherlands took top spot followed by Chile.

Group C was always going to be open, but whilst i picked Ivory Coast and Japan, both of these went out, losing to Colombia and Greece.

Group D? Yeah, let’s not dwell on England. Costa Rica suprised everyone, and Uruguay now have a second round game to get their collective teeth into.

E worked out OK with France ahead of Switzerland, and F was a romp for Argentina, with Nigeria coming second.

Tonights games will decide G and H, with Belgium looking strong in the latter, whilst a draw between Germany and USA will see both teams through.

But what about England? It wasn’t the disaster many predicted – OK, we finished bottom and are home early for the first time since 1958, but there were some positives to take from the games, in the way some of the younger players performed. The issues England have are not with this squad, it’s more fundamental than that.

So here’s the Riserdrummer 5-step plan on how to fix English National Football:

1. We need a manager who isn’t interested in whether you are a ‘name’ or a ‘star’ – if you are good enough, you are in. If your form dips, you are out. Alf Ramsey never suffered fools, even dropping Jimmy Greaves from the 1966 team, and he didn’t get to play in the final. That’s the sort of attitude we need again, the manager in charge and the players working for him and each other. I don’t particularly care if he’s English, I just want a manager that can do the job – both match-days and in between times, with the success of the team paramount.

2. We need to play a system that fits the players, not trying to find players that fit the system. If our best team would struggle in this 4-2-3-1 formation but are great in a 3-5-2, then play 3-5-2. If the next game we need to switch to a 4-4-2 because of team changes, then don’t be afraid to do it. Stop forcing players to play out of position just so we can play a so-called ‘progressive’ system.

3. We should select squads that have good cover in ALL positions. I’m astounded that we only took one right-back to Brazil, and no natural left-sided midfielder. Our strikers were all very similar, and therefore all wanted to play down the middle and kept making the same runs. It’s crazy. 23 players is enough for 2 in each position, and more than enough to have some variety in our squad, so that if we need to have a big target-man up front, we can play one.

4. We need to instill proper pride in the badge. I have no doubt that Harry Redknapp’s comments about players wanting to skip games was untimely, but it was also very true. Playing for England doesn’t mean the same as it used to, and it should be the pinnacle of a player’s career. These days there’s too much focus on the cash available in the PL and CL, and that’s all some players think about. Things like the World Cup are just a little jolly boys outing.

5. Finally, we need to establish an FA organisation that’s fit for purpose. There doesn’t seem to be the connection and flow now between the U18, U21 and senior sides. The impression is that they are all independently run, and they shouldn’t be. How are we going to bring young players on in the International arena if there’s no cross-over?

World Cup 2014 – The Riserdrummer Prediction!

It’s time for the best / biggest / most corporate / most corrupt (delete as applicable) football tournament in the world! Welcome to Brazil 2014…..

I’m not going to go into the murkier side of things here – suffice to say I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the 2018 decision was as dodgy as the 2022 one – because that’s being talked about all over the interweb already. Instead, I am going to take on the mantle of my late namesake Paul the Psychic Octopus!

Here’s my take on what we will see over the next few weeks:

GROUP A – BRAZIL, MEXICO, CROATIA, CAMEROON

I can’t really see too many upsets in this group. Last time out, South Africa became the first host nation not to make it out of the Group stages, and there’s no way that’ll happen again this time round.  Brazil will win all of their games, and after that it’s a bit of a free-for-all. I can see it coming down to goal difference, with Mexico getting the nod for me in second place.

GROUP B – SPAIN, NETHERLANDS, CHILE, AUSTRALIA

On paper, this is a win for Spain, with Netherlands and Chile fighting for second. Spain usually have an early hiccup, though, so it’s not so clear cut. I still expect them to win the group, with Netherlands coming second despite Chile’s home continent advantage. Australia will be entertaining and the neutral’s favourite, before getting the early flight home.

GROUP C – COLOMBIA, GREECE, IVORY COAST, JAPAN

Group C is without doubt the most open group, whilst also being the weakest by some margin. There are no clear favourites, and so it comes down to individual match ups.  First games see Colombia play Greece (which should favour the South American side) whilst Japan and Ivory Coast will play out a draw. In game 2, I can see another draw between Colombia and Ivory Coast, whilst Japan will beat Greece, putting the Europeans out. Ivory coast have the advantage of playing Greece last, but will need a win to get through, whilst a draw between Colombia and Japan will put three teams on 5 points, and it’ll all come down to who puts more goals past Greece. In the absence of any science, I’ll go for Ivory Coast winning the group ahead of Japan.

GROUP D – URUGUAY, ENGLAND, ITALY, COSTA RICA

England will hopefully benefit from two things: Italy being notoriously slow starters, and Roy Hodgson getting heatstroke and picking the right eleven players. If these things happen, I can see the Italians joining Costa Rica on the plane home, whilst we finish second behind Uruguay. We need to get at least one win against Uruguay or Italy in order to make our final game against the group minnows worthwhile, and meeting Italy in the first game counts in our favour.

GROUP E – SWITZERLAND, FRANCE, ECUADOR, HONDURAS

France can count themselves lucky. Having scraped into the finals via the playoffs, they have secured a group that should be a stroll in the park for them. As long as they keep out of the way of the Honduran’s over-the-top tackling, they should come top of the group. Ecuador’s success in getting a draw against England last week was mainly down to defensive lapses (or as I like to call them, “Chris Smalling”) and so I can see both of the European teams getting through, with France at the head of the group ahead of Switzerland.

GROUP F – ARGENTINA, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA, IRAN, NIGERIA

As with Brazil in Group A, this one is a clear Argentina win. Iran are the also-rans in the group, and so second place will come down to the game between Bosnia and Nigeria. It’s being played down south, and so the conditions won’t favour either side particularly. Gut feeling is a Nigeria win, with a flash of brilliance being the difference that sends the Europeans home.

GROUP G – GERMANY, PORTUGAL, USA, GHANA

The Germans will fancy themselves to win the group, and tend to grind out the results they need in the early stages. Ghana are a good side, but I can’t see them breaking down the other two sides easily. Portugal are an enigma, and have perennially under-performed at World Cups. For some reason, I’m backing USA to snatch second, because I can see tears for Ronaldo yet again…

GROUP H – BELGIUM, RUSSIA, ALGERIA, KOREA REPUBLIC

Belgium are many people’s tip to do well this time round, but they need to be on their toes to get out of the group. Whilst Algeria are clearly the weakest side, in South Korea and Russia they face different but equally difficult opposition. The Russians will be strong and disciplined, and the Koreans will move the ball very quickly and will pose a very real goal threat. Because tournament football tends to favour teams that are attack-minded over those that are ultra-cautious, I’m going to go for a Belgium / South Korea 1-2.

That will make my last 16 line up as follows:

BRAZIL v NETHERLANDS

IVORY COAST v ENGLAND

MEXICO v SPAIN

URUGUAY v JAPAN

FRANCE v NIGERIA

GERMANY v SOUTH KOREA

SWITZERLAND v ARGENTINA

BELGIUM v USA

Straight knock-out from now on changes the game entirely. All-or-nothing tends to lead to more cautious displays, as every mistake punished could be the difference between going through or going home.

I am going to pick these sides to go through: Brazil, England, Spain, Uruguay, France, Germany, Argentina, and Belgium. If the last 16 line up works out as it is above, I really can’t see any upsets. Possibly USA or Ivory Coast have the best chance, but even so, I’d be surprised.

So my quarter-final line up pits BRAZIL against ENGLAND, FRANCE against GERMANY, SPAIN against URUGUAY and ARGENTINA against BELGIUM.

Some of these are straight-forward. Brazil, with all the patriotism in the world, will beat England. At home, in a world Cup quarterfinal, in the coastal heat of Fortaleza? No question. Germany will prove too strong for France, and Argentina will beat Belgium. Spain v Uruguay is an interesting one, and it’s the most difficult to call. I’m going to go with Spain simply because they have the pedigree.

At semi-final time, we’re looking at BRAZIL v GERMANY, which is a match up of two of the games most successful nations. It’ll pivot on whether Brazil can counter the organisation of the Germans. I think they will, and so Brazil should take their place in the final against the winner of the other semi, between ARGENTINA and SPAIN.  Again, this is a really close one, and my head says that Argentina will win through. However, I have a hunch that they will come unstuck. When Spain turn it on, they can be irresistible, and that’s why I’m going for them.

So – a BRAZIL v SPAIN final…. European sides have never won a World Cup in American countries. And Brazil have home advantage. So it’s a Brazil win… right?

I’m going to say…. yes. Despite a very close game, I’m gonna say 3-1 to Brazil in 90 minutes.

So there you have it. My World Cup Prediction. Which means I win nothing from the office sweep-stake, but hopefully will perform better than those smug buggers pundits on the telly!

 

 

 

Racism in Football – a Supporter’s view

It’s time for another trawl through some of the recent news stories, to find out what’s been grinding my gears lately…

One of the big topics, that has managed that migration from the back pages to the front pages, surrounds the sadly on-going issue of racism in football.

As everyone is no doubt fully aware, incidents of racist abuse in football have been happening both on and off the pitch over the past year. We recently witnessed some terrible racist chanting from Serbian supporters towards England’s Under-21 side throughout their Euro 2013 qualifier, which was won by a late England goal to put us through whilst the Serbian side were eliminated.

On the pitch behaviour has scarcely been better. We are still working through the consequences of the abuse levelled by Liverpool’s Luis Suarez towards Patrice Evra of Manchester Utd, which earned the Liverpool man an eight-match ban. And (a whole year on from the incident itself) Chelsea’s John Terry is currently serving a four-match ban for racially insulting QPR’s Anton Ferdinand. This latter case even warranted a criminal charge and a day in court, where the increased burden of criminal proof led to an acquittal, although Terry was later found guilty in an FA industrial hearing and banned, along with receiving a £220,000 fine.

These incidents are saddening, and have no place in what is still termed ‘the beautiful game’. However, they are indicative of society, and as racism still has a hold in general life, it’s not going to be easy to eradicate it from the terraces or the pitches.

One organisation trying to do this is the Kick It Out campaign, whose remit is to highlight instances and work towards changing the culture of players, supporters and institutions within football. The problem with Kick It Out is that it’s largely toothless. Or so say those players who refused to wear their t-shirts over the past weekend, a weekend when all players were asked to do so to show support for the campaign.

Now, the aims of Kick It Out are admirable, but there are several problems that I can see.

Firstly, the organisation (created under the FA banner) is woefully underfunded, with an annual budget of just £500,000 – barely double the fine levied on John Terry. In addition, they have no powers to actually do anything but talk (and print t-shirts) and there’s no real sense from the players and supporters (whatever their race) that they have any connection with Kick It Out.

So here’s what I would do:

Firstly, they need a remit to be far more proactive. Instead of just communicating, they need to be able to run training sessions, focus groups, even ‘rehab’ sessions where issues have been identified, all of this up and down the country at all levels of the game. There should not be a club in the land where Kick It Out isn’t visible and represented.

This of course, brings my second point into play, which is funding. There’s no way that the organisation can do all of the things it needs to do to be effective, given the budget. This budget needs to be drastically increased, possibly up to £10 million a year (yes, I know that’s a 20 fold increase, but the game is hardly in poverty).

The source of this extra funding will cover my final point nicely.

The additional cash will come from several sources: Firstly the FA themselves, who (if they are serious about cutting this cancer from the game, must properly invest in the organisation they set up to achieve that goal. Secondly, each and every club should contribute, based on their level within the league structure, as a commitment to the cause. There should also be a contribution from the players directly (possibly through their union) so that not only do players understand and acknowledge the issue and the campaign, they have a direct personal and professional stake in the success of Kick It Out. Lastly, supporters need to understand that some things go far above individual club or country allegiances, and that by contributing (through bucket collections at games, or at locally organised fundraising events) they engage with the aims and ambitions that we should all share.

An off-shoot of this is that certain black players have started talking about forming a breakaway black players association, thinking that only they can represent their views properly.

I agree with those who feel that this will only ever become more divisive rather than less so, as it creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality from the off.

What’s next? A separate Players Union for ginger blokes? Oh well, I guess someone has to look out for Steve Sidwell….

Now that it’s all over, and my heartrate has slowed….

… it’s time to reflect on a truly amazing day for Queens Park Rangers.

I don’t want to dwell on Joey Barton’s behaviour, as this is being disected properly on twitter, facebook, and many other websites. Sure he wasn’t the initial aggressor (thanks for the punch to the head, Mr Tevez) , but he shouldn’t have reacted as he did, and he deserves what he gets.

As do we.

For me, what’s right and proper to remember after this incredible game, on that incredible last day, is to understand that our team, reduced to 10 men due to the inexcusable actions of a lout, were playing the best team in the country, populated with international superstars on mega-wages. We, on the other hand, had a team pretty much populated with last season’s Championship journeymen. And we were only losing to them in the game for a total of nine and a half minutes. That’s the nine minutes between their first goal and Cisse’s equaliser, and the final 30 seconds after they scored the winner.

This QPR team included Shaun Derry, who most Palace fans derided when he joined us, and who most QPR fans reckoned would only be able to play half our Championship games due to age and fatigue in the legs. It included Clint Hill, whose body looked like it was about to give up a couple of years ago. It included Jamie Mackie, who pretty much everyone on here labelled ‘a trier but not an achiever’. It included Paddy Kenny, short, fat, drug-tainted, and well past his sell by date, so we believed. And the bench was pretty much populated with more of last season’s heroes, written off in the press as this season’s zeroes.

Our team also included guys like Taye Taiwo, and Samba Diakite, who nobody had heard of before. Guys like Traore and Bothroyd, who had showed promise but had never performed at the top tier before. And a few genuinely well known players, like Djibril Cisse and Joey Barton, fast gaining legendary status but for vastly differing reasons.

And for all but nine and a half minutes we held them at bay – for most of the second half we did even more than that. The stats speak volumes: Man City had 35 shots, 24 on target, and 19 corners. We had only three shots on target all game: a tame free kick by Cisse in the first half that Joe Hart saved easily, and the two second half goals. Not a single corner came our way. These statistics point to two things: a relentless attacking game by City, and a defensive display that to a man deserves rewarding with another season playing footie with the big boys.

That we had to rely ultimately on Stoke wasn’t surprising, as we all believed we would need their help before the game. But for sheer effort, application, determination and doggedness in the face of so many multi-millionaires, I have nothing but unabashed pride in my team, my lads, and will proudly sport the blue and white hoops for another Premiership season.

Football – The Life and Times of Dave Normal….

First of all, let me introduce Dave Normal.

Dave isn’t actually a real person: I made him up for the purposes of this blog. But Dave, his story, and his thoughts, may echo strangely across the wires and down the cable to your computer screen…

Dave, for his doubtless many sins, is a football supporter. And his natural habitat is at grass-roots level. Wherever there are jumpers being laid down for goalposts, wherever boys kick about cheap plastic footballs, wherever a brick wall and a stick of chalk becomes the scene of the 1990 World Cup semi-final shoot-out between us and the dreaded Germans, there you will find Dave Normal.

Not for Dave the band-wagon, the ‘trendy’ clubs. Not for Dave the high-finance or the big name signings. Dave gets his pleasures the simple way. In short, Dave is always hopeful, always positive, always ever so slightly disappointed.

Dave, like me, could easily be a supporter of Queens Park Rangers. Or Blackpool. Or Plymouth Argyle. Or indeed any one of the slightly unfashionable, slightly humorous, so-called ‘little’ clubs who live on a heady mixture of past glory and future promises. Some clubs are on the up, some clubs are in a slump, but all of these clubs have the one thing that the super-rich clubs desire above all things but cannot buy: the life-long supporter. The fan that whether in the Premier League or the Blue Square South, always take their place in the stands or on the terrace, pie in hand. In effect, Dave Normal.

Dave’s first ‘proper’ game was spent almost entirely on his dad’s shoulders at the back of the terrace staring, with the vivid intensity only a seven-year-old boy can deliver, at the distant men chasing the almost invisible ball around the field. It’s a moment that, with the hindsight and wisdom of middle-age, defined his whole life from that moment onwards. It could so easily have been a life filled with red rather than one filled with blue. But on that day, nearly half a century ago, a combination of skill, refereeing decisions, and judgement errors dictated that the scarves, hats, t-shirts, pillow-cases and wallpaper would be a certain colour – as soon as he could convince the parents to shell out the readies for a new look.

Through the years, Dave was forever present. Despite the changes and challenges that life brought, his love for his team was the one constant. Despite being bullied at school (often for supporting the ‘wrong’ team), despite the lack of funds, there was always just enough for the train and the entry ticket. Despite work getting more invasive into his time, there was always the opportunity to find a quiet corner of the factory to read the paper for any mention of his boys. Even despite discovering girls, there was always a part of his life that forever, solely, exclusively belonged to his team. Saturday afternoons and the occasional Tuesday evenings, either at the game or beside the radio.

There were great highs. There was the time that, on the television in front of millions, Dave’s beloved team humbled the giants of the game. There was the year that they themselves nearly joined the elite, but somehow failed to hold on to top spot after the last game. Dave was there, watching as they walked up the Wembley steps towards the famous and still beautiful F A Cup, only to leave it there for the winners to collect after they had trudged off with their runner’s up medals. And there were the times when promotion brought hopes of success and glory.

There were terrible lows. There was the time when a cup final appearance went horribly wrong against ‘lesser’ opposition, and Dave felt this loss much, much more that when they themselves were the underdogs. There was the midweek cup tie on a cold November night against, of all teams, a factory side that shouldn’t, couldn’t have ended in disaster – and yet somehow did. There was the terrible slide into relegation and a summer of depression. A hundred times disappointment and failures brought thoughts of moving on. And a hundred times the new dawn brought Dave new optimism and hope.

What will next weekend, next month, next season bring? Dave knows. It’ll bring moments of sheer joy, and moments of utter despair. It’ll bring the delight of three points that he knows they didn’t deserve, and the desolation of the home win thrown away in four maddening minutes. It’ll bring hope, sadness, camaraderie, and solitude. There will be those that share in his happiness and enthusiasm, and those who delight in his despondency. One thing Dave knows above all else – all of this can be summed up in one word. Football.

At the start of this entry, I said that Dave Normal was a made up character. That wasn’t strictly true. Dave Normal is me. He’s also you, your best mate, your dad, your son, and in some small way everyone else who has ever looked at twenty-two blokes chasing a pigskin around a park and seen beyond that, seen how something intensely competitive and masculine can also, to a bloke, be beautiful.