Thursday, 12 August 2010
England in Half an Hour: Boring Irony, Sad Nutshell
Captain Steven Gerrard rolled back the years - and no it isn't too early in his career to opt for such a phrase - when he decided tonight's game in typically English style: individually. You can be forgiven for thinking a sports piece beginning Captain Steven Gerrard promises something eulogic. Our twenty-four hour news culture is so insistent on such a disgrace of a football team, tactic, selection, pitch and institution, that patriotism has been replaced by mock-patriotism. The pictures from half an hour of England's 2-1 comeback-win against Hungary in a friendly at Wembley are proof that we, as a collective audience, our now way past denial. It is easier tonight to laugh than to sneer, and to resort to superstition. To pray to Pele, Cruyff, Maradonna, Messi and the rest of the football deities, that some of the young, talented un-English footballers - Tom Huddlestone, Jack Rodwell, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Lennon, Adam Johnson and Wayne Rooney - will one day get their chance to blend in an un-English formation.
Have you ever seen a player celebrate a goal in as meaningless a game with so much passion? I do not doubt Steven Gerrard's sincerity: it is difficult to care either way. So it was a moment of enjoyable symbolism when in the 69th minute, Wembley's atrocious turf bobbled up a ball to fall perfectly onto Gerrard's laces who equalised splendidly from twenty five yards. A ruthless hit saw the captain running over to celebrate in front of the faithful as if he had just salvaged a World Cup knock-out match by the scruff of its neck. Four minutes later, Gerrard wrapped things up, inside the box, with an even better goal. Although after his first touch Gerrard didn't seem to know where the ball had gone, and although the surrounding defenders were, with respect, non-sequitors, the captain recovered brilliantly, retaining control and shimmying to the left before angling the ball home with a push of his inside-right.
Meanwhile the party broadcaster, Clive Tyldesley, was doing his utmost to beat the the player-rating drum - a particularly disgusting trait in primitive football culture, which elevates the parts above the more pressing issues of the preparation and communication of the sum: what friendlies are for. In fact less than a friendly, a pre-season friendly. ITV analysis and camera (work?) hemmed in on Michael Dawson who, after some clumsy defending in the 62nd minute expected from a player short of match-fitness, recovered with a last-ditch goal-line clearance. The ball was judged wrongly by officials - also short of match fitness - to have crossed the line, despite replays showing otherwise (... no, I don't have the time).
In the shared Cyclops eye of manager, media and Wembley member, we can safely presume that after tonight's flirtations the hierarchy will be re-established, albeit without Beckham. And yet no serious thinking person could possibly suggest John Terry has been a better defender than Michael Dawson in the last eighteen months (a very long time in football). Brave JT will be lauded once more as the ever-dependable stopper. According to 2009/10 Opta averages, Terry and Dawson are presently the two best central defenders in the Premiership. But where Terry's shambolics have been shrouded by the riches north, west, east and south of the positions he takes up, Dawson is not as blessed. There is a heavier burden on the shoulders of the latter. There are younger if similar legs working, and a (clear) conscience upstairs. Tyldesley, seemingly shaken, praised Dawson's Spurs form but couldn't help himself from underlining with sinister tone of voice, the word "club". This even though substitute Dawson hadn't yet completed his first forty five minutes in an England defence.
Instead of condescension, what we might have received was an explanation. That Dawson is, against weaker opposition, more vulnerable than against similar-quality or superior opposition. (Exactly what England is missing.) When his teammates are camped so high up the pitch, controlling a game, Dawson's sometimes heavy feet are food for counter attack. Any interactive chalkboard demonstrating his passing or interception accuracy from the bottom third of the pitch will vindicate. Sadly a mistake in a home pre-season friendly against Hungary might cost England's best, fit, centre half further opportunity. Over the top, or untrusting? Not at all. Never forget the only recently, many promising or proven players (the likes of Kirkland, Winterburn, Bould, Bruce, Carragher, Jenas, Redknapp, McManaman, Le Tissier, Wright, Fowler, Andy Cole) who for different reasons - be it technical, tactical, physical conditioning or psychological - were either miscoached, mismanaged or unpardonably ignored. This time the manager is Italian, you say. But Fabio Capello hails recognisably from a footballing nation equally lost in the past, and losing even more in the present. What Capello can not do with a group of fully grown men is drill into their cognition the resolve which has helped the Azurri to four World Cups.
Perhaps it is cowardly to mock the international game and its press, since our domestic top-tier is never short of a fluent passing team or two, an enterprising No.10 or dozen. Since CONMEBOL and La Liga fixtures are so readily available on television, and since youtube-sponsored compilations are now our daily bread. We are spoilt by the beautiful game. Nonetheless, cowardice can become courage when solutions are this readily available and measurable. One vitriolic fan was shown getting off his seat in order to hand-gesture at the camera: Four Four Two. This is so funny that no satirist could improve on ITV's footage. And when he was taken off after being persistently booed (presumably for his lack of form in South Africa where he was fatigued and being played in a system alien to that at United) Rooney's sarcastic wave around the stadium, to his credit, was certainly more watchable than the embarrassing post-Algeria remarks. One of the world's finest lone strikers in a formation acknowledged the world over, his actions speak louder than his words. Ferguson, Wenger and the rest of the league's perceptive managers must treat these ludicrous occasions like two-star Hollywood comedies. The international friendly fixture is as missable as a film on a fiery date. Still, there might be a couple of punchlines to savour for a couple of hours; in this instance, a belated brace.