Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v Manchester United FC

HODGSON’S CHOICE: England have a good range of talent at their disposal, but with this negative beaut in charge will they make the best of it? Probably not. Pic: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda

I’VE READ with interest the Anfield Wrap correspondents’ opening commentaries on their adopted World Cup nations; ranging from Kate Forrester’s hopes that Diego Costa will bring unsavoury mayhem to Spain’s matches, to Dan Fitzsimmons’ beautiful relationship with the Belgians while referencing Romanian neighbours, Karl Coppack’s clever use of Ghanaian proverbs, Roy Hendo citing a dodgy track record with Aussie spiders (among other fascinating antipodean trivia) to disguise an obvious reluctance to discuss the Socceroos, and Phil Blundell using his web space to lay gratuitously into the Greeks.

Well, I’ve got England – where most of us live – so it would be fairly pointless to explore the cultural appeal of the nation that gave birth to the concept of The Berni Inn. That might be slightly unfair on the respective creative talents of Shakespeare, Keats, Lennon, Brunel and Hockney but they’ve got sod all to do with the football.

Instead, I thought I’d set out with a potted history of my own relationship with the England football team. To begin with, it is worth putting on record that I don’t hate England. As Liverpool supporters many of us revel and align closely with the maxim that “We’re not English, We are Scouse”, but for me there’s no getting away with it for, a bit of Irish blood notwithstanding, I was born in Liverpool; a city which despite a republican flavour and an admirable resistance to being lumped in with the rest of the country’s oiks, resides firmly within English borders.

Yes, first and foremost I’m a proud Liverpudlian and obsessed with the fortunes of the Reds, but when it comes to international football, generally speaking, though circumstances depending; I like to see England do well.

The first Liverpool teams I remember; those of the 1970’s were packed full of England internationals. My bedroom walls were plastered with posters from Shoot magazine which featured Kevin Keegan, Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Ray Kennedy and Terry McDermott of Liverpool – and England. My favourite was an action shot of Ray Clemence, resplendent in the classic yellow and black England goalkeepers’ kit of the period, as synonymous with international attire as the grey Italian keeper’s jersey made famous by Dino Zoff.

Indeed, I was devastated when “Clem” was humiliated by a half-hit shot Kenny Dalglish shot (I can hear Roy Hendo laughing) which trickled through his legs in a 1976 Home International match at Glasgow’s Hampden Park. In fact, this was an early introduction to the phenomenon that Liverpool players, who bestrode European football like the proverbial colossus, would routinely underperform for England.

In September 1977 manager Ron Greenwood, attempting to call upon the continental acumen of Liverpool’s newly-crowned European Champions, fielded six Reds against Switzerland at Wembley. The game ended 0-0.

As far as the World Cup goes, my first memories are of the 1974 and 1978 tournaments in West Germany and Argentina, respectively won by the hosts, when England missed out on qualification. Those were the days only when only 16 nations competed at the finals, with just one qualifier each from the European groups.

In the imagination of a young lad the absence of Ron Greenwood’s England barely registered, amid the uniqueness of wall-to-wall live matches in an era when the FA Cup Final, European Cup Final and the annual England v Scotland fixture were the only televised games. A combination of 1974s black and white hexagons morphing into the beauty of the Adidas Tango ball used four years later in Argentina; crack Eastern Europeans versus hilariously crap African greenhorns, World Cup Grandstand with Frank Bough, commentaries piped down phone lines sounding so distant they might have come from The Moon, exotic hitherto unknown South Americans with extravagant moustaches and hair to match, and “Total Football” orchestrated by Holland’s pair of Johans – Cruyff and Neeskens – was more than enough to whet the appetite for future editions of soccer’s “Greatest Show on Earth”.

So, it was something of a novelty when England finally scraped into the 1982 finals when Spain hosted a tournament now enlarged to 24 teams. This is where my England World Cup journey begins; with my age-appropriate thoughts, dreams, and cynicisms best summarised below:

Espana 1982 (aged 14)

Great this. Let’s get home from school, have some tea and watch footy all night. I’m vaguely intrigued by England’s hooligans but less so with Mick Mills at full-back. Only Phil Thompson of a dwindling Liverpool contingent makes the starting XI and Clemence – recently departed for Spurs – is ousted by Peter Shilton in goal. I try to get behind England but United’s loathsome Bryan Robson is the star man and Ron Greenwood in his grey blazer reminds me I’ve got revision to do. When “Ron’s 22” bow out, ironically in the second group phase a symptom of the expanded tournament that allowed them to qualify, I allow myself an immature little smirk. Tara Bulldog Bobby. Everyone falls in love with Socrates and the Brazilians who shroud themselves in glorious failure. Italy win.

Mexico 1986 (aged 18)

My “A” Levels have just finished and I get wasted on mate’s home brew for the Mexico-Bulgaria opener. I sober up – about three days later – to see England lose Ray Wilkins to a red card and Robson to his perennially dodgy shoulder. I remain relatively unmoved by England who suddenly resemble Everton with their Bluenose quartet of Steven, Steven, Reid and Lineker. They’re also far too synonymous with Thatcher in the wake of the Falklands War. The home brew is out again for the Scotland games. Through a haze, I see Gordon Strachan try and fail to hurdle an advertising hoarding; an image which crystallises Scotland’s many efforts to skip past the Group stages. The “Hand of God” strikes and Argentina triumph, but not before we get a glimmer of John Barnes.

Italia 1990 (aged 22)

Christ, I’ve changed. I’m bang into England for this and I’ve even got the red away shirt. I’m single after three years in a relationship, I’m working, have money in my pocket and there are World Cup parties to go to. Liverpool are now dead boring – they just win everything. I need someone shit to support so step forward Bobby Robson. There’s New Order and John Barnes, Nessun Dorma, massive Italian flags among the tifosi. It’s the era of No Alla Violenza, the hooligans are E’d up – though it still goes off in Rimini – and England are suddenly quite cool. Of course, it ends in penalty tragedy. I don’t cry Gazza’s tears but I do boot the fridge really hard. Germany prevails. Well, at least the West of it; for the last time.

France 1998 (aged 30)

USA 94 passes me by. I listen to that final on the radio in my parents’ garden drinking beer pretending to be an existentialist, when actually I’m just a bit pissed. By France 1998, I’m married and a Dad. The same group of lads from 1990 are back together but we’ve all grown up a bit and there’s something missing. We all have to be in by 10. The old Hoolies are back, perhaps dismayed at the nation’s new-found soppiness in the wake of Lady Di’s death, with Churchill’s words ringing in their ears. They do indeed “fight them on the beaches”, although this time it’s allcomers at Marseille rather than the Germans in Normandy. We gather at my mum and dads’ for England v Argentina, hoping to recreate the vibe of the Italia 90 semi. We succeed – England go out on pens. The French hosts triumph.

Japan and South Korea 2002 (aged 34)

This World Cup is memorable to me for one thing. Being in a pub at 7am for the quarter final against Brazil. I remember thinking how nice it was to be walking the empty streets not long after sunrise on a warm summer’s morn. I remember how it didn’t feel nice to be painting a ceiling in my new house after six pints by dinner time. I think I was really disappointed England were out, but the World Cup was losing its magic. It’s meant to be on at night, not done and dusted by noon. Brazil weren’t arsed. The kick-off times were alright by them because they were there winning the thing and not covered in Dulux.

Deutschland 2006 (aged 38)

I can’t remember much of this one. It’s weird the way your memories are sharper of times (and tournaments) more rooted in the distant past. Ah, actually I do recall rigging up an old portable telly in the garden for one of the opening games which I vaguely recollect featured Poland. Arl Sven was still in situ, wrestling with his sex life as much as the Gerrard/Lampard midfield dilemma. He defo had the WAGs there in Baden Baden for a blimp. I watched the inevitable quarter-final penalty exit to Portugal at home, and felt slightly dismayed that my eight-year old and his mate from next door aped the players’ namby pamby “arms-round-shoulders” routine for the shoot-out. Definitely getting old. Oh yeah, I won about £500 having backed Italy at 10/1.

South Africa 2010 (aged 42)

Christ, I’m getting bored of this. Hope you haven’t nodded off there, reader? READER!!!! England, bored out of their tiny minds (and they are tiny) by Capello’s prison camp, were bloody awful at this tournament. They sneak draws with the might of USA and Algeria, edge out Slovenia before getting battered by Germany in the round of 16. I miss the pub commotion of Lampard’s disallowed effort by being in the toilet; this signals the advent of goal-line technology – and a prostate examination. Spain win a long overdue world title but most observers conclude that it’s been a poor tournament.

DATELINE, BRASIL 2014

So, here we go again. We’re a week away from another World Cup and I’m really looking forward to it, tempered by the reality that in four years’ time, I’ll barely be able to remember any of it. A Mundial in Brazil, The Maracana, 11pm kick-offs, two lovely, quite grown-up kids, bang into their footy, the prospect of meeting up again for a pint with my old (mainly Bluenose) England mates, and a few Caipirinhas (that’s a cocktail before you ask) with the Mrs Nev on the decking.

England Expects! How fucking romantic do you want it? The Sun is definitely out here; that is until a giant black Cockney cloud looms into view and a shadow is cast on the whole affair. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the England Manager, Roy Hodgson.

I can’t stand Roy. I made fun of his 5-Live interviews when he was manager of Blackburn long before his stint at Anfield. It wasn’t the appalling football, the terrible results and flirtation with the lower reaches of the Premier League (I’d witnessed the Souness years and remained sane) that irked me with Roy. No, he’s a terrible human being.

It drives me crackers the way he’s perceived by the nation as Uncle Roy, a “nice guy”. He isn’t a nice guy. He’s a spineless, self-serving creature who bristles at the first hint of criticism – just ask the local journalists who “worked” with him up here. In Liverpool, he blamed everyone except himself. He made no attempt to connect with the people who could have made his passage that little bit easier.

He’s at pains to get across his learned intelligence but he didn’t have the wit or vision to engage with the people who matter – the supporters.

I’ll afford him one thing; he believes in his methods. Methods, encapsulated by rigid systems and predominantly defensive football, that served him so well in those footballing backwaters; Halmstad, Bristol City, Malmo, Neuchatel Xamax, Blackburn, Grasshoppers Zurich, Copenhagen, United Arab Emirates, Viking Stavanger, Finland, Fulham and West Brom.

It is a wonder that Liverpool and Internazionale, also feature as the anomalies on this singularly unimpressive CV. He did however manage to guide Switzerland to the last 16 of the 1994 World Cup, so maybe that is where his forte lies; in international football.

If I’m being fair, Hodgson has done a reasonable job with England since taking over prior to the Euro 2012 finals, where they reached the last eight courtesy of wins over Sweden and Ukraine. However, in the quarter-final, Roy’s reluctance to deviate from the rigidity of getting eight men behind the ball allowed Andrea Pirlo to pull the strings and Italy to dominate.

The hypnotic, nay soporific, sight of two quartets of roundheaded English foot-soldiers traipsing across the pitch denying space behind bored most of us to actual tears; although old Charlie Hughes (he of the FA Basic Coaching Manual) might have achieved his first erection in decades. England legitimised these archaic tactics by holding on for penalties, although Italian superiority was eventually underlined by Pirlo’s dinked spot-kick which made an utter berk of Joe Hart.

With his feet under an FA desk, and apparently immune from damaging press criticism, Hodgson has grown into the grey blazer over the qualification period for this World Cup. He managed to progress from a group that featured the might of Moldova, Montenegro, San Marino, Poland and Ukraine while doing what he does best; managing expectations to the point where England advance to these finals as huge outsiders at 33/1.

For the betting man, these are unchartered waters; perhaps testament to Hodgson’s unique ability to take the wind from people’s sails and receive praise at the same time. Amid various degrees of misplaced hype, England teams usually enter European Championships and World Cups on a wave of fervour, priced at odds of approximately 8/1, as befits a collection of footballers performing in the one of the strongest leagues in the World.

I’m prepared to accept that winning a World Cup in South America is a tall order, but I’m not having that 33/1. Actually, I am having it, topped up by a bit of the 100/1 on offer with Paddy Power. In reality, it’s an insurance wager against the prospect of Roy’s awful, smug grid parading the gold trophy around the Maracana because, despite all my personal misgivings, I wouldn’t put it past the jammy bastard. Let’s face it, Mike Bassett got us to the semis playing “four-four-facking two”, so arl Hodgey just needs to go a couple better.

Roy has got lucky. The emergence this season of Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Daniel Sturridge has given him a wealth of exciting, attacking options and to his credit they’re all on the plane to Brazil. Has someone rewired his cautious brain? Has he gone a bit bonkers? No, it’s probably a ready-made get-out clause to plump for the best of the Premier League’s young talent over safer more experienced options.

He can always place the blame for a first-round exit at the door of those youngsters. Maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt and hope he has gone a bit doolally. Further analysis of the “Roy’s 23” reinforces the feeling this England squad is being undervalued by most analysts.

Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson have proven a solid, often inspirational midfield axis for Liverpool if Roy is brave enough to adopt the 4-2-3-1 formation that would enable the fearless Sterling et al to shine. Gerrard deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other European midfield stalwarts; Pirlo, Xavi and Andres Iniesta and Wesley Schneider, and if there’s a man with the lungs to cut through the clammy air of Manaus, it’s Hendo.

The most obvious area for concern is at the back. Doubts persist over Glen Johnson’s form and positional capabilities at right-back. Gary Cahill has had a fine season for Chelsea but it isn’t hard to imagine the likes of Messi, Neymar, Muller and Ronaldo making mincemeat of him and the unproven international centre-back that is Phil Jagielka. Leighton Baines adds much to the attack, not least from set plays, but still begs questions of his defensive work.

Fortunately for Hodgson, if England are likely to be stretched at times, Joe Hart has shaken off early-season collywobbles to return to something like his best form. World Cup winners seldom feature a dodgy keeper.

Deserving mention should also be made of the promise of Luke Shaw, the reliability of James Milner, Frank Lampard’s experience and the eye for goal of Rickie Lambert in reserve. Danny Wellbeck could be a lethal weapon. The World doesn’t realise just how shite he really is.

Perhaps Hodgson’s biggest conundrum is the condition and mental state of Wayne Rooney. By God, this lad is due a big tournament. He looked knackered and contributed very little, other than a tap in, in the chaotic 2-2 draw with Ecuador.

It would take a brave man to drop Rooney from the starting line-up and on the face of it, Roy isn’t that guy. But, I sense something sadistic in him – his default blame culture emboldened by the heat and humidity. Maybe, just maybe, he’s got the balls (and spite) to leave a breathless, red-faced Rooney out and play Ross Barkley in an attacking midfield three (with Sterling and Lallana either side) behind Sturridge; a lone, very capable front man.

Whatever the line-up, England should qualify from their group. Italy are in the main, two years older than the team England faced at the Euros in Ukraine. Uruguay, probably missing their star turn in Luis Suarez, simply don’t have enough quality from 1-11 to be worrying a team with the abundant flair of this young England group, and if Costa Rica can’t be beaten we should just pack our bags and go home. Maybe we will, but if we make it into the knock-out stages, anything can happen – like winning the World Cup on penalties. So, I really do mean anything.

I watched Ross Barkley in that red, number 21 shirt and it struck a chord with me. Roger Hunt wore 21 in 1966. And, don’t forget, Roy’s gone mad. Or, is that me?

Nurse! The screens please.

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