by Michael Byass
LADIES and gentlemen, I present to you firstly the crime. Eleven Englishmen (plus many substitutes) did last week engage in an act of semi-competitive sport with a similar number of Spanish athletes. The Englishmen, plus their leader Steve McClaren, did singularly fail to conduct themselves in a manner befitting an international football team.
Prosecution: The manager failed to pick the players who would gain from and contribute most to this friendly. Witness the decision to play Phil Neville, admittedly a decent utility player for club and country, in the left back position. In the absence of England’s best two left backs (Wayne Bridge and Ashley Cole) surely Gareth Barry would have been the ideal player to start. Or even Reading’s Nicky Shorey. Also we saw barely ten minutes of Joey Barton when it is important to see if somebody could fit into the midfield more successfully than the Steve Gerrard Frank Lampard axis.
Defence: But these players represent England’s “golden generation.” They have won lots of things with their clubs. The manager was a coach at Manchester United as they won their historic treble. He has tried to cultivate popularity with certain sections of the media since becoming England manager.
Prosecution: The formation of the team was very unbalanced; effectively three central midfielders, one right-winger, one striker and another player floating around up front ineffectually all in front of a right footed back four. The players picked may well have been better suited to 4-1-2-3 with Michael Carrick behind Gerrard and Lampard. Kieron Dyer and Shaun Wright-Phillips could flank Peter Crouch with one or two of these front three briefed to slot into midfield every now and then.
Defence: The players will have been saving themselves for the much more important business of playing for their clubs in the Premiership and Champions League. It was only a friendly after all and it will all come together in the qualifying matches next month. McClaren joined Manchester United a few months before they won the treble. He achieved moderate success as a manager at Middlesbrough. He has been advised to have his teeth whitened and to smile a lot in order to make himself appear more likeable and relaxed.
Prosecution: England showed a great deal of deficiencies in the technical departments of the match; namely their ability to retain the ball, select and execute the correct pass and dictate the tempo of the game. The coaching during the match and at half time and the substitutions made were unable to alter the course of the game and give England sufficient defensive solidity and a cutting edge offensively.
Defence: The players are virtually celebrities with their vast wealth, pampered lifestyle and unadulterated adulation from the less jaded and cynical of fans so should not really be criticised. McClaren’s sharp black suit says: “this bloke means business.” He has taken advice from Max Clifford [Interjection from the public gallery: “A humorous satirical comic recently made the point that if Mr Clifford is such a great publicist how come everyone thinks that he is such an ‘unpopular so-and-so’”].
Verdict: England once again deluded. They are guilty of thinking that they are individually and collectively better than they really are.
Summing up from the Judge: Ahem. Now the finishing touches are being applied to the new Wembley Stadium could somebody please put a last minute spanner in the works so that this current England set-up does not defile the new verdant turf as Kevin Keegan’s team did at the end of the old Wembley.
Sentence: A long time without any trophies. Plastic England flags and paraphernalia purchased in vain during major tournaments.
It would of course be unfair not to mention that Spain played very well indeed despite being without even more key players than England. Luis Aragones’ men seemed to play within themselves at times but displayed some neat passing and swift attacking football. Pablo Ibáñez looked strong and assured in defence and David Villa moved slickly and threateningly, as indeed he did for Valencia this weekend as his team beat Barcelona. Only Fernando Morientes disappointed again on English soil after an unmemorable spell with Liverpool with a bad miss after cleverly tricking Gary Neville in the penalty area.
Any sporting journalism that purports to humour cannot go too many fortnights without mentioning the Neville brothers. Gary has again been in the news recently with his (sensible) claims that footballers should not really have agents, but should use the Professional Footballers Association instead. Maybe players should only be allowed agents who have the same first and surname, such as Neville Neville does.
Incidentally, a person to whom I am so close she is practically a sister once made an extremely astute observation. It is not especially steeped in footballing resonance; indeed in her much younger years this individual could easily write all that she knew about football on a red (later to be blue) postage stamp. Nowadays she can write thousands of words about absolutely anything. But this pearl of wisdom lives with me to this day: namely that Gary Neville looks more like a ‘Phil’ and Phil Neville looks more like a ‘Gary’. The more you think about it, the truer it gets.