Saturday, 21 June 2014


By Bryan Cooney

“STEVEN GERRARD? Well, he’s had a terrible end to the season. He appears to have gone at every imaginable level.

“Ever since he gave away the goal against Chelsea in the Premier League, he’s been awful. Roy Hodgson is always saying what a good player he is. Hey, good players play well when they have to.

“When the team needs them, they tend to step forward and flourish. What did Luis Suarez do when Uruguay needed him? He scored two goals! And he was only 70 per cent fit!

“England needed the real Steven Gerrard against Uruguay…there was only one trouble: he wasn’t there!”
WE should, of course, ignore the temptation towards gratuitous gloating.

But the facts are incontrovertible:  England have provided us with, on what has become a biennial basis, a classic sob story that fills a few million handkerchiefs.

With Costa Rica beating a perfunctory Italian team on Friday evening, the English effected another inglorious exit from another major football tournament - almost before the players had time to break in their multi-coloured footwear.

The obligatory autopsies were performed on our television sets. But I’d suggest these were pretty insubstantial, even inadequate. The medium that should be specialising in definitive post mortems once again quailed and quivered at the door of the mortuary.

BBC and ITV sent the world and his brother to Brazil, dipping into exchequers rather than budgets to support sybaritic lifestyles. Yet, so many of these highly-remunerated ex-footballers failed, some spectacularly, some incoherently, to tell the English nation what went wrong. I was anxious to hear an unalloyed version.

One reason why English players are flying home comprehensively ahead of schedule next week was delivered, rather forcibly, in the introduction to this blog.

The words came from a man who seems comfortable with speaking his mind, no matter how many egos might be offended in the process.

Nigel Clark was the Football Editor at the Daily Mail in that newspaper’s pomp in the late Nineties. I used to call him the Wise Old Owl because he provided a compendium of knowledge about the game and understood those who played it.

He grew up in an age where the freedom of speech had not been overtaken by the twin terrors of censorship and political correctness. He worked and travelled with men like Sir Alf Ramsey, Brian Clough and Malcolm Allison. They knew him and respected him.

Let’s return, then, to his acerbic summary of Gerrard’s contribution to England’s 2-1 defeat. It’s only the beginning of a criticism of a national team that Clark has been following for six decades.

Gerrard is not alone in the dock of his court of justice: the Liverpool player has accomplices, none more so than Roy Hodgson.

Hodgson, whom Clark likes as a person, finds his credentials examined in an equally forensic manner. “We’re in this sorry position because he picked the wrong team at the outset,” Clark insists.

“You can’t win with a side that goes forward but can’t defend. You should pick a centre-half who can organise. So, why leave John Terry out? Suarez’s second goal emphasised the stupidity of that. Do you imagine it would have been scored had Terry been around?

“Look, Phil Jagielka is all right as a footballer, but basically he’s a midfield player who has been converted to centre-half. When a high ball comes at you like that, the first instincts of a centre-half is to back peddle, Jagielka obeyed the instincts of a midfield player and allowed Suarez freedom to run on.

“Terry would have dealt with it, put the ball in Row Z of the nearest grandstand. He is far more able to read things, defend and organise.

“He has been a leader and a captain all his life but, because of what I believe to be a rather petty squabble (involving the Ferdinands), Hodgson decided to bomb him out and opt for the quiet life. Hodgson believed he was doing the moralistic thing but he ignored the basic mantra of football: you pick your strongest team.”

According to Clark, however, England’s defensive frailties go far deeper than that. “Yeah, if you’re going to attack, you’ve got to defend. England can’t do that. Ashley Cole is a better left-back than Leighton Baines. He might even, in some eyes, be a horrible bloke, but he’s a better footballer. Baines could not tackle a deep fried Mars Bar!”

Nor is Baines’ full-back partner, Glen Johnson, exempt from scathing opinion. “I’ll repeat: you can only attack if you can defend. Everyone knows that down the years that Johnson hasn’t got what it takes to defend.”

Clark feels that the £3,500,00-a-year Hodgson may confound expectations and stay in the job (he evidently has already been offered a two-year contract extension. Isn't it great to see the dear, old FA have their foot firmly on the ball?).

But he still can’t understand why the manager put his philosophy into reverse gear. “The thing is the players call him Doubtfire. There’s a bit of respect gone there. Could that be significant?

"Roy’s always been a very organised manager, he’s always been considered a safe pair of hands, yet the greatest surprise was to go gung-ho in this competition. And just look at the run-up: we struggled against Honduras and Ecuador. It told you we’re not very good.”

The criticism becomes even more detailed. “Frank Lampard was brought over for morale - Roy thinks his legs have gone. Now, I would have thought that might be the case over 90 minutes, but surely not for 30-minute segments.

“ You wanted an old head in there directing operations at 1-1. The solution would have been to put Lampard on. Instead, Roy wanted to go for a winner: he gambled and lost.”

And Wayne Rooney? “I think Roy’s been stupid. You play your best players in their best positions. You don’t suddenly find Uruguay punting out Suarez to play wide right or left, do you? Roy thinks he has players who can multi task. It’s not on. Players generally have to be told what to do because they tend to be a bit thick.”

Costa Rica, who have already qualified for the next stage of the competition, provide Hodgon’s final opposition. Can England go out with some manner of compensation?

Clark is not confident about that. “English football is based around determination and organisation, and we must use these things to make ourselves hard to beat. If you don’t concede goals, you don’t get beaten. We’ve shipped four so far.

“Look, no-one has ever said that Hodgson was a great manager. He certainly never did anything spectacular at Liverpool, did he? I certainly wouldn’t put money on us beating Costa Rica.

`”But I think what Hodgson must think long and hard about is whether Gerrard plays again. And, remember, this: they put him in a role just in front of the back four - it was supposed to suit him. The sad thing is that he wasn’t even in the Uruguay game.”

  • The irrepressible and controversial Nigel Clark will be writing about the English Premier Division for No Grey Areas this coming season.