Flag-waving pundits creating the illusion that England can win the World Cup
ROY Hodgson was unlucky as England manager. The affable Englishman must have been cursing his luck when England were grouped with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica ahead of the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.
Along the Amazon, England played well in their opener against Italy but fell to Andrea Pirlo’s midfield master-class and two quality finishes from Claudio Marchisio and Mario Balotelli.
A few days later, down in Sao Paolo, they more than punched their weight against a fine Uruguay side but were pick-pocketed twice by the brilliant Luis Suarez.
And, as history tells us, Costa Rica were no pushovers in Group D and actually beat Italy and Uruguay and drew with England before going out at the quarter-final stages.
Despite crashing out at the group stages, Hodgson’s England were a better version than the one that turned up in South Africa four years earlier and were arguably more impressive than the class of ’06 who stumbled into the quarter-finals.
For as long as time can remember, England have always struggled at major tournaments.
Successive managers tried and failed to make a coherent midfield partnership out of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard when their only real game-manager – Paul Scholes – was played out of position in a left-sided midfield role.
England rarely looked like a team on the world stage. But, at these World Cup finals in Russia, they do.
At least for now.
Gareth Southgate’s biggest achievement to date – although this could change at any given moment – is how well he’s handled the country’s inherently giddy, jingoistic tabloid media.
Interview access and the odd game of darts between journalists and players help. To have the English media eating out of your hand is an amazing feat of Southgate’s.
The former England defender managed to keep a firm lid on expectations before the finals began and appears to have maximised his resources in a tactical plan that generally makes sense.
But, as their media and pundits rejoice – prematurely as England often do – at the prospect of football coming home, perspective has been sorely absent ever since Harry Kane’s scuffed winner late on against Tunisia.
Former England stars feel compelled to wrap themselves in the flag and try to pass this excitable patriotism off as analysis.
In Alan Shearer’s BBC on-line column, he writes: “England are probably not the most talented team at this World Cup but we showed against Colombia why we have now got a great chance of winning it.”
England’s flag-waving pundits have quickly reached the point where to say anything other than ‘We can win the World Cup’ would be deemed treasonous.
The truth is the luck of the draw - more than anything else - has kept this England team afloat.
They struggled to overcome Tunisia - missing their star player Youseff Msakni - and hit Panama for six goals, an opponent that would rank in the top three worst teams to ever qualify for the World Cup finals.
And nothing could be gleaned from their dead rubber with Belgium.
In their nerve-shredding last 16 clash, Colombia decided to defend on their own 18-yard line and allowed England space to play.
And yet the South Americans still managed to take it to penalties after their ultra-conservative coach Jose Pekerman ended the game with the team he probably should have started with.
Of course, England can only beat what’s put in front of them and there’s a lot to be said for tournament momentum – but they’re nowhere near good enough to be classed as contenders.
To win a World Cup, you need more than one world class player.
Harry Kane stands alone in that category.
Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard don’t get on the ball enough to affect games and their ineffectiveness is compounded by the absence of a midfield general who would supply them with short, incisive passes and make them a threat.
And, as Manchester City fans will testify, Raheem Sterling is far too erratic to be relied upon, while there are mistakes in England’s back three, evidenced by Kyle Walker’s lapse against Colombia under the merest bit of heat.
Tournament football eventually finds your weaknesses – and England have many. They just haven’t been tested yet.
But after Tuesday night’s emotional penalty shoot-out victory over Colombia, the illusion has been well and truly created that England are contenders and that football is coming home.
Even Gary Lineker was crying, for goodness sake. It’s all daft talk of course.
Referee choice raises eyebrows in Armagh...
EYEBROWS were raised in Armagh earlier this week when Joe McQuillan was appointed the match official for the Orchard County’s Round Four Qualifier with Roscommon in Portlaoise tomorrow afternoon.
It’s the first time the highly-rated McQuillan has taken charge of an Armagh game after manager Kieran McGeeney was cited for verbally abusing the Cavan whistler, who was acting as linesman, in an NFL Division Three League game against Antrim in March 2017.
McGeeney was banned from the sideline for 12 weeks following the incident and was forced to watch from a glass-fronted room behind the goals in Pairc Esler as Armagh suffered an Ulster Championship loss to Down last summer.
At the time, Armagh officials were angry with the seemingly heavy suspension handed out to their senior manager, but saw no value in appealing the CCCC’s decision as they felt it had the potential to detract from the team’s efforts to rebuild for the All-Ireland Qualifiers.
Upon his return to the sidelines, McGeeney kept his counsel on the subject with assistant Paddy McKeever assuming media duties up until Armagh’s All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Tyrone.
McQuillan is undoubtedly one of the most decorated referees in the GAA and has been at the top of his game for the best part of 10 years – officiating at the 2011, 2013 and 2017 All-Ireland deciders – but in the GAA perception is everything.
McQuillan could have a flawless match in Portlaoise tomorrow afternoon and still be criticised by Armagh fans who have long memories.
With the benefit of hindsight, the CCCC perhaps could have juggled their refereeing resources a little more prudently this weekend rather than running the risk of feeding more unwanted post-match debates.
Then again, come Saturday evening, the country could be marvelling at Armagh’s Lazarus-like summer or Roscommon finally making a decisive breakthrough on the All-Ireland stage.