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All Things Footie | Monday, June 7 | Jordan

Hangover

It’s been nearly a month since the Premiership season ended, and boy does it feel like it. The month after the season before. Two forgettable cup finals, I’ve missed the England warm-up games, but against all the odds I’m really looking forward to Euro 2004. There should be some really exciting teams competing, I fancy Spain, the Czech Republic, and perhaps even the perennial under achievers and hosts Portugal to do well. But again, against all the odds, I also fancy England.

I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the England management, the FA, and a number of the players regularly selected but rarely fit to wear the shirt, and for weeks I’ve been of the mind that England are going to get bombed unceremoniously out of the tournament (figuratively speaking). Over the last few days I’ve been giving it some more thought, and for the first time in a long while, I think England are capable of doing something special.

The weak links are becoming peripheral, Darius Vassell’s unlikley but impressive strike rate for his country should put him ahead of the lumbering cart-horse that is Emile Heskey, and I’m praying that Sven keeps his head and doesn’t resort to Nicky Butt. Yes, he did well in the World Cup two years ago, but at the expense of creativity, and only because the team played so cautiously; England played some hideously poor football in that tournament, and a more positive attitude would have seen them past Brazil with ease.

I look at England’s midfield and see four class players. Scholes, Lampard, Gerrard and Beckham have all had good domestic seasons, they’re all fit, and they’re all excellent footballers. They may be four central midfielders, but they’re four very good central midfielders, and it rarely harms other teams (providing those players are able to follow instructions and put the team before personal goals).

Lampard in particular has impressed the hell out of me this season, I’m delighted to see him doing so well. I’ve always been a fan of Frank, but I’ve always thought he was going to peak just below the level that would make him good enough to be a solid International, or a key player in a top club team. I’m happy he’s proven me wrong, I’m happy that he’s done it through graft and application while developing the talent he has. I think he’ll be a key player in one of the best midfields in the competition.

I look at the England defence, and I see four solid players. Cole and Campbell have a great partnership going at Arsenal, and have a lot to give individually—tough competitors, talented players, and exceptional athletes. John Terry is naturally gifted as a centre half in the way Tony Adams was, he plays without thinking, and without worrying, because he can. Gary Neville is the least inspiring of the back line, but you can’t fault his ability to turn out decent performances; rarely spectacular, rarely ‘very good’ even, but always decent. I’d love to see Owen Hargreaves play in his position, two flying, ferocious, fit full-backs would make England twice the attacking force, but it’s a gamble I know Eriksson won’t take.

Up front, the exuberance of Rooney and the opportunism of Owen (combined with that ‘right-place-at-the-right-time’ instinct of Vassell) could be special. They could also fail spectacularly, but Rooney seems fired up, and Owen—despite being light years behind the most taleneted forwards in terms of ability—will always be a threat with his pace and willingness to strike at goal.

There’s spirit in the England camp too. While most squads—made up of players plying their trade in numerous countries, who never see each other apart from on International duty—struggle to adjust to the International midset, most England players get on, and would consider themselves friends. Many of them socialise outside of football related events, and there’s a camaradarie there usually associated with the smaller countries who’s spirit is all that gets them through big games.

Of course, there are still problems. There is still too much emphasis on direct football, the kind that one is forced to play when you have a midfield full of donkeys with no imagination—not four of the most able, fit and creative midfielders in Europe. There’s the goalkeeping situation; a good defence is always backed up by a goalkeeper that those defenders can trust, and the word ‘dodgy’ was practically invented for David James; despite his own boastings and appeals for leniency in the face of inconsistency. Paul Robinson is a fine goalkeeper, but I can’t help feel that he’s a quiet lad, one that doesn’t have a tight relationship with his teammates. Don’t even start me on Ian Walker.

As soon as the first XI is out of sight, with a few exceptions (Hargreaves, Vassell, Bridge) there’s not a lot to inspire confidence. Carragher is a liability in the strongest possible sense of the word, Butt has hardly played all year and doesn’t inspire much enthusiasm when he is fit and on form, Heskey is woefully short of being International class and Dyer’s England performances suggest he’d fail to turn a game if he was the only man on the pitch. Joe Cole is inconsistent but has the potential to do something special, and hopefully Ledley King and Phil Neville will remain on the furthermost fringes—they’d get laughed out of most country’s squads.

If the first team can remain fit (not just uninjured, but keeping the momentum of the last nine months going and not moaning about ‘tiredness’) and the midfield can click properly, I think England can do well. Winning the tournament is not beyond this team. Those are big ‘if’s, but for the first time in a while—maybe it’s because it no longer bothers me so much—I’m really looking forward to the England game this weekend. Here’s hoping for sunny weather, and a good game, whoever wins. Allez les Blancs.

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