Tag Archives: England

England’s Iceland Showing Would Have Disgraced Leeds United   –   by Rob Atkinson

Woy

Woy, wesigned to the wepurcussions of failure

As a Leeds United fan over the course of the past decade or so, you need to have developed a certain gallows sense of humour. The ability to have a laugh at yourself, or at least a reluctantly tolerant smile when the pain is just too intense, has seen many of us through many an agonising and humiliating moment. And this forms a mindset where, faced with some setback or disappointment unconnected with our beloved Whites, we might grimace cynically and say through gritted teeth “That were just like watching Leeds” – a wry inversion of the “just like watching Brazil” hymn of praise. When one of us says that something was “just like watching Leeds”, you can tell it’s not been an enjoyable experience.

So it came to pass that, as England‘s abject, shameful performance against Iceland unfolded, the Facebook statuses and the Tweets started, on my Whites-centric feed mostly with that common theme. That was just like watching Leeds. Wow, you thought. That bad, eh?

The thing is, though – it was actually so much worse than watching Leeds. Because our national side gave a performance of staggering ineptitude, incredible cluelessness. England were nervous and anxious at best, simply incompetent and bumbling the more the game went on. Rooney, supposedly reinvented as a deeper midfielder, spraying accurate passes about, could hardly hit a ten yard ball. His passes were off target, his services in from wide were over-hit (as were “quality delivery merchant” Harry Kane’s). It was, in short, a typical Rooney, typically English international finals performance. 

For the rest, they nearly all seemed afflicted by the same nightmare conviction that, whatever they attempted, it simply wouldn’t come off. Only when Marcus Rashford came on, with the innocence and arrogance of his youth, did England look remotely like getting anywhere. The men in white lacked the belief, the character and the guts to seize the game by the scruff of the neck. In the context of nightmares again, it was as if they needed to get moving, but found themselves wading through a foot of treacle, their energy drained, their heads empty. The longer it went on, the worse it got. It was a shameful embarrassment of a performance. After their early penalty joy, England could have played from now until Christmas, and still might have failed to score. 

Over forty-odd years, I’ve seen many abject performances from Leeds United. I’ve seen lack of effort punished, lack of pride and commitment bringing their inevitable dread reward. I’ve seen it all as far as bad times go, and – lest we forget – some good times too. But as far as the awful side of things is concerned – well, with hand on heart and with God as my witness, I’ve never, ever seen anything as bad from a Leeds team as I saw from that Three Lions shower last night. Just like watching Leeds? We should be so lucky.

People keep on coming out with the fact that Iceland has a population less than that of Leicester, but that – hur, hur – Leicester has been able to spring its own surprise lately. Very good. Apparently, it’s also true to say that Iceland has more volcanoes than professional footballers. On last night’s evidence, that could be true of England too. The bottom line is that such a performance – for want of a more appropriately descriptive word – goes way beyond unacceptable and plumbs greater depths than anything even the most unfortunate of us will have seen from our club sides, where work-rate and a bit of fight are the very least we demand and expect.

Just like watching Leeds? Not on this occasion. Leeds would have given that Iceland side a decent game. Leicester would almost certainly have beaten them. Perhaps, this coming season, when the performance levels of our lads in White dip below our meagre expectations, some terrace wit might start off a rendition of “England – it’s just like watching England…”

That, at least, would have the comparison the right way around.

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England Will Need True Warriors Against Wales   –   by Rob Atkinson


ArtofFootball
Any Leeds United fan worth his or her salt will nod and give the thumbs-up to a player prepared to shed blood in the United cause. It’s in the DNA of the club; such players are an integral part of our history. The blood shed will preferably be that of an opponent, but your archetypal Elland Road patron warmly appreciates the warrior who leaves the field of battle liberally bespattered with his own gore. It’s a mark of commitment, and that goes down well with us northern folk.

Down the years, we’ve been lucky enough to have many such doughty battlers gracing the white shirt. Hunter, Giles, Vinnie, Billy, the list is long and impressive. Sadly, the standard is lower these days, the commitment less nakedly obvious. The same appears to apply to the national team, also. I was reminded of this when I received a t-shirt from my good friends at The Art of Football, an online firm with a difference, specialising in quality prints to adorn the proudest chest.

The shirt I received, pictured above, bears the unmistakable figure of Stuart “Psycho” Pearce, a player I for one would have absolutely loved to have seen in a Leeds United shirt. His commitment was exemplary, he was a man who’d have been an asset to any team, anywhere at any time. England, like Leeds United, have had a few of these over the years. Terry Butcher, so famously pictured with a pint or two of his own blood soaked into his England shirt – another image available in this Euro ’16 range. Tony Adams, neck veins bulging as he bellowed the National Anthem before every International of his career. Pearce himself, stepping up to the plate in a penalty shoot out, exorcising the ghost of a previous miss by belting the ball past the Spanish keeper at Euro ’96, at one with the fans as he ran to them, his pride and fight written all over his face. 

Where are these players now? John Terry might have been the last for England, though maybe Cahill can succeed to his crown. I have to confess, I can’t remember the last Leeds player in this warrior category. And United will need someone of that ilk to challenge next season. But England need a man like that as soon as Thursday – because the Welsh will have their war paint on, there’s no doubt about that. 

Perhaps if the existing England players can channel some of that Psycho Pearce spirit in time for their next test, we might overcome a Welsh team with much commitment but relatively few world-class performers. The fans, too, could do worse than embody the Pearce approach, focusing on getting behind the shirts instead of acting like idiots in the pubs and bars. The atmosphere will be fierce on Thursday, the stakes high. We will need warriors on the pitch and the pride and passion of supporters in the stands if we’re going to match Wales in either arena. 

Let players and fans be inspired by the image of Stuart Pearce at his most committed, with the flag of St. George behind him. Given that, we can succeed despite the famous bravery and desire of the Welsh. 

England Expects!

What Is Moneybags Football Doing to Save Gazza? – by Rob Atkinson

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Gazza in his heyday

Sometimes in your football-supporting life, you see a player in the opposition ranks who is simply different gravy. Partisanship or no, you just have to acknowledge genius when you see it and, if you’ve any appreciation at all for the Beautiful Game, you simply applaud talent and ability the like of which we see all too rarely.

As a Leeds United fan, I’ve had this bittersweet experience uncomfortably often. Bitter, because – let’s face it – you’re there above all to see the white shirts prevail, and some pesky genius in the other camp can be a big problem. But sweet, because we all know, deep down, that this is what football is all about; a talent that eclipses more mundane performers and makes your soul sing for what this game can be.

I’ve seen a few of these over the years at Elland Road. Johan Cruyff, so recently taken from us, lit up my first evening match at Elland Road in 1975, albeit in a losing cause. Sadly, I never saw George Best play (and he spent most games against Leeds in Paul Reaney‘s back pocket anyway) – but I did see a man who could match him for talent and for that mystical ability to take a game away from you. Sadly, he also matches the late George for the tendency to self destruct. And, if the current situation isn’t checked sooner rather than later, we shall tragically see Paul Gascoigne – Gazza of blessed daft-as-a-brush memory – follow Georgie Best into a needlessly early grave.

GazzaBlood

Troubled Gazza now – road to disaster?

There isn’t much doubt that Gazza’s potentially fatal weakness for the booze makes him the lead author of his own misfortune. It’s also true to say that anyone in that downward spiral of addictive behaviour really needs to find, if possible, the willpower to break out of the prison they’re building for themselves. But that’s frequently easier said than done, and some of the brightest stars, the most transcendent genius performers, are eggshell personalities, lacking the intrinsic strength and resilience to fight the demons inside their own skulls. In that situation, outside care and intervention is needed; somebody needs to help. So who can, or should, help Gazza?

The former star is not without support. He has friends in the game, people who stay in touch with him and worry about him. But I can’t help feeling that the wider entity of football in this country could be seen to be doing more, for Gazza, and for less illustrious but comparable cases. The tragedy of Best is still clear in the memory, but there have been others who used to bask in the sunshine of fame and worship from the terraces who, once their star fell, found the world a bleak and friendless place they simply wanted to quit. Hughie Gallacher, like Gazza a former Newcastle star, was another who felt lonely and hopeless enough to walk, in a boozy stupor, in front of a train in 1957, rather than face what his life had become after football.

The thing about Gazza is that the current, wealth-laden state of the game he entered as a chubby lad in the early eighties owes much to the way he lit up the Italia ’90 World Cup. That tournament, with Gascoigne’s flashes of genius and iconic tears, did much to redeem the game of football from what had been a decade of disaster in the 1980s. Football, ably assisted by the Geordie genius, recovered from virtual social unacceptability to become once more the game everyone was talking about. Everyone wanted a piece of soccer, and its stars. And no star shone brighter in the football firmament than Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne.

Such was the new appeal and cachet of football that it was judged ripe for rebranding in this country. It became A Whole New Ball Game as Murdoch and Sky bought the TV rights to a massive chunk of it and, 25 years on, the money is still rolling in unabated. A lot of that is down to that period of Gazzamania in the early 90s, and that – as much as anything beyond common humanity – is the reason why football, and the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United, Rangers and Everton in particular, must be seen to be doing more to help.

So money-stuffed is the game that was once a working-class opera, that ticket prices have become almost incidental to club income at the top level. And yet still, the matchgoing public pays through the nose. They, too, have a right to see some of their money devoted to former stars fallen on hard times or, indeed, in danger of complete dissolution. Surely any Spurs or Newcastle fan would feel it appropriate for their club, served so well back in the day by a man now in crisis, to step in and provide real help, a safe environment and a solid support network for somebody in such imminent danger of sinking out of sight.

Everyone knows that there’s only so much you can do for a person seemingly plummeting towards self-destruction. But the duty to try as hard as possible, to do as much as possible, remains, whatever the chances of success. Especially for someone like Gazza, who gave so much pleasure in his heyday, who made so many smile or laugh with his hare-brained nuttiness, who helped so much to enable the rude health of the game today by the display of his peerless genius for clubs and country.

It’s not too late to save Gazza, surely. But it may well soon be. Over to you, football.

History Shows A Strong Leeds United is Needed For a Strong England Team – by Rob Atkinson

Art of Football remembers England's - and Leeds' - glory day at Wembley '66

Art of Football remembers England’s – and Leeds’ – glory day at Wembley ’66

Long-standing and esteemed Friends of the Blog Art of Football have been kind enough to send me another quality example of their fine work, something I can defiantly wear close to my heart, to emphasise my status as a proud Englishman. This is a helpful state of mind at a time when, as not infrequently happens, all is chaos and confusion in the world of Leeds United. England have just booked a place at a major tournament in Euro ’16, with a flawless performance in the qualification group, winning ten out of ten matches. That, in itself is a cause for pride, whichever club team you might happen to support. In these cosmopolitan times, national pride and club pride have little in common with each other; most clubs are predominantly staffed by players from beyond these shores – you really do have to look to the England team if you’re a devotee of St. George and fancy stoking up any latent feelings of nationalist fervour.

Time was, of course, when our top clubs were much more parochially inclined. Any League team with pretensions to success would boast its clutch of current England internationals, and Leeds United was no exception in the days when the national team was a real force to be reckoned with. Harking back to the glory days of 1966 – as my Art of Football product clearly does in the picture above – Leeds fans will be proud to recall that our own Jack Charlton played his part on the day, ensuring that Leeds would go down in history with the likes of West Ham, Liverpool and even Fulham and Blackpool, as clubs that contributed players to England’s finest hour. For Leeds, there was also Norman Hunter in that legendary squad – and it’s good to know that his presence was belatedly acknowledged when he was finally awarded a World Cup winners medal in 2009.

The fact that the World Cup Final in July 1966 remains England’s solitary impact on World Football’s honours board, though, is a more sobering thought. The decisive moment reproduced on the front of Art of Football‘s evocative product could fairly be described as England’s last real mark on Football history. Next summer, when the current crop of national heroes are doing battle in France, it will be 50 years since the late, great Kenneth Wolstenholme so memorably remarked on Wembley pitch invaders thinking it’s all over – adding “It is now!”, as Geoff Hurst‘s late thunderbolt hit the back of the German net. Half a century on, it’s really difficult to imagine such a moment happening again, with almost every major nation having long since overtaken us in terms of international honours.

Still, that’s probably a bit too carpy and whingey, considering that the current wearers of those Three Lions shirts have breezed so effectively to qualification for next year’s finals – and especially when you consider that Scotland have maintained their recent form by failing yet again to make it to the party. And the fact that, if England by some miracle did succeed in France, it will be without the involvement of any Leeds United personnel – well, I’m not going to let that bother me either. I’d be chuffed, delighted, flown with patriotic pride if the lads did it, even given that some of those lads, and at least one past-it striker, ply their trade for that lot over the Pennines whom I shall not dignify by mention of their name. What the hell, after all. When they play and win for England, they’re English – petty matters of club rivalry are for less momentous occasions.

The fact remains for the moment, though – and barring that unlikely miracle I was talking about for our lot in France next year – that England only wins a cup with at least one Leeds lad involved, and another in the background. That, in itself, is a matter of unshakeable pride for long-suffering Leeds United fans. So I’ll wear my iconic design proudly, as a tribute to those lads of so long ago – but most especially with a glow of pride for our Jack and our Norm, who did their country proud – and immortalised themselves in the process.

Could Spurs Flop Andros Townsend Benefit From Another Spell at Leeds United? – by Rob Atkinson

Andros, doing it for the (England) shirt

The boy Andros, doing it for the (England) shirt

Andros Townsend, former loan flop at Leeds and current first-team pariah and occasional sub at Tottenham Hotspur, scored a fine goal for England last night in Italy, bringing him bobbing briefly to the surface of the public consciousness from which he sank out of view some time back. Showing a characteristically warped sense of priorities, one of Townsend’s first moves after he emerged from the England shower/bath/jacuzzi/pampered poodle parlour – was to engage in a bit of social media one-upmanship, tweeting former England star and fellow fickoe Paul Merson to say “Not bad for a player that should be ‘nowhere near the squad’ ay?” Stinging repartee and worldie bantz, we would probably concede.

The thing is, young Mr Townsend really needs to concentrate on establishing himself in a first team somewhere, rather than making occasional cameo appearances in the Three Lions shirt, scoring the odd blinder and then promptly disappearing again. There’s a disagreeable odour about Andros, the oddly pungent stench of “attitude problem”. Talent he surely has in abundance; his approach to establishing himself as an indispensable part of a team is more open to doubt. The talent will serve to get him the odd spectacular goal in an international friendly; it is not on its own enough to make him a vital cog in a league machine. The conclusion we might reluctantly be forced to draw is that Merse – for once in a very long while – might actually have a point.

Perhaps a change of scene might benefit the boy Townsend. He’s been to Elland Road before and failed – would he have the character to try again? Could he bury that treacherous pride, buckle down and try to earn a berth for himself at a lower level, but somewhere subject to notoriously harsh pressures? Townsend wasted his time at Elland Road, seeming a dilettante type of player; one who flatters to deceive and lacks the bottle to cut it when the chips are down. When the going got tough, Andros shipped out, to the less demanding environment of Birmingham City, there to sulk and send petulant tweets to scornful Whites fans.

Then there was a brief golden period at Spurs, some sort of momentary redemption epoch when everything came easy to him – a situation you suspect Andros prefers, to actually having to graft and battle. And then he was suddenly in the England fold, and the sky was, it seemed, the limit. But his star fell as swiftly as it had risen; he has been superseded at Spurs by talents at least equal to his own and attitudes far superior – take a bow, Harry Kane. He’s still somehow in the Three Lions arena, but his hold on that status must be tenuous at best.

Could Townsend actually still cut it at Leeds – where wingers are required for the run-in, players to bring out the best of the youthful talent that is blossoming at Elland Road? Leeds United is, after all, a club of comparatively recent Champion pedigree, something that Spurs have to look back 54 years to recall. So, self-regarding Andros wouldn’t exactly be slumming it – and at the moment, he’d have a fighting chance of actually forcing his way into a developing United team.

It’s an intriguing thought. Well, I think it is. Perhaps I just want to see the lad humiliated again, after his unforgivably casual attitude when he had the chance and that iconic United shirt before. But, from Townsend’s point of view – if he really wanted to shove Paul Merson’s opinion back down his throat – then a stint somewhere like Leeds and a bit of consistency would do a lot more to that end than one sweetly-struck shot against what was a second-string Italian team.

As the Merse himself might say – “Fink abaht it, Andros – fink abaht it.”

Referendum Result Confirmed: England Still Own Scotland – by Rob Atkinson

Sorry boys - you were OWNED

Sorry boys – you were OWNED

For your average Leeds United fanatic – or even for an iconic one such as myself – the sight of a club legend in Gordon Strachan having his nose well and truly rubbed in it can rarely be pleasant viewing. Equally, for a devotee of all things righteously White, to behold the over-rated and grossly over-hyped Mr Wayne “Shrek” Rooney filling his boots at the expense of said legend would normally be an uncomfortable not to say painful experience. But last night at Celtic Park, both circumstances came to pass – and yet it was an evening of unalloyed pleasure for any England fan who grew up to a background of Auld Enemy rivalry.

Back in the day, the England versus Scotland mini-war was an annual fixture, alternating between Hampden Park in Glasgow and Wembley, the latter drenched in Tartan every other year as the unwashed made the pilgrimage south. It was the perpetuation of the original and best International Football rivalry; the very first ever match between two countries was Scotland v England on 30 November 1872. 4,000 people saw a 0-0 draw on that occasion – the great days of this fixture were still to come.

The great days of Leeds United also lay far in the future – and in that era of Revie’s Super Leeds, the club boasted a cadre of fine Scottish international players (see picture above) who I and thousands of other United fans worshipped as footballing Gods. But once a year, when England met Scotland, they were The Enemy – and I for one wanted nothing more than to see the likes of Alan Ball, Mike Channon and Kevin Keegan stamp the Sweaties into the turf, North or South of the border. Sometimes it happened, sometimes we were disappointed. I remember regarding Gordon McQueen with a particularly baleful eye after his two goals sank England at Wembley, on a day when the Scots appropriated the crossbars as souvenirs of a memorable win.

Over the years, the two nations battled nip and tuck for historical supremacy, each having periods of dominance. In the almost 142 years since that first fixture, England have edged it. Last night’s victory by 3-1 was the Three Lions’ 47th such triumph, with Scotland trailing in at 41. This latest success must have been one of the most convincing by England, certainly in recent times. Scotland had a job done on them, big time. England’s performance was emphatic, conclusive, and the boys in blue had no answer to the white tide which engulfed them.

This tone had been set right from the first minute with Woy’s Warriors setting a pattern of dominance in the early stages they would maintain throughout. The breakthrough was half an hour coming and somewhat overdue when Oxlade-Chamberlain, somewhat lacking in delivery with the ball at his feet, found a sublime headed touch from Wilshere’s laser-accurate deep cross, finding the corner of the Scottish net. So it remained at the interval but, despite the narrowness of the margin, Scotland had been on the end of a footballing lesson.

The consensus of agreement among the half-time pundits was that the hosts could not afford to go two down if they were to salvage anything from the encounter. This, however, they proceeded to do a mere 90 seconds into the second half as England took a vice-like grip on proceedings. The origin of what proved to be a killer goal was in a crude and stupid foul from Mulgrew who cynically took out the stampeding Ox as the Arsenal youngster raced down the right. Mulgrew was a little fortunate to escape with a mere yellow, but the fallout was to prove fatal for the Tartan Army. From the free kick, the ball was half-cleared and then bobbled about in the Scottish area before sitting up for Rooney to flex his neck and direct a fine header past helpless sub goalkeeper Gordon.

True to the intense rivalry of this fixture, Scotland did appear to fight their way back into the match with a goal after good work between Robertson and Russell ended with the former squeezing the ball between Forster and his near post. England, rather than quailing and succumbing to late nerves, simply appeared to be provoked into further action. The ball was played down the right from the restart and, from a throw in, the visitors contrived a spell of consummate possession under pressure on the Scottish left flank, before Lallana was released into the area to set up a sitter for Rooney’s second of the night.

3-1 and finis. England were probably worth a goal or two more; despite the creditable battling of the Scots, they had in truth been completely outclassed and outplayed. The most jarring note of the whole night was struck by England coach Roy Hodgson in his post-match remarks, when he saw fit to apologise for any offence caused to anyone who might have had their feelings hurt by some anti-IRA chanting from the England support. Things have come to a pretty pass, surely, when a football man in the afterglow of a fine victory should seek to soothe the wounded sensibilities of those negatively affected by anti-terrorism sentiments. It was an odd end to a fine night for England. Scotland, fresh from a run in which results and performances have been positively encouraging, will have a new awareness this morning of their actual place in the scheme of things.

Paul Scholes Spot On About “Past It” Rooney – by Rob Atkinson

Rooney - ordinary

Rooney – ordinary

I never liked Paul Scholes. As I’m a Leeds United fan, that’s hardly surprising – he was virtually ever-present in the Man U sides that took full advantage of favourable economic, administrative and refereeing conditions to dominate for the worst part of two decades. For a devotee of the real United – the Damned United and Last Champions of popular infamy, hated by prats everywhere, my dislike of Scholes was part of my DNA. Fine player though he was, I always felt some hyperbole was at play. Best midfielder of his generation? I think not. The indulgently fond media attitude to his “inability to tackle” made me want to hurl, too. Let’s face it, he was filthy, a thug. In any other team, he’d have been condemned as a Joey Barton with added skill.

However, all that said, Scholes has partially redeemed himself in this Leeds fan’s eyes by daring to think the unthinkable about “National Icon” Wayne Rooney. The Ginger Minger has come right out and, belying his normal quiet man image, he’s done a proper hatchet job on his former team mate. Past his best, Scholes stated. Three words which neatly sum up today’s Rooney who – let’s be brutally honest here – has not done it for England for a long, long time now. What Scholes said was viewed as heresy in many quarters, the sycophantic chattering classes who still ridiculously claim that the former lifelong Evertonian is England’s best player.

Last night, in defeat against Italy, that accolade belonged unquestionably to young Raheem Sterling of Liverpool, chosen from the start ahead of the unlucky Adam Lallana. Sterling looked like trouble for Italy every time he got the ball, quicksilver fast off either foot, jinking, twisting, tormenting opposition defenders. Meanwhile, the one-paced Rooney chugged his weary way through the first half, sulkily neglecting his left-sided defensive duties, leaving Leighton Baines exposed and unhappy.

Lallana really was unlucky to be left out of the side – until late on, when England were chasing the game and Sterling was tying up with cramp. The Southampton star is just what we need on this stage, someone who can receive the ball with his back to goal and go either way, baffling defenders, bringing others into play. There’s a touch of Dalglish there.

Ross Barkley, too, is acquitting himself well for a Leeds Warnock-era reject. The man who was only good enough for our reserves at Elland Road looks at home in an international shirt, powerful, incisive and deadly creative. Again, he was unused until it was just about too late, with Italy set on keeping what they’d got, retaining the ball, striking on the break. Both Barkley and Lallana would have been far better options than Rooney, who – one deadly left-wing cross apart – failed to influence the game. In the second half he screwed one shot horribly wide after a rare, powerful run; he missed an extremely presentable chance to equalise from Baines’ astute through ball – and he took a corner that would have had them laughing on Hackney Marshes.

Now England just have to beat Uruguay on Thursday, in a game the South Americans also need to win after their unexpected beating by Costa Rica. Suarez will be looking to bite the hand that feeds him and – whatever he and his compatriots might say publicly – they will be hoping that this over-the-hill and ineffective Rooney keeps his starting place.

England manager Roy Hodgson is truly on the horns of a dilemma. Scholes has put the alternative pro’s view of Rooney’s waning powers, something that many fans out here can see all too clearly. But while the establishment view remains that Wazza is our present-day Gazza, then little will change – unless the Boss has an unlikely attack of courage and faith in his own judgement. It seems unlikely. Immediately post-match, Hodgson stood there and chanted the mantra; Wayne had a good game. Well, Roy, we could all see how ordinary he was – but it looks as though he’s not run out of last chances yet.

It’s enough to give a Leeds fan a nosebleed to say this but – in the name of God, listen to Scholesy. At the very least, bench Rooney so that you might have the option of introducing him, angry, resentful and looking to wreak havoc, as an impact sub. That, surely, is his best deployment these days. But the complacent, untouchable, sure-fire starter Rooney, the ineffective fixture in the line-up that we saw so anonymous against Italy, is no good to this England team. The trouble is, you won’t get any of the inner circle, or the lapdog media, saying so.

Regrettably – amazingly – there’s only Scholesy out there talking sense. And as a long-time team mate of Wazza, he should know. Somebody high up needs to start listening – it’ll soon be too late.

Postcard From a Leeds Fan to Our Boys in Brazil – by Rob Atkinson

England's vital Leeds United connection

England’s vital Leeds United connection

Well – this is it, chaps. Our World Cup starts today and literally millions of us Back Home will be glued to TV sets tonight as you take the field (mostly sand and earth painted a tasteful shade of grassy green) against those troublesome Eye-ties. Much is expected of you, as ever. And, as ever, some of you will probably fail to deliver. Not to worry. It’s only a game, after all.

As those of you with a spark of intelligence may have surmised, the last two sentences of that first paragraph are utter bollocks. Of course it matters. And “only” a game?? Get out of here. It’s the biggest game on the planet tonight. Billions of eyes will be on you, courtesy of HD cameras poking at you from every conceivable angle. Every facial expression will be noted, amateur body-language experts by the barrowload will be analysing every twitch and every kick. Scary, eh?

But don’t worry too much. Try to relax and enjoy it, go out there and express yourselves. There’s pressure, of course there is. But you’re a well-remunerated group of young men in the peak of physical fitness, enjoying the privilege of wearing your country’s badge over the heart; something most of us out here would give their eye-teeth for. So think of all those people, the ones who wish they were in your boots tonight. And after all, it’s not exactly like huddling in a bivouac in Afghanistan, is it?

All you have to do is what each of you is extremely well equipped to do – apply an immense talent with a 100% level of graft and commitment. Doubtless Woy has already hammered this message home. If not, he should have done. Nobody in an England shirt tonight should take for granted the right to play. It has to be earned.

I can only speak for us Leeds fans, but we certainly do love and warmly applaud a trier. Then again, we’re not as spoiled as some fans, enjoying as they do a galaxy of lavishly-gifted stars in their clubs’ colours, used to witnessing technically excellent football. At Leeds, we take to our hearts the lad who’ll run his guts to water, who’ll “get stuck in”. Some level of talent is necessary, of course – but you have to be born with that and it has to be honed by good coaching. But the graft, the application, the determination to work hard from start to finish – they’re choices. The players who choose to put the graft in are loved at Leeds, and the same should be true of any England fan – though, as I said, some of them are spoiled.

You lads in the England shirts tonight – you should have all of the qualities I’ve mentioned, and more – just to get where you are today as you prepare for such a massive game with the world watching you. Talent and ability are there in abundance, as they are for your opponents. The willingness to graft and fight for your country must also be in the DNA of every man who walks out there tonight with the Three Lions on his chest. The sense of pride you must have should be immense, something you can feel burning inside you. Talent, graft and pride. That’s the magic mix.

At Leeds, we count ourselves lucky if we have a few players who can show two out of these three qualities. An England international must have the lot, and it must show, it should seep from every pore. In other years, in other tournaments, that’s not always been apparent in every England player. Are you listening, Mr. Rooney? You’re under the microscope tonight, lad.

Just wear the shirt with pride, work your balls flat, be aware of the privilege and the responsibility of being an England man – and show no fear, have no regrets when the final whistle blows. Make that choice to give your all, to keep giving, as long as you’re on the field of conflict with your nation’s hopes and expectations on your shoulders.

England – and her finest fans here in Leeds – expects that every man this day will do his duty. More we cannot ask. Enjoy it, and win.

England Internationals Should Play for Free – by Rob Atkinson

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Three Lions – all the incentive needed and more.

After England’s successful World Cup qualifying campaign, the dust is now starting to settle, and thoughts are beginning to intrude along the lines of: Oh, Christ, spare us another World Cup finals performance like the last one.  It’s a memory just too depressing for words as highly-talented yet grossly over-paid young players sulked around the pitch as if they’d forgotten exactly how lucky they were to be there at all.

The fanatical travelling army which follows England everywhere were shocked into spells of stunned silence at the lassitude and sheer incompetence of some of their so-called heroes in an England team made up, as is usual in these money-mad times, of multi-millionaires, millionaires, and perhaps two or three of the merely very rich.  The fans turned to each other and asked, what the bleedin’ hell is going on?  Well, situation normal, isn’t it?  What a load of overpaid rubbish.  We’ll stay at home and watch it on the box another time. It goes without saying though, that the fans will always be there.

With the money in the game, the long-established infrastructure, and the size of our nation relative, say, to a country like Holland which produces excellence as a matter of course, we should be doing better in these massive pan-global tournaments.  But however easily, or even gloriously we manage to get there, it always seems to go wrong – at least it has so far this century.  The relative glory days of Mexico ’86, Italia ’90 or even England ’96 are a long time ago now.  Something is rotten in the state of England.  What are the missing ingredients?

Allow me to propose an old-fashioned answer: Pride and Passion.  Those two words sum up the edge that England teams, maybe lacking in the technical gifts of continental and latin american players, used to possess; attributes that used to see us through against higher levels of skill and flair. These are the qualities our national team has shown too little of over the years, qualities the fans still possess in abundance.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the players who represent England are lacking totally in either commodity, but I would venture the opinion that they is no longer the over-riding motivation.  Money – oodles of it – always looms far too large within the game.  To clear the players’ heads, to rid them of competing considerations and leave them focused on the job in hand, to nurture the mindset that they are representing their country, and carrying the hopes of millions, I would propose – quite seriously – that we abandon henceforth the practice of paying players to play for England.

This is not a new idea, not by any means.  Before World War Two, players selected for England were invited to choose a match fee OR a souvenir medal – not both.  They invariably opted for the medal – and this in an era when professional football wages were capped at a level not far above those of a skilled worker.  But pride and passion motivated them.

Nowadays of course, footballers earn a vast amount, and some would say good luck to them – but do they really need to be paid over and above their club contracts for what is still a signal honour?  The playing employees of Liverpool, Man U, Man City, Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal and the rest pull down many, many times the average wage and exist on an entirely different plane to those who shell out their hard-earned to watch them perform.  How does this affect the way we see them?

As things stand, the emotional distance between the crowd and the players is magnified by a patently enormous gulf in financial status, which breeds resentment among the fans when things aren’t going well on the field (look at him, fifty grand a week, and he couldn’t trap a bag of cement). Would the frequently toxic nature of that crowd/team relationship not be improved if the players were really playing for the shirt and the cap, and nothing else?

Removal of monetary rewards would not be universally popular among the players – but might this not help sort out the committed from the opportunist, and thus – to risk an archaic phrase – engender a more positive team spirit?

There would be no unpalatable need for the FA to profit by the players’ noble sacrifice.  The money that now goes on match fees and bonuses should instead be diverted to a charity of the players’ choice – and would this not only provide an additional incentive to win, but also enhance the team’s good-guy credentials?

They might feel, deep inside, that they’re a cut above the opposition – who are shamelessly, brazenly, doing it for the money.  It might even give them that crucial edge. Success is, after all, about the steady accumulation of marginal gains.

No match fees or any bonus, not a red cent – just an international cap.  No taint of lucre in the motivations of the players, who would in any case be set for life even if they never earned another penny.  No charge of “mercenary footballers” from a disgruntled crowd – rather it would be:  well done lads, you’re doing it for England and glory.  If you didn’t win – well, we know you were giving of your best, for love of the shirt and charitable causes.  Think of that.  Wouldn’t our England players rather be loved and admired, than just that tiny bit richer?

Can there really be a better incentive than national pride and sheer altruism, uncluttered by the financial bottom line?  Wouldn’t there just possibly be a whole new dynamic around the currently unfancied England setup that might even take us onwards and upwards? Am I being hopelessly idealistic or even naïve?

Well, perhaps I am – but I would humbly suggest that it’s got to be a better way, and is certainly worth a try.

England 2-0 Poland

So there we go – all that fuss over nothing. England made us sweat a bit, and Poland played their part – but it was the incentive of qualification that made the difference against a team with only (national) pride to play for. Now Woy’s Army march on to Bwazil – and a probable exit before the knockout phase.

Come on, Engerland!!