And so the Premiership season reaches its natural conclusion, one in which (it seems) that an expensively-assembled team of global superstars triumphs over Sentimentality FC and another expensively-assembled team of global superstars with a slightly stunted grasp of irony.
Were this a battle for the charts, the number 1 spot would be going to One Direction (the sad indictment of modern music), narrowly beating a Facebook-fan-led drive from The Bee Gees (haven’t been big for years, mainly famous now for Tragedy) and Jennifer Lopez (“Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got, I’m still Roman/Jose from the block”). This analogy sadly falls flat for Arsenal because no band on earth scores constant top-5 hits for almost a decade without either breaking up or hitting the top spot. In a way they are unique.
Anyhow, enough of all that. The point is that, as the sun sets on the domestic season, so it rises in Brazil and the eyes of the world are drawn on the World Cup, like Sauron on a ringed Halfling.
Of course, Brazil is a country that football pairs with as naturally as tea and Hob Nobs, meaning that (providing the stadia stay upright for the duration) this is obviously going to be the best tournament since the World Cup was last in Brazil… 1950 or 2001 – depending on whether you recognise Mike Bassett’s semi-final run as an official tournament.
England will arrive at their base in Rio at their longest tournament odds in recent memory. Indeed those three-lion-tattooed lunatics who fancy a wager on Woy’s Boys can do so at a universally-available price of 33/1, giving us some distance between the Germanys and Brazils of this world and closer to the more realistic benchmarks of Colombia and Portugal.
The Golden Generation™ has mostly moved on: Becks is now a full-time football ambassador, Joe Cole is the team mascot at his beloved West Ham and Emile Heskey has been put out to stud. Only Liverpool’s mournful-eyed skipper “Stevie G” and Plug from the Bash Street Kids still command a position of any real importance in the national setup, although given the monumental success of the team over the period 2000-2012, it’s possibly no crying shame.
The squad that went to South Africa was littered with title winners and Champions League heroes, yet amassed a total of three goals in the tournament and were humiliated in the first knock-out round by the hun. The squad that are likely to travel to Brazil this summer are, for the most part, still impressed by Capital One Cup and Europa League medals.
In the aforementioned Mike Bassett: England Manager, the titular hero states upon his underwhelming appointment to the role, that “a lot of very qualified people have done this job before and look how badly they’ve done”. This is a sentiment that many have sought solace in as, for the first time in my lifetime, we enter a tournament with a seemingly realistic level of ambition.
But who are the brave souls that we are sending off in the most fruitless foreign adventure since Dunkirk? Yes, it’s time the for the Trivial Pursuits Official 2014 World Cup squad.
Joe Hart (Manchester City) – The most automatic of automatic selections, for reasons that become clearer when you see the next two names. Overcame an early-season bout of the Bonettis to reclaim his place in the Man City side and will probably remain England’s goalkeeper until some point in the 2050’s, when the reanimated corpse of Peter Shilton can take over between the sticks. Dandruff-free, which will be useful in the heat of Manaus.
Ben Foster (West Brom) – A capable deputy, largely on the basis that he A) is English, B) plays in the Premiership and C) recently renewed his passport. Has a jaw that can cut through granite. Or is that Scott Carson? Anyhow, whichever one plays for West Brom gets the job. Probably.
Fraser Forster (Celtic) – The third-choice keeper is up there with England Supporter’s Band trumpeter as one of the most pointless roles in any international tournament. Celtic’s Fraser Forster has actually won something this season (albeit the sort of league where players like Gary Hooper and Kris Commons are dubbed ‘unplayable’) and, as a Geordie, will be looking forward to getting ‘mortalled’ on the Copacabana and trying to shag a ladyboy. Should therefore travel.
Glen Johnson (Liverpool) – It is now 11 years since Johnson made his international debut (in a game that, somewhat incredibly, also featured James Beattie and Jermain Jenas) and only since being arguably England’s best player in Euro 2012 has the Liverpool right-back been undisputed first choice. Seems to no longer score his annual goal-of-the-season contender, however also makes less head-slammingly crass defensive errors than he used to. On balance, you’d take that.
Phil Jagielka (Everton) – Big Phil Jagielka is the sort of functional, no-nonsense, versatile defender who would have been a water bottle-carrying number 23 in previous campaigns. Now finds himself as one of the first names on the team sheet. Jamie Carragher must look at Phil’s international career and cry himself to sleep some nights.
Gary Cahill (Chelsea) – Cahill has been a revelation this season as the least flawed, and therefore most present of Mourinho’s back line. Still looks like a character from a Siegfried Sassoon poem, but his inherent Englishness belies a surprisingly good technique. Like Jagielka, will start by default.
Leighton Baines (Everton) – It seems almost unbelievable that, in 2010, England left Baines out of the squad for something called a Stephen Warnock. Four years on and the Everton man seems to have made the left-back slot his own. Long-term will probably be harshly remembered as “that guy who was left back between Ashley Cole and Luke Shaw”, but for now his attacking verve and set-piece delivery is a welcome weapon in a team that can lack creativity.
Chris Smalling (Manchester United) – Somewhat of an enigmatic figure, Smalling’s career to date has swung between the sublime and the ridiculous. Now 24 years old and with Ferdinand and Vidic vacating his club position, he must push on. Versatility and lack of options make him a bit of a no-brainer here.
Phil Jones (Manchester United) – Another player who really needs to nail down a club position is Phil Jones. Huge versatility (could well play in midfield if England go down the “Mourinho route”), athleticism and the sort of dedicated gurn that you normally only see at footage of an illegal M25 rave all stack up in his favour. A lack of game time this season does not.
Ashley Cole (Chelsea) – Sorry hipsters, if England are playing a better team than them in the World Cup (and given that two of our group fall into this category, it seems likely), I’d take Cashley over Luke Shaw any day. That said, he should probably retire from International duty as soon as the tournament is over, or “the knockout stages” as other countries know it.
The Controversial Issue – Only having seven defenders. I thought long(ish) and hard over this conundrum, but with James Milner able to fill in at full-back and the injured, muppet-headed Kyle Walker the only realistic alternative, I went for more entertaining picks further up the field. If Phil Jones is injured, expect an centre back to be picked who will probably win the only caps of his entire career in the warm-up friendlies.
Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) – Ah Stevie. Stevie, Stevie, Stevie… This season was so nearly the highlight of your career. That moment that you had waited your whole life for, that speech, your Trafalgar… Alas, football and indeed football studs are unpredictable things… Now back in the world of mediocrity after this season’s brief flirtation with success, England’s captain will hopefully continue his good club form into what should be his last major tournament.
Jordan Henderson (Liverpool) – The star that keeps rising. It seems endemic of how bizarre this season has been that Henderson would probably get in most people’s starting XI. The idea is (theoretically) that he does a lot of the leg-work that allows the others to flourish around him. Whether this works in the stuffy heat of Manaus remains to be seen. A decent shout to be the scapegoat for whatever entirely predictable defeat ends our tournament.
Raheem Sterling (Livepool) – Young, exciting, quick and with an exceptionally high sperm count, Sterling is the name sending the nation’s hype-o-meters spiralling from “meh…” to “we might do OK”. Has excelled across midfield this season, while goals against Man City and Arsenal suggest he likes the big occasion. Looks England’s next superstar in waiting, although we’re pretty sure that was said about Aaron Lennon at one stage.
Adam Lallana (Southampton) – The trendy name to suggest when the subject of spare slots in the national team comes up. Two-footed and skilful, with a decent range of passing and finishing, Lallana has improved immeasurably as a footballer since Pochettino took over at Southampton. Critics will argue that he has not been tested in Europe yet, while his yearning for a fluid number 10 role might make him a Joe Cole-esque square peg in a nation of round holes in the long term. Deserves a chance though.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal) – Strong, quick bulldozer of a midfielder who will probably end up playing centrally in the long-run. Can shoot off both feet, as a cracking strike against Brazil last year showed. Negatives include consistency and image association with the dire Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. Not impossible that Hodgson will give Kieron Gibbs his place by mistake.
James Milner (Manchester City) – Embodies everything that is wrong with the English national team. Not because he’s a bad player, his energy and versatility are valuable assets, but more because he summarises our lack of acceptance as to who we are. Whenever Milner is picked, you can hear the fans’ groans, as if he’s keeping some prodigious megastar out the side. The reality is, more often than not, that he’s keeping Adam Johnson out the side. And that’s a good thing. People need to take him for what he is: Our national identity made flesh.
Ross Barkley (Everton) – The new, new darling of the England setup and bullish driving force behind Everton’s strong year. At his best, he reminds you of when Rooney rampaged into Euro 2004 like a bull in a china shop. His lack of game time prior to this season is another stick to batter David Moyes’ credentials with. Unlikely to start in Brazil, but could prove a handful off the bench once Wazza’s 40 Lambert & Butlers catch up with him.
Jack Wilshere (Arsenal) – Has struggled with injuries of late (see last 3 years) and frustratingly prone to ‘dying-swan-itis’ when fouled, but still one of the most technically gifted midfielders in the country. In a more gifted talent-pool, he probably would have missed out on this tournament due to fitness concerns, however we are England and the alternative is Tom Cleverley, so he has to go.
Fabian Delph (Aston Villa) – OK… Balls out time. I have set out with the intention of having an exciting, forward-looking squad and one player who deserves inclusion as such is Villa’s Fabian Delph. England are going to need energy and mobility if they are to surprise people in this tournament and for that reason, I’d have Delph as a back-up for Henderson. Absolutely ran the show against Ramires in March and would be a considerably more interesting pick than 47-year-old Frank Lampard.
The Controversial Issue – No Lampard, no Carrick. At least one of them is definitely going to go, aren’t they? Sigh…
Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool) – After looking too big for his boots at Man City, then too selfish for his own good at Chelsea, Sturridge has been an astonishingly good signing for Liverpool. 35 goals in 48 games cannot be ignored and when you see the range of strikes he’s scored, it’s hard to deny that he looks the real deal. Able to run the channels, cut in from wide or drive on from deep, he could be the antithesis to the sort of stodgy displays England regularly produce on the big stage. Really needs to cut out that celebration though.
Wayne Rooney (Manchester United) – It’s become fashionable to slag off Wayne, with his massive contract, permanent scowl, punchable face, off-the-field antics, punchable face, association to David Moyes, berating of his own fans, punchable face and the fact that he hasn’t produced in a tournament for a decade. Oh and his punchable face. But he is still one of the most talented members of the squad and one of the few to have scored big goals in Europe. If he can learn to operate behind Sturridge, it could prove to be one of the more dangerous partnerships in the tournament, which is exactly why it probably won’t work. Has a punchable face.
Danny Welbeck (Manchester United) – Mystifying. It seems that no matter how many times I watch him play, I still can’t make my mind up as to whether he is brilliant or absolutely useless. A saner man would settle for somewhere in the middle, but this is English journalism and as such no place exists. Deserves credit as one of very few Man Utd players to enhance their reputation this season and genuinely caused Bayern Munich problems with his pace and movement. Can play on the left, albeit with all of the conviction of anyone else who has played left wing for England since Martin Peters.
Rickie Lambert (Southampton) – For the record, I definitely would have taken his clubmate Jay Rodriguez, with his wonderful ability to bumble through tackles, ahead of Lambert. However injury intervened, so now I am delighted to pack the Southampton veteran onto the plane. Regardless of his potentially-useful penalty prowess and generally calm finishing, the main reason behind this is that he still bears the look of a man who cannot believe he has got to where he has. Lest we forget, this is a guy who was packing beetroot into bottles aged 21 and didn’t play in the top two divisions until he was 28. There’s something glorious about the idea of him swapping shirts with the academy-nurtured Neymar’s and Messi’s of this world.
The Controversial Issue – Given the lack of alternatives, the controversial issue up front appears to revolve around whether or not one-man wrecking mule Andy Carroll makes the trip. To give him his dues, Carroll can be a handful, but there’s something unsavoury about the way you have to play to get the best out of him. Connor Wickham’s one-man salvage job on Sunderland was too little, too late.
THE GAME PLAN:
In previous campaigns, England’s game plan has usually seemed fairly robust but tended to resort to the worst sensibilities of the traditional 4-4-fucking-2 at the slightest sign of trouble. This is largely because, as any Sunday league manager will tell you, it’s the only way anyone in this country knows how to play. It’s how we’re taught from a young age. You’re unlikely to hear kids in the playground complaining that they’ve been asked to play as a “false 9” rather than an “enganche”, which on second thoughts is no bad thing.
However raising players who (bless them) are bears of little brain, in a country where using “wing backs” is considered a ludicrous tactical improvisation, does raise the problem of how to change things around and avoid getting mauled between the lines like we did in South Africa. To these ends I have a solution, and given that it worked when I coached Phaphane Primary School to the Mochudi Oros Cup in 2004, I expect it still works now…
Footballers might be simple, but they watch a lot of football. Therefore you simply take a successful team and you tell your footballers to emulate a player.
None of this individual thinking bollocks, you just tell them to do what ‘their player’ would have done in that situation. As such I propose that, much like Phaphane’s golden generation copied the system of Arsenal’s Invincibles, this England team ape the style of Liverpool.
For starters, 5 of the line-up are actually in the Liverpool side, while the keeper and other defenders are (if anything) an improvement on Brendan Rodgers’ team. Up front, you bring in the closest thing England have to Suarez (probably Rooney, if on form) and Coutinho (Lallana) and, hey presto! You have a team who might actually look like they know what positions they’re playing… It’s a novel concept.
But then again, why try that when we could just put Lampard and Gerrard together one last time? Over to you Woy.
By Harry Harland