Very rarely do you get to watch a quite brilliant game of association football at 11am on a Sunday. Indeed, that time of the week is usually a time for peeling spuds, taking dogs/kids for a walk, nursing a tender head, or possibly setting off for a day out somewhere.
And during football matches, rarely do I want a late equaliser against the team I want to win.
But that was the scenario on June 11th, as I sat with my youngest lad watching England v Venezuela in the Under 20’s World Cup Final. The game was that good, I simply wanted another half an hour of it, even though that would have cruelly denied the Young Lions a cup win.
Those who know me will know that I’m not fussed when it comes to watching England. Yes, I’d want ‘us’ to win, but it often leaves me cold, and I often get over even the biggest of losses in big games in minutes. Contrast that to watching Stoke City, and there’s a marked difference. It takes me all week to snap out of us losing. And you can insert your own “well you must be the most miserable sod on earth, then” joke right here.
I grew up as a kid in Sneyd Green, watching on the telly any number of our ‘supporters’ rampage their way around Europe and the world, ensuring that many who went for the football were fair prey in the eyes of those who sought retribution and revenge. It also meant I wasn’t fussed about the actual game, half the time. I’ve also seen us play what can only be described as, technically, some of the worst football going – this, whilst earning a king’s ransom to be played off the park by countries without a penny, yet who managed to string passes together.
Yup, international football isn’t anywhere near the top of my agenda.
But there was a refreshing naieivity about the England Under 20 team during their World Cup. That’s not to say that the coaching staff didn’t do a fantastic job, setting them up and tactically. They obviously did. But how brilliant I thought it was to see us shooting from distance in injury time of the final whilst 1-0 up, and bringing on attacking subs at 1-0 up, and being very, very open at 1-0 up. It was akin to a game of basketball.
Contrast that to the world-weary ex-pro and England international commentator who noted near the end that we should “take the yellow card there” and “manage the game”. Thankfully, it seems that risk taking hadn’t been drummed/coached out of these kids yet, and I sat there with my youngest lad marvelling at two teams having a right go at each other.
Two teams, trying to win a simply huge game of football. A few weeks earlier, we’d watch Huddersfield and Reading trying their best not to lose one. And therein lies the difference….
I can take Stoke or England losing. Christ, we’ve had enough practice at that, eh? But how many times have you left matches bemoaning us not even having a go? Remember those “bonus matches”? Those parked buses? Remember those hammerings at Oxford and Swindon?
I’m not saying go all gung-ho, as the very best players and teams will simply destroy you. But surely (and no disrespect here) an England team can go to Hampden Park and at least try to play better football than Scotland, rather than nicking a win? Is this what the billions of pounds that have floated round the English game since it was invented in 1992 has amounted to? Scraping a result here? Qualifying, only to then not have a go at the finals, there?
Sorry, and nothing personal here, but when we go to Hampden with a back four and two holding midfielders in front of them – that simply is nowhere near good enough. It’s a coward’s mentality, and ensures we only have four attacking players on the pitch – one of those being played out wide, and out of position.
Again, I’ll reiterate – I don’t want to see gung-ho, losing football matches in the process. But a balance must be struck, as we’re losing the important games anyway. If a group of teenagers can go out in the biggest game of their young careers and play with no fear, then I fully expect experienced professionals and those who coach/manage them, to do the same. That’s why I love Bojan in a Stoke shirt so much. Even when he plays poorly, and he has since he came back from his injury, he still plays with a forward-thinking mentality, and with joy in his boots.
As much as I don’t like Arsene Wenger, I do agree with a comment he made a few years go, about what being ‘brave’ is on a football pitch. He talked about bravery being the ability to get on the ball, make things happen, take risks, expressing yourself, and that bravery isn’t about defending for ninety minutes and sticking your foot in. It’s not about just trying not to lose. It’s about doing your utmost to win. That’s why Spurs are so watchable. Again, there’s a balance to be struck between the two – and that’s possibly why Spurs are so Spursy – but with the money in the game surely there comes a responsibility to play with a little more joy than having Dier and Livermore shielding a back four, against a team ranked 61st in the FIFA rankings, with Blackburn’s centre half at the centre of their defence!
Perhaps the England Under 20’s did far more than win a World Cup? Perhaps they showed everyone why football really is a brilliant sport, and that you can win with a brilliant mentality?