Friday, 31 May 2013

England 1 Republic of Ireland 1

So a season of football watching that began 327 days ago and a couple of miles down the road at Wembley FC came full circle on Wednesday evening as England laboured to a draw against the Republic of Ireland.

People always say it, but the time has flown since the soggy Saturday afternoon I ambled down to catch the non-league sides’ first friendly against Feltham, which happened to be the only football “fix” available inside the M25 at that very early stage of pre-season. 

The Wembley arch soared in the near distance that day and so it was appropriate that 68 games, 194 goals, 36 new grounds, thousands of miles, hundreds of pounds and four nil-nils later, I watched my last action of 2012-2013 underneath it. 

There have been indescribable highs along the journey, moments when football has in our eyes become the only true art form and the only palpable emotion. Each season you carry a few cherished moments forward on the march of sport and time, knowing they will stitch into a life’s tapestry of football and never be forgotten. 

This season, for me, there will be the sheer elation of Boston United’s two goals at Gainsborough Trinity and the time-stood-still moment when Marc Newsham chipped in the winner at Halifax and the celebrations. The drunken haze of Hamburg giving way to wonderment at the Bundesliga experience and the beauty of watching future stars play on the shores of Lake Como. 

There will be the “I was there” experience of seeing England beat Brazil at Wembley, the delight at watching Chelsea outplayed by Swansea while the fans grew mutinous, and the rollercoaster that was Charlton Athletic 5 Cardiff City 4. 

England versus the Republic of Ireland won’t be recalled to the grandchildren. The inability of Roy Hodgson’s side to break through a packed and resolute, but hardly world class, defence was alarming, particularly as we are about to tick under one year to go until the World Cup in Brazil.

Play like this too often and England will not only fail at the finals, but many even fail to reach them. There was little service from the flanks to centre-forward Daniel Sturridge, who made little impact, with Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole, who received a golden cap to universal appreciation before kick-off to mark becoming the seventh England player to reach a century of caps, the culprits.

Wayne Rooney often found himself boxed in by two or three green shirts, often marooned ineffectively out on the flank, while Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain tested the Ireland defence rarely with their direct runs. 

At the back, Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka were found wanting on 13 minutes when Shane Long, who is 5ft 10, outjumped Cahill and Johnson to loop a fine header past Joe Hart. Jagielka was stuck on the edge of the box at the time, out of position. While many welcomed the retirement of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, you sensed that neither of them would have allowed this to happen.

The fabulous green wall of Irish fans, about 5-6,000, located across two tiers opposite us, celebrated like they’d won the World Cup. They were magnificent throughout, cheering every pass, tackle and clearance, and easily out-shouting the home crowd. 

England equalised through Frank Lampard who himself is just four caps short of a century. It was his 29th international goal, putting him one short of Alan Shearer. A remarkable achievement from midfield. But England’s continued reliance on Lampard, who is 34, is troubling. An heir apparent needs to emerge soon. 

The second half was a siege, with Giovanni Trapattoni urging caution as England scratched their chins and tried to work out how to break through two banks of Irish rearguard. As time wore on, Ireland might as well have been San Marino, committing no one into England’s half and inviting incessant pressure. 

I counted just a couple of occasions when England figured out how to work the ball in behind the defence, with Oxlade-Chamberlain having the principal chance, one-on-one with David Forde, but fluffed it. 

There was plenty of dissent on Wembley Way, with many questioning how the sullen and disinterested Rooney can still command a place in the side. Unfortunately, there’s nobody out there who’s better. Likewise in defence. Elsewhere, we missed Jack Wilshere, but I’d be in favour of blooding some more of the Under-21 players in friendlies like this.   

Wilfried Zaha, Josh McEachran, Henri Lansbury and Steven Caulker are four who could be given game time in forthcoming non-competitive games. Understandably, with the European Under-21 Championships in Israel starting next week, this wasn’t possible here but for the Scotland game in August, I would like to see some fresh names instead of the boring rotation of players like James Milner, Jack Rodwell and Jermain Defoe, who seem to lock out the squad every time and yet contribute very little. 

So that was that. Better tune in TMS...

This will be the final blog post on ‘More than Hope than Expectation.’ I started it three seasons ago to record my experiences watching football across the country and Europe and, more importantly, to try and get a job in sports journalism. 

I’ve done this and because of said job, I’ve found it a struggle to keep it up-to-date at times this season. Finding 800 colourful and witty words for some of the matches I’ve seen this year, while trying to keep it fresh and exciting, has been a real drain on time and energy. Having spent all day writing, it’s seldom an attractive proposition to come home and write at length on a match seen four or five days ago. 

Looking back, it’s turned into a cherished record of great memories and a little bit of Zeitgeist on the state of football in this country and beyond. I hope readers have found it entertaining, informative and even funny and I thank you for being there.

For me, it’s always be out in the inter-ether as a reminder of some damn good times. Farewell. 

Next Match: I’m not telling you anymore.