From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.34 :: NO.40 :: Oct. 06, 2011
Jack Wilshere's injury has hit England hard.
An illusory win over feeble Bulgaria. A pitifully mediocre display at Wembley against Wales. Probable qualification for an eventual European final tournament in which on current evidence they haven't a ghost of a chance of winning or even surviving beyond the early stages. And if only that dynamic winger Craig Bellamy, now back at last with Liverpool, had been able to play for Wales, after picking up a debatable second yellow card playing for Wales in Cardiff against Montenegro, who know what would have happened.
As it was Gary Speed, once as Welsh star but now the Welsh manager, arguably made life easier for England at Wembley by obstinately keeping his potential trump card, the speedy, elusive and incisive Gareth Bale, on the right wing throughout. Thus saving the inexperienced England right back Chris Smalling, who for most of his short and unusual career, grabbed up from non-league Maidstone and finding his way as essentially a centre back from Fulham to Manchester United at a surprising GBP10 million fee, from potential embarrassment.
True, Bale had played dynamically on the right against Montenegro, who have promptly and petulantly sacked their manager Zlato Kranjkar after the Cardiff defeat. But Bellamy was not there to play and excel on the left so as it was, Smalling had a fairly easy evening at Wembley against an unimpressive Joe Ledley on the wing.
No one knows better than me the romantic history of Welsh football, its dramatic ability, under the benign aegis for many years of the Welsh FA secretary and father of Welsh soccer, Ted Robbins, to spring glorious surprises. Turning obscure players from the lower reaches of the League and even non-league into heroes for an afternoon once they pulled on the red Welsh jersey. Robbins wasn't the official team manager; they didn't even exist in those days. But he was still, in effect, the greatest manager they ever had, between the world wars and somewhat after. “Get your feet under the table, I'll be your Daddy!” he would tell the men whom he inspired.
In these hard and harsh times, such an inspirational father figure would be hard to find and Gary Speed wouldn't claim to be one. But watching the Welsh at Wembley, with so many players of modest renown rising to the occasion, deprived of a 1-1 draw only when little Robert Earnshaw, of all people, missed horribly from four yards, one thought of Robbins and the minor miracles he worked.
The return of Liverpool's Steven Gerrard from injury will help England's cause.
That Earnashaw should miss such palpable a chance, when a free kick and a flick had seriously exposed the England defender, was especially disappointing to one like myself, who had seen and enjoyed the resonating debut he had made years ago for Wales at Cardiff against powerful German team who could do nothing with him. Showing in spades what was once called the big match temperament, he toyed and tantalised the muscular German defenders, eventually and appropriately scoring the only goal of the match.
That Fabio Capello should have gone immediately after the last, disastrous World Cup, when the inept Football Association botched the terms of his contract, now seems more plain than ever. His excuses after the Welsh game were risible. He declared that he had realised before the match that his players were not in the right state of mind, that they seemed to have developed what might be called a Wembley complex, play to anxiety over performing at their home ground.
If that be true, then it is surely pathetic. It should always be an advantage for England teams to play at Wembley where they'd never been beaten or on any other home location till the masterly Hungarians arrived to thrash them 6-3 in November 1953. Indeed it was said that for many years foreign opposition came to London quaking at the knees at the prospect of confronting England on home soil.
Is one really to believe that the current crop of England players — such as they are — are so effected and spineless that they fear the reaction of the crowd when things are going wrong? Against Wales they were surely in this respect let off lightly.
Perhaps all is not quite lost. Steven Gerrard, the dynamic and greatly experienced Liverpool midfielder will shortly be back. And in some frustrating weeks, so will Aresenal's precocious Jack Wilshere; it is hardly Capello's fault that he is the solitary English playmaker of any substance. But the England tactics were baffling. Said to be favouring a 4-3-3 formation, Capello in fact deploys a set-up of 4-5-1, leaving Wayne Rooney, scintillating at Sofia, marooned alone up-field all too vulnerable, to be closely marked, as he was by the Welsh. Ask me not why the hefty Andy Carroll, Liverpool's GBP35 million striker, was brought on for the last couple of minutes, only for Fabio the following day to criticise him for his supposedly self indulgent lifestyle. Capello talks of casting out the old, bringing in the young and new. But, Wilshere apart, where and who are they?
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