Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Never in doubt... England vs Germany

Who are we playing? Germany? I can't think of any reasons we might build this one up. Just another game etc... 

What's mad to me, is my earliest memories of German football are of West Germany. It's incredible to imagine that for a long time, half the country was off limits and the main city was split in two by a giant wall where you got shot if you tried to jump over it. It's like not being allowed to go to Birmingham because it's North Korea. Sort of. Imagine living in a grey country where there's food shortages and you're not allowed to travel eh?! 

Here's another thing (apros pos of nothing.) After the war (sorry... I went there) when the country was divided up into sections, under the rule of the different allied countries, the British quarter was very cautious about allowing football clubs and leagues to reconvene seeing them as potential rallying point for nationalistic sentiment, whereas the Americans weren't bothered and let them crack on, not really seeing football as a big deal. The Soviets viewed football as a broadly good thing in a communal kind of way and the French shared some of the British suspicion. 

What's that got to do with tonight? Literally nothing, but you've probably had your fill of people banging on about formations and saying mad stuff like 'he brings good energy' and 'that's the advantage of the defensive shield' so I thought we'd start off on a wildly different note. 


Harry Kane waits in the tunnel. He looks like school kid trying to look hard but not wholly convincing himself. He sets himself. He goes. The team follow, as does a volley of boos for the German anthem. People who don't really understand football crowds will probably tut and say things like "that's why we can't have nice things" Joachim Low is looking increasingly like a terrible middle aged version of the (also terribly middle aged) Stone Roses, but the Stone Roses going to a fancy dress party in a Kraftwerk outfit.

Das Germans get an early foul in. England get really excited because we can lump it in the box and we're English and that's what we get excited about. It doesn't work. No Andy Carroll... Pickford goes back to front, Kane chases it, but it doesn't work (again, no Andy Carroll.) Das Germans have an attack on the right and Kyle Walker has to head carefully wide at the far post as a nice floating cross hangs dangerously. 

Das (Die? Der?) Germans have a bit of pressure. Pickford screams for improvement, his face contorted. He's got the manner of an angry sparrowhawk. Southgate muses. He gives off the vibes of a groom at a wedding who isn't sure about the suit. Sterling loses the ball. Das Germans break like lightning. Pickford races out and kicks it harder than anyone has ever kicked a ball ever. It comes all the way back though, another break, they're through and they're being hauled down by Rice. A massive build up, but the free kick is crashed into the wall. 

England have started poorly, but they manage a few minutes without incident. Saka is getting forward more, the rest of the team are managing some sideways and backwards passing. Sterling has a go from way out, it's good, it's curling, it's heading in!... but Neur is stepping sideways, springing and getting two hands to it. Better… 

Tackles are flying in. Phillips is snarling. Maguire steps out and wins it brilliantly on the ground then bounces out of defence to win a header, sending Muller flying. If you had to imagine any of the England team as a mobile bouncy castle, it would be Harry Maguire. 

Trippier swirls a dangerous free kick, Germany smuggle it away. Phillips plays a divine pass from the centre circle to Trippier in the corner, he crosses, the bouncy castle bounces in but the header boings over the top. 

England have been on top but Germany crisply attack, zig zagging up the pitch, swinging in a cross that would be deadly if Gosens timed his leap better. Moments later, Pickford is out, making a smart sliding stop at the feet of Havertz. Don't get too comfortable!

England try to football it through on the right. Germany try to football it down the middle. Kane comes deep and lifts it over the top but Phillips can't chase it down. It's the first moment I've noticed he's playing. Finally, Kane does something up front. Coming short, he takes a pass, spins beats one, is on his way past another and is brought down. Trippier's quick dinked free kick almost catches everyone off guard but Hummels is awake and follows Kane magnetically whilst everyone else watches and gets a vital touch to turn it out. 

Then chaos. A lazy pass gifts it to Sterling 40 yards out. He charges to the edge of the box and falls, the ball pops out to Kane, he might shoot first time but he steadies himself, goes round the keeper and… again Hummels saves the Germans with a tremendous sliding tackle. A massive chance. 


Very even. 


The BBC spent 5 solid minutes on analysing Kane not playing very well. He's still there though. His first act is to try and flick it round the corner and lose it. From that, Germany make their way up the pitch, slowly, menacingly up the pitch. England half clear a cross but Havertz hits a vicious half volley that Pickford responds to with a full blown jack in a box spring, throwing his arm up, jack knifing in mid air and tipping it over the top. 

Sterling has a stuttering run, he makes the space to pass, but then continues to run about with the ball anyway. Kane leaps for a Sako clearance and needs treatment. He spends a while tending to his parting as he waits to come back on. His face is blank. Sterling has another run, plays a one two with Kane, then streaks towards the box. Saka points, the space opens for a pass. Sterling just keeps running. 

The game is getting fractious. England pass it about but don't look like getting any pressure on . The Germans don't seem especially concerned about attacking but fairly dangerous when they do. It's difficult not to conclude that Kane is wandering about up front looking pretty languid but the first change sees Grealish on for Saka. I realise DCL isn't even on the bench. That seems a bit weird. We've got about 400 players who aren't quite a striker, but we've left out the only other one who is.

Things continue as before… but then England score! Sterling drives forward, Kane squares it. Grealish shuffles it out wide to Shaw who slides it low to Sterling who had continued running, into the box, checking his dart to the edge of the six yard box quite brilliantly, gliding in perfectly and just lifting a boot to guide it home. So calm. He looked like he was roller skating in, then lifting a toe to put the brakes on.

From the kick off Maguire concedes a free kick on the edge of the box. Germany slam it into the wall. The cheers match those of the goal.

Now Pickford is going insane on the edge of the box. He's in full on road rage mode. Sterling has dropped a pass short, Germany have raced through the middle and Muller has been free and slid a shot that looked destined to nestle into the bottom corner inches past the post. Pickford is not happy about that. 

And then the languid half arsed hopeless bastard only goes and does it. He shuts up the doubters. Shaw steals possession on the half way line. He strides forward, then plays it wide, Grealish takes a stride or two then whips it across the face of goal. Kane collapses to his knees and glances it home. 

Henderson and his long legs come on. Stones heads away. Shaw heads away. Maguire heads away. Joachim Low contemplates a career beyond football perhaps. Maybe he could design brutalist architecture? Or be an art terrorist? Germany try a bicycle kick but it goes wide. Germany launch it long, Pickford catches. Walker heads away. Low purses his lips. 

The whistle goes. 


Kane applauds with the same face he wore at kick off. Grealish looks adorably happy. Sterling has a cheeky smile. I like the way he just looks chuffed. A player who has had that much stick could be lording it, pointing to his name and strutting about but he just looks pleased. The bouncy castle blows out his cheeks and raises his arms. Henderson drinks in the applause even though he didn't seem to actually touch the ball. Even Klinsmann seems to be enjoying himself, which makes a nice change from the performative anger of some of the other pundits when things don't go their way. You don't need to win 5-3 if you don't concede any goals. Without playing particularly outlandishly brilliantly in any one game, without really totally dominating a match or blowing anyone off the pitch, England have reached a position they look to be strong favourites to reach the final. The defence and the defensive elements of the midfield were excellent today. The attack was good enough to score twice. Imagine if they'd picked Jerry Yates? We'd have got it won already...

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Game. Managed: England vs Czech Republic

The world is on fire because England weren't fun on Friday. It was FUCKING FRIDAY AND FRIDAY SHOULD BE FUN!!!. We might as well all go into the cellar and just lie there and wait for our eventual starvation because without attacking football, we'll never win anything. Because no one wins anything playing like that. EVER. Defense is pointless. You don't score goals by defending do you? In fact, lets just leave the EUROS now. We left Europe, so lets leave the EUROS. We didn't vote Brexit for this! Not for Kalvin bloody Phillips with his hair done like he's in a skate punk band and some lad named after chinese food to pass it sideways and not SMASH THE JOCKS. It's a national disgrace. An embarrassment. I might cut my own head off in shame. Harry Kane is shit. They're all shit. The Croatia game doesn't even count. We're probably going to get disbanded by the UN and all sold into slavery to the french unless Southgate sorts it out. Might as well have lost the war. 

And breath. 

England were a bit shit last time out, but that's what football is like. You are sometimes shit and sometimes not. If you can put together a few not shit performances, you've got a chance. Denmark were utter shit, they hadn't even qualified properly when they won it. Greece were even worse. Like an international Wycombe. Grealish plays, so what's to worry about? Ok, the only reason we all want him to play is cos he has his socks down which always gives of a sense of someone with a bit of something so that's a good thing. Walker might not be a total footballer, but his return will add some nice pace and he should be able link with Saka. Maguire adds 'classic English centre back who will run through a brick wall' vibes and if anything says 'England' it's a meaty lad who like to head it...

Basically, cheer the fuck up and stop being a despondent nation of uberrealists . Might not happen. Then again, it might. 


Kane comes and does some deep work, then combines with Grealish before Shaw dinks a ball over the top. Sterling races onto it and himself dinks it, over the keeper and.... onto the post. Decent. 

Not much happens for a while. Grealish runs and everyone gets excited. Kane comes ridiculously deep. Kane jumps for a ball that isn't really on and gets smacked in the face. He always looks like he's wearing mascara. He has the eyes of a 30s female film star. 

Saka runs like a dream, he lays off to Philips, who threads it through back to him. He crosses, it's too deep, but Grealish nods it back, Kane does brilliantly to hold it and lay it wide, Grealish crosses, everyone stretches but it's the smallest man on the pitch, Sterling, who bundles it home. It's a lovely goal. Far better from England, quick, decisive and aggressive. 

Southgate rocks from side to side, staring intently into the middle distance, lost in thoughts. He looks like a man invigilating a mock exam. Walker charges the keeper. Shaw closes down the hurried pass. The Czechs concede possession. That's what they simply didn't do against Scotland. 

Saka is fouled on the edge of the D, but the ref calls it a dive. Southgate comes alive, like he's spotted someone trying to show their answer sheet to the table next to them. The Czechs try a bit of attacking, but the England defence is effective in cutting out the through ball and blocking the cross which sets a pattern to the game. 

Saka has another run. He loses it, he wins it back, he plays it in. Everyone has a go at passing it to someone else to shoot. Maguire plays a through ball. Kane is there, 10 yards out, he controls, he turns, makes the space for a short, hits it and the keeper gets a glove out and the ball smacks into it. 

From nowhere a shot from outside the box sees Pickford hurling himself to his right. As he's in the air, he looks sleek, his compact frame extending with telescopic grace. There's a series of corners and crosses, some hasty blocks and hard hit shots but England survive. 

Kane takes it deep, he turns his man and the ball to Saka is outrageously well weighted. It's a dream of a pass. Away he kid races, streaking down the right again, he finds Sterling whose cross is blocked. Saka belts down the right yet again, Grealish takes over, he run then just at the last second, as it looks like he's going to take on his man, lays it off then steps over the return pass to leave it for Shaw who hammers it at the near post and sees it beaten away. 

A cross from the right, an acrobatic kick, Shaw dives in, his head hits the ball, the Czech boot hits his head. The ball bounces out to the edge of the box and is sliced back towards goal, bouncing just, just wide. 

Sam Matterface helpfully explains that teams aim to win football games. Scotland score and I think about watching that instead cos there's more on it. England see out the rest of the half with reasonable ease. 


Better from England, more movement, getting players beyond Kane gives him someone to play with and makes him coming deep make more sense. Saka has been excellent, I think Walker and Shaw have also both played well. Mostly quite decent. 


Henderson is on. I don't know what it is about him, but close up he reminds me of a plastic toy action figure. Maybe a rubbish one made in Korea to imitate a more established brand that looks a bit strange. I watch him for a bit. His legs are ridiculously long. I've never noticed that before. He runs backwards for a while. England kick the ball out for a corner for no real reason. The Czechs can't take advantage. 

England create some pressure. Henderson plays a lovely chipped ball from wide to the penalty spot, Kane has a big gap to run into but he stretches to control and slips. The Czechs have their own spell of pressure in response, keeping England penned back, not causing any particular trouble, but menacing on the edge of the box. 

The game does have the air of a friendly. England seem to have resorted to bashing it as hard as the can up the pitch. The Czechs are quite crisp, committed and not without skill, but they seem quite predictable. Pickford races out and punches away a cross from the right. Every time, they seem to go down the right This time Pickford evokes images of an underfed lion trying to dominate the rest of the pride. Talking of underfed players. Modric scores against Scotland. 

Sterling departs, Rashford comes on. Grealish comes off and Bellingham come on. England scream for a penalty as a free kick from the right is whipped in and Maguire tumbles. The world wonders when Sancho will get a few minutes. England play another long ball that's chased manfully but dealt with as all the previous ones have been. This hasn't been a great half so far. 

Both Maguire and Stones have mad runs from centre half. The Czechs have a rare attack down the left and Walker has to sprint to get a block in. The atmosphere is flat. As what sounds like about 15 people sing 'Football's coming home' England take a goal kick short but their passing doesn't get them out of their own half. The rest of Wembley resolutely refuse to join in the chorus. Scotland concede another though and the fans cheer up. Tyrone Mings comes on for Stones in the world's least exciting substitution. I think this is 'game management' - which, if you lose, the lack of which is what people who ring talksport rant about as if football is as simple as deciding not to concede a goal. 

England get to the corner. Henderson checks back and they go all the way back again. Thrill a minute stuff this! The Czechs have a shot, a chance that comes from a poor Pickford clearance, but it's yards wide. Finally Sancho comes on for the excellent Saka. The Czech manager who looks like he might be an art professor at a Prague university who would be involved in a scandal and end up being led away by security whilst his office gets searched, swigs his water. His team kick the ball out of play by their own box, but England can't fashion an attack even when invited to start by the box. 

Then a goal! Then not a goal. Offside denies Henderson as he tucks it away neatly from 8 yards. The time ticks on. Frankly, I'm tired, I really don't want to listen to Matterface anymore. Honestly, the man is like listening to someone doing an impression of a commentator. I'm sure he's putting his voice on. Rashford briefly raises pulses with a step over and a lovely push and go pash his man, but the cross for Sancho is headed away. 

The terrible spectre of 'bad game management' briefly raises its head as England play out poorly, gift it to the opposition, but they can only run with it for a few yards and belt it miles over the top. National meltdown avoided. Another long ball chased by England. As Matterface makes a terrible pun about Scotland going into isolation, I realise what annoys me about him - he wants to be a bit of everything. He does the grandiose state of the nation Jonathan Pierce style speeches, combined with the Motson stats but intermingled with a bit of tactical observation with a sprinkle of banter thrown in. He doesn't let the game breath. He doesn't leave any space to think. He's burbling on, constantly. 

Which, as someone who chats endless shit on a blog for no money and often writes over long match reports full of things people don't want to know, is just the voice of jealousy speaking. 

By the way. The final whistle has gone. 


Quite good first half. Really dull second half. Nothing really happened. It was fine. England are through. 

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Friday, June 18, 2021

Unadventurous Eurostars 0-0 Lurid cake munchers

What the fuck is an Empire biscuit? It's like something kids make in Primary School. 

You know the drill by now. I'm going to chat irrelevant shite. Other media outlets are available. 

Why Scotland is better than England: 

1. You can do 'hutting' in Scotland. This sounds like it might be a questionable sexual practice but it isn't*. It basically means (in theory) you can erect (ha ha ha) a small (wee) hut on any bit of land that whoever owns the land allows you to without dicking about with loads of planning stuff. So in other words, you can nip to (tae) B+Q and buy a holiday home (hame) 

*What you (ye) get up to in the privacy of yer own hut is up to you. 

2. You can walk anywhere apart from someone's actual garden or mad stuff like nuclear bases. This doesn't seem like much to some, but walking is all that keeps me from jumping in the sea some days. 

Why England is better than Scotland. 

1. Pubs. It's not true that there are no decent pubs in Scotland, (there's at least 3 that are pretty good) but it's fair to state that many pubs in Scotland smell mostly of bleach, stale fag smoke from 20 years ago and brutal emptiness. That's not a bad thing on some levels, there's a lot to be said for the spartan honesty of such establishments but there is something inescapably bleak about yer archetypal Scottish public house (hoose) 

2. Pastry products. Of the ten worst bakery experiences I've ever had, ten of them have been Scottish. I'm still digesting a pie I ate near Ayr thirty years ago and a bridie I once ate in Dalbeattie took ten years of my life, so packed was it with a level of salt that it made the dead sea seem positively saltless.

The cakes are all lurid mad colours, like someone tipped a batch of dayglo highlighter pens in the icing/cream. Seeing them sweat in a baker's window, gathering a sheen on them. Honestly. I feel a bit ill. 


If I'm absolutely honest, I'm not really that arsed about lines on a map that someone drew ages ago for reasons I don't really understand. The main drawback to Scotland for me is that it hasn't got Lancashire in it and Lancashire is wonderful. Scotland's grand and that, but Lancashire > Lanarkshire. 


Scotland is great for both big hills, rolling glens and for pretending your in Eastern Europe with huge blocks of flats with ridiculously small windows. It's a particularly cracking place if you like grey render. You have to say though, that Vaughan Williams beats the bagpipes hands down. (doon) 


After all that shite, I'm not going to pretend to have done any thinking about the game itself: (the fitba) England have changed their fullbacks but still deny us Grealish. Scotland have put Che Adams up front, got Billy Gilmour in and Tierney is back. I thought Scotland were better than 2-0 losers against a Czech Republic side who in turn looked a lot better than a really tepid Croatia so it might be a decent game. It also might just be a walkover. 

Gary Neville is wearing a jacket that seems to have a tracksuit top sewn into it. Or, he's wearing a posh jacket over a trackie top. Either way, it's a bit strange. Mark Pougatch would be quite high on my list of people who would be good to play an evil billionaire super villain whose company hides his dastardly scheme in plain sight. There's something about the coldness of his eyes that juxtaposes with his personable matey TV voice. Roy Keane looks like he might just walk off and go for a pint in what could well be a Matelan coat. At half time, he sounds like he's going to cry at the uselessness of humanity being summed by John Stones not reading the flight of the ball. Graeme Souness and his new teeth are getting giddy in away that makes you fear he might be heading for a bit of a let down. Steve Clarke has fat tie, like he's bought it from a shop on a railway station in the mid 90s and his permanent scowl breaks as he offers a bit of banter. Gareth Southgate goes for a straight bat cos that's what Gareth Southgate does. 


Scotland set the tone with an early chance, but England assert themselves with 3 in quick succession including Stones rattling the inside of the post from the aforementioned header. Sterling is excellent for 15 minutes but disappears. He really is England's Sullay Kaikai. From the point that England miss their last chance in that sequence.  Scotland play really well. Adams is tremendous, winning it, holding it up, bustling about. Dykes and he don't look an especially well matched pair on paper but they play well together. They make it work. Pickford makes a stunning stop from O'Donnell. It's exactly what he's best at, plunging low, with an impossibly strong hand. Adam stretches desperately but can't turn the rebound home. 

At half time, I feel like Scotland have had a surprising amount of quality possession. I've really enjoyed the half. It's been tense and both sides have had their moments. At one point, I think the Scots put roughly thirty passes together before Adams has a shot. It's clear they're not just here to sit deep and smack it long. England look a bit languid, static. They don't look like they did against Croatia at all outside of that one little sweet spell, where they looked briefly irresistible.  

The second half is opened by 5 minutes of England pressure but they never really hit that form again. Scotland again fashion chances, James heading the ball over the top as Dykes hits a shot hard on the turn, the ball getting stuck under Adams' feet at the crucial moment and the same player slashing it over the top after a move in which Scotland win the ball back 3 times when it looked like they'd lost possession. 

England don't press at all. Scotland play it out, play it around the back. Grealish comes on, but he stands on the left touchline mostly when it seems obvious that England need someone to drive at the heart of the defence. 

Scotland look like they try to win it. Billy Gilmour was really good but when he comes off, it's the bustling attacking threat of Stuart Armstrong who comes on. By contrast, England seem devoid of a plan B, playing the same way and whilst they brought on attacking players, it came at the cost of withdrawing other attacking players rather than shifting things around to try and overload Scotland. The two defensive midfielders remaining firmly in place and yet, Modric isn't playing... Sterling wanders about in the second half but makes little impact. Kane, one beautiful pass from wide aside, offers little and to the incredulity of ITV gets subbed. There's one moment of terror for the Scotland as a mad scramble in the box sees Scott McTominey throwing himself into the melee like a rugby league player, as if the ball was a hand grenade and only his sacrifice could save a crowd of children. The game ends with Grealish running at Scotland, meeting a brick wall and passing it back. 


The full backs rarely marauded. Foden's quality was obvious, even if his impact was limited and I'm not sure why he comes off as if him and Grealish on the same pitch will cause some kind of calamity to happen. More than anything, it's the sense that the subs change nothing because the system doesn't change because caution comes before the risk. Maybe it's the problem of being England. There's too much to lose where as you watch say, Wales, playing fearless, aggressive football, perhaps, because there isn't. 

Scotland were the image of what Steve Clarke made at Kilmarnock. Solid, committed and capable of surprising with bursts of quality play that comes from the players having confidence in both each other and the plan. Clarke is never going to be a sexy football manager, but the post Clarke fate of Killie speaks of his influence. Scotland made the most of their resources, they played to their strengths, the players looked comfortable, they posed a threat, despite not really having a top level striker to call on (to make the point clearly, their sub Nisbett was at Raith Rovers (avg attendance about 1,800) and Dunfermline (avg attendance about 4000) prior to joining Hibs this year) whilst England, with all their Champions League winners and finalists, with all their 'big game quality' at their disposal struggled outside of a few little spells to even look they wanted to be threatening. Simply put, Scotland played above the sum of their parts. The same really can't be said of England who had the chance to pin a side with a back 5 in and instead mostly just played in front of them, looking a bit confused about what to do about it.  

It's a point though. Could be worse! Playing too well, too early is never a good idea... 

Sunday, June 13, 2021

From dreadful line up to inevitable champions: England vs Croatia

That Phillips lad is decent... 

Wembley is roasting in sunshine and everything is very red. It's so red that it's a bit uncomfortable to look at. The BBC interview Harry Kane on a shit chair in some long grass which makes him and the interviewer look like they're a holidaying couple on the Norfolk Broads sat on a towpath. Alan Shearer answers questions by giving suspicious looking side eyes. Possibly he's eyeing up Gary Lineker's glasses. It really does look as if he's gone to specsavers and asked for 'a set of spectacles your nan might have worn in the early 1990s please.' Lampard's eyes harden as Tommy Tuchel gets mentioned.  Rio continues not to age. 

It looks to me, with an untrained eye, as if we've set up not to lose, or to at least, not to be losing by the time we've brought the good players on. I mean, obviously, they're all good players and that, but it's hardly the most exciting line up the world has ever seen, it's hard to see a collection of defensive midfielders and out of position full backs producing a gung ho fearless display. Bring back Kevin Keegan. 


Croatia's kit looks a bit like something a motocross rider would wear. On the pitch, they look somewhat incongruous in anoraks in 28 degrees and blue sky. The anthems are sung with spectacular tunelessness by both sets of players with the England lads really going for it by being out of time as well. As England link arms and stand together, they look, in the best possible way, like a right motley crue of Bash Street kids all different heights and daft haircuts. I'm still sulking cos Grealish isn't playing but then again, Foden is and it's hardly Geoff Thomas and Carlton Palmer is it? 

The knee is observed with a noise. The nature of the noise is probably going to be dissected endlessly but neither the Third Reich nor the Bolshevik revolution are evoked . Once we're off the shadow and sun makes it feel like it's being played abroad. Foden starts by losing the ball. Trippier by running into someone. Sterling tries a little spin. He loses the ball. He tackles someone, wins the ball, tries another turn and loses the ball. Croatia have a spell, Modric glides through the England defence but the referee pulls play back, which seems a bit unfair as he was obstructing Modric if he was impeding anyone.

Then Sterling dead centre, slides it to Foden, he takes a few strides forward and he plants it hard, against the base of the post. That really was the ghost of Gazza... England are coming forward again, a double penalty shout as Mount is challenged but sets Sterling free, here he goes, the ball doesn't quite get out from under his feet and he's tackled. From the corner, Philips hits a volleyed drive from distance, through a crowded box and another save.

England have Croatia rattled. England are playing the press well. Foden's Gazza hair makes me nervous whenever he goes into a challenge, just as Gazza made me nervous but the lad seems to be pretty disciplined in a way that Gazza, all untamed and wild magic, never did. I struggle for a reference point for Philip's hair until I realise it reminds me of Cobi Jones. Sterling always reminds me of a dressage pony the way he prances on the ball with his bum stuck out. Every time I watch Kane it takes me 5 minutes to remember he is much better than he looks like he is. 

Philips makes a great tackle on the edge of the box, sliding, winning the ball, springing up and shooting in one fluid movement. The keeper dives and palms it away, the ref whistles. It wouldn't have counted, but it's lovely football and I really like the look of him. Sterling suddenly has space in the box and it looks like he might shoot, but he checks back and lifts it to the far post where it's bundled away. 

Croatia gift another chance. Pickford takes a goal kick, looking as he always does, like an overwound clockwork toy going a bit too quickly. It's a nice ball into the channel, it's nodded out. Trippier takes a throw and Sterling is suddenly shooting from 25 yards. It's high and wide, but it was weirdly easy. A long punt, a quick throw and a clear sight of goal without really trying. 

The game dies down. Walker passes it out of play for no apparent reason. Croatia have a few attacks, a few wonky crosses that cause no real alarm and some running at the defence that whilst players go down, doesn't draw a whistle. Pickford takes another goal kick with so much effort he nearly falls over. Walker is gifted a chance to play a key pass by a sublime touch from Foden who leaps, kills the ball with his toe in the way only a real magician ever can and touches off to Walker, but he overhits the return pass. Sterling runs through the middle, tries to thread Foden through but the bleached one is squeezed out. 

Mings hoofs it up to Sterling. This simplicity again shouldn't work, but it does as Sterling causes undue fear and the Croatia man handles right on the edge of the box. There's a big  build up but Kieran Trippier hammers it into the wall. 

Halftime comes with the strange spectacle of no added time at all. When does that ever happen?  


Decent enough. The only player I thought really didn't look on their game was Walker whose use of the ball was notably poor. I don't know these players well at all as I don't really watch anything other than Blackpool and the random other games that are on normal telly like Scottish second tier football, but I liked the look of Phillips who seems to combine bite and some forward thinking play, I thought Foden is worth the hype and Trippier is a dilemma. He's got delivery to die for but once or twice, him having to switch feet slowed the play. 


Croatia start with a bit more verve. There's a shithouse tackle on Mount and a few forays forward, the most threatening of which causes Pickford to hare out and belt it away. England have an attack, but it breaks down and they pass it all the way back instead. Croatia put a neat move together that culminates in Modric driving from miles out, Pickford stopping it easily enough, but a moment which suggests England's dominance of the first half is over. The crowd restlessly singing for Jack Grealish sums up a lot about how the

No sooner have I thought this, then England score and it's the lad who needs a goal in a game like this more than anyone. Phillips runs onto a ball from the full back position, cuts inside, his physical strength carrying through a tackle and taking him to the edge of the box, before he slips a divine pass into the path of Sterling who has just the keeper to beat, and he does, the ball hitting the goalie but bouncing on into the net. 

Sterling turns prompter, playing a diagonal to set Mount away wide who quickly turns it across goal, gain charges in, makes contact close in, the keeper and a defender charge, the ball is goes over and Kane clatters into the post. 

Memories of Gazza are stirred again as the talismanic blonde gets a soft booking. Sterling takes the piss, beating one, but then gets cleaned out. The ref isn't interested. Croatia create a bit of jeopardy, a cross nodded out leads to a snapshot that pinballs out again, to Kovacic who shapes up dangerously and shanks it wide from inside the box.  As Croatia go forward, chances to break emerge and Mount runs down the middle with plays streaming up to join him. He's pulled down on the edge of the D, gets up and curls the free kick an inch or two over. 

As Croatia make a couple of changes, I decide their kit looks less like a motocross shirt and more like the sort of thing Kwikfit might make the lad in the office who does the card machine wear. They have a corner. Modric takes it, making it float like only the best players can and Brozovic meets it on the volley but hammers it well, well wide. 

Foden comes off. I was hoping to say 'Gazza's hair is off and Gazza's feet comes on' as I fully expect to see Grealish jog on, but it isn't him after all. Rashford is the man instead, a sub presumably designed to take advantage of the chance to break. Croatia fashion a bit more attack and as much as I was critical of Walker in the first half, he twice is brilliant under pressure, once a header he ran onto himself and cleared, the second a brilliant bit of shielding, where it might have been easier to panic and challenge that allows Pickford to claim. 

A free kick into the box, Mings pulls away past the far post and nods it back. Sterling has an age to line up the shot but he hammers it a mile over. Oh Raheem. Croatia start back attacking and the game fals into another lull, they work it around, probing, but not really threatening. The crowd is flat again. For one that measures over double the play off final attendance, it's half as passionate. The ball keeps going into the right hand corner but England keep winning it back and clearing. It's really less tense than you'd expect. 

Jude Bellingham isn't Jack Grealish either but he's an exciting sub, proving he's not simply the new Theo Walcott and is here to be used. Kane goes off having run hard and led the line. I like Harry Kane a lot, largely because he looks like a footballer from the past. If you lined up Tommy Lawton and Wilf Mannion and shoved Kane between them, you'd never notice he was out of his era. 

Bellingham isn't shy of a challenge is my first impression of him. Sterling also impresses defensively. There's a nasty moment when Bellingham has clash of heads and lies flat on his back receiving treatment. He's fine in the end, but it had echoes of last night for a split second. Sterling is replaced by DCL, which means with him and Rashform up front England are going for a really leggy 'big shorts' look. Bellingham makes another terrific tackle. Walker shows composure again to tidy up a dicy moment. 

The seconds tick away. Croatia have a throw, it's launched long, it's nodded away but falls to a black and grey checkerboard shirt. The lad swivels and hits it... but it's high into the stands. 


A really impressive start by England overall. They restricted Croatia to a few long shots and aimless crosses and maintained an attacking threat for quite a lot of the game. It was obvious from the outset that the plan was to restrict the opposition but impressive how they a) carried that out and b) showed more ambition than I feared they might having seen the team sheet. 

Sunburnt men have their tops off in front of their flags singing songs from 25 years ago. Sterling has come good. The kids look decent. Pickford didn't go mad. Let the wild and inevitably misplaced optimism begin! 


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MCLF Eurotrash edition: England vs Croatia (preview)

This is not a blog written from a position of authority

Last night I watched a fella nearly die. Or die a bit and get brought back to life. I'm not sure. The specifics of mortality are sketchy. The universality of it is absolute. Why didn't I turn off? I don't know. The ghoulish desire to be part of a moment maybe. <FEAR OF MISSING OUT> writ large. Something happening. Look. That man is dying. Which is unbelievably appalling really. We're all utter dickheads who've produced a dickhead world. Look at us ffs. Raging over everything as we're if ace when really it's just a mess of egos and waste. 

Anyway... Football very occasionally collides with the very things it takes us away from. Those moments are profoundly shocking but they serve to remind us that the game is only a game and that's exactly what makes it a beautiful thing. If you forget that, if you get too wrapped up in it being something it isn't, it becomes just another burden weighing your life down. 

I have nothing profound to say beyond performatively swearing in a nihilistic manner. It was minging beyond belief and I'm more than a bit ashamed I voyeuristically lived someone else's nightmare. The lad seems to be ok. Shit happens, his team-mates and the medical staff were immense. It reminded me in a sense of the experience of listening to Hillsborough unfold at the age of 9, which was, without dramatising it needlessly, probably the day I realised definitively that really bad things can happen to people even if you look both ways crossing the road, fasten your seat belt, don't go with strangers and that 'life's not fair' isn't just a platitude. 

That's why we watch football. To escape that knowledge. To be part of a little collective bubble in which we all conspire to suspend normality together - all that matters for a bit is that one team get the ball into the other team's goal. An England game is the ideal opportunity for such a frivolous absurdity. 


I've got to be honest from the outset, whilst I might know a reasonable amount about football in general, the specifics of the England team in 2021 are really beyond me. I can tell you about say, Bradford Park Avenue or how Neil McBain had to play for New Brighton at the age of 53, but as for yer Mason Mounts and that, I don't really know who most of them are. I like Grealish cos who doesn't? I always think that Sterling is a bit like the nation's Sullay Kaikai and I feel duty bound to defend him for no real reason other than he looks mad good before he misses from 4 yards and I think 'well, at least he has a go'.

I'm not sure if we've got any defenders who can defend and I reckon Pickford is both the best English goalkeeper in the country and a liability in one bouncy bouncy bouncy body. He's like one of those mad goalies that foreign teams used to have back in the day when England alway picked a very sensible keeper, probably one with a moustache who under no circumstances would ever punch the ball, would stay on his line stoically but was rubbish at kicking and throwing out.  

I've barely got an opinion on how we should line up or how we should play. In fact, so much league 1 football have I watched this year (and so little of anything else) I'm still genuinely expecting Jerry Yates will be up front. Why not? I remember when we picked Steve Bull. It was great. I'd regard it as a mind game. Tell the opposition you're so confident that even a third tier striker is better than their ragged lot. That's the sort of tactics that'll win you the Euros every day of the week. 

No one used to say dickhead things like 'ah, but has he been tested at a Champions League club hmm?' 

As I write, I'm trying to remember the last time I had a strong opinion on England. I think it's probably when Glen Hoddle picked David Batty ahead of both Gazza and Le Tissier. I can already hear people starting to formulate 'yes, but the system...' type responses to justify such an atrocity and all I can say is 'If you think leaving out the two most imperiously gifted and instinctive footballers of their generation in place of an admittedly wholehearted and able player, but one who is essentially a glorified sunday league midfielder is the way we're going to win things, then you're deluded and can stick your 'system' up your arse' 

In fact, I think the problem is, I've never got over that outrage and view all subsequent England matches through the prism of that disappointment. It feels like we always put pragmatism ahead of raw skill. Somehow, we even conspired to make Rooney seem normal in the end. What a fucking player he was at the beginning and yet, by the end, he seemed lumpen and stodgy as if the accumulated effect of playing so many games of English football had turned him into everything he seemed to be a glorious break from. Even when we played him in midfield with instructions to 'run the game' it only served to remind us that we just don't produce players like Pirlo and Zidane or if we do, we don't develop them to be an integral part of our teams and end up having to play a tubby bloke who is two slow to play his own position now. You end up with someone way past his best looking like a 5 aside dad who once had trials running through his skills against a team of much younger lads who are quite simply better. 

We've come along way from the Charles Hughes inspired notion of maximising the amount of times we can get the ball in the opposition players box, where knocking it long for a big lad (I have to say though, I'm still not certain Andy Carroll wouldn't be a decent shout off the bench for 10 minutes obviously) replaced the sort of patient passing and individual skill that the dastardly continentals would display. We've instead replaced it with a sort of robotic systemised football where the passing is everything and going directly towards the box or taking any sort of risk with the ball is shunned. In both forms of the game, there's a sense that we are suspicious of the maverick and that individuality is a trait for those South Americans and Latin sorts. 

Lets see what the game brings... If Grealish isn't starting AND Yates isn't there, I'm sulking. 


The Geordie Christian Vieri

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Saturday, June 5, 2021

Season review 20-21


All seasons are keenly anticipated but this one more so than many. It wasn't just that the previous season had been rudely truncated by the appearance of some mad bat-borne* virus, it's that so had everything else as well. With Pool actually signing players before the last possible minute and their being fuck all else available to do for months other than go on the same walk you went on yesterday, the return of the game seemed a bit more special than normal. 

*other theories are available. 

My need for football was such, that I endured the migraine inducing YouTube stream of the first match against Southport like it was the premiere of an Oscar winning movie.  New men Yates and Anderson both scored, Pool looked well drilled, tidy and purposeful. Pre season continued in that vein, with Barrow and Port Vale dispatched, before the hype train was well and truly fuelled by a stunning early blitz against Everton which saw us 3 up in no time and making the opposition look shit. The second string played out a terrible game against Blackburn in torrential rain and lost, but then came Liverpool at Anfield and in the half that counts (the one before all the substitutes made the game meaningless) we were the better side and won 2-1. 

From pre season we learned several facts. Michael Nottingham is a brilliant central defender. Ethan Robson looks like the heir apparent to Charlie Adam and we're absolutely going to walk the league. We'll probably score at least 140 goals on the way. We are definitely Premier League quality already...

In proper football we go to Stoke in the League cup, fail to score and lose on penalties. We play Barrow in the tinpot cup and fail to score but win on penalties. In the league we're off to Plymouth and Pool play lovely football but can't walk the ball in the net so fail to score again and also fail to keep it out at the other end. Pre season hero Hamilton is culpable for the goal and, there's evidence that Michael Nottingham might not be the new Bobby Moore after all. There's some cheer soon, as 1000 fans attend the Swindon game (the 'Richie Wellens/Keshi Anderson/Jerry Yates' derby) and we score! Twice! CJ Hamilton redeems himself and is the man to score our first goals for 300 minutes. There's a new lad, called Bez Lubala who looks tasty. He's Sullay but he runs around like a lunatic as well! Everything is fine! Covid is on its way and we'll be back in the ground and knocking in 3 or 4 per game any time soon.  

Gillingham next. We'll knock this lot out of the park. Except we don't and we're unremittingly shite with only cameos for Kaikai and Madine giving us anything to enjoy. We look flimsy and naive and utterly unprepared for the shithouse tactics of league 1 experts. Things go from bad to worse as we concede silly goals to lose a tight game against Lincoln with Jimmy Husband (why is he at centre back?) being sent off. Ipswich then rip through us like we're damp newspaper. New signing Jordan Gabriel is particularly culpable. Another shit signing it seems... Ollie Turton is at centre half. Why? Jordan Thorniley has just played in the tinpot cup against Accy and looked fine. Why does Critch hate him so much? 

What we've learned by now is that Michael Nottingham is not a centre back and Jerry Yates is a non-scoring dud who has had to be exiled out wide to bring in Gary 'plan B' Madine who looks a bit at odds with the 433 but has at least has scored one, bundling in the ugliest goal you could imagine against Ipswich by falling over and scoring by accident. Most of our players are a bit shit and we don't seem to have a plan once things go against us. 

We then draw with Crewe in a game that seems to be a practical joke with Critch sending out the players with the orders 'pass it sideways or backwards if you can see the goal.' Next, we lose to Charlton thanks to Jimmy Husband's suicidal tackle (really Critch.. WHY IS HE AT CENTRE BACK!?) in the opening minutes and a performance that suggested we really don't know how to attack even when we really want to. We don't appear to want to. It's getting a bit frustrating. This isn't the sexy football we thought we were getting although we are quite good at going to the edge of the box and then passing all the way back to Chris Maxwell. 

We've got some skillful footballers but there's a sense that however you mix up Woodburn, Kemp, Bez and co, the outcome is the same. We look quite easy on the eye, but don't really get anywhere. 

Finally some joy comes in the form of a win over MK Dons, but Sullay's neatly taken goal is the only highlight of a horrible game. It's a thrill for people who draw graphs about football and use acronyms to explain them. You can imagine them nodding sagely over 'the terrific shape' of both sides, but it's one of the worst games I've ever seen as a spectacle. 3 points is 3 points though. We're surely off and running now.

Then we go away to Wimbledon and both Dan Ballard (unjustly) and Ethan Robson (no argument) get sent off and we lose again. Yates is that much of a dud that he doesn't even start and though the 9 men do put up a fight, you can't help feel that it's the fight that comes from backs against the wall desperation when the players take things into their own hands. 

By now we know we're an ill disciplined rabbled and maybe we'd be better just letting the players do this for themselves. This can't go on much longer... Surely if we were building something, the foundations would be evident by now? 

Burton Albion are shit, but we've been shit too mostly (apart from CJ, who looks pretty good in general) so this is a big game. Critch makes his first masterstroke here, abandoning the 433 which hasn't worked but seemed to be his calling card and switching to a common or garden 442. There's new signings as well, some Scottish fella who turns out to be an Aussie, who starts in centre midfield and the Viking, who signed a bit ago but had to get used to grass because he'd only ever played on glacial ice on the side of a volcano whilst wearing boots fashioned from polar bear skin before.  I really enjoy this game because whilst it's not the greatest performance ever, we actually make more than 2 or 3 chances and crucially, Jerry Yates turns out not to be shit after all and scores twice. Which is great, cos the lad has run around a lot but I was worried he was more Chris Long than Brett Ormerod.  

We've also got a new assistant manager. Critch seems a lovely fella but you can't imagine him or the jocular looking Mike Garrity stripping the paint off the dressing room wall. Colin Calderwood on the other hand looks like a man who has a quota of one smile a decade. The kind of fella who you would avoid in a pub if he had a pool cue in his hand. He'll make the paint bubble just by looking at it. 

We go on to beat Wigan, Eastbourne, Leeds U23s and then in the performance of the season so far, look absolutely fantastic against Peterborough. We dominate the game, but concede a late equaliser, then sneak it in the last minute with a Gary Goal that seems like it's in slow motion. That's more like it. Against Doncaster we continue where we left off, ripping them to bits for 45 minutes and looking like a team on fire. What the hell happened at half time, we can only guess, as Doncaster destroy us and we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. 

We erase that display quickly with a clinical dispatching of Harrogate Town and then an absolutely masterful display against Pompey at home where Keshi hits the winner and Ballard has a night that sets the tone for the rest of the season. Critch plays a blinder in this one, switching us back to the now long forgotten 433 which works a treat and features Ethan Robson at his best in a Pool shirt. It's a superb display as is the win against the Cods at Highbury, where he goes back to the 442 and brings back Madine who scores the winner, nodding home a deft free kick from Kaikai. We follow this up with a decent enough draw against Oxford and then another sensational win again Hull City where again, we concede late, but then snatch it at the death (this time CJ with the late killer blow) 

We've learned by now that we're not completely shit after all and that new signings like Dougall, Ballard and Grettarson have made a big difference. Madine has been like a new signing as well and this most un-Critchley-seeming player has been a different man to the indifferent figure we saw last year. He's given us a focal point to work from which has made all the difference, releasing Yates to play football instead of just jumping about not winning the ball. 

With some of the best teams in the division dispatched, it's a decent set of fixtures over Christmas, with plenty of potential points on offer as we look to make up for the slow start. Accy are going well and in a game more like trench warfare, stifle us. That's ok. We'll win the next two... We're abject against Shrewsbury and not much better against Bristol Rovers though. The Shrewsbury match is shit, it's freezing and we never defrost, CJ is out and the best I can do to pick an attacking threat in his absence is to note that Bez 'ran about' and Keshi 'ran into people.' It's as bad as we've played in ages. The Bristol game is entertaining and we do attack a bit more but we deserve to lose again. Maybe we aren't actually any good after all? The only thing that could make this worse is another fucking lockdown but Boris says that's not happening. West Brom are going to murder us in the cup. 

They don't. We're brilliant and Madine is at his best as he and Yates score. He gets even better in the penalty shoot out as he smacks one of the greatest spot kicks I've ever seen right down the middle as if daring the keeper to get in the way of it. What the fuck is this side? We can beat Premier League teams but barely lay a glove on Shrewsbury? 

A highly creditable (lockdown) draw against Hull City follows and then we lose to Brighton in the cup in a game which really sees the beginning of the injury crisis, signalled by the fact that Jordan Thorniley, a player who couldn't have been more frozen out if he'd been sent to Siberia in the middle of winter, gets a start. We go to Wigan with a comically light squad and in a Madine inspired masterclass, batter them 5-0. It's the last time we'll see Gary for a while though. Bez also vanishes from this point onwards, though by now we've worked out that whilst he tries pretty hard, he's more or less the definition of chaos and his game consists of shooting like a maniac wherever and whenever he can. It's quite endearing, but not very effective. 

We limp on to beat Northampton fairly easily, with the at first shaky looking but by now brilliant Marvin scoring one. Jerry bags as well, after a ridiculous throw out from Maxwell sets him away. It's one step forward and two steps back though as Ipswich hand us another footballing lesson in the next match and to be honest, we still can't work out if we're actually decent or not 

We've brought in a few kids on loan but at this point it seems neither a Sunderland reserve nor an untried Everton kid are likely to be the answer. Kemp and Woodburn have gone, as has the mysterious Ollie Sarkic who was a player who was probably quite good at something, but no one really knew what that something was. MJ Williams has been traded for Kevin Stewart who has inferior hair but is better at football. 

By now we now we're definitely a lot more solid than we were at the start of the season but we're still having real problems scoring against anyone who sets out to stop us. We've played pretty well in some games and pretty poorly in others. We're definitely on the up, but after the last loss, we're 16th. Midtable it is then. Upper mid table if we can keep improving. Not bad for a first season I guess. We'd have to go on some mad run to do any better... 

We beat Rochdale, but it's not the most convincing performance in the world, Sullay scoring after a cross from the world's least tricky right winger Matty Virtue. We are much, much more convincing as we beat Pompey again with Jerry scoring a lovely goal and Jimmy saving us with a diving chest off the line. We're off to the Valley next, where we step it up still further and absolutely slaughter Charlton. Virtue (now happily not on the right wing) scores a belter. That's 9 points from 9, we're up to 12th and having played less than most, it feels like it might just be on... We then draw twice at home to Crewe and Wimbledon, and it feels like we've blown the games in hand we've got a bit. We get back on track though, beating MK Dons again in another dismal game, enlivened only by yet another key goal for the sniper but once again, we follow it up with a draw in a game we need to win. Fleetwood are resolute and we just bounce off them for most of the game. 

The next match is a turning point. We draw it yet again and for the first half against Burton, we're awful. Critch however, switches it around at half time and we play as well as we have done all season. It's only a point, but somehow, this point feels different, coming on the back of 45 minutes of proper attacking incisive football inspired by a tactical switch. Up till now, Critch hasn't seemed overly proactive in games but in this one, he gets it spot on. It's a move and a moment that seems to inspire his self belief as much as it does the team. 

We head to fellow play off candidates Oxford and murder them. It's 2-0 but that doesn't do justice to how well we play. Oxford look decent, we look sensational and Kenny Dougall is impeccable, scoring and breaking up play, harrying, snapping and prompting. As if that's not enough, Peterborough are dispatched 3-1, 2 more for the now prolific Jerry Yates and a great display by Grant Ward. That's 5 halves of absolutely sensational football back to back. The only spectre at the feast is fatigue. The squad is on it's arse, with CJ, Madine, Stewart, Virtue, Ekpiteta, Anderson, Grettarson and more all out. We keep having to play random players at centre half and we're hoping against hope that Jerry stays fit as Ellis Simms is still a bit useless at being Gary Madine. 

Tiredness indeed shows as we draw with Plymouth. It takes us 6th but how long can we keep up this form when our play is based on high energy football and we've barely any choice but to field the same team, week after week? We've got a tricky little run as well... Why worry? Swindon are swept aside despite them preparing a pitch that resembles a sub-saharan town square as Ellis Simms starts to limber up for the business end of the season and again Grant Ward bosses midfield. Gillingham who are exactly the sort of side to knock us off form are simply outclassed by an irresistible Jerry with a brace, supported by goals from the reborn Kaikai and his new best mate Embleton. Dan Ballard is magnificent against the Gills' robust approach and is by know approaching cult status despite being a 20 year old loanee. This can't be the team that got taught such a footballing lesson at Priestfield can it? 

Lincoln away is a bit odd. We play as well as we have done in any game, but only get a draw being a bit dozy in front of goal and letting up in the last 20 minutes. Accrington earn a deserved draw with as good a display of defensive football as you'll see. It's so high tempo and in yer face, that you just have to admire it.  We go toe to toe with Sunderland and win which is surely a sign that we've got this but then in true 'Pool fashion, we lose twice, to Rochdale and Shrewsbury. On the one hand, we're pretty much cursed against both of those teams and we're still well short of players. On the other, the curious inability to perform against teams that play a certain way has resurfaced and as brilliant as we have been, we're poor in both games. 

Doubts have arisen but doubts are silenced as Sullay scores the goal of his Blackpool career to beat Sunderland, before getting carted off injured, never to be seen again. Chris Maxwell has an absolute blinder. He's made some incredible stops this year, but at the Stadium of Light he is simply inspired. From here on in, it's a cruise, dispatching Northampton as if swatting aside a fly, rolling Donny over without really seeming to need to try and beating Bristol Rovers despite picking the second string. We're there!

We don't just make the play offs, we absolutely storm into them, with players returning to fitness and Ellis Simms looking three times the player that he did even just a month earlier. Oxford it is... 

We serve up as clinical display of football as you could ask for in the first leg, Even Ollie Turton can't miss the first chance and Ellis Simms is simply sensational. The return at Bloomfield is glorious. Goals, fans and a festive atmosphere that warms the heart on an unseasonably cold evening. Every time Oxford do anything, we just slap them down and Jerry scoring in front of the fans puts a cap on a wonderful night. 

We don't need to worry about Wembley. We (almost) always win there after all... Ollie Turton conspires to give us a few doubts, but as we all know, Kenny Dougall first soothes the nerves, then serves up a joyous winner and the Pool are going up! The day is wonderful and the future is tangerine. Optimism, pride and release as ghosts of the past are vanquished and we witness the previously unthinkable prospect of an owner being cheered to the rafters, embraced by players and fans. Jerry is still dancing now and you'd expect Critch to be wearing a smile of quiet, impish satisfaction well into July. 

We did it! 

It seemed unlikely at first and to be honest, to all but the most serially optimistic, it's quite astonishing how we became so good. By the time Wembley came around, the team had got the aura of one that just 'got the job done' and yet, it's easy to forget how fragile we looked in the first few months and how uninspired we seemed in a fair few games beyond that. Even in March I was bemoaning our inability to pick locks and sweating over the lack of goals from midfield... 

The great joy this year has been seeing players gain in confidence and improve. The same I think is true of Critchley. He's learned fast. He's adapted. He's been big enough to accept that some things haven't worked and he's found answers. Sometimes that's been players he had who weren't in his plans initially (bringing in Madine alongside Yates and going to a bread and butter 442 or rehabilitating Jordan Thorniley for example) and sometimes it's been recruitment from outside (Ballard and Dougall in particular having an absolutely immense impact) - If the first batch of signings made in summer were a distinctly mixed bag, the signings after that have pretty much all been extremely effective. 

This bodes well. Unlike last year, Critch knows what he's got already and he therefore knows what he needs to add. We've performed to our best against just about every side with championship pretensions (bar Ipswich) and that's another good sign. Critchley might have taken some time to work out how to beat teams that come and sit 5 deep and kick you, but anyone who played a bit, he seemed more than a tactical match for. There are less teams who will sit off us in the style of AFC Wimbledon, Plymouth and Accrington (4 points from 18) and more in the mould of Sunderland, Hull and Peterborough (16 points from 18) who will try to beat us. 

That's next year though and tempting as it is to start writing at length about the sheer novelty of knowing that whatever happens, we'll go about it the right way, that we'll give the manager the support they need and that off the pitch, the progress will continue, that the club will continue to develop into one we can be even more proud of, at some point, you just have to stop.

Unless you're Jerry. In which case, you just keep going. 


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Thursday, June 3, 2021

Cheers Sullay

Sullay had his doubters. Some people prefer to watch a sweaty run of the mill player shouting, pointing, getting booked for lunging into late tackles and displaying 'passion'... to a gifted footballer with genius in his boots, weaving magic.

Such is life. It would be boring if we all liked the same thing. I too am a big fan of anyone who makes the most of their abilities and whose attitude is a key attribute… 

It has to be said though, that whilst 

players of his ilk might frustrate sometime, it would a dull game if there were no Sullay Kaikais running down the wing, or even better, through the middle, or even better still, belting it so hard on the volley that the net literally looks like it's going to break. Attitude is great but if it's just lads kicking each other for 90 minutes and he who kicks hardest wins, you might as well watch rugby.

Yeah, he could run into a dead end and no, he wasn't the world's best tackler and I can't remember him heading it more than about 5 times in his Pool career but he was capable of electrifying brilliance.

Of course it sometimes didn't come off. But when it did, it was magical. Gliding with a low centre of gravity past 1,2,3 players as if they weren't there. Taking the ball and killing it stone dead, a touch to die for. Seeing the pass and hitting it first time. Arriving late and placing the shot into the exact place it needed to go. 

Under Grayson, Sullay was more or less all the creativity. Roaming free and thrilling with his gifts, it's easy to forget that our decline broadly coincided with his injury woes. 

Critchley seemed to see him as a project. A talent to be, if not tamed, but channelled. A place wide on the left was marked out for him and he never really seemed to quite suit it. Bez Lubala was bought and played there instead, but never took his chance. Sullay kept working his way back in, Critchley seemingly never quite convinced, but never able to overlook the obvious talent. 

If one game sums him up, it's Burton Albion at home. Even I, an ardent believer that one person's "he goes missing" is another's "he gets double marked because of the rigid system we employed as Critch is fundamentally a bit suspicious of players whose skill comes from within and needs to let them loose a bit, as was proven when he did that..." couldn't really describe him as anything other than 'languid and fitful' in the first half, moping about like a Victorian lady in need of a good dose of smelling salts. All he needed was a lacy hanky to dap at his brow, so out of sorts did he look. Oh, but what a performance in the second half. Bit between his teeth, picking the ball on the half turn, racing forward, playing people in, trying the shot, dropping the shoulder, going one way then the other, defenders running backwards, afraid to even look at him. Pure magic. 

A video of his best bits is quite sensational. His critics would say that's the problem. He's a highlights reel player. I'd say he's more than that. His work deep is underrated, his ability to pick a pass is it at times outrageous. Again, it's easy to forget how lumpen we were at the outset and how weeks went by where it appeared only Sullay seemed willing to put the ball into the box, instead of sideways. For all the criticism of his wider play, he proved to be adept at holding a shape, shadowing, tracking back, even drawing public praise from the impish one himself for his defensive work. 

His final performance in tangerine was probably one of his best. Released into the no10 role, he played an absolute blinder for 60 odd minutes at the Stadium of Light. The unforgettable goal was just one of many pieces of magic and that he went down injured just as it seemed he might have made himself indispensable in his preferred position seemed somehow tragically apt. 

I'm left with a feeling that whilst Critchley has done many, many, many things right, he never quite got to grips with Sullay. He could never bring himself to unleash him, preferring players like Embleton and Anderson when looking for the no10 role. Both have their merits and Anderson in particular is a joy to watch but there's a nagging sense that heresy as it may be to question the author of so many a masterclass, that we might have missed a trick… 

For a player played in an unfamiliar role he wasn't best suited to, who seemingly played most of the year not 100% fit, to end the season behind only Jerry Yates for direct involvement in goals and by some distance the leading assist maker  speaks to his ability to find the right decision at the right moment. 

If someone can find the right blend around him and free him to just play, he'll be a promotion winner on his own. He's that good. The irony is, as much as Larry did a lot wrong (or certainly a lot less right than Critch) I think Larry understood him pretty well. He's better than anyone else. Just let him do what he wants. 

Critch has, despite my obvious sense that he's not always been used to his fullest, likely improved him further and maybe his experience this year of playing a position and playing a team role will make him appreciate future freedoms still further and maybe refine his game to be more selective about when to keep it simple and when to turn it on.  

I'm weirdly sad it won't be with us. He never did quite put it all together week on week in the way we hoped, but I'm really surprised that a player with such quick feet, instinctive brilliance, attacking intent and uncanny vision doesn't have a place next year. Maybe fitness has taken a toll, maybe Critch just doesn't see the risk/reward being worth it. I don't know. I can see why he like Embleton, who gives you half of Sullay and half of Matty Virtue. I just like the complete 100% wildcard type player that Sullay is. 

What I do know is, I'll miss the quiet lad with the ability to electrify. Other players may snarl and strut, push, snap, spit and elbow their way round the pitch. I once watched a replay of a penalty shout we had and saw how tentative his appeal was as everyone else screamed in rage. He seemed embarrassed. He seems like one of the most polite players I've ever seen. He seems positively shy. Maybe if he was more arrogant. Maybe if he was a bit more of a knobhead, had a bit more swagger... But my god, when he gets the ball, he comes alive. When he gets the ball, my heart went a little faster. Who the hell knew what could happen next? He just looked so natural, so easy. At his best, he could be on a different plane. At times, he just looked lost. Where others read diffidence or a surliness, I always felt he was questioning himself

I think he's a player who has almost been cursed by his ability. Who, if he hasn't danced around 4 and hit a reverse back heel into the top corner whilst looking the other way, people feel is 'not at his best' because, quite frankly, his best is way beyond that of most of the rest of the players we've had for years. Who perhaps himself sometimes doubted as much as anyone else which meant when it clicked, there was a certain thrill and rawness to it. 

I think I've made it clear over the time he's been here, that I rate him. I'll make it clear once more.... I bloody loved him. An absolute pleasure to watch, one of my favourite players in a long time.  


Cheers Sullay. 

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