England 3-0 Israel. Fair enough. A good performance. Three pleasing goals. But those English fans who booed David Bentley are complete morons.

Yes, he pulled out of the Under-21 European Championships in the summer, citing fatigue. Yes, he probably fancies himself as a bit of a player. But the sight of a crowd actively – enthusiastically – booing one of their own players was quite ridiculous.

Whatever you may think of David Bentley, he nonetheless remains a truly exciting young player. He can pass, and shoot, with either foot. He is dangerous from set pieces. He can beat a man. He scores goals. He has vision.

And yet England’s fans berate him for daring to declare that he was fatigued after a long season. Perhaps he was wrong, but he is still one of England’s most promising young players, and the reception he received at Wembley on Saturday night suggests England’s fans are more eager to peddle the agenda of an unimaginative press than to support a team that might – given time, and space, and patience – have a hope of achieving something beyond a dismal quarter-final defeat on penalties at Euro 2008.

It’s at times like this that one realises that the single most distasteful thing about England is not their pathetically unimaginative manager or their unjustifiably delusional aspirations towards grandeur, but their lumpen, lazy, boo-because-everyone-else-does supporters.

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Robbo The Blobbo

August 23 2007

In all the brouhaha about Paul Robinson’s crippling loss of confidence/form/ability to catch/kick/understand the simple movement of the ball, one staringly obvious explanatory factor has been inconceivably overlooked. The problem is, the man’s too fat!

When Robinson shuffled meekly onto the scene as an acne-splattered, fresh-faced young goal-keeper at Leeds, he was – like most fresh-faced, acne-splattered young goal-keepers – lithe and lean. Since then, his weight has increased year on year to the extent that, in his shiny yellow new goalie kit, he now resembles a Weight Watchers convention struggling to get out of a New York taxi.

Consider Germany’s equalising goal in the friendly at Wembley. Yes, Robbo blundered, but it wasn’t his fault. He was moving as fast as he could. How else do you explain getting beaten by a 40-yard daisy-cutter from one-goal-for-every-three-hundred-and-seventy-harmless-five-yard-passes-sideways Ivan Campo? Certain saves are literally beyond Robinson’s reach purely because of his shape.

The piece of praise most often bestowed upon Robinson by pundits and commentators kind enough to overlook his chronic lack of basic handling skills is that he’s ‘a good shot-stopper’. That’s what you say about goal-keepers who manage to pull off the odd he-didn’t-know-much-about-that reflex save despite being completely incapable of commanding their penalty area.

But Robinson can command his area. As Rio Ferdinand observed astutely: “He is a big enough guy”. And that’s the problem. There really is a good goal-keeper in there. He’s just struggling to get out.

It’s always a shame when a young player has to leave the Premiership before he’s had a chance to really shine, and that’s certainly true of Giuseppe Rossi, particularly as he’s left a club famed for putting its faith in youth.

The thrilling thing about Rossi is that he is a very highly rated young Italian footballer who chose to play in England. Italy usually does a very good job of keeping its most exciting young players under wraps on native soil, and had Rossi stayed at United and been successful it would have represented a ringing endorsement of English football as a real breeding ground for international talent.

This may seem an anomalous observation at a time when the number of English players graduating from the Premiership’s academies is under intense scrutiny, but had Rossi remained in England it would have sent out a clear signal that the Premiership is as good a league as any for the game’s future superstars to earn their spurs.

His departure suggests that even managers like Alex Ferguson will only go so far when it comes to giving youth the chance it so desperately deserves.

David Beckham is back in the England squad. He deserves to be there. I can’t think of another English right-sided midfielder who has been as consistently effective over the last few months.

But in spite of this, I don’t think he should be in the squad.

Suppose Beckham comes back, plays a blinder against Estonia and gets England’s Euro 2008 qualifying campaign back on track. What then? There is clamour for him to be included in the next squad, and, in all possibility, the squad after that and the squad after that.

Having dragged everyone through the rigmarole of his decision to step down as captain following England’s World Cup exit last summer, he won’t allow himself to be dropped again without putting up a (doubtless heavily publicised) fight.

All of which will set back England’s progress as a team. McClaren was right to drop Beckham in the first place. He was looking to the future. So bringing Beckham back is a backwards step, even if he is the in-form right-sided midfielder at the moment.

It’s unfortunate that players like Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips and David Bentley haven’t been able to stake a claim for the number seven berth in Beckham’s absence, but the decision to recall Beckham suggests McClaren has no faith in them.

Beckham is not England’s future, no matter how well he’s playing. He is England’s over-hyped, gratuitously self-important past.

Furthermore, putting him in the team means the side has to be balanced with a left-sided player who will provide similar width. As a consequence, either Joe Cole has to play as a traditional left winger, or the typically ineffectual Stuart Downing is brought into the side, and if England’s first choice strike partnership is Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney, there is no need for wide midfielders whose principle asset is their crossing ability.

McClaren must experiment. He must be allowed to experiment. He will lose matches. He will get huge amounts of flak. But the future of English football depends on it. The 4-4-2 must be abandoned. Players like Joe Cole and Aaron Lennon and David Bentley must be given the freedom to play their natural game, not tied to the touchline like 1950s-style wingers.

And Beckham must be allowed to go to America to finish his career without constant speculation about whether or not he merits a place in the England team.

Many players could be said to ‘deserve’ a place in the England team. But the team should consist of the best eleven players capable of playing together in a particular system, not the eleven most deserving.

Owen Hargreaves - Old Trafford-bound?Manchester United’s season finished less than twenty-four hours ago, and already Alex Ferguson appears to be on the verge of sealing the long-expected signing of Owen Hargreaves from Bayern Munich for a fee believed to be in the region of £18 million.

The notion of Hargreaves joining United for such a fee would have provoked derision a year ago, but such were his performances in the World Cup that his reputation as England’s most accomplished defensive midfielder is now secure.

His arrival will obviously add graft and industriousness to United’s midfield, but it might also paradoxically make them stronger in attack.

In too many big games this season (most notably in the away leg of the Champions League semi-final against AC Milan and in yesterday’s FA Cup Final) Ferguson has allowed his natural tendency to attack to be overcome by caution. Thus, in both games, he fielded a solid 4-3-3, rather than the more attack-focused 4-2-3-1 that has enabled United to play such insistently thrilling football this season.

Anyone wondering who to blame for the dreariness of yesterday’s game need look no further than the fact there were no less than six central midfielders on the pitch. In mirroring Mourinho’s formation, Ferguson allowed United to get dragged into a midfield wall of attrition.

In signing Hargreaves, Ferguson hopes to create an English interpretation of the silk-and-steel Andrea Pirlo-Gennaro Gattuso midfield partnership that laid the foundation for Italy’s World Cup success last summer and continues to prosper for AC Milan.

Where all this leaves Paul Scholes is another matter entirely, but with Hargreaves and Carrick sitting in front of the back four, Ferguson will be less inclined to field an extra pair of legs in midfield, as he did with Darren Fletcher in the aforementioned games against Milan and Chelsea.

All of which should mean a space in the team for a proper centre forward, allowing United to stretch the game and giving Rooney, Ronaldo and Giggs the space that allows them to function most effectively; the space Ferguson denied them yesterday by electing to go toe-to-toe with Mourinho, rather than relying on his team’s attacking instincts.

Goal of the Season?

April 19 2007

I didn’t think anyone would score a better individual goal than David Nugent’s superb effort for Preston against Crystal Palace in the Cup earlier this season, but Lionel Messi’s goal in Barcelona’s 5-2 victory over Getafe in the Copa del Rey last night comes pretty close.

Observant observers will note that it bears more than a passing resemblance to Diego Maradona’s famous goal against England in the quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup.

And this handy website lets you compare the two. Shame they couldn’t have stuck Nugent’s goal in there as well…

Shaun Wright-Phillips - a unique talentFrom a purist’s perspective, it’s hard to get that excited about the football that Chelsea play. But there is one, occasional redeeming feature. And that’s Shaun Wright-Phillips.

He was in scintillating form in last night’s impressive 4-1 victory over West Ham, and his two goals were exceptional. The jinking footwork of the first goal and sublime volleyed finish of the second demonstrated an alliance of devastating speed, close control and supreme technical accomplishment.

Wright-Phillips is one of the few English players who make you think something exciting is about to happen every time he is on the ball. And the hiatus imposed upon his career by the time he has spent on the bench at Chelsea is a crying shame.

During his time at City he was one of the most consistently impressive players in the Premiership, with his soft, slightly knock-kneed mastery of the ball and a thumping shot that belies his tiny frame.

His ability to exploit gaps and spaces in opposition defences sets him out as a unique talent, and with his ability he really should have established himself as the long-term successor to David Beckham in the national side.