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Sunday, 16 December, 2018

Difficult to see Southgate's squad sweeping majestically to World Cup glory

The Thursday column

England manager Gareth Southgate
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When Mrs Richards tells Basil Fawlty the view is not good enough, he launches into one of the greatest speeches in comedy history.

“What exactly did you expect from a Torquay hotel bedroom window?” he asks. “Sydney Opera House? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the horizon?”

His epic response came to mind when people started expressing dissatisfaction with the England World Cup squad moments after Gareth Southgate had announced it.

Here is a selection of comments on Twitter: That is the poorest England squad I can ever remember ... With a team like that we could be facing an early exit ... What time is the real squad announced?

It made me want to go full Fawlty and ask what exactly they were expecting from a collection of 23 current English players. Bobby Moore? Gordon Banks? Gazza gliding majestically from box to box?

It is astonishing that anyone can be shocked or disappointed by the group Southgate will take to Russia because it should have dawned on everyone by now that the quality of players available to Southgate is the weakest since Graham Taylor failed to steer the Three Lions to the 1994 World Cup and possibly even worse than that.

People are expressing anger and amazement that Jonjo Shelvey has been omitted. Jonjo Shelvey! Don’t get me wrong, he’s been a big part of Newcastle staying up, but look at some of the high-quality stars who won’t make the Brazil, France, Germany and Spain squads and you realise England’s chances of winning the final are not going to depend on whether or not Southgate calls upon Shelvey.

England are always laughably short for major finals but their current price, somewhere between 14-1 and 18-1, is even more comical than ever based on squad strength.


Southgate opts for youth over experience at World Cup 2018


Against that, the manager might just be able to create a half-decent spirit in the camp so you would probably be taking a chance offering anything over 40-1. They have looked reasonably confident on the ball in recent games whereas it is not easy to forget Kieron Dyer’s assertion that the Golden Generation were paralysed by fear.

But it’s not even as if Southgate has a classy 11 to pick and is just lacking depth. The starters do not look good enough and it is going to take some spectacular predatory displays by Harry Kane, who surely has to captain the ship, if there is to be a shock appearance in anything beyond the quarter-finals.

Where Southgate deserves praise is for leaving Joe Hart behind. A club player finds his place under pressure if he has three or four bad games spanning less than a month so it would be crazy to include someone whose last worthwhile form is upwards of a year old.

It was truly staggering to hear Dean Saunders claim on a radio show yesterday that Hart should be starting the first match.

Saunders declared that a keeper’s best weapon is his mouth in that he needs to keep talking to his outfield colleagues. I’d have opted for hands personally, but if Hart really is such a good communicator perhaps the FA could find him a seat just behind the goal and bung him a few quid and a megaphone so his skills are put to best use.

Apparently Hart is blaming his West Ham manager David Moyes for not having picked him enough this season, when, to paraphrase Basil Fawlty again, the reality is it is no more Moyes’s fault than Denis Compton’s.

Elsewhere it’s hard to believe Gary Cahill, whose reputation has been inflated by virtue of him being lucky enough to have played alongside the magnificent John Terry for so long, is still one of the best central defenders in the country, and there look to be at least four right-backs among the 23 which is excessive.

Midfield is the key area of any football team and it is here that the lack of decent resources is most cruelly exposed. It is great to see Ruben Loftus-Cheek get the nod but Adam Lallana, the best (or rather least worst) performer in Brazil, is only on the standby list which exacerbates a chronic lack of top-level creativity.

But at least England go to Russia with low expectations and, if they go there and perform with precision and poise rather than the passion most fans ludicrously demand, they might just scrape into the last eight, which would be a fine effort.

The likelihood is, however, that England fans will be left feeling just like poor old Fawlty at the end of the Psychiatrist episode as he crumples himself into a ball and hops around on the landing, howling miserably.

Allardyce achievements are hugely undervalued

It's odd how angry people get when some of the most consistent people and teams in football perform exactly as all known form would suggest they perform.

The best team examples are England and Arsenal, who achieve incredibly consistent standards yet are pilloried every time they do precisely what is expected of them.

And then we have Sam Allardyce, who is employed to guide struggling Premier League teams to safety from relegation in the full knowledge he will do so in an extremely functional manner but is then slagged off mercilessly for failing to carry out his almost failsafe rescue act with a degree of flamboyance that is utterly impossible in the circumstances in which he is forced to operate.

Two years ago he had not even been given the England opportunity he would soon squander, but since then he has already completed two cycles of success and is back on the scrapheap.


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First he took the reins at Palace after Alan Pardew had led the Eagles into perilous waters.

They were heading for a total of 33 points, which always spells relegation, but in 21 games under Allardyce they accrued points at a pace that would have seen them finish with 47 points had he been in charge from the off. Job done.

Big Sam then decided to take life easy, which he did until last November, when Everton, who were looking as though they might suffer their first relegation since 1951, came calling.

They had been on schedule to gain only 41 points, but Allardyce worked his unspectacular magic again and the Toffees finished in eighth place, which ensured top-flight survival but was not considered good enough for the Merseyside club, who sacked him.

Quite what Everton had expected from the manager is unsure. Maybe the idea was to get him to perform his usual survival act and then jettison him in favour of someone who could get the team to live comfortably in the shadows of the big six but play more stylish football in the process.

Perhaps they will be successful in their quest, but they would not be the first club to discover that life with Allardyce at the tiller was actually a lot better than the one they opted for instead.

As for the man himself, he will no doubt enjoy a summer off and wait for the 2018-19 strugglers to emerge and then pick the phone up to try to secure his services.

He is an excellent manager whose ability to get results and keep clubs enjoying the riches of the Premier League is criminally undervalued.

Disgraceful scenes spell trouble for Sporting

Sporting Lisbon are a legendary name in European football. They won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1964 and have been a regular part of the elite continental scene ever since, including a quarter-final appearance in the Europa League this season.

After disgraceful scenes this week, however, it is not impossible they will slip off the radar for a long time to come.

Part of the big three of Portuguese football, along with Porto and Benfica, they lost at the weekend to miss out on a Champions League place to their long-established rivals.

They had the consolation of the domestic cup final to come this weekend but on Tuesday, after a training session for the decider, the players and managers were attacked by a group of 50 masked fans.

As a consequence, their 30-goal Dutch striker Bas Dost will miss the game having needed stitches in a head wound inflicted by the idiots.

It is difficult to comprehend the stupidity of these thugs, whose actions were presumably sparked by a desire to teach the players and staff a lesson so they would improve in future matches but will instead be almost certain to have the opposite effect.

None of the existing players or coaches is likely to fancy remaining a part of a club whose fans react to adversity with such violence and any promising youths or potential signings, either domestic or foreign, are sure to run a mile when an agent tells them Sporting are interested in signing them.

Some time before the 2018-19 Portuguese season begins I need to remind myself to oppose Sporting Lisbon in a significant way.


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The quality of players available to Southgate is the weakest since Graham Taylor failed to steer the Three Lions to the 1994 World Cup
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