International football is in danger of falling off the map
The Thursday column
Scotland are playing England in a World Cup qualifier on Saturday. That should be the weakest, most obvious intro to a column in the history of journalism but based on some research I conducted yesterday (a quick spin around the office asking colleagues who I know follow football) I suspect it will be news to a number of you.
I certainly hadn’t realised this fixture was taking place until I heard Marcus Rashford mumbling something about how Wayne Rooney could still do a job for England on the radio yesterday morning.
And when I asked people who spend most of their waking hours watching, discussing or thinking about football what England’s upcoming fixtures were there were plenty of blank looks.
It’s striking how ambivalent people have become about England. In years gone by the fixture on Saturday would have stood out like a beacon in our minds for weeks, but now for many fans it is a barely noticed postscript to the season just gone.
This is partly due to the increasingly dull qualification process but also, I suspect, because many supporters who used to be as keen on England as their own clubs are now scarred by decades of disappointment and find international football increasingly irrelevant.
Then there is the lack of quality in the Three Lions squad, which, man for man, is at least as bad as Graham Taylor’s mob from the early 1990s and probably even worse.
At long last people have cottoned on to the fact England are on a par with the likes of Poland, Turkey and Sweden, having deluded themselves for years that they were part of the world’s elite group, and while that new-found sense of realism is welcome to see, it means optimism levels plummet accordingly.
There is still a diehard core of loyal fans who ensure England somehow manage to fill Wembley for hideously dull victories against nations such as Lithuania, but elsewhere the penny has dropped that painting your face white and red and getting down the pub three hours before kick-off is a less enjoyable experience these days.
I daresay we will all become aware of the Scotland game by kick-off but most of us will be watching from the back rather than the edge of our seats.
One problem with international football is the sheer tedium of the build-up, with news conferences producing the usual hot air. Rashford’s comments on Rooney were typical of the sort of blah we have to put up with.
It’s not his fault. If a reporter asks him if he thinks Rooney can still do a job for England he’s not going to say that if Gareth Southgate hasn’t picked him this time he’s probably had his chips, even though that’s the obvious conclusion.
Rooney’s England career, like his stint at Old Trafford, is almost certainly over but it should be noted that, like David Beckham, he did the right thing and made himself available even after it became clear he wasn’t wanted, which is admirable compared to those players who publicly declare they are quitting international football when the reality is they have no more chance of being selected than their auntie’s budgerigar does.
What has been remarkable about Rooney’s career is how long it lasted at the top level given how young he was when his ability began to wane.
As brilliant as he was in his late teens and early 20s, Rooney actually stopped operating at a level that would generally be regarded as world-class a long time ago and it is only because football is usually incredibly slow to acknowledge decline that he is still earning zillions at Old Trafford and is still being discussed as a potential England international in some quarters.
And so we plod towards the 2018 finals, which commence a year and six days from now, at which point Rooney will almost certainly be on a beach or on a sofa in a TV studio.
As ever there are fears that the tournament will be wrecked by off-the-field issues. In the run-up to the 2010 and 2014 finals it was claimed fans who ventured to South Africa and then Brazil would have a high chance of being affected by street crime, while the doom-mongers are this time peddling the line that if you set foot in Russia with an England shirt you are odds-on to be battered by frighteningly well-drilled local hooligan gangs.
Hopefully, as with South Africa and Brazil, those fears will be unjustified and everything will be just fine.
I am looking forward to learning more about the venue that is part of that weird area of Russia that is not joined to the mainland but is bordered by Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea, and I’m also intrigued by the most easterly venue, Yekaterinburg.
What I’m not interested in any more is all the international football that takes place outside the World Cup and European Championship finals. Qualification is interminable and predictable, and the big clubs will surely demand that friendlies are a thing of the past before too long.
Ultimately, public appetite will demand how important international football becomes in future, and based on the lack of interest in what would traditionally have been a fixture of the highest profile this weekend, the rot may well have already set in.
Fantastic fielders undermined by painstaking play
Slow sport is bad sport, as football is about to discover when it surrenders to the moronic view that we have to get every refereeing decision right whatever it takes and introduces the video assistant.
Slow golf, a longstanding bugbear of this column, is appalling and unnecessary, and continues to be woefully underpoliced, with players arrogantly continuing to take far too long to hit the bloody ball.
And now even cricket, a sport which has slowness as one of its attributes, is being affected by the obsession with trying to cover off every eventuality.
The Champions Trophy match between England and New Zealand on Tuesday started at 10.30am. At 10.46am three overs had been bowled, or 18 deliveries in 16 minutes.
It was absurd. The captain and bowler faffed around after every ball, pointing this way and that at their teammates and sending them to comically precise locations in the hope the batsmen would hit the ball to them.
This didn’t used to happen. They would set a field and, unless the opponents at the crease were a left- and right-handed combination, that would largely be that, give or take the occasional tweak.
These days captains chronically overcomplicate the positioning of the fielders, and the constant changes do nothing to increase the chances of runs being saved or wickets being taken but simply delay the game to an unacceptable level.
The closing overs of T20 matches are the worst, often taking up to nine minutes and totally defeating the object of creating a fast form of the game.
What has improved, in pleasing contrast to the amount of time it takes balls to be bowled, is the quality of the fielding itself.
When I first watched cricket in the 1970s the only players to show any acrobatic ability were the wicketkeepers. Everyone else did their best, but catches were often dropped and players deployed on the boundary invariably used their boot to prevent a four and then bent down to sling it back in the general direction of the square.
Derek Randall was the first player I can remember to actually make a name for himself as a nimble, dynamic fielder, but gradually the art of fielding improved and now we are able to marvel at a whole new fascinating aspect of cricket, as players hurl themselves across the grass to make spectacular one-handed grabs as the ball flies through the air like a tracer bullet.
Most incredible of all is the catch that involves a player taking the ball on the boundary and then, to avoid carrying it over the rope, chucking it back into the air, stepping back into play and catching it again.
If someone had done that in 1978, when the previous ball had been stopped from going for four by Jack Simmons’ size 13 boot, we would have all died of shock.
Brilliant fielding is to be admired. It’s just a shame captains believe it is so important to have the players positioned with such painstaking precision in the first place.