“Don’t waste your youth growing up”
David Bentley’s career has never hits the heights his ego might suggest it has. A friend recently used the credo “if he was half as good as thinks he is, he’d be twice as good as he actually is” to describe Bentley and it seems perfectly applicable.
His current club Tottenham have all but abandoned him and Bentley has left the white flag planted in St Andrews after an unsuccessful loan spell at Birmingham City.
Four years ago, the story was very different. Bentley was at Blackburn Rovers and playing perhaps the best football of his career. Impressive performances at home and in Europe fuelled speculation that a big move was just around the corner.
That summer he made an interesting decision. Bentley withdrew from England’s Under-21 squad. He had played virtually the entire season at Blackburn, one which included European forays and cup runs. Bentley was on the fringes of the full national team and felt a summer in Holland at the European Under-21 Championships would cause possible burnout. Never one to downplay his aspirations, he was looking further ahead, 12 months on in fact to Euro 2008.
The withdrawal may have been a drop in the ocean for Bentley’s career but the ripples continue to reverberate today. Bentley saw the Under-21s as beneath him. Having sampled life at the top table with England, he wasn’t willing to dine elsewhere. As it materialised, England and Bentley never made Euro 2008.
He started in Fabio Capello’s first game in charge but his name barely warrants a mention when national squads are decided these days. Four years on from his ill-fated decision, Bentley may wish he’d opted to join the Under-21s that summer after all.
Fast forward to the present day and a similar quandary is facing Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere.
After a mammoth season which, like Bentley’s, has encompassed European excursions and lengthy cup runs, many feel Wilshere should not join the Under-21s this summer. In many respects, Wilshere’s situation is entirely different. Unlike Bentley, he is central to the senior team’s plans. Unlike Bentley, his attitude does not seem to be tainted by egocentricity. So there are even more excuses for Wilshere should he decide that a summer with the Under-21s is not high on his list of priorities.
And last night, the Guardian’s Paul Hayward, an advocate of a Wilshere withdrawal, tweeted saying the Under-21 squad was nothing more than a “development level”.
Well perhaps it can develop winners. With Wilshere in the team, England stand a far better chance of winning the tournament this summer. The nation is plagued by perennial problems when it comes to masterminding international tournaments and they lack a winning mentality.
The opportunity to nurture English football’s future lynchpin in the art of winning international tournaments should not be overlooked.
Neither should the chance to build team camaraderie. Andy Carroll, Micah Richards and Kieran Gibbs should also all feature in 12 months time at Euro 2012 and their integration will be made much easier after this summer.
It is also refreshing to see fringe members of the senior squad, which has more than a streak of self-indulgence coursing through it, willing to participate in a tournament which was below Bentley.
Winning the European Under-21 Championships would probably be a drop in the ocean of Jack Wilshere’s career. But the ensuing ripples could continue to reverberate for years to come.
“It’s football, it’s not brain surgery. Have some fun.”
One of the proudest things about being a British sports fan is our unparalleled support no matter where in the world we are playing.
You can guarantee that Brits will travel to a sporting event en masse. We follow Ricky Hatton in Las Vegas, the European team in America for the Ryder Cup and the British Lions in the Southern Hemisphere. Whatever the weather, whatever the likely outcome, we’re there in droves. The most memorable of all was just a few months ago when the England cricket team recorded a historic Ashes win in Australia. Had it not been for the late night/early morning start and the glorious sunshine, you could have mistaken it for Lords because English fans had invaded. Patriotism has never been a characteristic I possess in any great abundance but there’s always an enormous sense of pride when I see such a large presence of British support.
So to see Wembley, the home of English football, infused with the culture of West Africa tonight was both surprising and awe-inspiring. The sheer number of Ghanaian supporters inside the stadium meant this could easily have been a home fixture for the Black Stars.
The concerns that the withdrawal of several of England’s more senior players would make this friendly even more redundant proved to be unfounded. As soon as I heard and saw the Ghanaian crowd, it was clear that this game would adopt an impetus.
It finished as an entertaining 1-1 draw and the game was played at a frenetic pace in an end-to-end environment. The passion and soul radiated down from the stands because Ghana played with the same intensity that made them so likeable in South Africa. Yes, there were times when that enthusiasm boiled over in the form of some rather choice tackles. But with a multitude of England players deeming this game expendable, it was encouraging to watch the Ghanaians play with real heart.
I have an apathetic attitude when it comes to international football, particularly mid-season friendlies. But I couldn’t help but be enthralled by this Ghana team. One player who captivated it all it was Asamoah Gyan. I’ve never seen a player treat an international friendly with such fervour. His goal at the end and the ensuing celebrations summed it all up. It could be a meaningless friendly in England or a World Cup quarter-final in South Africa; Ghana will always play with energy, passion and most of all, with a smile on their faces.
In the aftermath, the ITV cameras were greeted by a beaming Fabio Capello. The hard-nosed exterior was cast-aside as he joyfully waxed lyrical about the performance he had just witnessed. He may carry the demeanour of a deadly serious, no-fun type manager but we were reminded here that like us, he too can be an excitable fan.
We scrutinise over the game and spend countless hours debating its various nuances so it’s refreshing to reflect by just enjoying the spectacle. For once after an England game, Twitter wasn’t awash with comments on team selection and tactics. Instead we were united under an umbrella of appreciation for the game we’d just witnessed. So for that, thank you Ghana.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn
“Communication is the real work of leadership”
I don’t envy Fabio Capello some times. Picking an England captain should be a rudimentary decision. It should also be irrelevant. Yet we seem to hold the title in the highest esteem in this country and so handling it with such colossal thoughtlessness was not Don Fabio’s wisest move.
The armband and title are merely superficial. In fact, were England’s senior players not a collection of wholly uncouth morons, it would probably matter even less. It is just a title to appease the media hoards who want a figurehead to speak to and a scapegoat to hold accountable when, always inevitably in England’s case, the latest crisis rears its head.
The title of captain is one which John Terry clearly relishes. It may in part be egotistical but it’s more that possessing the armband shows that others appreciate his more endearing qualities. Terry is a leader; he is an organiser and a very good one at that. This season he’s performed magnificently at times in what has proven a difficult period for Chelsea. He also has an excellent injury and disciplinary record and is very committed to playing for his country.
Strip away the personality and the misdemeanours and you have a perfectly adequate candidate. Of course, that’s hard to ignore.
But Terry’s biggest faux pas and the reason why he shouldn’t be within a country mile of the captaincy dates back to a press conference he held back in South Africa. What he said on the record (we can only assume that what was said off it was an even more damning indictment of the Capello regime) completely undermined the Italian. He questioned his tactics, his methods, his team selection, all at a time when England needed to rally behind their manager the most.
Handing him back the captaincy is one thing but the manner in which Capello has handled it is a more worrying one which highlights his most underlying flaw. Rio Ferdinand’s continually sporadic England appearances should result in a charging of the guard if not on a permanent basis then at least a temporary one. But instead of a quiet word in Ferdinand’s ear explaining the decision we had Chinese whispers, we had a reportedly disgruntled Ferdinand who was blissfully unaware of Capello’s thoughts. Capello’s biggest drawback was highlighted once again. He is completely distant from his team. He doesn’t communicate with those in the camp frequently enough.
It is not, as some of his naysayers claim, to do with his grasp of the language. There are a growing number of problems Capello has caused himself simply by ignoring one of the most fundamental managerial qualities; communication.
Ferdinand should have heard from Capello, not the media, that he was to lose the armband. The goalkeepers should have been informed of who would start in South Africa well in advance rather than a day before. If he wanted to recruit Paul Scholes, he should, as Scholes alluded to, have called the Manchester United midfielder much earlier. Then there was the awkward Community Shield moment when Michael Carrick, who Capello had presumed unfit, strode past the bewildered Italian to collect his medal.
Communication is vital. It is important not just to gauge the opinions and thoughts of your players but also in commanding respect from all involved.
Was there any uproar and upheaval when Rio lost the captain’s armband to Nemanja Vidic? No, because Alex Ferguson communicates with his players. As a result they respect him and they respect his decisions.
The England captaincy shouldn’t have been an issue but the cloak and dagger stuff that has surrounded Terry’s reappointment has soured what should have been a positive week for England. I think that people are overly critical of Capello but he has to start communicating better with his players to ensure he doesn’t contribute to his own downfall any more.
This is a classic example. Moreover, how can Capello expect to command the respect and discipline he yearns for when he promotes the one man who so publically challenged his methods? By handing Terry the captain’s armband, Capello has handed over the keys of the asylum to the lunatics.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn
“Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air”
After three months of being a trainee journalist, I’m beginning to realise that the ‘j’ word invokes a wide range of emotions in ordinary people. There appears to be a theory pedalled around that journalists are conceited, heartless individuals compelled to feed you all a pack of lies.
Sports journalists are often tarred with this brush. Journalists are supposed to retain objectivity and refuse to show bias but in the partisan world of football, that is something most fans can’t comprehend.
And perhaps this is what drove the anger of many fans when they turned on the outlets that broke two of the recent big sports stories.
When The Sunday Times and Panorama warned us that the forthcoming World Cup bid was corrupt, we told them to shut up. Did they want us to have a World Cup? Why then would they seek to destroy it? We had the best bid and believed the only thing that could ruin that was our all too intrusive media. Instead we were supposed to continue with the preening, the pampering and the pandering so we didn’t upset the decision makers.
When Russia and Qatar were the surprise winners, we all cried corruption. Perhaps The Sunday Times and Panorama were onto something. By then, it was too little, too late.
Then yesterday, when News of the World journalist Neil Ashton broke the news that Carlos Tevez had handed in a transfer request he was met with a tirade of abuse.
The focus of fans’ venom wasn’t their temperamental Argentinian captain nor was it his puppet master agent Kia Joorabchian but the man who’d informed them of the news. So why shoot the messenger? Because it’s easier.
In our well developed, democratic system; corruption is something that happens elsewhere. We didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that FIFA votes may have been up for sale. We cannot fathom how despite clearly offering the best package and pulling out all the stops, we were outdone.
We cannot understand how club legends can suddenly abandon everything they seem to stand for. Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney are thought of as relics to a bygone era. They love football; they feed on the passion streaming down from the terraces. More than most, you get the impression they would play for free. We don’t want to believe that they too are merely pawns in their agents’ games.
The press shouldn’t be painted as saintly figures and there are occasions when they go too far. I could not and still see no possible benefit to The Mail on Sunday’s set-up which cost Lord Triesman his job. There is a difference between investigative journalism and a tabloid sting and on this occasion the newspaper veered into the latter.
But instead of threatening sources and lamenting the media isn’t it about time we faced up to reality? The fact Sepp Blatter believes he can bag himself a Nobel Peace Prize with his cavalier attitude tells you FIFA operates as a purely political vehicle these days. And the idea of loyalty, even in the most fervent footballers like Tevez and Rooney, has been replaced by greed.
So when The Sunday Times, the BBC and Neil Ashton expose these flaws and break these stories they should be praised rather than disparaged. After all, it’s not like you send death threats to your postman after he’s brought the latest phone bill, is it?
“Shall I crack any of these old jokes, master, at which the audience never fail to laugh?”
Did you hear the one about Emile Heskey?
“A prisoner on Death Row in Utah has been allowed to choose his firing squad. He has chosen Heskey.”
How about this one…
“Robert Green faced over 100 shots in training today without conceding a goal. Tomorrow, he and Heskey will train with the rest of the squad.”
Type his name into Google and via the second option down you’ll be treated to a veritable smorgasbord of similar Heskey-themed funnies. Consult any tabloid and you’ll see a host of England players ‘scoring’ in one way or another. Heskey’s drought is perfect comic timing. Despite an international career which spanned over a decade, the Aston Villa striker was a constant target of derision from an expectant public who found his England inclusions most perplexing.
They will not need to ponder any more because Heskey’s days as the punch line are behind him. After retiring from international football, Heskey will enjoy a reprieve. He will no longer be scrutinised with the same intensity and he will no longer take the flak for the perennially ‘underachieving’ England. Kevin Davies, this particular baton and the jester’s hat await your services.
For England, he was surrounded by a plethora of supremely talented, apathetic egomaniacs but Heskey tended to swim against the tide. He simply wasn’t inhaling the same air of confidence which John Terry et al enjoyed. Criticising his performance was made all the easier as a result.
He will not don the England shirt again but under new Aston Villa boss Gérard Houllier he could be about to enjoy something of a renaissance. The England monkey is off his back and relieving that pressure can only assist Heskey’s confidence. Who is better to exploit this than the man who has shown more faith in him than anyone? Houllier broke Liverpool’s transfer fee to sign him back when he was manager on Merseyside and he was a regular fixture during the Frenchman’s tenure.
There is also the all too familiar path he seems to be currently treading. Previously eroded by David Beckham, Peter Crouch and Owen Hargreaves; being a target of abuse from England fans actually seems to do some good. The Beckham story has been retold on countless occasions, Hargreaves was one of the better performers at the 2006 World Cup and Crouch has one of the best strike-rates in world football.
With Houllier installed, Heskey has already started his own mini revival. Two goals in as many games drew comic gasps from the football community but the way Villa collapsed after he went off against Spurs showed just how pivotal he could be to Houllier’s Villa.
Stliyan Petrov this week claimed England will miss Emile Heskey. The Bulgarian may have been wide of the mark (just like Heskey! see how easy it is!) but Heskey can still offer something to his club. He may not have found his niche within the England squad but with Villa and under Houllier, the butt of the jokes can flourish this year.
“Let me throw a mathematical dilemma at you – there’s 500 left, well how come the odds of you winning are a million to one?”
Interspersed with the groups of attractive women, the opera-signing grannies and the adorable teenagers are those talent contest singers whose solitary act is utter humiliation on national television. They don’t set out with this goal of course but their blinkered eyes and selective hearing mean they don’t quite hear and witness what is so bleeding obvious to the rest of us. It is not ego but disillusion which drives these people into that audition room. Because somehow, someone, somewhere has told them they have an angelic voice and a face sculpted inside heaven itself. In reality, they are the ones to blame for this country’s high precipitation rate and their boat races could only be cherished by their own mothers.
The dream is soon dashed, often quite abruptly by the ruthless judges. Outside they scream conspiracy and vow vengeance. Rather than limping away with the tail between their legs, the embarrassment is compounded as the disillusion is heightened.
Sport is of course filled with those lucky few who’ve made it to their appropriate level as a result of their talent. The pretenders and con artists have (Ali Dia aside) been wheedled out long ago.
But it seems Sam Allardyce is quickly sacrificing any dignity he may have had in order to achieve the public humiliation suffered by these talentless talent contestants.
Allardyce believes he is not just capable of managing Inter Milan and Real Madrid, he believes he would win the league and double EVERY time. Now if Sam was a rip roaring success we could say that he was egotistical in the same way that Jose Mourinho is and Brian Clough was. But Allardyce is more like those blissfully unaware X-Factor flops than Kanye West. Without success egotism is simply disillusion.
But there is an ulterior motive to Sam’s outlandish beliefs. For the English F.A. are searching for someone to save fair England from their current demise. Word has travelled through the land that the only man capable of removing the sword from the stone is English. Fair Fabio, the Italian knight wasn’t able to get England out of the rut so the pretender has to be English, apparently. Being one of the few who isn’t excluded by such a distinction, Sam has taken it upon himself to embark on a rather public two-year interview.
The biggest hindrance to Sam’s quest is that the ‘X-Factor’ in this case might be managing a big club or it might be managing teams in European competition. Whichever it is, Sam falls woefully short on both counts. It isn’t like Allardyce is the last kid to get picked; he’s just nowhere near the first. You’d pick Allardyce because he can kick the ball further than anyone else and possibly because he could beat the living daylights out of anyone who happened to be quick or skilful. At performing barbaric acts, he is effective. But for managerial pedigree, you’d look elsewhere.
Yet like those klutzes auditioning for Simon Cowell, Allardyce cries conspiracy. Overlooked for the top jobs, he shrieks. No money where I am, he laments.
He is oblivious to the fact that his style of football is akin to those window-shattering vocalists. Somehow, someone, somewhere, must have told Allardyce he’s a great manager.
“There is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life”
Earlier this year, around the time of the John Terry-Wayne Bridge scandal, Wayne Rooney was cast as the voice of reason when he spoke of the benefit family life had brought him:
“It changes with age, I made that decision myself. I got into a few things that I shouldn’t have and I tried to change that.”
The country was impressed. We had accepted his previous misdemeanours as par for the course. Like Rooney, we put it down to immaturity. The frivolous antics of a child star; boys will be boys after all.
Six months on and the notion that Rooney has grown up may have been shattered. Whether the latest allegations prove to be true or not, we’re all too familiar with how footballers behave away from the field.
Like it or not (and I don’t), footballers are seen as role models. If you appear in adverts, take companies money and persuade kids what to eat, drink and wear, your private life better be akin to that of the Waltons. Cheating isn’t acceptable regardless of profession but there seems to be particular outrage whenever a footballer is involved.
But with girls eagerly throwing themselves at young men with bucket loads of cash, hours of free time and a familiarity with getting their own way, should we really be that surprised that so many top class footballers are accused of cheating? More importantly, should we even care?
The gossip hungry hoards may disagree, but what footballers get up to in their own time is entirely their own business as long as it doesn’t have an impact on their on-field antics. The trouble is; there increasingly seems to be a direct correlation between the two.
The cheating accusations levelled at Premier League footballers smack of arrogance and a blatant lack of regard for others. These are the same sort of traits we see when Ashley Cole accosts a referee or John Terry conducts a press conference slamming Fabio Capello in South Africa. Believing they are above others and a law unto themselves, players who get away with it away from football circles seem to think they can do the same when representing club or country.
Questions will arise regarding the ethics of tabloid stings but the fact that the News of the World website crashed this morning speaks volumes regarding the public’s desire to consume every nugget of information they can gather on ‘celebrities’. Players of yesteryear were not subjected to the same level of scrutiny but they were also not recipients of huge endorsement deals.
Certain players choose to shun the limelight and avoid all the trimmings that can come with being a world-class player. Others revel in their celebrity status and use the opportunity to take on endorsements. Part of this package is that you become a ‘role model’. It is not for everyone.
Tiger Woods, a media trained robot, was sapped of all personality and eventually craved excitement away from his regimented ways. Players do not need to live up to the ‘role model’ tag, but if they do, they had best make sure their private life is impeccable. Having your cake and eating it is simply not acceptable.
Rooney’s story is particularly worrying because it appeared as though a settled family life and his growing up off the pitch were resulting in maturation on the field. He is now the father, the family man, no longer the moody raging bull that lost his temper all too often. Should the latest allegations prove to be true, it will be interesting to witness just how Rooney responds on a football pitch.