England kids are cocky? Let them learn the trade in the lower leagues then


Nathan Trott, a 20-year-old goalkeeper on the books at West Ham, could have played in the biggest match of his life at the weekend.

Milton Keynes Dons versus AFC Wimbledon. Doesn’t sound much, but in League One it’s a pretty big deal. Plenty of history, plenty of needle and lots of pressure, too, with Wimbledon already in a battle against relegation. There were a lively 8,627 at Stadium MK for the game, which the home team won 2-1.

Trott, however, had more important things to do. He had watched England’s Under 21 team play Turkey in Izmit on the Friday night. Trott didn’t actually play in that match. He just sat there. And not on the bench either. Ellery Balcombe, of Brentford, was the designated substitute goalkeeper, meaning Trott was in the stand.

Nathan Trott watched England’s Under 21 team play Turkey in Izmit on Friday night

Nathan Trott watched England’s Under 21 team play Turkey in Izmit on Friday night

So when Les Reed, the FA’s technical director, next wonders why England’s young players are becoming arrogant, he might be redirected towards his own policy. 

The one that implies they are too good for League One; that prizes a ticket for an Under 21 fixture above a place in a professional game. For, last season, Trott would have been allowed to play for Wimbledon on Saturday. And Wimbledon know this, because they had England’s Under 21 goalkeeper back then, too.

His name is Aaron Ramsdale and he joined Wimbledon on loan from Bournemouth on January 4, making 23 appearances before the end of last season, including one that brought him to national attention, when Wimbledon eliminated West Ham from the FA Cup. 

Ramsdale was outstanding in a 4-2 win and went on to be named the club’s Young Player of the Year, despite only featuring in half a season. Undoubtedly, the experience was positive for him. 

Returning to Bournemouth this season, Ramsdale is now first-choice, keeping out Artur Boruc. Amir Begovic has left the club for Qarabag in Azerbaijan, as he is surplus to requirements.

So League One football served a purpose. This is probably why, last season, when Ramsdale was away on international duty, he was permitted to return to Wimbledon if he wasn’t going to be involved in the game.

Les Reed, the FA’s technical director, might be redirected towards his own policy

Les Reed, the FA’s technical director, might be redirected towards his own policy

It made sense. Men’s football is very different to age group. Harder, more demanding. That’s why Premier League teams can often get turned over if they play too many kids in a cup tie against lower league opposition. 

Liverpool were fortunate to escape in the FA Cup at Exeter in 2016 when Jurgen Klopp picked nine out of 11 from the youth set-up and drew 2-2 with an equaliser 17 minutes from time.

Playing for Wimbledon in Milton Keynes is far more of a test than Trott will have experienced through much of his career. It is an environment in which boys become men.

The arrangement last season was that Ramsdale would train with the Under 21s until Thursday and, if not selected, return home to be with Wimbledon. And even from Izmit, a two-hour drive from Istanbul, that could have been done.

So what changed? Not England’s Under 21 manager, Aidy Boothroyd. He allowed the arrangement last season and as Ramsdale is now his first-choice, can’t have been too unhappy with the results.

So might this be a policy implemented by Reed, who only last week was accusing England’s Under 21 players of arrogance? And what is more likely to create arrogance than making a special case of a third-choice England age group goalkeeper? What is more likely to keep a player grounded than proving his worth in League One?

Many of the names that are crucial to Gareth Southgate’s current England team, from Harry Kane to Jordan Pickford, learned their trade on loan in the lower leagues. 

It worked for Ramsdale, too. Let’s hope Trott’s seat in the stand at the Kocaeli Stadium had a nice view of this season’s shiniest innovations. Otherwise, one might be forgiven for thinking he was wasting his time.

Loyalty cuts both ways, Javi 

Watford have been on a poor run for some time. It is worth remembering, however, that five games ago, Javi Gracia was leading them out at Wembley for their first major final in 35 years. And while that did not end well, either, it might have bought him a little more time to turn this around.

Watford fans will feel inclined to trust the current ownership, whose shrewd playing of the continental transfer market has kept the club in the Premier League since 2015. 

That is their right, just as it is the right of any manager such as Marco Silva to use Watford as a stepping stone and dump them for a better job, before they dump him.

It’s nothing personal. It’s just business. Works both ways.

Javi Gracia was leading Watford out at Wembley for their first major final in 35 years in May

Javi Gracia was leading Watford out at Wembley for their first major final in 35 years in May

At least we’re trying to root out the racists 

Much equivalency has followed the condemnation of Inter Milan’s ultras, who attempted to explain to Romelu Lukaku why the monkey chants he received from Cagliari’s loyalists weren’t racist. Fans in England are far from perfect, it was pointed out. What about the problems we have here?

And nobody denies their existence. Within the vast majority of stadiums, however, issues have been addressed to the extent that the authorities can now target specific individuals behaving in an anti-social way, as happened at Stamford Bridge with the abusers of Raheem Sterling. 

What Lukaku experienced at Cagliari was racist chanting from a large number of fans, a tactic representatives of Inter Milan’s Curva Nord not only endorsed but admitted using. So that is very different, particularly as Italy’s clubs are too timid to take on ultra culture and its violent right-wing connotations.

Equally, this has bled into the controversy around the £50,000 FA fine meted out to Huddersfield for their opportunist fake shirt sponsorship stunt to contrast to the £10,000 fine given to Millwall for their fans’ racist chanting last season.

More evidence of English football being soft on racism? Not really. Millwall, the club, are in the vanguard of the fight against it. Anti-racist charities have honoured individuals who work there, Millwall’s Community Trust wins awards, in 2017 they were the Football League’s Family Club of the Year. It is widely accepted that Millwall work extremely hard to maintain a reputation a section of their support are happy to destroy. Football’s authorities often express sympathy for those fighting the good fight at Millwall, and their punishment reflects that.

Huddersfield, by contrast, knew exactly what they were about when they got into an obvious scam with a publicity-hungry bookmaker. Their punishment reflects that, too. The FA take racism very seriously. More seriously, it seems, than Huddersfield take the standing of their club.

Romelu Lukaku suffered racist abuse at the hands of Cagliari fans as he played for Inter Milan

Root deserves a chance to lead red-ball renaissance 

For a brief while on Monday there were rumours that Joe Root was to be removed as England captain. Thankfully, they proved false. The Ashes may be retained by Australia, but the series is not over. What an unpleasant, knee-jerk reaction it would be to ditch the captain now.

Some may argue he should go after the Oval Test, no matter the outcome, and there is a case for that. Tim Paine has had a far from perfect series but he has out-skippered Root. 

Very few days this Ashes summer have been won by England, or their captain, and having lost home and away series to Australia it is hard to buy the concept of third time lucky.

Yet if Root demands further indulgence it is for one reason. He has captained a country that has not prioritised red-ball cricket throughout his tenure.

The day Trevor Bayliss was appointed, the ECB made their primacies known. Bayliss was to coach all forms of the game — and indeed bristles somewhat at his reputation as a white-ball specialist — but it is in one-day cricket where he has enjoyed greatest impact. 

And as Bayliss came in on May 26, 2015, and Root was made skipper on February 13, 2017, he has never known a time when the Test game was to the fore. The emphasis always was on winning the Cricket World Cup at home this summer, meaning Bayliss has been a resounding success.

English Test cricket, however, has suffered on his watch, culminating in Australia’s first successful tour here since 2001. While Australia focused all their attention on winning, then retaining, the Ashes, this series came almost as an afterthought for England. Now, with Bayliss leaving, priorities must be realigned and that begins with getting Root a coach whose strength is the Test game, who can steer him, advise and develop.

On Monday there were rumours that Joe Root was to be removed as England captain

On Monday there were rumours that Joe Root was to be removed as England captain

For Root to be floundering in Australia’s Big Bash last winter in an attempt to prove worthy of an IPL contract was a crass misuse of England’s resources. 

As he has sought to move with the times — and the money — and become a more aggressive player, so his technique in Tests has been lost. Australia’s gun batsman in this series, Steve Smith, is averaging 134.2; Root 30.8. 

It makes him slightly more effective than Travis Head but not much, and a century short of Australia in every innings, which is no place to be.

He needs help, and it is up to Ashley Giles and the ECB to provide it. Only then can a proper judgment be made on his captaincy. It hasn’t looked good this last month or so, but what about England’s approach has?

Why UEFA are to blame for the Albania mix-up 

Albania’s players were nonplussed in Paris last week, when their French hosts played the national anthem of Andorra by mistake. To compound the insult, when the mistake was corrected, the stadium announcer then apologised to any visitors from Armenia who might have been offended. And, of course, the fault lies with sloppy organisation.

Yet in UEFA qualifying campaigns, one mismatch can merge confusingly into the next. England have started this campaign with three straight wins of four goals or more, while San Marino are currently 71-0 down since last scoring at home, and have won once in 163 matches.

Rather than bring in pre-qualifiers or a tier system, however, UEFA continue adding numbers to the finals in a desperate pretence at parity. Kosovo, who play England in Southampton on Tuesday night, have channelled the fervour of a fledgling nation and are unbeaten. Yet they are hardly typical. There are now 25 countries from within what might be termed the old eastern bloc, and only six of them are in the top two of their groups: Kosovo, Ukraine, Hungary, Croatia, Poland and Russia.

Meanwhile, the goal difference numbers after no more than six games — and in some cases, just four — tell a sorry tale. San Marino -24, Latvia, Lichtenstein -18, Faroe Islands -17, Gibraltar -16, Estonia -12, Malta, Moldova, Andorra -11, Azerbaijan -8, Lithuania, Belarus, Montenegro -7. 

Every now and then a major nation comes a cropper somewhere like Kazakhstan and it is used to justify the system. But it is no wonder Andorra and Armenia become interchangeable at the end of a long day or clubs pressure players to skip the trip to Serravalle, home of San Marino. There is too much meaningless football and players are exhausted as it is. Not to mention announcers.

Albania's players look on with confusion after the Andorra national anthem is played

Albania’s players look on with confusion after the Andorra national anthem is played

Judge women’s game on the fans who pay 

There was a lot of fuss about the crowd at Stamford Bridge to watch Chelsea’s women play Tottenham on Sunday but to give away 40,000 tickets and have only 24,564 turn up does not seem the greatest leap forward.

More impressive, surely, was the 3,041 who made the trip to Ashton Gate, and paid, to watch Bristol City’s match with Brighton. This was roughly six times the average crowd of last season and, as paying customers, the beginning of a committed fanbase.

Some of the larger attendances may look impressive, but free admission is no indication of a sport’s popularity or growth. At Bristol, where the match was linked to wider promotions including the opportunity to stay on and watch England’s European Championship qualifier with Bulgaria, the increased interest was tangible. This seems a more sustainable development for the women’s game than just giving it away.

 England’s rugby players will earn £7million for winning the World Cup. Or, put another way, £200,000 a man. Divvied up like that, it doesn’t seem a lot. Alexis Sanchez banked that every four days in Manchester.

Alexis Sanchez banked £200,000 every four days when he played for Manchester United

Alexis Sanchez banked £200,000 every four days when he played for Manchester United

It is a bitter irony that an aerial television camera tracking the 11th stage of the Vuelta a Espana cycling race should inadvertently alert the authorities to the location of a large marijuana farm, hidden on a Catalan rooftop. A sport rife with scary performance-enhancing drugs, and they get everyone busted for the fun stuff. 

How depressing to discover Gary Lineker is not massively into sex and prefers a nice dinner instead. If that bloke can’t pull, what chance have the rest of us got? 

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