After the humiliation of the defeat to Slovenia (previous episode is here), we needed a break. That loss has left qualification in the balance, and luckily, it fell right at the end of the season. The players have the summer to think what they’ve done, no doubt on a yacht or in Dubai or something while I fret over tactics. Bunch of d*cks, the lot of them.
The senior squad return to duty in August, but the Under 21s aren’t as lucky. They were knocked out of the U21 European Championships in the group stage, having lost all three of their games without scoring a single goal. In a group including Wales and Poland. I decide against sacking Aidy Boothroyd, in the misguided hope the FA will recognise and replicate that kind of compassion when the senior team inevitably get knocked out in similar circumstances. If we even make it that far.
Over the summer the Premier League is a hive of transfer activity. There was *deep breath* Eden Hazard to PSG, Gonzalo Higuain to Man Utd, Marco Verratti to Man City, Alessio Romagnoli to Chelsea, Christian Eriksen to Barcelona, Romelu Lukaku to Bayern, Jordi Alba to Man City, Joao Mario to Chelsea and Cesar Azpilicueta to PSG. All for what can officially be termed, “a f*ck tonne of money”. The biggest transfer for an English player, however, is Ben Osborn’s move from Nottingham Forest to Burnley for £9m. And they say the Premier League doesn’t bring the best out of English players.
I can’t be worried about such trivialities, though. I have two qualifiers, against Malta and Scotland. Anything short of six points from those two games will be very, very concerning indeed.
It’s the start of a new season, but the same problems remain. Raheem Sterling, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Gary Cahill, Marcus Rashford, Theo Walcott, Andy Carroll, Phil Jones and Wayne Rooney are yet to play a game for their club this season, and as such are hard to justify picking. I take Sterling and Rashford, simply because there’s no-one else to replace them. The problem with that is it still leaves James Ward-Prowse and Steve Cook as the “best” options remaining options to come in. There aren’t enough inverted commas in the world to go around “best”.
Malta, home, World Cup 2018 Qualification, September 2017
The 4-3-1-2 hasn’t exactly worked wonders so far, but without any better ideas I stick with it. Shut up, I’m a good manager really.
For this game, I work out my tactics for the Scotland game in four days time and work backwards. I rest a few names who can be easily replaced so they are fresh for the Auld Lang Syne Enemy.
But we are England, and I am me, so I leave in John Stones, Jamie Vardy, Jordan Henderson, Harry Kane and Dele Alli, just in case. Which, versus Malta, is quite the indictment of my faith in the rest of the squad.
We hit the post four (4) times in the first twenty (20) minutes, and are 3-0 up at half time when Vardy scores a hattrick, each goal closer to the goal line when he bundled it over. I swear, he’s scored something like 6 goals for me so far, and not a single one has been further than 3 yards out.
Delli Alli scores a screamer just after the break and Ross Barkley caps a magnificent performance with a lovely free kick near the end. And then we see Scotland upset Slovakia and we jump to top of the group. All in all, pretty good.
Scotland, home, World Cup 2018 Qualification, September 2017
Having rested a few of the first teamers against Malta, we come in to this one in decent shape. The last game was good, but I know myself and this game too well to get complacent. We are absolutely not a good team, so I stick with what we know. There won’t be any focus on ball retention or finesse. This will be playing to both teams’ strengths. It’s the international version of a Sunday morning pub game. We hit you, you hit back. Terry Butcher versus Sweden. Paul Ince versus Italy. John McClane versus Hans Gruber. You know the drill.
I fear the worst when Jamie Vardy’s early strike is ruled offside, but I needn’t have worried. Within five minutes Dele Alli puts us ahead after a swift counter attack, and three minutes later Vardy (say it with me) bundles the ball in to an unguarded net from four yards out.
A vision flashes before my eyes. We’re 2-0 up in the first ten minutes and looking comfortable. We battered Malta in our last game. It’s going too well. It’s a matter of time before Scotland come back in to it, right? We’re totally going to suffer the ignominy of throwing away a two-goal lead and losing 3-2, aren’t we? To Scotland, as well. I bloody know we will. I should switch from attacking to counter and get men behind the ball. Let’s play it safe for the next eighty minutes.
I wait for the ball to go out of play to make the changes. Before it does, Harry Kane scores. And then again. Then Dele Alli adds his second.
We’re 5-0 up. At half time.
I’m so flummoxed by who the hell this team are, I can’t even process how to unnecessarily tinker with this winning set up. So I don’t. Even on 80 minutes, with a five-goal lead, against Scotland, I can picture the comeback to end all comebacks. With that, Harry Kane completes his hattrick and something strange happens. I get comfortable. They aren’t coming back from this. I can actually enjoy this game.
In injury time, Marcus Rashford tucks home our seventh, and I think I actually feel some sympathy for the Scots.
7-0. 7-f*cking-0. F*ck me.
A month later we round the qualifiers out against Slovakia and Lithuania. Slovakia are our main threats to top of the table, and it would be a wonderfully English thing to do to beat Scotland and Slovakia then lose to Lithuania. I pick almost an identical squad to the previous, partially because stability, partially because the alternatives are Saido Berahino and Andre Gray. They’re no alternatives. For anything.
Slovakia, away, World Cup 2018 Qualification, October 2017
Our build up to our must win, 1st vs 2nd, win-means-qualification match is ruined when Harry Kane is ruled out with, ahem, blisters. We’ll probably tell the press it was something else.
I know our attacking 4-3-1-2 has scored 12 and conceded 0 in our last two games, but this will be a different beast. Slovakia will have to come at us as a draw is no good for them, so we’ll get players behind the ball and look for long balls over the top for Jamie Vardy to run on to. A draw is good enough, a win would be perfect.
23 minutes in, Slovakia fail to clear a corner and Chamberlain cuts the ball back for Jamie Vardy to (say it with me) tuck home from 5 yards. Despite Slovakia’s domination with the ball, they never really threaten, and it’s not long before we break free on the counter and Sterling crosses the ball for Vardy to (saaaaaaaaaay it with me) score from four yards.
At half-time I tell the plays not to get complacent. They take the advice in, except for Jamie Vardy who becomes “demotivated”. I’m surprised he’s capable of rational thought through all the Red Bull and Skittles vodka.
Before I can get nervous about a potential comeback, Chamberlain pulls a Vardy straight from kick off and bundles in to an unguarded net from three yards. 3-0. Vardy is then played through, and in the process is brought down in the box. On a hattrick, he decides to take the penalty himself.
I’m nervous. The game should be dead and buried, but I’m facing an unheard of proposition. Jamie Vardy’s taking a shot from twelve yards out. I don’t think his ten goals for me have been from twelve yards combined.
He tucks it home with a aplomb, and a Martin Skrtel consolation ten minutes from the end can’t spoil the mood. The victory puts us out of touch from the rest of the group.
We’ve qualified for the World Cup.
Lithuania, away, World Cup 2018 Qualification, October 2017
With qualification in the bag we swap the team around. We return to the attacking 4-3-1-2 that battered Scotland, and gives chances to the likes of Ward-Prowse, Cook, Barkley, Rashford and Wilson. There are places on the plane at play here. Don’t let me down.
Now that’s the stuff.
Five minutes in Kyle Walker wins the ball against the touchline. From there, every player touches the ball in a delightful passing move that stretches the length of the pitch and results in a second international goal for Callum Wilson. Five minutes later a goalmouth scramble sees an own goal for Mindaugus Ivanauskus (you know, him) when Barkley’s wild strike smashes off his knee and in. Callum Wilson scores a second on 25 minutes after a lovely run from Rashford. Wilson goes off injured, Kane comes on, and scores with his first touch. We win 5-0, win the group by 5 points, and I look very smug as I face down the press. Y’all laughed at me.
And with that, qualifying is over. We came in to these last four games needing four wins, and we got four wins. Not only that, we scored 21 goals in those four games, and only conceded one. All since Troy Deeney was dropped.
I repeat. F*ck that guy.