And the Fans Played On: Denmark Vs Wales

After Wales ran wild on Ireland on Thursday night (see here), it would have been easy to get carried away for the second Nations League match. I must admit I did daydream that it would be great if we got back-to-back wins, putting us in a commanding position. But it wouldn’t be an easy match, with the Danish defence being incredibly hard to breakdown and their keeper, Kasper Schmeichel, is superb and recently broke his father’s record for clean sheets.

Wales travelled to Copenhagen with plenty of support and full of ambition, Ryan Giggs continuing to give his young players a chance and Gareth Bale putting on the captain’s armband as Ashley Williams didn’t even make the bench.

wales denmark bale

Bale has a chance on goal

Unfortunately the game didn’t go that well with Wales not being able to get through the defence much, and Schmeichel impressing whenever they did. Denmark put them under pressure and Wales never captured the fast paced, confident style they managed against the Irish. It wasn’t a terrible performance, but it exposed a few of Wales’ weaknesses, particularly at the back, and it didn’t help that Aaron Ramsey struggled a bit, as he’s a key man for us.

wales denmark ramsey

Ramsey, who struggled

Christian Eriksen proved to be the Danes’ best asset, bagging both their goals and coming dangerously close to getting his hat trick. His first showed the skill of the Danish attack and Welsh defensive frailties, while his second came from the penalty spot. I appreciate that I may be biased but I thought that the penalty was highly questionable, with Ethan Ampadu being judged to have handled the ball, but I think it was unintentional and a bit of a harsh call.

After the second goal any hopes of Wales getting anything from the match died off, we hadn’t looked particularly dangerous going forward, and while we may have been able to sneak one back, needing two or three to get anything from this seemed beyond us.

A bit of a downer after the high of Thursday, and it shows that Giggs’ team is still developing and evolving, but I admire his faith in the youngsters, and I think that as the team gets more experience we’ll improve, but it may take time. Still, the players didn’t dishonour themselves, and with some tweaking in game plan and lineup we should put up stiffer resistance when we welcome the Danes to Cardiff in November.

wales denmark team

One positive is that our fans continue to be amazing, with the clock ticking down and the game lost, it was wonderful to hear “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” ringing out around the stadium, and they were vocal throughout. They did the country proud and I love that even in defeat they keep supporting and backing the team, it reminds me of how much I admired Crystal Palace fans when they came to the Liberty and kept singing even as they got thumped and slid towards the wrong end of the table.

Well done to the fans, and I hope to join them in the stands soon.

wales denmark red wall

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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Irish Eyes Aren’t Smiling: Wales vs Republic of Ireland

It’s been a pretty crappy week for me. Work has been rough, I’ve been crabby and WoM and I have both been snappy with each other. I thought for sure that the Universe would seize on this opportunity to kick me while I was down. That Wales’ first match in the new Nations League would prove be a rancid cherry bomb on the top of the s**t sundae.

Thankfully, whatever plans the Universe had were upset by Ryan Giggs and his team of utter heroes.

Trapped at work for much of the first half I had to rely on sneaky glances at my phone. Luckily the news was all good. Six minutes in, Tom Lawrence gave Wales the lead, from a beautiful Joe Allen pass (just seen the replay).

A little over ten minutes later, Gareth Bale extended the lead with a goal which is just amazing, with a cross-field pass from Ben Davies finding him. He cut inside beautifully, and then curled a corner from the edge of the area. Brilliant. Thanks to everyone who posted a video of this on Twitter!

wales ireland bale

Aaron Ramsey would add a third shortly before the break, by which point I was almost home. I cracked open a Thatcher’s Gold (product placement in the vain hope they send me some free cans), and settled in for the second half. It’s usually my luck that I miss when Wales are on top and then tune in for a heartbreaking collapse.

While the second forty-five wouldn’t be quite as much fun as the first must’ve been, it was far from a disaster. Wales were the dominant force, passing the ball about wonderfully and creating chances.

A fourth goal arrived courtesy of Connor Roberts, who capped a fantastic move. Receiving the ball from Bale he controlled it and then struck a sweet half-volley past the Irish keeper. Beautiful.

wales ireland roberts

Ireland pulled one back in the 66th minute after Aaron Ramsey lost his footing on the edge of the area, allowing Shaun Williams to grab a goal that felt like little more than a consolation.

There was a time that I would have been afraid that this was the point that Wales would fall apart, but we’re a different animal now and this minor blip didn’t throw Wales off their game. In fact, Giggs was so comfortable and confident that with quarter of an hour to go he took off Bale, our talisman and brought on Tyler Roberts, making his international debut.

Roberts impressed on his first game in the red, going on a cracking run from the halfway line, beating a couple of Irish lads and then, after a neat one-two with Ramsey forcing a save and earning a corner. I can’t wait to see more of the lad, even if it puts me in the unusual position of actually liking a Leeds United player (I think the late Gary Speed was the last one).

Wales had a series of corners and a few more opportunities, and somewhat greedily, I was hoping for a fifth to completely kill it off, but it didn’t arrive. The closest we came was when David Brooks was through goal, only for Enda Stevens to pull off a fantastic tackle and dispossessed him just before he could shoot. It’s one of those tackles where there was no margin for error, if Stevens had been an inch off or a second later, it would have been a penalty, but to his credit, he timed it perfectly.

After this the game settled down, Wales still knocking it about well, but with less urgency, as they cruised in for the win.

It was just what I needed after a crappy day, and as “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” rang out at the ground I sang along on the sofa, goosebumps on my arms and my eyes a little misty. Thanks to the team, and for the progress Welsh football has made, it’s a long way from me angrily storming to bed after yet another defeat.

wales lineup ireland

Thanks to these magnificent bastards

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Who I’m Supporting at Russia 2018

Later on today the Russia 2018 World Cup begins, and as Wales failed to qualify, I have to pick a foreign country to root for. Luckily, I’ve had lots of practice as Wales’ 2016 campaign is the only one I’ve really had skin in the game for, and it broke me.

So, the question is, out of the 32 nations in the running for the trophy, who do I pick?

First of all, I’ll address the England question. My Dad is English, so some may be wondering why as the metaphorical Land of my Fathers failed to qualify I’m not rooting for the literal one. Well, it’s not that complicated. While I may have got behind England in 1996 to the extent I wept as Southgate ballsed up his penalty, I’ve experienced a lot since then.

And a lot of that is that some English people are massive bellends. I know not all of my neighbours across the bridge are, but there are a lot that are. I went to a Welsh university, but Welsh students were a minority and dealing with a certain breed of Englishman soured me on the country, as does watching the predictable tournament circus unfold.

  • England qualify.
  • One player is singled out as the Great White Hope. If the player is carrying a knock this adds drama. (This year it’s Harry Kane, filling a role previously filled by Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and Paul Gasgcoine)
  • Another player in the squad is singled out as a “gamble” or “risky” inclusion. He is also criticised for some perceived flaw- laziness, being a bit flash, not being English enough. (Raheem Stirling for 2018, but in ’90 it was John Barnes. Another player who got a lot of flak was Owen Hargreaves, which is odd as in the 2006 QF he was the only player to convert his penalty, while missers Lampard, Gerrard and Carragher are held in higher regard).
  • Some pundits advise caution, and fans talk about not getting carried away.
  • England get through the group stage. Probably second in their group or having squeaked into first in solid, but hardly amazing performances.
  • The fans begin to get carried away.
  • They win their first knock out game against a smaller nation.
  • The Quarter Finals are the end of the road with the fans utterly stunned as they are either (a) outclassed or (b) screw up a shoot out.
  • The press single out one player or referee decision to blame the exit on. They invoke memories of 1966 and we are treated to someone with a St George’s cross on their face crying.
  • The manager is fired and the players are slagged off for continuing their lives and being seen smiling because they should be walking through the streets flogging themselves and lamenting for at least six years.

Seeing this play out as an outsider is rather depressing, because it’s predictable and massively unfair. A team is eleven men, it seems unfair to pin it all on one poor bastard. It’s even more unfair when it’s clearly because the tabloids have decided to enter the “tear them down” part of the cycle.

hargreaves

Also, I don’t think I could stand an England win because I would never hear the end of it. It’s been 52 years since the last time they won and I hear about Hurst, Moore, Banks et al. frequently. Hell, the final goal is probably the most played historic footage in Britain.

And before any English fans take issue, can you say hand on heart that you’d genuinely support Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland if they qualified and you didn’t? Honestly?

This isn’t “anyone but England” by the way. If the final was England vs Russia, or Switzerland, or Saudi Arabia, I would have to concede that I’d want England to win. But I’d probably regret it within weeks.

So, who’s it going to be. Well, I’ve narrowed it down to four.

Iceland

Underdogs. Minnows. Viking warriors.

One of the best things about Euro 2016 was the success of the Icelandic team. Coming from a pretty small country they arrived with little expectation and probably would have been a footnote if not for two things. Firstly, their fans, who were massively passionate and intimidating thanks to their primal “Thunder Clap” chant. Seriously, even on TV that was awesome, in the stadium it must have been immense.

iceland2016

Secondly, they more than held their own. They passed through their group undefeated, having managed a solid draw against the Portuguese, the eventual winners. In the knock out stages they dumped out England in a giant killing that warmed the heart and while they may have been thrashed by the French, they still did themselves proud and impressed.

Germany

I’m going for the Germans because when I was asked who I thought might win it, they were my pick. I also like the fact that they could match Brazil’s five wins and they boast a decent squad. Also, I’ve never fully understood the anti-German feeling a lot of British fans have. World War II was a long time ago, people, let it go.

Mexico

I don’t know what it is about Mexico, but I’ve long had a soft spot for them. They’ve never won it before, or even come close.

Belgium

My go to international team on FIFA, and boasting some world class players like Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard. Plus, they need something other than waffles to brag about.

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Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO

 


Book Review: The Binman Chronicles by Neville Southall

Everton and Wales goalkeeping legend Neville Southall’s career was winding down when I started watching football. I can remember him doing a decent job for an uninspiring Everton side and playing for Wales quite a few times. But it would only be later that I came to appreciate how successful his career between the posts had been.

Southall is Wales’ most capped player and won several trophies at Everton, becoming their most decorated player. This book charts his career and life after football, and is a decent read throughout.

He’s quite direct and open in his analysis of his career, acknowledging that the discipline and dedication which made him so successful also contributed to problems in his personal life, due to his selfish focus.

Southall talks about the players, managers and coaches he worked with, at times with unflinching honesty. He lifts the lid on behind the scenes politics and changing room rifts, as well as the unprofessional chaos of the Wales set up.

He’s also not shy in offering his opinions on problems in the sport. When discussing the banning of English clubs from European competition in the ’80s there is an anger which remains fresh, anger at the impact this had on the careers of a generation. And it’s hard to dismiss that UEFA’s frustration at English dominance may have had a part in the decision.

Throughout this book Southall is a down to earth narrator and seems a decent bloke, if a bit curmudgeonly. And it provides an insight into the drive needed to be a top athlete and the challenges faced, particularly with regards injury and navigating a world of big characters and egos.

And it shows the cutthroat world of football as various players and managers are cast aside unsentimentally. In fact reading about the end of Big Nev’s time at Everton after 17 years provides a sad example of how, despite a player’s contributions and history, clubs are quick to move on and replace players.

A good read for football fans, and Southall had a good life after football, using his experience to teach and help disadvantaged youths.

Verdict: An honest and direct read from a man who opens up about his career and peers. Southall is a likeable writer and provides a detailed look into what was going on in the teams he played for. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Beautiful Dream by Ralf Haley

I found myself identifying a lot with Ralf Haley. Like him I was a kid who loved football and who dreamed of being a professional. And like him, I was nowhere near good enough.

It’s a dream billions of kids have across the world, with only a relatively small number of them achieving it. I knew I was crap even as a kid, and realised that my few skills – okay in the air, hoofed clearances and hacking tackles, weren’t going to be enough. And so, my dream faded away aside from bus stop daydreams where I envision myself leading Swansea to Champions League glory.

Haley, however, reignites his dream and despite hating exercise and not having played a proper match in years decides to give it one last go. He just wants to get paid to play once. One euro, one minute, it doesn’t matter. He’ll still be able to say “I was a professional footballer”.

Haley sends requests for trials all over the world. He joins the gym, which he hates and tries to play more football. He also starts saving money from the job he hates to fund his trip to various countries.

He chooses smaller, less successful footballing nations and sets out with his brother in tow. Malta, Andorra, Latvia and Lithuania are among his destinations as he tries to get a game.

It’s a frankly crazy idea but one that is admirable in it’s ambition, naivety and optimism. Haley wants it badly, and throws himself into his trials.

The problem is that while the quest is noble, it feels half baked and left me wanting more. Haley gives himself a few months to train and save cash, leaving him a relatively small budget. I found myself wondering why he didn’t save for longer which would have helped him go to more places and got his fitness to a higher level too.

This not only would have made the book more interesting and given Haley more countries to write about, but would have helped his chances, as his low key build up leaves his mission looking pretty likely.

The writing is good, if nothing special and could do with a bit more of a polish. And the tone shifts quite a lot, with lots of moaning slightly souring the optimism of his journey. Haley is likeable enough and fairly humorous, but the banter between him and his brother grated on me, completely failing to win me over. It’s like an inside joke, with me being the outsider who views it as stupid.

That being said it was a decent read and Haley’s conclusion is strong. And I had to admire him for just going for it, despite the odds.

Verdict: Flawed but fun, Haley’s dreams surpass his abilities as a writer. A decent attempt at the dream but at times a frustrating one as you wish he had done more. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Football’s Strangest Matches by Andrew Ward

Cliche tells us that football is a “funny old game” and there are plenty of odd occurences, strange coincidences and memorable moments throughout it’s history. This book decides to collect several of these oddities.

While the book is diverting enough and there are some interesting tales it fell far short of my expectations. The problem is Ward’s rather dry writing style, which just offers a rather bland retelling of events when a punchier style might have worked.

Similarly some incidents don’t deserve a full entry and might have been better servrd by being dotted throughout as bullet points. There are far too many games that share a theme- ridiculous scores, bizarre reasons for cancellations and extensive replays, which robs this book of being truly involving.

It passes the time but it is nowhere near as entertaining or strange as a reader might hope. 

Verdict: Disappointing. Although there are interesting stories the book on a whole is repetitive and let down by lacklustre writing which seems to get bogged down in stats and facts. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Football Neutral: Season 2014/15 by Jim Smallman

One of my favourite books that I read last year was Jim Smallman’s first Football Neutral. This is the second season as Smallman continues his travels to various clubs. A stand up comic, Smallman decided that attending football matches on Saturdays instead of wasting time in cafes, and blogged about them, the results being collected here.

Like the first one this made me miss the experience of going to matches regularly and I’ve made a nee resolution to try and go to at least five matches in the 2017/18 season. I would especially love to go see Clapton FC, who, based on the entry here, have a great following that creates a fun, entertaining atmosphere.

The Clapton players marking their anti-homophobia match

Smallman writes with natural charm and enthusiasm. His analysis of the games is fair and unpretentious, but where he excels is capturing the atmosphere and characters of the matches. An astute people watcher and seemingly a lover of humanity, these are usually warm and funny.

Throughout the book, Smallman is enthusiastic and passionate about football and it’s infection. 

He also seems like a top bloke, and is great company here.

Hopefully, there will be more collections to come.

Verdict: A charming, fun read that gives readers a great tour around British football, with a likeable and engaging guide in Smallman. It’s fuelled by a simple, honest love of the game and its fans and gives more background to clubs I only knew from the classifieds. A nice, easy read full of charm. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Commitment by Didier Drogba

Cards on the table time, I’m not a massive Didier Drogba fan. This is probably because despite being a skilled footballer I felt he was too prone to diving and he played for Chelsea during an era when I severely disliked the team (mainly because of the tag team of tools that was Ashley Cole and John Terry).

But I received this book as a Christmas present from my big sis, who likes Drogba a lot because of his Christian beliefs and charity work. To be fair to the guy, he does seem to do a lot of good work and has donated a lot of his sponsorship cash to worthy causes. 

This book details some of this work, and the reasons behind his charitable work as well as his personal life. Born in Ivory Coast he moved to France as a young boy where he moved frequently as he lived with his journeyman footballer uncle. A lover of the beautiful game from a young age he wished to follow in his uncle’s footsteps.

Missing out on academy football he was late in making it compared to his peers, but soon made up for this with a knack for scoring goals. This is what most of the book is devoted to, with the story divided by specific sections of his career.

For non football fans it might be a bit of a struggle as it’s mainly about how he did every year, the goals, injuries, triumphs and failures along the way. The sections about family and charity are separate, and feel tacked on.

Drogba comes across well enough and it does give a little bit of background to the dressing room atmosphere and his explosions on the field. But the insights are rather limited and the writing is thoroughly pedestrian. 

Maybe it’s because of the language barrier, but there’s a genuine lack of humour or depth. It’s an easy read, but uninspiring. But as I used it to help pass time on night shifts this actually turned out to be a positive- just about interesting to keep you going and easy enough for a sleep deprived mind.

An okay read if you’re a huge Chelsea or Drogba fan, but for others might be a bore.

Verdict: It passes the time, but is rather dull and lacks the humour, scandal or insight to make it a great autobiography. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Football Neutral: Season 2013/14 by Jim Smallman

I adored this book, and found myself really wanting to go out and take in a football match (it has been far too long). The book is a collection of blogs that comedian Jim Smallman wrote after deciding that while he was on the rode he may as well enjoy his Saturday afternoon away from home and decided to watch a match every chance he got.

A Leicester City fan, Smallman decides that he can’t just go and watch his own team, and that he will avoid premiership matches, instead embracing lower league matches and a new team every match day.

This is what makes the book such a joy as Smallman writes with warmth and affection for the teams and fans he meets along the way. From Championship all the way down to non-league he slots games into his free time and sees glamour ties like Aldershot vs Wrexham. He appears to enjoy most of the matches, describing the action with some good football knowledge and a keen eye for people watching.

He’s a charming and funny companion in the stands and captures the atmosphere and appeal of going to live games. Every entry is well written and entertaining, with even the more dire matches written about with energy and wit. Throughout he is engaging and excited about football, interested in the clubs and their fans and stories. It’s also nice to see someone open about their oathing of certain clubs (for Smallman it’s Coventry and MK Dons, although he shows Coventry sympathy I would struggle to muster for Cardiff).

As well as being about football it’s also an interesting look into the life of a working comedian. There’s a second book available collecting the next season’s matches and it has gone right into my “to read” list. It also makes me want to go see a live match again, and so in the new year I might wander over and take in a Barry match.

Verdict: A warm and amusing read which will appeal to any football fan and captures life in the stands, and gives a snapshot of life in the lower leagues. Smallman is a funny and charming writer and his enthusiasm is infectious. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: I am the Secret Footballer by Anonymous 

Despite countless column inches in every paper what goes on behind closed doors at football clubs is still a mystery, largely surrounded in secrecy and rumour. Even more of a mystery is what the players really think.

Opening up about teammates, managers, the media and the fans would be a risky move, and that’s why the writer here is anonymous. Over several years he wrote for The Guardian and provided a look into the mind of a modern player.

The anonymity allows him to be gloriously candid, and while it’s all one man’s opinion it’s still well worth a read and an insight into the changing rooms of the Premier League.
In the book he discusses managers, other players, fans and the highs and lows of life as a professional footballer. Whoever he is the Secret Footballer is a gifted writer with warmth, humour and honesty running throughout.

It’s a solid read and a section about his own depression is especially well done and open. It’s nice to see mental health addressed in such an up front, unflinching way and offers reasons for why athletes may be so susceptible to depression and stress. It’s brave work and shows that while there has been some progress we still have a way to go with attitudes towards mental health.

If you’re a football fan it’s definitely worth checking out as it’s an unprecedented insight into the world of the modern professional and there are some entertaining stories of ego, debauchery and excess along the way.

Verdict: Well written and with engaging candour this is an entertaining glimpse behind the changing room door. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.