The Return of La Furia Roja

A decade ago, Spain embarked on the journey of a lifetime that culminated in them fulfilling their international potential. But with the World Cup 2018 in Russia looming, what awaits La Furia Roja this time around?

By Rohan Kaushik

It is often said that getting to the top is hard but remaining at the top is harder. There have been several great generational teams in world football that have made their mark in history. These teams are often remembered for the way in which they revolutionised football. Spain’s national team did the same with their famed tiki-taka style of football from 2008-2012. However, it is hard to remain at such a god-like level forever with the same players. Great teams have an expiry date too and Spain’s disastrous performance at World Cup ’14 sounded the death knell for Spain’s golden generation.

Things had grown stale and there were several outcries for a new sense of vigour, passion and inspiration within the Spanish national team. Vicente del Bosque, who was still the coach at the time, rung the changes in response to these calls. However, despite many new faces, it never felt like the transition to a new era had truly been made. A sense of stagnation was the general vibe around La Furia Roja. The famed tiki-taka of old still persisted but without any of its original inspiration. The result was another under-whelming performance at Euro ’16 and Del Bosque stepped down as the coach.

However, the winds of change have been at work. Last year, the Santiago Bernabéu bore witness to an absolute footballing exhibition as Spain tore apart Italy 3-0 during the World Cup Qualifiers. Interestingly, Spain played without any strikers in this game with coach Julen Lopetegui opting for a 4-6-0 formation. It’s not as if Spain hasn’t done this before. Under Vicente Del Bosque, this idea was used to great effect; especially during Euro 2012 where Fabregas played as a false striker. That Spain though was different.

Ramos (left) and Isco (right) celebrate together

The vibe around the present team is something new. While there appears to be strong elements of the old tiki-taka, there is a feeling of freshness and reinvigoration. Also, Spain’s general performances since the Italy game have been terrific and there is an air of swagger about this team. So what’s changed since Euro ’16?

Enter Julen Lopetegui

Lopetegui’s announcement as coach of the senior national team was a brilliant decision by the Spanish FA. They couldn’t have chosen a better candidate to lead Spain into the future. He may not have been a well-known name in global footballing circles prior to his appointment. However, fans in Spain will be familiar with his exploits as the coach of the Spain U-21 and U-23 teams that were victorious in Europe. More importantly, a good chunk of the players he worked with in those teams are currently part of the senior national team.

Lopetegui knows most of these players very well and I believe that this will be a key ingredient to Spain’s immediate and long-term success. His approach to the game also appears to be modern and open-minded. Many of the game’s illustrious coaches from yesteryear all had unique approaches to the game. Yet, despite all their innovation, they stuck to some tried and tested methods of their own. While this initially brought success, it almost always hit a gradual or even rapid decline following their peak.

Nothing is ever permanent in football; more so in the modern game. At present we are witnessing a new breed of coaches in people like Zidane and Lopetegui. They seem to be friendlier towards players and do not rule with an iron hand. They also build the team’s identity around the players rather than have a rigid philosophy in which players are forced to modify their natural game. Hence, the players are able to fully express themselves on the pitch in unique tactical schemes that are designed to bring out their best. This makes their teams deadly as the opposition doesn’t know what to expect, with a new playing scheme employed in different games.

The Dawn of Isco & Asensio

Around two years ago, the future of Isco at Real Madrid was unclear and his national team future, even less so. Suffice to say, things have really turned in the bandy-legged midfielder’s favour. Despite his undeniable talent, Isco has had to work really hard to earn the trust of the top brass at Real Madrid. As is often the case at Real Madrid, the price tags associated with players tend to influence starting line ups more often than not. Hence, Isco had always found himself in and out of the team until the arrival of Zidane. The Frenchman, and latterly Lopetegui, however, really believed in his abilities and their faith has been vindicated. His virtuoso performance against Italy had even the opposition players and coach applauding. Such is the sheer gravitas about his play.

Marco Asensio in action for Spain

Over to Asensio. If there was ever a steal deal of the decade, then Real Madrid’s capture of Asensio would have to be it. Bought from Mallorca for roughly 5 million Euros, Asensio has gone from strength to strength. What’s striking about his meteoric rise from relative obscurity is that he isn’t considered as a youngster for the future. He is already knocking on the doors of the first teams of both Real Madrid and Spain’s senior team. Blessed with great dribbling ability and shooting, he could well become Spain’s first true contender for the World’s Best Player award in quite some time. The best part is he is only 21.

Isco and Asensio may face some challenges in becoming undisputed starters at Real Madrid. Yet, it is clear that they will in all likelihood be running the show in the National team for years to come. What about the playing style of the team ?

La Furia’s New Identity

A key question on most Spain fans’ minds since Lopetegui’s appointment as head coach has been the team’s playing style. Many were concerned that a departure from the tiki-taka style that brought Spain so much glory in the recent past would not be in the team’s best interests. Going by what we’ve witnessed over the past 1 year, it’s clear that Lopetegui has addressed this question very well.

Spain’s greatest strength continues to remain its midfield generals. So, a total departure from tiki-taka was never going to be the solution. Even so, Lopetegui has understood that dominating possession in a game must lead to goals. This is where Lopetegui has really addressed Spain’s problem over the last couple of years by introducing some direct, dynamic outlets for Spain’s midfield possession. While this is still in the experimental stages, he is definitely taking steps in the right direction. Players like Asensio and Vitolo are already playing crucial roles by adding that extra speed and X-Factor to the attack.

Another key question on the fan’s minds has been the role of the striker. As mentioned earlier, the use of a false forward produced devastating effects against Italy as they seemed unable to pick up Asensio nor Isco. However, Spain still has several true strikers to call upon if a different approach is needed. The likes of Morata, Diego Costa, Alcacer etc. will all probably play crucial roles in this regard.

Spain’s Recipe for Long Term Success

Julen Lopetegui’s slick management skills and his prior experience of having worked with the current crop of players, have played a huge role in Spain’s renaissance. However, Spain’s success at youth level football through the different age groups has formed the true core of its success at the national level over the last decade or so.

Success at the youth level is no guarantee for similar glory at the senior level. However, it is telling that many of Spain’s youth players are making the step up to the senior national team.

There was a time in world football when the Netherlands was well known for its great youth set-ups at club and country levels. France had also gained a great reputation for the Clarefontaine Academy.

Yet, like life itself, football evolves and changes with time. The fact that Spain and Germany have been consistently vying for top honours at the senior level is down to the level of planning put in by their respective federations. It must also be noted that both these countries place a lot of emphasis on their Under-23 teams.

The Under-23 team is technically not a ‘Youth Football Team’. Currently, an Under-23 FIFA World Championship does not exist and Olympic football is probably the closest to such a tournament. It is then interesting to note that quite a few of Spain’s senior players played at the youth level and the Under-23 level. Football at this level can be thought of as more tactical and physical. Most importantly, the overall gameplay is far closer in nature to senior level club and country football. At the junior levels, it is quite common to observe individuals trying to tear through the defense when a simpler option is available. Consistently pulling off such feats at the senior level requires a good team structure.

Hence, Spain’s success at the senior levels is down to this possession based style that has come to define its teams over the years. For all of the individual talent out there, football at the end of the day is a team sport. It is this team concept that has been so thoroughly imbibed in the likes of Spain’s and Germany’s best players from a tender age.

Also, international football’s most successful teams usually consist of a golden generation of players from one club. Bayern Munich and West Germany in the 70s, Ajax and Netherlands in the 70s and more recently Barcelona and Spain; all these teams are classic examples of this trait. Spain’s current generation may stem from different clubs but they all thoroughly embody the nation’s footballing identity.

Return to Winning Ways?

With a new generation of talented players coming through and a strong sense of national footballing identity; can Spain once again herald another glorious era? The swagger with which the national team has played in recent times would have any Spanish fan watering in their mouths. However, it may be a little too early to say.

During the 2000s, Brazil wowed football fans world over with their other wordly footballing skills. The way Brazil dismantled Argentina 4-1 in the Confederations Cup final in 2005 had everyone believing that the World Cup in Germany was theirs to lose. Brazil however flattered to deceive at the showpiece tournament despite starting as clear favourites.

With key members of the old guard like Pique, Ramos, Alba and Iniesta to guide the new generation, a new era of brilliance might be on the way. Saul, Carvajal, Thiago, Odriozola and several others have what it takes to get Spain to the top again.

Yet, the current Spanish team still has some way to go before hitting their peak. Tougher tests also await this team. None more so than this coming summer at Russia.


Ryan Giggs, in the words of Catatonia: ‘You’ve got a lot to answer for’

Following his recent announcement as Wales manager, take a journey through Ryan Giggs’ international playing career – through the eye of a fan.

By Tommie Collins

I never saw Il Gigante Buono, John Charles, play for obvious reasons. I remember watching Leighton James and Mickey Thomas play for Wales, these players who would excite me, wingers they were know as them days.

Then along came a young Welshman called Ryan Giggs, this kid was the real deal and he was one of us. I along with a few thousand others made the trip to Nuremberg, October 1991 in the hope of seeing a Wales win. As usual back then, they let us down, but there was a glimmer of hope when young Ryan made his debut at the age of 17 years, 321 days to become the youngest player to appear for the Welsh senior team. I and many others thought this was the first of many, it turned to be the mere 64. Sixty bloody four, international stalwarts Robbie Keane had 164 and Gianluigi Buffon had 175.

Sir Alex

I travelled the length and breadth of Europe following Wales in Giggs’ time as a player. My choice, I know, but how do you think we felt when usually at the last minute he would pull out of the squad. I now know that it was due to Sir Alex Ferguson’s insistence, and if, as he assures us, he is a passionate Welshman, he should have told old Taggart to mind his own business.

What was the worst scenario? Transfer list him, put him in the reserves to rot – no chance.

I felt sorry for Welsh managers at the time; Sir Alex was seen to only treat Giggs this way. Whilst we were travelling usually by trains, spending our hard earned cash we felt cheated, betrayed, let down. And yet some fans, ex players, people in the media don’t understand our animosity, frustration towards him. Probably the reason why is that they’re not fans, it’s a job for them. It galls me to be honest.

I remember Giggs as someone who would excite me, them games in the Arms Park, the celebrations, he was my hero, and I even called my son Ryan (although I do say it was after Ryan Jones, Sheffield Wednesday.) I remember a game against Poland at the Millennium Stadium in June 2001, Giggs missed an open-goal as if it was on purpose. During this period, when yes, the players around him were far from his standard, he looked disinterested, hands on hips, not chasing; I was fuming.


He eventually retired in a Euro 2008 qualifier against the Czech Republic, at a time when I thought we needed him most. We had a promising bunch of youngsters coming through, but oh no, off he went to prolong his career with Manchester United – yes, he is known as Ryan Giggs, Man Utd.

Then to compound matters, he twisted the knife further. One of the biggest concerns among Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland fans was that competing in the Olympics – something that happened in 2012 but was viewed by many as a one-off because London was hosting the Games – could affect the individual nations’ independence within FIFA. Whether those fears have foundation or not, Giggs willingly came out of international retirement to represent Team GB at the London Olympics; it’s irrelevant if I have issues with Team GB, as he and others knew the risk this posed to Wales as an independent international team.

He has since continued to alienate himself from Welsh football fans by being a television pundit during England matches. Does he need the money? No, then why? Why wasn’t he a pundit during Wales games? Answers on a…

Missed Opportunity

So 15 January 2018, Ryan Giggs becomes manager of Wales, to confuse matters and possibly alienate himself further, he doesn’t confirm if a key component of the Welsh set-up, Osian Roberts, will be part of his management team. What a public relations coup it would have been for him to have Osian beside him in his press conference – but no, the rumour mill is in full swing that his old Manchester United mate, Paul Scholes, is being considered… I despair.

I’m being told by Wales football fans that travelled over the English Channel to be part of the red wall, ex players and media people, to back him and support him.

To win me over, I want Giggs to visit Bala, Llanrwst, Pwllheli, Porthmadog, Cardigan, Haverfordwest and so on. I want to see him sing the national anthem with gusto – it means a lot for some of us. I want to see him promote our National League, I want him to take us to another major championship.

I want to remember him as Ryan Giggs, Wales.

Lions of the Atlas stride on Russia

Morocco are heading to their first World Cup Finals since France ’98. We look into how everything is seemingly coming together for the Lions of the Atlas..

By Danny Wyn Griffith

“No possible, Sir,” the security guard replies, as I stand outside the heavily fortified Stade de Marrakech, willing a way in to see the modern, multi-use stadium at close sight. However, today it wasn’t to be.

The stadium is surrounded by high-walls, then a car-park, which is also surrounded by walls. It resembles a jail, not a football stadium.

I was in Marrakech for a long weekend and had decided to venture to the stadium on a Sunday afternoon. Situated 12km outside the city centre, the taxi ride may seem like a waste of Moroccan dirham, but the insight gained by talking to my elder Berber driver, Hassim, was well worth the money.

Stade de Marrakech.. from afar.

Berbers are indigenous to North Africa and known for their welcoming nature. He chatted in awe of the Moroccan side that had just qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. They’d dispatched of Ivory Coast the previous week to secure their place. This would be their first World Cup finals appearance since France ’98.

Twenty years is a long time, yet five tournaments on, the Lions of the Atlas head towards FIFA’s big show once more.

Mayhem encapsulated Marrakech and the rest of Morocco when qualification was guaranteed. People lunging out of car windows, singing and dancing. Scenes of pure joy. Moroccan football was back on the map.

The man responsible for all of this was Hervé Renard. The Frenchman had turned the nation’s fortunes on its head since joining in February 2016. However, he nearly never made it this far. Eight months in he was linked with the Algeria role. Uproar was caused, so much so the Algeria Football Federation (FAF) president Mohamed Raouraoua felt the need to release an assertive statement denying all wrongdoing.

Raouraoua told the FAF website at the time: “I categorically state that we have never contacted Herve Renard and not even when he was unemployed about the Algeria coaching post. It is not our usual practice to contact a manager under the employment of another federation. We will never engage in such an irresponsible and unacceptable act.”

This, seemingly, could have derailed Hervé Renard’s early progress as Morocco manager. Renard, however, is made of sterner stuff.

Twice a winner of the African Cup of Nations, firstly with unfancied Zambia in 2012 and then with the Ivory Coast in 2015, his focus and knack of identifying the right pegs for the right holes at international level is admirable.

His Morocco squad, not a dire one by a long way, responded to each and every one of his demands during World Cup qualifying.

A tough core, made up of experienced Bayern Munich defender Medhi Benatia, Feyenoord’s tough-tackling central midfielder Karim el-Ahmadi and Nordin Amrabat, formerly of Watford, now of Leganés, was complimented by flair players such as Ajax hotshot Hachim Zyiech, the crucial Gabon hat-trick hero, Khalid Boutaib, and Younes Belhanda, who has so far impressed with Galatasaray since joining in the summer.

But it was neither of the above who had their names printed on replica shirts sold along Marrakech’s many streets. It was Fayçal Fajr.

Fayçal Fajr amongst Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi.

You may not have previously heard his name, yet locals revered when Fajr was mentioned – as did Hassim, the Berber taxi driver.

Born and raised in France, the 29-year-old has spent the last four years playing his football in the Spanish La Liga. At Deportivo La Coruna since 2015, last summer he found himself moving to Getafé on a free transfer. During Hervé Renard’s early spell in charge, it was his dead-ball prowess that proved the difference all too often as they struggled to break down the opposition.

In a team full of attacking prowess, it was Fayçal Fajr who became the cult-hero amongst the Moroccan fans.

For those who followed the English Premier League in the 1990s, you may remember another Moroccan descending on Coventry City and instantly becoming treasured.

Mustapha Hadji played for the Sky Blues between 1999 and 2001 and is highly-regarded by fans that watched him at Highfield Road. He signed for a Coventry City side who were then managed by Gordon Strachan. Having impressed at France ’98, the Sky Blues paid a then club-record £4million fee for his gifts.

He became one of the unpredictable stars of late 90s Premier League football, starring for Coventry City before their 34-year stay in the top flight came to an end in 2000/01 and he left for Aston Villa. Perhaps Morocco’s upcoming World Cup appearance might unearth another player of Hadji’s ilk for the Premier League.

The previous day, I travelled 150km northeast of Marrakech to a region called Ouzoud, surrounded by the Atlas Mountains. It holds Morocco’s highest waterfall and the region’s beauty cannot be overstated. During the three-hour ride back, the van driver stopped for a break at a roadside coffee shop.

“Thirty minutes break,” he said whilst ordering his coffee, before positioning himself in front of a big screen showing the Coupe du Trône final. Difaâ El Jadida faced Raja Casablanca, north of Marrakech in a city called Rabat.

Our van driver stressed it was in fact ‘The King’s Cup’. Played at the Stade Prince Moulay Abdallah, an old-fashioned stadium with no roof, similar to the old Vicente Calderón, it looked packed to the rafters and full of atmosphere. Raja Casablanca prevailed on penalties. Our van driver seemed satisfied.

Coupe du Trône final: Difaâ El Jadida v Raja Casablanca

From national team success, through to passionate locals and packed stadiums, Moroccan football seems in decent enough health. And further good news was on the horizon in the week that followed qualification.

After climbing eight places in October’s FIFA rankings, the Moroccan squad managed to climb an additional eight in November’s list, to be placed 40th in the world and fifth in the African continent.

Reports suggest Morocco will face five friendlies prior to next summer’s World Cup. Manager Hervé Renard wants his team to play against two European and a Latin American squad to evaluate his players’ strengths and weaknesses. This will go a long way in preparation for their big stage homecoming.

So as this well-rounded Moroccan national team and their leader Hervé Renard look forward to a summer in Russia, I’ll be keeping a close eye on their progress from afar. As I’m sure will our Ouzoud van driver, and Hassim, the elder Berber taxi driver.

Nothing lasts forever

Despite all the unforgettable memories, as Chris Coleman leaves Wales for lowly Sunderland, the feeling of what might have been remains..

By Tommie Collins

An Echo & the Bunnymen song. A song title that runs true to its word, and none more so than when it comes to Chris Coleman and his reign as Wales manager. His tenure, which started badly, came better than anyone could ever have imagined, yet finished on a disappointing note.

Upon resigning as Wales manager, Chris Coleman has taken on a poisoned chalice of a job at Sunderland, and I certainly wish him well. I first met Chris at a McDonalds in Copenhagen after a rare Welsh victory abroad in 1997. I sat next to him and we had a conversation about Wales at that moment in time. He was a real gentleman, no prima donna. Chris was also a very good player, who showed sheer determination overcoming a horrendous car crash, and his retirement in 2002 came as a huge loss for Welsh football.

A few years later, I managed to get Chris down to Porthmadog for a Q&A session. Once again he was a gentleman, as he drove all the way from London and back, showing a real human side by giving time to all who attended.

Chris took on the Wales job in the most exceptional of circumstances, when the country suffered the sudden death of then manager, Gary Speed. At the time there was some fans, mostly of Cardiff City descent, who could not accept him due to his birthplace being Swansea. Since his decision to join Sunderland came known, some have seemingly resurrected.

Chris suffered a poor start as Wales manager. Having lost his first five games, culminating in that 6-1 Serbian thrashing at Novi Sad in 2012, he admitted he needed to do it his way from then on.

The vultures were swarming; he looked a beaten man. Fans were split, but after Gareth Bale’s super strike at a sodden Cardiff City Stadium against Scotland in 2012, he celebrated wildly. We soon realised he was one of us; it is one of my best memories of Coleman as manager. It was the moment when it all came together for us.

That goal from Bale was the turning point. We were wet and miserable, Scottish fans were sat amongst us, yet our dampened moods soon turned to ecstasy when the ball flew into the top corner, and the jocks soon disappeared out of sight.

Our form remained up and down, but another win on Scottish soil in a snowy reverse fixture kept Chris on board with the fans. Results were fluctuating between mediocre and bad, culminating in a horror show in Macedonia where we lost 2-1. Chris didn’t help himself, as he nearly never made the trip with his passport being mislaid. Again, some fans were showing signs of disapproval.

The seeds of what was to blossom came with a deserved 1-1 draw against Belgium in October 2013. Harry Wilson came off the bench to become the youngest player to represent Wales at the age of 16 years 207 days. A minute later, Aaron Ramsey equalised and the away end went mental – he and his team were heroes. We never looked back. We were marching towards France and Euro 2016.

I was very fortunate to be in Bosnia to see us qualify and witnessing Coleman celebrating with us at the end was immense. He’d transformed us from perennial losers to Euro 2016 finalists. He’d made grown men cry, as along with about 800 others, I had tears in my eyes and it was down to Chris Coleman, his backroom staff and players.

France itself was a dream, for the old-stagers, qualifying was all we wanted, but to get to the semi-final of a major international tournament was beyond our wildest dreams. But we overachieved, we played well away in Israel, yet stumbled over the line. We then followed that up by playing magnificently in the Russia and Belgium games in France, but the semi-final against Portugal was a game too far.

Wales fans at Euro 2016, France.

The World Cup group for Russia 2018 pitted us against Serbia, Austria, Republic of Ireland, Georgia and Moldova. Many commentators and fans thought it was an easy group as we weren’t paired with one of the giants of world football, like France or Germany.

We played well in most games but conceded late goals. It seemed that some players thought we could just turn up and trounce to victory. We were lucky to escape with a point at home to Georgia. Chris, for me, was too pragmatic and too loyal to some players. It seemed that the #TogetherStronger hashtag was literally too strong to break.

In the end, despite a late run which saw us put play-off destiny in our own hands, we failed to qualify. A defeat at home to the Irish, followed by a friendly defeat to France and a home draw to Panama saw Chris’ tenure flop at the last.

I genuinely wish Chris would have stayed, as I felt he owed us and himself another campaign, and with the likes of Ethan Ampadu, Ben Woodburn and David Brooks coming through, possibly he would have played a more attacking system and taken Wales on another unforgettable journey.

So, I would like to thank Chris for giving us some fantastic memories, yet the feeling of what might have been remains. As Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen sang:

‘Not the promises of what tomorrow brings
I need to live in dreams today.’

Results arrive, identity remains absent

As style issues continue to exist, Gareth Southgate knows what his England side currently are, but not what they may become. Charlie Dawson gives his view on the situation.

By Charlie Dawson

It’s soon to be a World Cup year, and next summer England will find themselves on unfamiliar ground at Russia 2018. England qualified with a game to spare, and have now managed 39 matches unbeaten in qualifying since a defeat to Ukraine in 2009. In that time England have managed an embarrassing five managers including the likes of Fabio Capello, Stuart Pearce, Roy Hodgson, Sam Allardyce and the ever-inspiring pinnacle of charisma that is Gareth Southgate.

From the mildly attacking style of Capello, to the defensive bore of Hodgson, with a stop-gap of counter attacking power in Allardyce, England have changed their style of play (or attempted to), with every manager that has taken over. Now Southgate is in charge, the ex-Middlesbrough manager has a problem from the offset. In almost all of Southgate’s qualifying games up until Lithuania, England played a mixture of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, formations England have played on and off for the past decade, with little to no real success at international tournaments, despite continuous successful qualifying campaigns.

England are a team without a style, or any real method of play, the question ‘how do England play?’ is replied with either expletives, or a general consensus of uncertainty. England don’t have a style, how England play is part and parcel of who manages them. England are not a total football passing side (Spain, retro Holland), neither are they are skilful, overpowering team (Brazil, Germany). Though England are capable of a passing move, and often score a goal through, as the football clichés go ‘a moment of brilliance/magic’, England often look lacklustre in attack, and clueless when presented with a modicum of defensive organisation in front of them. It’s more than likely that this is due to a lack of continuity in the FA’s plan for football in England as a whole.

The Premier League is arguably the most competitive and lucrative league in the world, and is made up of a wide variety of playing styles. The most successful teams in England, and in fact the world, almost always consist of either great individual players, or brilliant teamwork, combined with a clear style of play and consistent organisation at an administrative level. England are lacking this, they need a style of play, and need to be pragmatic in their structure and team selection. Antonio Conte took a less than mediocre Italy side and managed only four losses in 25 games, and took his side to the quarter finals, losing to the reigning world champions on penalties in Germany, after beating the European Champions Spain in the previous round, a feat England fans can only dream of. Conte achieved this with a truly pragmatic approach to team selection, and a consistent three at the back, utilising the best players at his disposal, in the form of the Juventus back three, focusing on using players that worked in his chosen formation, rather than ‘fitting’ them in.

England have an extremely capable striker in Harry Kane, and a brilliant alternative in Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford, a wide variety of central defenders, including a risky but ultimately high potential ball-playing centre back in John Stones. A wide choice of attacking players, from out and out wingers, to creative midfielders, and secondary strikers. Southgate tried three at the back in friendlies and a meaningless qualifying game against Lithuania, with minimum success, but needs to find England a set formation and a style of play. Three at the back has been successfully used by premier league teams, with a large amount of England players exposed to the formation with the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Arsenal all playing a three man defence at some point, with great success, when the formation is used consistently. Should England decide on three at the back (mimicking the formation of their clubs), then the England players can find themselves in a familiar position and create some consistency in their play, finally begging to find the national team a style.

Often England managers have been guilty of trying to squeeze big names in to the team, fulfilling the old cliché of round pegs in square holes. This time round, Southgate needs to identify his formation, ideally three at the back, decide on a midfield formation, of either a holder in the form of Eric Dier (Defensive) or Jordan Henderson/Nathaniel Chalobah (Two way midfielder) not both, and a ball-playing midfielder capable of spreading the play or carrying the ball from midfield. The likes of Harry Winks, Danny Drinkwater, Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey would be ideal partners to a more defensive midfield partner, allowing England’s attackers to push up the pitch and find space, while they drive the ball up the pitch and dictate the play. The rest of England’s attackers are a matter of personal preference of Southgate’s preferred tactics, using either wingers/inside forwards or attacking midfielders and primary/secondary strikers to unlock the defence with clever interplay, pace and power. England should play a game consisting of counter attacking football, using the pace they possess, and hardworking, efficient pressing, to make the most of their physical gifts, providing the players with an international style of play, consistent with what they experience week in week out in the Premier League.

Regardless of what happens, or what style Southgate chooses, England need a style, and need an identity! Much like the lack of foresight at Crystal Palace, hiring and firing managers of contrasting styles. England need some continuity and consistency in both their management and on-pitch performances. Forgetting what England do at the World Cup, Southgate’s men would be better served cementing a style and creating a sense of reassurance in the team’s method of play. Should Southgate implement a style that plays to the English game’s strengths, choosing a pragmatic style of play and picking players on merit rather than reputation, then England could find themselves, pleasing their critics, playing entertaining football and creating a pathway for success, for future tournaments, and perhaps even generations. Giving England an identity once again can allow fans to fall in love with the national side again, start to believe in their team and create a togetherness between the squad and the rest of the country, fixing a seemingly broken relationship.

Memories from Tbilisi ’94

Over 1,500 Wales fans are heading towards Tbilisi to watch the crucial World Cup qualifying match with Georgia. Although back in 1994, only the mere total of 11 supporters ventured to a much-different landscape.

By Tommie Collins

Over 1,500 Wales supporters will be heading towards Tbilisi to watch the crucial Russia 2018 World Cup qualifying match on October 6. The numbers will be vastly different to the mere total of 11 supporters that ventured across Europe to Georgia back in 1994, for what turned out to be a forgetful performance.

The red wall didn’t exist back then and dark days were aplenty after the disappointment of not qualifying for USA ’94.

“I flew there on the Welsh FA’s chartered flight with the squad, coaches and association officials. Flying from London Stansted airport, it was a troubling journey as we had to stop along the way following fuel shortage,” Russell Williams, a regular Wales match-goer, told Football Foyer.

Russell continued: “I’m certain there was some concern about the level of insurance we had in place due to the country’s current state. We arrived Tbilisi pretty late at night and later than planned. The total cost of the trip was around £450 and that included our flight and hotel.”

Tanks on the streets

Back in 1994, Tbilisi wasn’t the cosmopolitan city it finds itself as these days. The city and the whole country was stepping out of a dark period in their turbulent history.

“Georgia at that moment in time was a war zone. It had United Nations tanks along the streets and outside our hotel. The city itself, however, was pretty quiet, with not much night life to be had,” Russell went on to explain.

“The scars of war tainted the city and I’m certain Wales fans that visit this week will find a much-changed Tbilisi welcoming them. The only place that offered late drinks at that time was the local casino. One unlucky person lost more than his money one night – as he was shot whilst we were in attendance.”

Russell’s memories of the Tbilisi that he stepped into are stark. The country had recently fought a civil war between 1988-92 before it restarted later on in the year and stretched into 1993.

“Not many people ventured in their travels to Georgia at that time. Therefore, the locals took a real interest in the 11-man band who completed the just-under 3,000mile journey. Yet, the Wales performance upon arrival was a real disappointment and one that neither of us expected,” Russell went on to describe.

“We had (Ian) Rush, (Mark) Hughes, and (Dean) Saunders in the side and coach Mike Smith’s team should have performed to a much-higher standard. After the game, we somehow managed to end up in the Georgian FA’s committee room where a meeting was taking place. Their reaction was to offer us a seat, take out a bottle of vodka from the cabinet and to thank us for visiting their country. I remember the stadium being full of soldiers, the atmosphere being electrifying and every seat in the house being full.”

One of the scorers during the Georgia rout was Georgi Kinkladze. He later went onto excite Manchester City fans before continuing his Premier League journey with Derby County.

Russell continued: “In the same campaign, I travelled to Bulgaria, Germany and to Albania. The most notable performance came in Germany, as we drew 1-1. Otherwise, this campaign was one to be quickly forgotten as Wales managed to finish bottom of the group.”

Tension between supporters

Despite the relatively small number of fans which travelled to watch Wales back in the day, there was constant tension between fans of Cardiff City and Swansea City. Russell followed Swansea City, which meant that issues often came to the fore when he attended games where just small numbers made the journey.

Russell added: “There was an element of dismay when following Wales back then. It’s improved nowadays, as we experienced last year in France. I fell out of the routine of going for many reasons, although I did make it over to the Euros last year and I was delighted to see supporters that had been there when we were a poor team, enjoying the team’s remarkable journey throughout the tournament.”

“Before, fans who followed Wales were viewed with a level of amazement as to why anyone would follow a team of such ilk. These days however, the situation has turned on its head with the team getting huge attention. Back in the days of failure, the fans had no expectation. The reason for travelling was for the laughs and adventure!”

The red wall, turning up in their droves over the coming days, will experience a peaceful city compared to the Tbilisi experienced by Russell in ’94 – and, hopefully, a better result to go with it.

The curious case of international allegiance

Ben Woodburn got his name into the papers with his late goal for Liverpool against Leeds United, but which nation will he represent – Wales or England? We look into the curious case of representing nations at international level.

By Tommie Collins

Scoring your first competitive senior goal at any level is a feat to be proud, but scoring your first on only your second senior appearance, in front of the Kop for Liverpool, suddenly escalates your reputation from promising youngster to being lauded the next big thing.

Ben Woodburn did exactly that on Tuesday night as he surpassed Michael Owen’s 19 year record to become Liverpool’s youngest ever goalscorer with his late goal against Leeds United. Woodburn, born in Chester, qualifies to play for both England and Wales but has been part of the Welsh set up from the age of 13. England are now thought to be keen to have him on board all of a sudden, which brings some other curious international representations to the fore.

Issues regarding dual nationality have risen many times over the years. The first I remember is Kevin Sheedy, a gifted left footed footballer who represented the Republic of Ireland despite being born in Builth Wells to an Irish Father. The situation has also been highlighted with Polish born players such as Miroslav Klose and Lucas Podolski, choosing to represent Germany due to both living there since childhood.

One of the greatest footballers ever actually represented three nations at international level. Alfredo di Stefano represented Argentina six times (his country of birth) and Columbia four times – although these are not recognised by FIFA. Due to a general strike in Argentina which paralysed professional football, Di Stefano moved to Columbia to ply his trade. He then appeared for Spain 31 times after acquiring Spanish citizenship whilst playing for Real Madrid. Another fine player was Ferenc Puskas of Hungary, who represented the Magyars 84 times before moving to Real Madrid, where he gained Spanish citizenship in 1962 and appeared four times for Spain.

What should the criteria be for representing a nation at international level? Should it be your birthplace or the origins of your parents or grandparents? The situation has become more complicated of late with Kosovo being granted FIFA membership. Many Kosovo qualified players, despite already playing for other countries, now want to represent their country of birth – but this is an exceptional case in point that should be allowed special consideration. One player who has now switched to Kosovo is Valon Berisha, born in Sweden but brought up in Norway to Kosovar parents, who represented Norway at all levels and gained 20 caps at full international level. He duly scored Kosovo’s first competitive goal in a 1-1 draw against Finland after switching this year.

Other issues arised with cases like Diego Costa, who represented Brazil twice before switching his allegiance to represent Spain. Roman Neustadter, a lesser known case born in the Soviet Union, represented Germany twice before switching to Russia in 2016. Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha, who played two friendlies for England in 2012/13, but last week decided to defect to the Ivory Coast is a fresh case.

Stoke City captain Ryan Shawcross, born in Chester like Ben Woodburn, thwarted Wales due to the fact he didn’t feel Welsh enough. Unlike Rhys Williams, who represented Wales at U21 level, but then defected to Australia – his country of birth.

Therefore, young Ben Woodburn apparently has a decision to make, like so many before him. Wales are now a different proposition to what they were years ago and he would play for a country that recently made it to the Euro 2016 semi finals; and here’s one Welsh fan hoping Wales qualify for the 2018 World Cup to be held in Russia, where Woodburn will hopefully shine in the red shirt of Wales.

Together Stronger?

We look at the much talked about raised expectations issues facing Wales following the brilliant Euro 2016 showing.

By Tommie Collins


Expectations, Expectations..

Roll back to July 6 in Lyon when Wales were finally eliminated from Euro 2016. The red wall stood together stronger in complete unity as one. Fast forward to October 9 for the World Cup qualifying match against Georgia, where we were fortunate to come away with a draw – murmurs of discontent and some boos were heard.

This is typical of a football fan one says, we are a fickle lot. But this is Wales, the team who exceeded mine and thousands of other expectations during that glorious summer in France.

I was present when the lights went out at The Vetch against Iceland, and also at the Romania and Russia games where we fell at the final hurdle. Them days it was a realisation that the team had done well and we trudged off to drown our sorrows with a pint or two; we were used to it and expected nothing else. Those to an extent were also excellent Wales teams who possibly should have done better. We then endured mediocrity for many a year, players picked from lower leagues with no affinity to us, but again, we accepted it. If a player turned up and gave his all, we were happy.

Then, with the emergence of two world class players in Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, add to that a sprinkling of decent Premier League and Championship players, things changed quickly. We clicked, the country woke up and realised we were on the brink of something very special. The clever marketing team at the FAW (Football Association of Wales) introduced the twitter hash tag #TogetherStronger which has been prevalent throughout the last campaign and the current 2018 Russia World Cup one.

We started the current campaign with a comfortable 4-0 home victory over Moldova, followed by a 2-2 draw against the Austrians out in Vienna, where a 4,000 strong following was present. This sort of following is usually reserved for matches where we need a result to qualify, such as Nuremberg ’91 or Milan ’04, and this amount of away support is unprecedented. This is surely an effect of France, which created a boom in the FAW membership, request for tickets and sell-out home games. 

But, what it has done is attract a new breed of fan who demands instant success, like the millions who choose whichever club side that has the biggest revenue and attempts to win their respective domestic league or the UEFA Champions League.

The long suffering fan has opinions; he should have introduced new blood, he should have dropped so and so etc. But he’ll still be there when the form eventually drops, his expectation is only for the player in the red shirt to give his all.

The new fan who moans about ticket allocation, poor play and drawing at home to Georgia will no doubt be in his back garden, checking his family tree for a long-lost relative of the next flavour of the month.

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