Roy insisted it was a squeak of the leather but the smell said different.

by Kevin Henning

The Premier League returns to our lives this weekend and what has felt like the longest International break of all-time closes. In attempting to look back on it here, I am merely prolonging my agony but this can only mean I’ll be more grateful when Saturday comes.

I actually looked forward to this break. I foolishy believed that England’s fresh young team would take the game to San Marino and in trying to convince Roy Hodgson to stand by his youngsters, possibly hit double figures. I anticipated a potentially tough fixture in Warsaw where the hosts would go all out for a win but ultimately be picked off on the counter attack by a wily England side. I believed that Ireland could upset the Germans with a performance to match the efforts of the Green Army. I thought that Scotland and Wales would serve up a real derby match encounter and the victors would take the initiative forward into the second round of fixtures on Tuesday night.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Scots were robbed in Cardiff when a disallowed goal to put them into a 2-0 lead was chalked off by an incompetent linesman and the Welsh (or rather Gareth Bale) went on to turn the game on its head. Both countries predictably limped on to straight-forward, 2-0 defeats in Croatia and Belgium leaving qualification for the World Cup further away than it was before the groups were drawn. The Republic of Ireland meanwhile continued their desperate form from the Euros by being completely outclassed from the first whistle in what became a shooting exercise for Germany’s already confident players.
And then we have England. A limp wristed display against a team ranked alongside Bhutan and the Turks and Caicos Islands saw the Three Lions struggle to break down a side containing a solitary professional footballer. Wayne Rooney, captain for the night, moved into the top 5 goalscorers of all time with his brace, but you have to wonder how many goals strikers such as Jimmy Greaves, Gary Lineker or even midfielder Bobby Charlton would have plundered against the no-hopers of San Marino.

The manager and squad made all the usual noises about the points being the main thing and how hard it is to break down a ten man defence but taking over half an hour to break down a team of part-time footballers and over an hour to score a third is quite frankly pathetic. Rather than talk about his team’s inability to be creative, Hodgson decided to focus on a completely innocuous challenge by the visitors’ goalkeeper which saw Theo Walcott carried off after ten boring minutes.
Then it was onto Poland and a game which, had they won, would have sent England racing towards an early qualification for Brazil. The farce of Tuesday night’s abandonment has been well documented and we’ll probably never get to the bottom of why the roof was open while the rain fell but closed twenty hours later on a pleasant autumn evening. Still, it gave Lee Dixon, Roy Keane and Gareth Southgate the chance to ridicule a referee for carrying out the tasks he was being paid to do rather than show us how ill-informed they are about the one subject they are being paid to provide expert analysis of. Whilst they rattled on about how tough it would be for the England players who would now be expected to play on Wednesday and Saturday afternoon, they remained oblivious to the fact that a number of Poland players would have to turn out for Borussia Dortmund on Friday night.
England looked for a while to be heading towards one of those victories where you don’t really know how to feel due to a decent result being gained from an uninspiring performance but then we did our favourite trick of sitting back contentedly while the game is still being played. Poland woke up to the fact that despite the huge differences in pay packets, their players are actually as good as if not better than the overpaid and over rated opponents they were facing and were unfortunate not to have claimed all three points. Post match, we got to hear from Hodgson and captain Steven Gerrard about how an extra night in a luxury hotel had thrown preparations into disarray and played havoc with the mentality of the squad. I know how they felt. I was asked at three o’clock on Wednesday to stay until four after a ten hour shift and had to Sky Plus the ITV footage. It completely altered my frame of mind during the game and try as I might, I couldn’t focus properly. FIFA have a lot of explaining to do. In all honesty, the entire event and explanation for a flat performance was a bit of a Piszczek.
The only bright spot of this terrible footballing week was the heroes of Northern Ireland who quite brilliantly ruined the spoilt brat that is Cristiano Ronaldo’s big night. The show pony would have expected a straight forward win and possibly a hat-trick to mark his 100th cap but the draw earned by Norn Iron left Portugal level with Israel and a huge 5 points behind Russia in the quest for a place in the World Cup.
It leaves us with only one more break this calendar year when the F.A. circus travels to Sweden for a friendly in November. For the time being, let’s all get back to the main event.