Football’s brave outsiders

The recent FIFA international date sprang quite a few surprises. Lowly-ranked teams did well to take the fight to the elites of the world, while unheralded players made a name for themselves. By Brian Glanville.

On a remarkable international Wednesday, two games in Britain, one a friendly, one a World Cup qualifier, turned football dramatically on its head. In Belfast, a Northern Ireland team with a long, dismal and winless record and lacking several of its first choice players, none the less beat powerful Russia under Fabio Capello 1-0 and came close to doubling that score. At Wembley, that same evening, one saw the 31-year-old Southampton striker, Rickie Lambert, a wholly unexpected choice for the England squad to meet Scotland, soar above the Scottish defence almost as soon as he came on as a substitute and score and that proved to be the winning goal. Moreover he would proceed to force a save from Scotland’s goalkeeper Allan James McGregor with a low shot, and in the last moments to hit the post.

All this from a player turned down in youth by his local club Liverpool, and later resigned to joining lesser clubs with scant ambition till at last Southampton gave him his chance. A Cinderella, rags to riches, story you might almost say. He was taken on by Liverpool as a mere ten-year-old, stayed with the Anfield club for years, then, at age 15, was bluntly told he wasn’t good enough and rejected.

“I thought it was the end of the world,” he now understandably says. “But I can tell people in the same situation that it is not the end of the world. It should drive you on to succeed even more.”

It couldn’t have been easy. Blackpool took him on without a contract, but they too let him go, and for some five months, he went unpaid. Modest Macclesfield eventually took him on, which meant long journeys and obliged him to take a job putting lids on jars in a beetroot factory. Other lesser clubs took him on; Stockport, Rochdale, then Bristol Rovers, where he began to interest bigger and better teams. Eventually it was his present club, Southampton, which signed him. There, he admits that Alan Pardew, then the manager, obliged him to train harder and physically improve. He remains grateful for this, got goals which helped Southampton up into the Premier League where last season he demonstrably showed the step-up wasn’t any problem to him by scoring another 15 with foot and head. He’s not a six footer but as he showed at Wembley he can jump dangerously high and he has neat ball control.

One of the most fatuous responses to his splendid debut at Wembley was from a columnist who urged him in the vernacular to quit while he was ahead. I see no reason why he should. England still have no fully satisfying centre forward.

Against Scotland Wayne Rooney, not fully fit again, had scattered moments, but I would always rather see him in a two-man attack or operating “in the hole” behind a chief striker. What Lambert surely proved is that he has what used to be called, “The Big Match Temperament”. So many seemingly talented players have failed when called up for their countries. Danny Welbeck, the young Manchester United attacker and another scorer at Wembley, is a natural centre forward whom Roy Hodgson prefers to use on the left flank, though as we saw when he scored he moved into the middle. But how can he be sure he will be given regular games by a Manchester United team knee deep in gifted strikers; where even Rooney himself isn’t sure of a consistent place?

But if Lambert so surprisingly flourished, this looked like an England team with serious problems, far from certain in defence, with games to come against Ukraine (away), Montenegro and Poland, to qualify for Brazil. Roy Hodgson insists that he will be patient with his goalkeeper Joe Hart but how long can he afford to be so? All very well for Roy to try to minimise Hart’s abysmal error when he allowed that long shot by Scotland’s James Morrison to elude him so embarrassingly, stressing that England’s defenders should have been in the way, to block the ball. It sounded like special pleading. Shots like that, from that distance, should present no problem to any competent keeper. But then long ago they used to call Wembley “The Goalkeeper’s Graveyard.” Yet Hart was so brilliant in Brazil.

And then there is the problem of England’s centre backs. Both Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, far away the most talented of English stoppers, have withdrawn from international football and there are no obvious successors. Certainly not the hapless Gary Cahill, who allowed the Scottish striker Kenny Miller to humiliate him with a quick turn, to score a goal, as some might say, made out of nothing. A former England centre back, Martin Kewon, suggested that Cahill wasn’t close enough to Miller. But it is well known that when a centre back marks a striker too closely he is just as much if not more of being in danger than was Cahill.

Fabio Capello, who had such a mixture of years in charge of England, was appalled by Russia’s defeat in Belfast. Sad that only 11,805 Irish fans bothered to turn up at Windsor Park to see the match, presumably expecting the worst, though it is also sadly true that the city that evening was rent by appalling violence between Unionists and Nationalists. I suppose you could understand the probable pessimism of Irish fans given that the team had not won a game for two years. In fact they had already drawn two of their games in this qualifying group for the World Cup especially distinguishing themselves in Portugal.

Without several of his most experienced players such as the West Bromwich winger Chris Brunt and the Manchester United centre back, Jonny Evens — forced out just before the game with stomach problems — manager Michael O’Neill boldly and successfully gambled on youth. Martin Paterson, the striker, excelled himself, and might have scored a couple of minutes before he powerfully headed the decisive goal two minutes before half time, taken by surprise as he was when the ball rebounded to him off a Russian post from the impressive Jamie Ward’s 25-yard shot. But when Niall McGinn surged to the right hand goal-line to cross, Paterson rose virtually unchallenged to head the winner.

Elsewhere, in another friendly, the Swiss, at home, had the temerity to beat a Brazil team including the highly expensive Neymar and his tricks, 1-0, an own goal by Brazil’s Dani Alves deciding the match and putting a question mark against a Brazilian team which just weeks ago deemed to be getting into its stride.

But Argentina, winning 2-1 in Italy, even without the dazzling Lionel Messi, Higuain, set to leave Real Madrid very soon afterwards, getting one of the goals, looked a more convincing World Cup candidate than their South American rivals. Germany were held 3-3 at home by lively Paraguay, needing a 75th minute equaliser from Lars Bender. That German defence does tend to spring strange leaks.