Gauging England’s chances at major tournaments is often akin to a student night out. Initial attempts to rein in hubris usually result in failure, prudent claims that “I’ll only have a couple” and ”England’ll only reach the quarters” eventually drowned in a sea of ten-pint, “England’ll win it” decadence. That said, there are legitimate reasons for cautious optimism come this summer – optimism befitting a few carefully-savoured pints of English ale, if not the full tear-up-the-town ten-pinter.
Where to start? The emergence of Leicester’s Jamie Vardy won’t need mentioning to anyone with a serious interest in English football (or, indeed, football at large). The forward’s rise to fame over the last few years has been so steep that Hollywood screenwriter Adrian Butchart actually approached Vardy in February with a view to making a film about his life. Vardy’s reputed response, “Me? You’ve got to be mad”, speaks volumes about his level-headed cool. They say actions speak louder than words, but in this case, Vardy’s words render his on-pitch achievements all the more remarkable. That Vardy, in his own words, “hardly leaves the house”, should come as scant surprise. Lesser known among the Leicester contingent is Danny Drinkwater, aptly-named water-carrier in defensive midfield.
Sceptics as to Jordan Henderson’s abilities will point to the Foxes man as the more consistent, despite Henderson’s glamour status as Liverpool captain. Vardy, in typically laconic style, describes Drinkwater as Leicester’s ‘puppet master’, a soubriquet also bequeathed on the great Xavi Hernandez, no less. Speaking of Xavi, the Catalan icon has been talking up Adam Lallana in recent weeks, describing the in-form Liverpool playmaker as ‘quality’ and ‘key to England’s chances’. Certainly, Lallana adds a touch of un-English gossamer to England’s game – the fact Lallana’s granddad hails from Xavi’s Spain is explanation enough.
Rivalling Lallana for the playmaker role, however, is Delle Alli, the trickster and flagship of Tottenham’s new English generation. For all Lallana’s timely run of form, anyone who saw Alli’s performance in Berlin last month as England beat world champions Germany would surely question Xavi. Only just out of his teens, Alli’s combination of nous and flair lay at the crux of England’s comeback from two goals down. Indeed, several Tottenham players present that night in Olympiastadion can be considered crucial to English hopes: Harry Kane, Eric Dier, Danny Rose, as well as Alli. Kane’s ability in particular cannot be overstated. The level of two-footedness his finishing displays is simply astonishing, made all-the-more so by the historical one-footedness of so many English forwards (Michael Owen, arguably even Wayne Rooney).
Yet, as with Vardy, rumours pertaining to big bucks have been personally quashed. When asked if his long term future lay with Spurs in light of Real Madrid’s interest, Kane responded with an immediate “Yeah, definitely”. Madrid’s keenness on Kane remains serious and protracted, but Kane’s feet seem as firmly-planted as his squad place. England can only reap benefit.
It is in the heart of defence where the real question marks loom. Champions League winner Gary Cahill is the most senior English centre-back available, and despite his Iniesta-shackling heroics back in 2012, his form for underachieving Chelsea this year has been poor. Phil Jagielka is experienced, but lacks Cahill’s pace, technical ability and height, not to mention his European pedigree. John Stones, Jagielka’s Evertonian protégé-cum-prodigy, seems to be suffering from Beckenbauer-esque pretensions, despite his vast potential. Roberto Martinez even dropped him recently, despite – or perhaps because of – his media hype. Perhaps a lack of guarantee is the overarching theme of the whole squad. So often pundits and journalists talk about the ‘next generation’ of England players in the lead-up to major tournaments. But this squad really is next-generation – and as any current student knows, being a member of the ‘next generation’ is no guarantee of… well, of just about anything.
I cannot pretend, as someone who is going to be supporting Northern Ireland in person in France this summer, to be a terribly objective journalist. I can, however, give my opinion that Northern Ireland’s qualification for Euro 2016 is quite possibly the most unlikely football story this side of Leicester.
In September 2013, Northern Ireland lost 3-2 to Luxembourg, a team that had won just three of its previous 121 World Cup qualifiers. They were therefore ranked amongst the fifth seeds for the Euro qualifying draw, ranked 39th of the European teams. The team had won just three games in the four years before the kick off of their qualifying campaign in Budapest in September 2014, making qualification seem a distant prospect. Their performance in those qualifiers, therefore, was nothing short of extraordinary: 21 points from 10 games, with just one defeat, leaving them top of Group F. Qualification was not only secured, it was secured with a game to spare. For all the talk of the expanded format of Euro 2016, Northern Ireland would have qualified for a 16-team Euros, or even for one of UEFA’s 13 slots at the World Cup.
An observer might be curious as to how exactly this turnaround happened. Was it, like Wales, the result of the emergence of a few transcendently talented individuals, all maturing at the same time? Or perhaps it was more akin to Iceland, with a long programme of directed investment finally beginning to bear fruit? The answer, as it turns out, is neither. It was simply the outstanding work of Michael O’Neill, an previously-unheralded manager who was rightly awarded the Coach of the Year award at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year awards last December. O’Neill has possibly the hardest job of any of the managers of the Home Nations: While Roy Hodgson is sitting in an executive box at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge, watching the best the Premier League has to offer, Michael O’Neill has to crisscross the country trying to watch the 50 or so Northern Irish players that regularly turn out in the English or Scottish leagues, whether that means going to Kilmarnock, Peterborough United, or Fleetwood Town. He also faces a battle to convince players to commit to Northern Ireland, as players from the Catholic community have often committed to play for the Republic of Ireland, even after playing for the North at youth level, as Darren Gibson and James McClean have done.
Despite all this, O’Neill has moulded Northern Ireland into a tactically flexible unit who, unlike previous Northern Ireland teams, are capable of playing some aesthetically-pleasing passing football, whilst retaining the passion, hard-work, and organisation that had made Northern Ireland tough to beat (especially at home) in years past. In qualifying, this consisted of an efficient 4-5-1, with a packed midfield frustrating opponents. The critical knee injury to Chris Brunt, who had earned over 50 caps, and whose distribution from left-back made the system work, has forced a slight tactical rethink.
In the recent international friendlies, O’Neil has deployed a 3-5-2, with the experienced trio of Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley, and Craig Cathcart in defence, with Manchester United’s Paddy McNair playing just ahead of them as a holding midfielder. This solidity at the centre of defence is one of Northern Ireland’s strongest areas, containing their most experienced players at the highest level. The system also works because of the tireless work of Steven Davis, the inspirational captain. Davis has been at the centre of the midfield for a long time. It was his dinked through ball that set up David Healy’s goal that beat Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England, back in 2005 but he has been rejuvenated both under O’Neill and Ronald Koeman at Southampton. His calming presence in the engine-room of the side is invaluable, as well as his ability as a goalscoring threat, with two goals against Greece that clinched qualification, including a spectacular looping header.
The talisman of the side, though, has to be Kyle Lafferty. Despite a club career that has taken him from Rangers to a loan at Birmingham City, via Switzerland, the Italian Second Division, and Norwich City’s reserves, Lafferty was transformed in the qualifying campaign into one of the most prolific international strikers in Europe. As a team, Northern Ireland should not be underestimated. In the last two years, they have shown an ability to be a team that is not only tough to break down, but one that is not overawed by any occasion. Not only that, but their team spirit, transmitted from the unwavering devotion of the Green and White Army through to players who, whichever side of the community they come from, give everything for their team makes them truly special. As the old song goes: They’re not Brazil. They’re Northern Ireland…
Wales are unused to international tournaments. The last time they qualified for a major tournament of Euros magnitude was in the 1958 World Cup, where a strong run of form led the team to the quarter-finals against Brazil. They lost the game 1-0, knocked out of the tournament by a then-unknown 17-year old Pele scoring his first international goal. After several years of rebuilding, largely coordinated by the great efforts of the late Gary Speed, Wales have qualified for Euro 2016, and deservedly so. From a global ranking of 114 in August 2011 to an all-time high of eight in October 2015, the Welsh national’s team rise has been nothing short of meteoric.
So what are their chances in Euros 2016? The Welsh squad is looking pretty strong this year, with perhaps a little too much reliance on certain key players. Most notably Gareth Bale. The winger has had a very successful season so far at Real Madrid, developing into an attacking juggernaut. His presence on the pitch is for some as valuable as Christian Ronaldo’s. There’s no doubt that the Welsh national team depend on his lightning pace, accurate crosses, and precision shooting if they are going to progress far in the tournament. Indeed, his seven goals in Wales’ total of eleven during the qualifiers highlights his crucial role for the team. Moving from an impressive attacking combination force of Gareth Bale and Sam Vokes, Wales also possesses a decent midfield with both Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen pulling the strings. Ramsey sadly hasn’t had the best season for Arsenal.
As a supporter, he’s been reasonable, but many of us Gunners reminisce over the glory days of 2013-2014, with Ramsey single-handedly orchestrating wave after wave of attacks. Even as recent as December 2015, Steven Gerrard called Ramsey ‘the best attacking midfielder in the Premiership’, high praise indeed. There’s no doubt he can be extremely dangerous going forward, and hopefully we will witness some very exciting link-up play between him, Gareth Bale and Sam Vokes. Joe Allen, known affectionately as the Welsh Xavi, hasn’t featured too much for Liverpool’s campaign this season, largely owing to an injury in pre-season.
However, Jurgen Klopp, the new Liverpool coach, has been recently utilising him as a super sub and he’s made several important contributions, bagging a late equaliser against Arsenal in the league at Anfield, and scoring the winning penalty against Stoke in the Football League Cup, propelling Liverpool to the final of the competition. Wales’ defence also boasts a surprising amount of depth. Led by captain Ashley Williams of Swansea, and with Crystal Palace’s Wayne Hennessey in net, teams will do well to put many past them. Their manager Chris Coleman has done a spectacular job of continuing the hard-work of Gary Speed. Their group of England, Russia, and Slovakia won’t be an easy start to their Euro campaign, but having beaten teams like Belgium, they are certainly capable of some superb performances. With Scotland out, and a tasty fixture against England on Thursday 16th June, I advise all Scotland supporters to get behind the Welsh in the Euros…