Why England’s football solution lies abroad.

@hamishneal

England expects. Iceland delivers. And thus the post-mortems commence.

The aftermath of England’s last 16 exit at the Euro 2016 tournament has been almost as intriguing as the build-up to the contest in Nice which was eventually won 2-1 by Iceland.

England coach Roy Hodgson has quit and the predictable next manager markets have Gareth Southgate as the early favourite to take over the poisoned chalice when it is awarded (is that the right word given recent history?) by the Football Association.

But aside from the manager, team tactics and team harmony what is it about clearly talented players who can’t seem to progress on the international stage despite playing in the ‘best’ competition in the world.

Maybe that is the problem, is the best of the world coming to play in the Premier League stifling player development of England’s players? If this premise is true what can be done to flip the script?

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INSULAR ENGLAND

After the fixture ex-England international Chris Waddle, appearing on BBC Five Live’s coverage, was queried about whether the lack of British players playing overseas to expand their knowledge base and experience was holding the team back in big tournaments.

The former Marseille winger spoke highly of his experiences in France.

“It’s just different, the way they train, the way everything is.”

“The games are more tactical, you learn more about the game, you understand the game more. You play certain games where you think ‘right we are going to sit back’ I never had that in England. Ever. Wherever you went (in England) it was 4-4-2 and you went forward and you played and that was it.

Waddle, who won Ligue 1 three times in Franc, lauded the growth in the game it gave him playing abroad.

“When you go abroad you learn so much tactically, a lot more.”

“They get the best out of you… they put you in areas that compensate for your weaknesses”

“You learnt how to be streetwise… if it means falling down and getting a free kick.. it’s part and parcel of the game.”

Waddle continued.

“We are very, very nice, never streetwise.

In a nod to tactical fouling used by top sides Waddle said it was time for England to drop the pragmatic approach they currently use and the said ‘nice way’ won’t reach the FA’s stated goal of victory at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

“If you want to win football tournament that’s how you’ve got to play. Spain do it, Italy do it. Germany do it.”

Waddle (who was managed during his time at Marseille by coaches from Croatia, Belgium and Germany) played in a European Cup final losing on penalties to Red Star Belgrade and recommended players take a proactive approach.

“I’ve always encouraged players to go abroad.”

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The irony that Waddle missed a penalty costing England a spot in a World Cup final is not lost on me. But, like his 1996 contemporaries, he was part of an England side which actually won significant knockout games at big tournaments.

The tactical and playing style aspects of playing overseas were not just noted as crucial at the elite level by Waddle. The ex-Newcastle United forward aired his disquiet at how youngsters were introduced to the game.

“Don’t coach kids at five years of age”

“Stop coaching them, stop getting bibs and cones out, stop getting them to play two touch football. Let them go and enjoy it. When they get to 13/14 then they’ll understand the game and you can coach them a lot easier. Don’t coach kids at five years old. We are killing the talent.”

Not only is playing style and overseas experience significant there is another simple benefit to English players plying their trade overseas. Language.

Despite the English language been the international language (generally when it comes to business and other fields) a reasonable point can be made that this hobbles England in the international sphere with players understanding what they are calling out but English players (and yes this is a generalistion, but I’m happy to be proved wrong) not having a grasp of what the opposition are saying in the reverse. This may be a small matter but picking up a small quick point in German, French or Italian could result in a player getting to the ball that split second needed to make the difference.

Waddle makes a compelling point for the experience to be gained by playing overseas but, for England at least, since the turn of the century there have been few and far between.

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THE CASE STUDIES

Colin Kazim-Richards, the famed Coca-Cola kid who joined Brighton and Hove Albion as part of a competition run by the soft drink manufacturer, ended up in Turkey and has had a range of off-field issues. Richards had links to Turkey with his mother born there so the move wasn’t strictly a player development issue as it became an international pathway for the London-born forward. Richards move to Sheffield United in 2006 was set to catapult him to higher club and country honours but his career stalled.

He has since left Celtic after playing with them for five months from the start of 2016.

But the former Feyenoord striker may be the exception that proves the rule for English players improving, or at least maintaining a high level, when going overseas.

Paul Ince joined Italian giants Inter Milan in 1995 have completed a storied career at Manchester United and maintained his spot in the England squad playing in the team which got to the semi-finals of the 1996 European Championships. Fellow midfielder Steve McManaman wasn’t playing overseas at the time of the 1996 tournament but joined Real Madrid three years later and continued to played for England until 2001 – although injury in Euro 2000 meant he didn’t play the role he had perhaps hoped he would of. Another midfielder David Platt joined Arsenal in the season before the 1996 tournament but had spent the five years with Bari, Juventus and Sampdoria in Italy. This trio highlighted the benefits of expanding their playing horizons which in turn, even allowing for penalty shootout heartache, showed great benefit.

In addition to the Euro ’96 team striker and now TV host Gary Lineker also played abroad in the late 80’s with Barcelona. He bought that experience back to Tottenham, playing over 100 matches and winning an FA Cup with Spurs.

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Since 2000 there has also been four international level English players to ply their trade overseas at a high level for a full season or more.

One time England captain and Manchester United legend David Beckham spent time in the USA’s MLS, Spain’s La Liga and the Italian Serie A towards the end of his international career. Admittedly these moves were as much about ‘Brand Beckham’ as they were about football but the fact he was prepared to join Milan on loan (and entertained a permanent move) in the run-up to the World Cup of 2010 proved the value the footballing experience of not playing in England, which he easily could have opted for, was to the midfielder as he sought one last go at international glory.

Of the same era ex-Liverpool striker Michael Owen was also a solid performer overseas. Owen netted 14 times during the 2004-05 season he played in Spain for Real Madrid. This was only two less than his previous season for Liverpool. Owen scored six in the corresponding period (August 2004-May 2005) for England. In the month prior to his move to the La Liga giants he scored twice in June with one of those goals during the 2004 European Championships campaign in the game which saw England dumped out at the first knockout stage (then the quarter finals) when beaten on penalties by Portugal. Owen did net his penalty in that shootout as well.

More recently one-cap international Joey Barton helped send Burnley back into the Premier League for the coming season and he has spent time in France. Sent on loan to Marseille in 2012-2013 by his parent club QPR Barton did have some off-field issues but was a solid performer and scored in Europa League action. Barton landed at Burnley last season in a successful spell which saw him named in the Professional Footballer’s Association Team of the Year in the second tier. A clear sign his experience in France has helped to sharpen his play. Barton has since joined Rangers in Scotland but interestingly he has continued to spruik the benefits of playing abroad recommended Scotland forward Steven Fletcher join Marseille on loan for four months at the end of the most recent season.

Also playing in France, the season before Barton, was former Chelsea winger Joe Cole. On loan from Liverpool at the time Cole scored four times in 32 appearance for Lille but his return to England was marred by injuries. However he did feature in the squad for Aston Villa’s 2014 FA Cup Final appearance.

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In addition to the above mentioned there are some English players who have spent brief periods (under a season) overseas and they are interesting cases in themselves. And I’ve not forgotten Jonathan Woodgate’s three seasons of injuries in Madrid which included a loan back at Middlesbrough. His resume didn’t fit the criteria of a completed season in the post-2000 period.

Our example has focused on players moving overseas at one stage in their career but it’s worth noting current English international Eric Dier spent his youth in Portugal before player two years in the Primeira Liga. Dier played for Sporting Lisbon’s top team prior to joining Tottenham two years ago and the versatile Cheltenham-born player was arguably the best performer for Hodgson’s team during the campaign in France. During his time in Portugal the now 22 year-old was pitched into a game against fellow Portugese giants Porto at the age of 19 and had to adapt to a new position at the time of defensive midfielder. There might be a lesson in that.

BARRIERS AND MOTIVATION

Even allowing for the success of the English players who spend at least a season overseas the issue with the motivation to move and attempt to ply a non-traditional path to improve as an English player does come down to a key point. Money.

The issue with the movement, if any, will come in incentive for players to actually develop versus their wage packet. A developing playing could sit on the bench at say Manchester City and earn £60,000 a week or take a quarter of that to start for Monaco, who were third in the French top flight last season. The unscrupulous player manager while be happy to see his charge sit on the bench in England, with the occasional run out for the reserves, less they become a target in a foreign competition and possibly get injured.

The premise of the playing overseas to improve does hit somewhat of a wall when you realise Germany, Spain and Italy have each won the last three World Cups with local players – although some had returned to the local competitions from experience elsewhere. However the problem is if England players can be better at tournament football (and the results at youth level suggest they are) they need to try something to develop their cutting edge.

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SUMMARY

A word on Iceland. Co-coach Lars Largerback has not only coached in six major tournaments the Swede has still never been beaten by England as a manager. Yes it’s funny that his co-coach Hemir Hallgrimsson is also a dentist in his spare time but this is a legitimate football team that have had a great period. They beat and finished on top of Holland in their group to qualify for France. They drew with Portugal during this tournament. They have scored in every game. This is not just a bunch of Vikings and professional fishermen – they are a well-drilled team. This is signified by the smart tactical game they played which means they have no players unavailable for the quarter-final due to yellow card suspensions. This is but a simplified version of the success Iceland have had but Barney Ronay has written a terrific long-form piece which touches on key elements including coach development, facility investment and how football is focused on the community good.

I’ve touched on one aspect which is possibly contributing to England not reaching their best at the elite level by more players not playing overseas but David Conn, a colleague of Ronay at The Guardian, outlined some of the underlying problems with the game at the grassroots level in England.

Finally, As England were knocked out of Euro 2016 it’s worth noting last week’s Brexit vote could stifle any attempt by players to play in places other European national leagues. Current rules around quotas of Non-European Union players may reduce the opportunities player to join the top leagues in other European nations. However the specifics of Britain leaving the EU and the impact on professional sport haven’t been confirmed so the path, for the meantime, is still open for English players to try their hand on a more regular basis. So in the meantime. Take the plunge Raheem, Germany is fun. Ross, I hear Italy is lovely this time of year and Joe, buddy, Spain is nice.

Images via AP, FourFourTwo.com, Eurosport.com, Dailyrecord.co.uk, and Infoeurbano.com

 

 

 

 

Five Metre Gap – NRL Round 16 2016

@hamishneal

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence looking at the points you may have missed from the sixteenth round of the NRL. Two sides, the Eels and Roosters, were on the bye during a weekend which saw a one-point win for the Sharks and a 26-point triumph for the Bulldogs.

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Souths discard Chris Grevsmuhl was always bound to score when he came up against his old side on Friday night and the back-rower crushed over taking three defenders with him in the 70th minute to help the Panthers secure their seventh win of the season. Slotting in to the right edge the former Rabbitohs’ combinations with his new team-mates will only improve on the run-up to the finals. Elsewhere for Penrith, half-back Nathan Cleary will be kept on his toes despite a great start to his NRL career as axed play-maker Jamie Soward reminded coach Anthony Griffin of his ability starting as Penrith’s NSW Cup outfit stunned the Newtown Jets (linked to the table-topping Cronulla Sharks in first grade) winning 60-6. Soward’s display saw him have a hand in seven tries plus knock over a perfect ten from ten with the boot against a side that came into the match with the best defensive record.

Speaking of attacking stars, Of all the players yet to play Origin for New South Wales the drums are beating the loudest for West Tigers fullback James Tedesco. Set to have the Blues no. 1 jersey before he was injured in leading up to the first Origin match which was won by Queensland, Tedesco has since returned with more attacking flair and clocked up a stunning stat on the weekend. Having scored his eleventh try this season when he dotted down as his side rallied late before falling 29-20 to Melbourne Tedesco has now scored or had an involvement in 50 of the Tigers tries since the start of the 2015 season. With nine try assists so far this season the custodian is continuing on from a great run last year which saw him score 17 four-pointers. Incumbent NSW fullback Matt Moylan has 11 try assists but a meagre two tries this season and is playing in a side with only one more victory than the Tigers. I haven’t touched on defence but that isn’t the Blues primary problem – they struggle to score tries.

Three forwards broke a major attacking mark on the weekend running for over 200 metres, and a fourth nearly got there. NSW Origin hopeful Trent Merrin ran for 235 metres (24 runs) to go with a mammoth 45 tackles and three offloads as Penrith beat Souths 28-26. In the same game Souths’ Sam Burgess ran for 220 metres (22 runs) plus 36 tackles, four offloads and a try. Jason Taumololo ran for 209 metres, scored a double and made 16 tackles as his Cowboys’ won in Townsville. On Saturday night Bulldog Aiden Tolman got close to the 200-metre mark running for 199 metres (24 runs) and made a huge 43 tackles.

It wasn’t in his run metres but despite his side’s defeat this weekend the 70 tackles from Simon Mannering was a colossal performance as the Warriors lost in Golden point on Saturday night in Cronulla. Whilst Mannering’s effort was noteworthy, and in some ways expected given his history, Saturday night was concerning for the Warrioirs fans with coach Andrew McFadden leaving one of their most dynamic players Tuimoala Lolohea on the bench until 20 minutes remaining in regulation time. Lolohea, 21, seems best suited to fullback – especially with recruit Roger-Tuivasa-Sheck missing for the balance of the season.

In a thrilling contest on Monday night as the Cowboys notched up a 30-26 victory we got an eye on some possible problems for New South Wales as they seek to avoid an Origin clean sweep. For North Queensland’s first try Maroons prop Matthew Scott fed Johnathan Thurston who passed back to his inside and had Kiwi international Taumololo running on the angle to burst past the Manly defence for the opening points. Substitute Taumololo for Canberra’s Queensland representative Josh Papalii and it’s just the kind of try one could see Queensland scoring in Sydney on July 13.

Image via smh.com.au

 

 

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Sportxit: What the Brexit means for Britain’s sporting stars

@hamishneal

So Brexit it is. The announcement on early Friday morning (UK time) confirming a victory for the ‘Leave’ campaign is set to have wide-ranging ramifications for sport in Britain and British sporting stars abroad.

Securing a victory with over 17 million votes the ‘Leave’ campaign parties were popping the champagne but the dramatic referendum result offers no such reason to celebrate for athletes, and sporting officials alike.

DEVALUED PRIZEMONEY

The first major implications appears financial for winners of the marquee sporting events this summer in the UK with Wimbledon and the Open Championship of golf prizemoney coping a hit after each currency volatility after the vote. During the fluctuations in the early hours after the result was confirmed journalist Ben Rothenberg noted the value of Wimbledon’s prize-money lost 10% in a short period. Given the winners of each of the men’s and women’s titles get £2 million that is a not insignificant amount.

The Open (Golf) Championship prizemoney will also take a hit with the 3% rise on the £1.15 million won last year by Zach Johnson possibly getting swallowed up by the conversion and currency drop.

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WHAT ABOUT FOOTBALL?

Given it’s scale football is the first sport which will be most impacted by the 52% of the voters who elected to ‘Leave’ the European Union but it may take some time for clubs to gain clarity on the when any changes will be implemented.

The UK Telegraph unpicked the scenario in the lead-up to the vote and has gone on to detail the fallout which mainly focuses on budding European players and their ability to join an EPL club. Current star of Euro 2016 Dimitri Payet, for example, didn’t meet the required minimum percentage of international caps standard before joining West Ham meaning Payet, and one hundred other current players, would not have been able to make their moves had these rules been in place.

This could cause a rush on European mainland talent in the coming two season with clubs looking to take advantage of the change before it kicks in, which is predicted to be two years.

Scouting across nations other than Europe may take a sharper eye and this could benefit nations like Australia and New Zealand. However it is not just the competition and impacts on footballers looking to play in England which will be impacted by the move away from the status quo.

There are not a large swathe of British players overseas but Welsh star Gareth Bale could be impacted by the ruling. It would be likely any changes would not be retrospective in the various football leagues across Europe but should Bale transfer from Real Madrid, admittedly unlikely, he would likely be treated as a non-EU foreigner. Currently La Liga allows for one of the maximum three non-EU places but Bale could be eligible for an exemption after five years in which he can apply for Spanish citizenship. Should he transfer to say Barcelona he could gain that exemption in the summer of 2017/18. Given this is when any change could kick in this may suit the former Southampton star.

KOLPAK STARS

In addition to football the impact of athletes working in UK under the Kolpak ruling was also outlined in the Telegraph with County Cricket set to be the most impacted.

MAJOR EVENTS

Most deals for major events in the UK such as next year’s World Athletics titles and ongoing competitions such as the agreement to play NFL games have been agreed recently, and extended in the case of the NFL, so those deals wouldn’t be impacted too much but an insular view may not be looked upon favourably by organisations looking to ink future deals.

SUMMARY

Your Premier League club should start searching the French lower leagues for the next Dimitri Payet and sign them up soon but this could inflate the prices. The argument about clubs promoting local players through their academies and scouting networks within the UK may come into sharper focus. Meanwhile if you see Novak Djokovic should he claim a fourth crown at SW19 shout him a punnet of strawberries and cream.

 

 

Five Metre Gap – Origin II 2016

@hamishneal

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence looking at the points you may have missed from the second game of the State of Origin series. Queensland claimed the shield with a 26-16 victory in Brisbane. Unlike our normal column you likely saw the contest but here are some things we have picked out from the fixture which gives Queensland victory in ten of the last 11 inter-state series.

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The result was almost a foregone conclusion, statistically at least, at the break with Queensland leading 10-4 as the home side possess a 25-1 win-loss record when leading at half-time in games played in Brisbane. Despite the Blues scoring two tries in the second stanza, as they did in game two last season, Kevin Walters’ side was the superior outfit with winger Dane Gagai becoming the fifth player in history to score a try in each of his first three games in Origin. The Newcastle back eventually dotted down three times.

Signalled before the game as having a bigger influence in terms of game time NSW forward Andrew Fifita failed to repeat his game one exploits making only 59 metres. By way of comparison in game one he made 109 metres in 24 minutes from 12 runs with an impressive three offloads. The Sharks forward was by no means the only Blues forward to disappoint with only Aaron Woods 117 metres) cracking the 100 metre mark.

Queensland forward Josh McGuire made 94 metres in nine runs to top the engine room effort in the first half of game two and finished with 128 metres as one of the best for the Maroons. Having announced his retirement during the week Brisbane forward Corey Parker with 150 metres from 16 runs to go with his 26 tackles was hugely impressive.

With Dylan Walker having played for Australia at right centre and also having won a grand final in that position Blues coach Laurie Daley placed his faith in the Manly player to fill the role when Josh Morris was ruled out but early on Walker was disappointing conceding four penalties in 17 minutes. To go with his attempt to milk a penalty during his nine-minute cameo in game one that meant Walker had made five bad decisions in 26 minutes of Origin football. You could make an argument two of the penalties Walker conceded close to the line were loose carries but even three bad decisions in that period is poor.

That said Walker wasn’t the only Blues outside back to have a bad night with fellow centre Michael Jennings making errors which were responsible for two Queensland tries plus two handling errors, admittedly when looking to score himself, which meant two potential Blues tries were ruled out. Queensland will now head to game three at ANZ Stadium on July 13 seeking their first series clean sweep since 2010 having confirmed the series win after two games for only the eighth time. But it wasn’t all bad for NSW on the night – they did win the Under 18s game 26-0.

Image via smh.com.au

Five Metre Gap – NRL Round 15 2016

@hamishneal

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence looking at the points you may have missed from the fifteenth round of the NRL. In an abridged round there were wins for Parramatta, St George Illawarra, New Zealand, and the Gold Coast.

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Souths forward Sam Burgess had a quite start to Friday night’s round 14 opener as the Rabbitohs were humbled 30-12. Despite opening the scoring, and only trailing by two points at the interval, Michael Maguire’s side fell apart with an apparent lack of enthusiasm and execution cruelling their hopes. Early on Burgess set the tone when the 2014 Clive Churchill Medal winner failed to take a hit-up in the first set. Associated with setting the benchmark for his team the England international was still a threat off-loading during the game but was well down on his usual impact making 103 metres from 15 runs. Burgess did still make 38 tackles but when stacked up against the Eels Danny Wicks who made 152 metres from 18 runs and 32 tackles Burgess’ output wasn’t the best overall in the game. Teammates Nathan Brown, off the bench, and the returning John Sutton made more metres (116 and 11 respectively) but Burgess’ lack of early involvement seems bizarre for a side lacking key players who ultimately folded in the second stanza.

Friday night’s result for Souths was all the more worse given the Eels were coming off the back of having played in Darwin the week prior. The Rabbitohs had an advantage with their opponents having played in hot weather and matching up after a five-day turnaround. The other side that played in the Darwin round 14 game the Gold Coast Titans also won, putting Manly to the sword. Inflicting a sixth straight defeat on the Sea Eagles Neil Henry’s team won 30-10 scoring five tries to two against a side missing key players but unable to take advantage of some decent field possession which was laid on by Jake Trbojevic (151 metres) and Martin Taupau (133 metres.)

For the winners on Monday night the Titans benchmark was set by forwards Ryan James and Zeb Taia who made 74 and 70 metres respectively in the first half alone. Taia, who ended with 142 metres, and James, on 119 metres, topped their forward pack. Country Origin representative James in particular was key to the win with a try to open the second half and playing a hand in a Luke Douglas’ four-pointer.

Edged out 12-10 in Auckland on Sunday it was a surprise the Roosters didn’t take advantage of the Warriors team changes during the game. The Penrose-based outfit moved Nathaniel Roache to the wing and the Mount Albert Grammar School alum performed well but under only moderate pressure from the visiting team. Whilst pivot Ryan Matterson did bomb into the corner Roche was defending they made limit running moves, particularly late in the game. Given Roache would have rarely defended on the outside of Blake Ayshford it could have proven more beneficial. Making 80 metres wasn’t as much of a focus for the utility when he replaced Thomas Leuluai after the playmaker was concussed eight minutes into the game but he was a solid make-shift replacement making only one error.

St George-Illawarra saluted 20-10 against an under-strength (even for the Origin period) Melbourne outfit on Saturday and unlike recent weeks they got their share of luck with penalties. Dragons coach Paul McGregor has lamented getting only one penalty combined in the second half of their last three matches up to round 14 so he would have been happy to see Melbourne concede seven penalties in the first half alone, only one less than the Dragons all game. Craig Bellamy’s side conceded four penalties in the second period. McGregor would allow himself some satisfaction at the result, and be thankful Melbourne were missing even more players than their usual suspects around origin time. However, the result wasn’t flattering as the eighth-placed Dragons had seven more sets than the Storm and still made 12 errors.

Image via abc.net.au

All Whites off to Russia, in 2017 at least.

@hamishneal

World champions Germany commenced their Euro 2016 campaign with a 2-0 victory over Ukraine on Sunday in the French city of Lille but a player toiling away in Germany’s fourth division, Stefan Marinovic, spared the blushes of New Zealand football in Port Moresby on Saturday to help secure the All Whites’ passage to the Confederations Cup next year in Russia.

Goal-keeper Marinovic of SpVgg Unterhaching helped deny two Papua New Guinea penalty attempts during the shoot-out in the Oceania Football Confederation Nations Cup final after the hosts and New Zealand had finished locked 0-0 after 120 minutes of, at times, turgid football.

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THE FINAL

Marinovic’s two penalty saves set the stage for the All Whites to triumph 4-2 during ‘dot shot’ lotto. Marinovic halted attempts from Raymond Gunemba (ironically the tournament’s top goal-scorer) and Koriak Upaiga. Marinovic displayed great athleticism to pary Genumba’s attempt onto the post before it fizzed away from the goal having early saved Upaiga’s strike. Former Melbourne Victory attacker Marco Rojas thumped home the Kiwis fifth penalty attempt past Ronald Warisan in the PNG goal after Super Sport United striker Jeremy Brockie was the only All White to miss when he struck wide.

The result means the Kiwi side are the latest nation to join Russia (as hosts) with Australia, Chile, Mexico and Germany next year in the World Cup warm-up event. The winners of the next African Cup of Nations and the champions* of the Euro 2016 tournament now underway are the two sides to be confirmed.

The manner of the victory was utterly unconvincing in a game which saw the normally effective Michael McGlinchey spray a late free kick into the air, failing to get anywhere near the target, and saw stand-in skipper Rory Fallon miss attempts from close range. PNG, who dominated possession in the first half, nearly struck five minutes before the break through Nigel Dabingyaba which would have been a very interesting turn of events for All Whites mentor Anthony Hudson and his team.  Interestingly PNG coach Flemming Serritslev didn’t make any changes to his side content for the locals to be spurred on by the crowded Sir John Guise Stadium.

Having topped their group the home side (who entered the tournament as rank outsiders of the eight sides at 198) were often the more positive in attack in the final but South Melbourne defender Luke Adams was solid for the All Whites and PNG failed to nudge home their chances when they came handing New Zealand a fifth continental title.

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THE TOURNAMENT

On face value fans of the top leagues/nations would scoff at the result, and probably even the staging of the tournament and they would be right to a degree given the farcical situations that played out. These included the whole tournament taking place on the one pitch. Despite two day breaks between games there were some other fixtures played as PNG gears up to host the Women’s Under 20 World Cup in November. Coupled with the inability to access the other relevant stadium in Port Moresby it meant simultaneous kick-offs in the final round of pool games went out the window and lad to the Solomon Islands playing for the 1-0 loss against New Zealand after the Kiwi side went ahead in the final ten minutes. This meant they qualified for the semi-finals when they knew what was required after Vanuatu beat Fiji 3-2 earlier in the afternoon. That can’t be allowed to happen again.

Aside from finalists New Zealand and Papua New Guinea who beat New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands, respectively in the semi-finals, those four sides will be joined by Tahiti and the Fijians in the next phase of OFC World Cup qualifying commencing in November by virtue of the latter two sides finishing third in their pools in the tournament. The third place finish for the Tahitians and Fijians were disappointing for each side given Fiji’s successful Olympic qualifying campaign and the fact Tahiti were defending champions. The bottom-placed sides in the pool phase (Samoa and Vanuatu) miss the next phase, a particularly galling result for Vanuatu given in group B, aside from New Zealand, each side won one game and qualification came down to goal difference and the lack of simultaneous kick-offs we outlined disadvantaged Fiji and Vanuatu.

The semi-final day will also be remembered for the fact the matches nearly didn’t go ahead after unrest which saw local police fire at protesters. Whilst it wasn’t on the extreme of what happened in Paris during their friendly game last November it is not an ideal scenario for a continental showpiece.

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WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE ALL WHITES

A combination of injuries, apathy, unresolved eligibility concerns, and issues around drug tests (we will get to that) meant Hudson, 35, wasn’t able to pick the below starting XI to play in the tournament. At least half of the players would be considered first choice or line-ball first choice in their positions. Caps in brackets.

GK: Glen Moss (26)

DEF: Storm Roux (7), Andrew Durante (9), Winston Reid (19), Deklan Wynne (3),

MID: Alex Rufer (2), Ryan Thomas (4), Clayton Lewis (3), Henry Cameron (1)

FWD: Shane Smeltz, (51) Ryan De Vries (1)

Added to the above, defender Themi Tzimopoulos and midfielder Luka Prelivic were suspended for the final after the duo accumulated two yellow cards across the first four games of the tournament. Leeds United Striker and tournament skipper Chris Wood also missed the final to attend his sister’s wedding, a fact only revealed by the New Zealand camp after they won the semi-final on the Wednesday.

Prelivic, who may be known to Victorian readers, is an interesting case himself. The Pascoe Vale midfielder, who has played in the NYL for both Melbourne-based A-League sides, was notionally the replacement for Smeltz in terms of when he was drafted into the squad but played the role of Lewis who missed the tournament due to a possible drug irregularity which saw New Zealand Football withdraw the Auckland City midfielder from the squad prior to the tournament. Quite why the asthma medication Lewis was taking wasn’t applied for under a Therapeutic Use Exemption is a question itself for New Zealand Football.

I’ve excluded Ipswich Town defender Tommy Smith from the XI and he probably should be known as ‘Macbeth’ in New Zealand football circles. The defender, who featured at the 2010 World Cup, is unlikely to represent the All Whites as long as Hudson is coach given Smith’s reluctance to commit to national team fixtures in the past.

A handful of players exceeded expectations during the tournament, and it was probably players we least expected, broadcaster Jason Pine highlighted five players and I would add I would have preferred to see Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi play more in the tournament. The Auckland City midfielder played out of position in a back three in one game which further enhanced his reputation and South Melbourne defender Luke Adams was at long odds to play every minute of the tournament several months ago but ended up doing so.

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TIME FOR SOME OFC LOVE FROM NEAR NEIGHBOURS

Just as it was until 2006 the OFC is not just about one ‘big’ member association so here are some thoughts out of the event and the other OFC nations. The OFC should be criticised for allowing the tournament on only one use pitch. Yielding to the Queensland Rugby League to accommodate two of the PNG Hunters matches on June 4 and 11 in the second-tier Queensland Cup was daft and they should have done their best to have two venues available to ensure the integrity of the final round draw. The waterfront location of the National Football Stadium would also have meant they tournament was further away from the afore-mentioned protests. A safety issues for players and fans alike.

Despite the venue access issue the OFC should be lauded for their on-line streaming of the event which allowed people from almost anywhere that didn’t have a TV carrier covering the event to follow the game live. Gordon Watson is in the top three play-by-play football commentators (TV and radio) in this part of the world and his ability to retain details about all the squads, and call two games a day, was impressive. The stream was of good quality with few drop outs and I’m hoping it’s around for the World Cup qualifying games.

In terms of using the tournament to improve the game in the region I’m hopeful some initiative linked to the A-League will help.

As noted on Twitter by Newcastle Jets media manager Ben O’Neill there are several ways OFC players could be incorporated into the top flight in Australia and New Zealand. Currently the FFA, via Australian federal government initiatives, support a range of development programs in the region however O’Neill’s move (with the players excluded from counting on the salary cap) and others would assist in developing a professional player pathway.

Two PNG squad members who could benefit from the move would be striker Dabingyaba and defender Felix Komolong. Dabingyaba, 23, was crucial for PNG in the semi-final scoring the decisive goal against Solomon Islands with an 82nd minute header. Felix Komolong 19, was one of PNG’s best and he was able to limit NZ attacking moves down his flank in the final and would not look out of place in the A-League. The right-back has previously trialled with German outfit Werder Bremen.

Gunemba, despite the penalty faux paus, struck five goals to claim the tournament golden boot and PNG skipper David Muta was the tournament’s Golden Ball recipient as the MVP. They could also be candidates for this initiative.

These players may not start in the A-League and could, in theory, commence as NPL players for the clubs with that acting as a trial period. This would be more efficient than a handful of trials over a short period in the A-League pre-season. Without putting too much of a simplistic view on it, the next Roy Krishna (of Fiji and Wellington Phoenix) is out there and you don’t need agents from Europe selling you over-hyped and over-priced players.

Hopefully, A-League clubs that were scouting the tournament have drawn their own conclusions and identified some players of worth to them. Writing in Fairfax publications Mick Cockerill has suggested an OFC team based in Auckland could be a sustainable A-League franchise and whilst this idea has merit placing players into clubs, via either normal recruiting or have allocated spots, is an immediate move which could bear fruit with minimal financial cost to the clubs. An OFC-backed club could happen down the track but let’s not wait for that to happen.

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TO RUSSIA, WITH THE LONG BALL?

Returning to the All Whites. Launching the long ball between Marinovic/Moss at the back to Smeltz/Wood at the front next year in Russia will be a recipe for disaster against sides like Chile and Germany so Hudson has 12 months to find a style which fits his best 11 – most of whom didn’t play on Saturday.

Claiming a fifth regional championship is fine but it will count for little if the squad doesn’t progress over the next 12 months. The header upon header punctuated by a long ball or shot from range will be forgotten if Hudson can effectively bring players back into the fold. The time for experimenting with the side is over and Hudson needs to get his best eleven, and more, into camp at every opportunity. Aside from locking in opponents for the October window (Hudson is eschewing September games) the former Bahrain coach must get a clear commitment from those who have been/feel ostracised (through his own fault or not) so he can be clear on those committed to the program.

On better pitches New Zealand’s pacey attackers will be able to cause trouble for international sides but they will need to find out in coming games which players can sustain this and for how long in matches. The likes of Monty Patterson, one of the best for NZ at the Under 20 World Cup last year, will be useful late in games as substitutes. The defence, at it’s best, now looks more solid and has competition for spots across the board, something which was a major issue when Hudson was appointed in August 2014.

The All Whites’ best eleven has players from England‘s top two tiers, the Dutch top flight and a core of solid A-League performers. Add to that the team bonding which has hopefully occurred amongst the fringe players in PNG Hudson may have done enough to produce a side capable of performing well in the coming months. A two pronged-goal presents a challenge for Hudson and his team in the coming 12 months. New Zealand football fans were sold a vision by the former Newport County manager and right now the path is clear but many still aren’t sure the right prescription has been fitted to the glasses.

*Should Germany win Euro 2016 the second-placed side will qualify for the Confederations Cup.

Images via OFC TV, fifa.com, and stuff.co.nz.

Five Metre Gap – NRL Round 14 2016

@hamishneal

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence looking at the points you may have missed from the fourteenth round of the NRL. The Melbourne Storm registered their third shut-out for the season beating the Roosters 46-0 and the Warriors hung 50 on the Knights.

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New South Wales skipper Paul Gallen tuned up for the must-win Origin game in Brisbane next week with a big game as in form Cronulla won 13-10 on Monday night over North Queensland. Gallen, who had run for 108 metres before he came on for his final stint, finished with 175 metres from 20 runs plus 41 tackles. Blues and Sharks teammate Andrew Fifita also had a big night with 196 metres from 18 runs. Gallen and Fifita each made three offloads. Their efforts bode well for a Blues sides that will need points in Brisbane given Queensland have averaged 25 points per game in the last 13 Origin matches in Brisbane.

Canberra’s defeat in Brisbane on Thursday evening to open the round, their sixth loss this campaign, came after a fast Broncos start which had the home side four tries to the good four minutes into the second stanza. Down 24-0 after Darius Boyd’s fourth try Canberra’s early enthusiasm on kick return at times left a lot to be desired. On one occasion skipper and centre Jarrod Croker had made two runs early in a set and some of his teammates were still in front of the ruck and hadn’t returned into the Canberra attacking line. Whilst Canberra does have the ability to break the line to score long-range tries and Josh Hodgson can find a 40/20 it’s simply not good enough to be so lackadaisical when trying to get out of your own half.

Parramatta’s ten-point triumph in Darwin under humid conditions might come to nothing due to salary cap dramas but all the players involved should be commended for the performance they put on Saturday night. Representatives forwards Manu Ma’u (Eels) and Greg Bird (Titans) were excellent for their teams running for 127 metres and 119 metres respectively to gain the most metres in each forward pack. Kiwi forward Ma’u was threatening in the tackle contest providing two offloads as Brad Arthur’s team ran out winners.

After playing out a 20-all draw in a trial fixture in Alice Springs earlier in the season it will be interesting to see how both sides respond in round 15 after their second game in Northern Territory for the season. Surprisingly both sides are playing next week despite eight teams having the bye. The draw should be huge advantage for the Rabbitohs who play the Eels on Friday to open round 15 and the Sea Eagles who travel to the Gold Coast to play on the Titans on Monday.

In the game prior on Saturday gaining metres was an easier proposition for the visiting Warriors who beat the Knights 50-14 at Hunter Stadium. Such was the dominance of Andrew McFadden’s side on attack hooker Isaac Luke nearly ran the most of any Warriors forward. Queensland forward Jacob Lilyman’s 141 was only four more than Luke’s 137 metres from ten runs compared to Lilyman’s 17 runs. Now with six wins for the season and sitting ninth on the ladder Luke’s dynamism is crucial to the Warriors success.

Image via stuff.co.nz