And then there were four, part two…

We’ve covered the unexpected half of the final four of the Euros in Portugal and Wales. Now it’s time to look at two of the teams many expected to get to this stage, Germany and France. The winner of this tie would almost certainly be favourite in the final, although neither side would take anything for granted should they advance to that stage.

The route to the final four has been relatively straightforward for Germany, barring the comedy of a penalty shootout against Italy. Thankfully for the Germans, Italy seemed intent on providing the most laughs. Zaza in particular was on fine form, with the worst penalty run-up since, well, ever. The decision to bring him on to take a penalty is unlikely to be Antonio Conte’s best decision. Chelsea fans will hope so anyway.

Other that the Italy game, however, Germany haven’t conceded once. It’s an extraordinary testament to Joachim Loew’s defence, which just seems to get more and more ruthless with each passing tournament. Jerome Boateng has been phenomenal, as has Mats Hummels. None of it is surprising though.

After a steady, if underwhelming start against Ukraine and Poland, the fact that the Northern Ireland game only finished 1-0 to the Germans will always be a mystery. The Slovakia game in the last sixteen saw the Germans truly come alive, and also taught England a thing or two about breaking down a stubborn defence in style.Some might say that Italy had provided the only true test for the Germans so far, which could well be a fair point. France will be an even bigger test, particularly with the French on home soil, but if there’s one thing German teams do, it’s turn up in the semi-finals.

But what about France? If any team is going to topple the Germans, then surely it is France, especially with home advantage. Will there be a better opportunity than Euro 2016?

As expected, they’ve been quite the force, with everything seeming to culminate nicely in their 5-2 defeat of plucky Iceland. Much like Germany’s annihilation of Slovakia, that result somehow heightened England’s embarrassment. I’ll try and move on though, I promise…

The likes of Dimitri Payet, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann have been sensational for France, providing ten goals between the three of them. The only problems lie in defence, with the French leaking some preventable goals against poorer opposition. Playing positively is their best bet, particularly if they’re to break down the most stubborn defence in Europe. With the best attack in Europe though, it can certainly be done.

Despite some last gasp moments of relief in the group stages against Romania and Albania and a blank against Switzerland, France have lived up to expectations. The win against Ireland could have and probably should have been greater, but the Iceland game saw the side reach their full potential. If Germany are yet to reach their full potential, then the game on Thursday should be a thriller.

Predictions

Portugal 3-1 Wales

France 2-0 Germany

And then there were four, part one

After another grueling summer of pain for England fans, the four teams that made the semis will be of no comfort. Portugal (wink-gate, 2004), Wales (laughter-gate, 2016), Germany (Lampard-gate, 2010) and France (no explanation required) don’t so much rub salt into England’s wounds as open them up and pour acid into them.

Though let’s ignore that image for the time being, and examine why these four teams are here and England aren’t.

The first team to get through to the semis (Portugal) had inexplicably not won a game in ninety minutes throughout the tournament. That said, they hadn’t lost a game either. There’s also no purpose in blaming the new ‘best third place’ rule, given that Portugal could have gone through in second without winning a game but for Iceland’s late winner against Austria; a winner that consigned England to a different embarrassment to the standard Portuguese shootout defeat.

It would be easy to dismiss Portugal as merely ‘lucky’ (fun too), but that isn’t the point. Cristiano Ronaldo’s free-kicks may have irritated us more than the EU Referendum this summer, but the likes of Nani, Quaresma and Gomes have shown that Portugal surprisingly are more than the one-man team many predicted they would be. In fact, that one-man has been pretty poor by his high standards. There would be obvious outrage if Portugal won the whole thing without actually winning anything. That said, Portugal haven’t really crumbled, where England have. At least they got something from Iceland.

When it comes to quashing murmurs of being a ‘one-man-team’, Wales have done so with far more gusto than Portugal. On the other hand, Bale has lived up to expectations without being heavily relied on. He has undoubtedly, and predictably been huge, but the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Hal Robson-Kanu and Ashley Williams have stepped up and shown that English football does actually work, and, if anything, they have robbed the FA of excuses for England’s dire performances at major tournaments.

Although Wales in a semi-final may seem a painful demonstration of what could have been with a competent manager, a team spirit, and a tactical plan, in many ways for England it is what can be. Imagine if the FA decided in their infinite wisdom to hire a manager similar to Chris Coleman- a man not afraid to fail. Hodgson’s fear of failure was ultimately his failure. Someone young and ambitious like Eddie Howe would be a perfect fit.

Many will say we shouldn’t look to emulate Wales, and that they just ‘got lucky’ at Euro 2016. The facts speak for themselves though, they’re here, England aren’t. We can be bitter about it, or we can learn. Fifty years of hurt might just about be manageable, but sixty or seventy? England need to learn, and fast.

On Repeat: A Defence of FA Cup Replays

My story begins in one of Britain’s newest towns, with two of the Football League’s more recent clubs. Stadium MK, Milton Keynes. It was a wintry Tuesday night in November 2010, with MK Dons and Stevenage set to replay after a stalemate at Broadhall Way. Incidentally, it was also my first away day.

 

The game wasn’t particularly memorable, with Stevenage looking as if they were set to go down to a valiant 1-0 defeat. That was until the 95th minute saw Darius Charles send the Stevenage fans into raptures, and the teams into extra time. Extra time gave no winners, but the penalty shootout saw Stevenage go through memorably into Round Two with a 7-6 win.

 

This is just one of many examples stemming from the joy of replays, particularly as I was unable to make the original tie. I’m sure others will tell their replay stories; the heartbreak, the elation, the entertainment. But the point is that the FA Cup is a beautiful footballing tradition that is essentially perfect for the lower league fan. With Stevenage having only just gained promotion prior to the MK Dons game, it seemed a rare opportunity to visit a new stadium in a higher division. In hindsight we’d played MK Dons countless times after, but the point remains that the reward for smaller clubs with cup replays is massive, particularly when the big guns come knocking.

 

Take Exeter and Burton for example- two clubs that have held Manchester United and forced replays in the last dozen years. Another personal example is Tottenham, who were held at Broadhall Way four years ago on this very day. Having been somewhat irked at drawing Tottenham at home rather than away originally, the chance to go to White Hart Lane for the first time with Stevenage was quite special. The replays give us chances to see new places that otherwise we as lower league fans may never visit again. Who knows when Burton or Exeter will be back at Old Trafford, or Stevenage back at Tottenham?

 

Although Jürgen Klopp may not be an advocate of the replay, Arsene Wenger came out in support of the tradition, saying that the FA Cup “…is the most traditional competition in England. Let’s respect it and keep it as it is,” and it’s hard to disagree. Although I’m not usually one to harp on about respecting tradition, the FA Cup replay is a sacred one for any football fan, even higher up in the football pyramid in many cases. The money spent in the higher reaches also surely means that putting together a squad for a larger backlog of fixtures shouldn’t constitute an issue.

 

The overall point here is that the FA Cup is undoubtedly flawed in many respects, but not with regard to the use of replays. Playing the semi-finals at Wembley is a particular issue, but that’s another debate to be had another time. The FA Cup will always be special on a personal level, primarily due to my first away game being an FA Cup replay. Ever since that night, I’ve travelled away frequently when the opportunity had arisen. Who’s to say that future generations won’t experience similar introductions to a healthy obsession with the game? Countless others have or will have similar stories to mine

 

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Ready Teddy? No…

Fear not- the title is not a dig at Teddy.

It is more a dig at the atrocious, cringeworthy journalism surrounding the appointment of Teddy. Since when has the phrase ‘ready, Teddy, go’ ever been acceptable?

Nonetheless, we have a famous manager now, and with that comes added media attention. For once, the spotlight is on Stevenage. For how long, we can’t really be sure, but we can be sure that nobody has a clue how Teddy Sheringham and Stevenage will fit together.

At the moment, there is mostly fear and panic. The squad is too thin, the youth players are being promoted too early and there aren’t enough signings according a considerable chunk of the fanbase. Coupled with numerous injury problems and a poor pre-season, it’s unsurprising that many fans feel that way, especially after the departure of Graham Westley- arguably the club’s most successful manager (we’ll save that debate for another time).

Summer hasn’t exactly been signings galore, but what Sheringham has added looks useful at the very least. Mark Hughes and Fraser Franks will hopefully prove good replacements for the departed Bira Dembele. Stephen Schumacher adds promotion winning steel to a midfield that already includes perennial promotion winners Charlie Lee and Chris Whelpdale. Brett Williams also looks a promising signing, having scored 39 goals in two seasons at Aldershot. If there’s one man that can improve the strike force, then you’d hope it’s Mr Sheringham.

The likes of George Casey, Dipo Akinyemi and Dale Gorman are also expected to make the considerable step up to professional football, which is understandable, yet risky. You can certainly see why the approach is favoured, given the budgetary restraints in comparison to other League Two clubs, as well as the recent emergence of scholar Ben Kennedy. Who’s to say that any of the three can’t follow in his footsteps?

The real interesting battle on Saturday centres around the difference in squad size and change from last season. Notts County have made eighteen signings (and counting), whereas Stevenage have only made four (not including youth players turning professional). It will be interesting to see which side gels and adapts quickest as the game wears on.

With the doom and gloom surrounding the club at the moment following a poor pre-season, a lot of Boro fans would take a point, especially from a side like Notts- a side expected to challenge for a straight return to League One at the very least. With such drastic change occurring throughout the summer, it could well be a blessing that the fixture computer gave out Notts County at home first. A difficult encounter for sure, but perhaps the best time to play it.

When the Magpies come to town, you’d hope that Teddy has a plan. Technically speaking the squad size is bigger than last season at this stage, but it’s the lack of senior players that concerns most in the terraces and seats. Teddy is, however, keeping his cards close to his chest. For all we know, there could be five new faces in by Saturday, ultimately allowing for the most unpredictable match in the Football League.

For that reason, I’ll stick my money on an entertaining 2-2 draw.

So will Teddy be ready? Who knows…?

Chelsea 0-1 Fiorentina

Chelsea endured a difficult final pre-season encounter at Stamford Bridge, as they slumped to a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Fiorentina.

The away side came out of the traps the quickest, with Begovic called into action after a minute to save Nenad Tomovic’s fierce drive.

The hosts gradually got a foothold of the game, however, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Victor Moses both unlucky after impressive solo runs into the box.

Those were to be the only chances for Chelsea in the first half. After 30 minutes, the away side were in complete control.

Matias Vecino began the dominant spell by thundering a fierce shot against the crossbar- the shot just rising a fraction to much at the last millisecond.

Senegalese striker Khouma Babacar then called Begovic into action again, with the former Stoke ‘keeper only able to deflect a seemingly harmless shot wide for a corner.

The resulting corner was to be the breakthrough for the Italian side, after mayhem in the box. Asmir Begovic could only parry Marcos Alonso’s initial shot, before central defender Gonzalo tapped in from six yards out to give the away side a deserved lead.

Chelsea looked a lot more threatening after the break, with substitute Branislav Ivanovic heading a free kick just past the wrong side of the post early on in the second half.

Loic Remy perhaps had a penalty claim in the 65th minute after being brought down in the box- the referee duly ignored.

Despite Chelsea’s improved second half, Fiorentina still had chances, with Josip Illicic fizzing past the post, and Ante Rebic forcing an impressive save from Begovic after a darting run into the box.

Loic Remy threatened in the second half, with his close range effort going just wide.

Gary Cahill spurned the best chance, however, after heading narrowly wide from a Cesc Fabregas free kick.

So a frustrating evening in West London for the champions, who can only hope Diego Costa is fit and raring to go on Saturday.

A Simple Season Preview

For the first time in a long while last season, Stevenage experienced the rare ‘thrill’ of a relegation battle. The only problem being that it was hardly a battle at all. In fact, the Boro barely left League One with even a whimper, as a 3-1 defeat to Bristol City confirmed the worst at the end of April. Consequently, including youth players, only ten of last season’s players remain for the upcoming League Two campaign. Though if we ignore the players that have come through the youth system, only six remain. For the third season, a rebuilding job is an absolute necessity.

In all fairness, the job has been seemingly a smooth one, with the majority of the squad appearing to gel already in pre-season. It perhaps isn’t the best judge, but draws against the likes of Reading and Millwall and even West Ham suggest a fighting spirit that was absent last season, and a 2-1 win over Coventry- a side that beat last season’s Boro side by the narrowest of margins twice last season- is very encouraging indeed. As stated above, friendlies so often mean little, but in terms of the upcoming season, they offer slight encouragement.

Would such an overhaul have been possible without the emotional rollercoaster of relegation? Probably not, but in League Two, the non-league ‘superstars’ (Tom Pett, Adam Marriott) would have an undoubted step up. This step up would, however, be one nowhere near as big as one from non-league to League One. In fact, the many ex-non-league teams in League Two (Dagenham & Redbridge, Morecambe, Luton, Cambridge, Newport…the list is almost all inclusive), and Boro’s inclusion in that list should make the step up relatively straight forward.

As well as the exciting new young prospects, the likes of Dean Wells, Ronnie Henry and Harry Worley provide a perfect opportunity to build a solid defensive base akin to the great back four of 2009-2012 (Henry, Ashton, Roberts and Laird). It’s now just a case of finding a left back, especially if last season is anything to go by, when players like Roarie Deacon, Luke Freeman, and even Darius Charles were wasted there, not to mention prone to error.

Other signings also provide great encouragement, a great example being Simon Walton; someone who can perhaps fulfil the great vacuum of unfulfilled potential left by Greg Tansey, especially if his set pieces are anything to go by. The likes of Andrew Bond and Chris Beardsley also provide a bit of defensive steel, which has been sorely missed for the last three years. Calvin Zola knows League Two like the back of his hand, and Sam Beasant is a very promising young prospect in between the sticks. Keeping Dean Parrett and Roarie Deacon could also prove crucial; two of the rare positives from last season. The fact that Parrett’s injury against MK Dons preceded a three goal collapse is no mere coincidence.

In short, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful for the upcoming season. I’m not one to get ahead of myself, but if all the pieces of the jigsaw gel properly, there’s no reason we can’t challenge for promotion again. Let’s face it, success has been sorely missed in the last few years, and is perhaps overdue. A win at home to Hartlepool would do us the world of good; a team that haven’t beaten us in five attempts. On the other hand, we haven’t won the opening day fixture since a 3-0 win over Altrincham nine years ago. Something has to give, surely?

In which case, I’d almost certainly put your money on a goalless draw…

The March for Mitch…

To be quite honest, I didn’t expect to be sat here writing this having walked 65 miles in the space of 3 days, but circumstances were unfortunate enough to dictate that something had to be done to raise awareness and funds for the CMA (Cardiomyopathy Association). We’ve seen the likes of Fabrice Muamba miraculously survive such horrors, but others have not been so lucky. Marc Vivien-Foe passed on with this heart condition 10 years ago now, and more recently Christian Benitez tragically passed on at just 27. The main motivator behind my idea was, however, the untimely passing of ex-Stevenage footballer, football agent, father, son, brother and all round good guy Mitchell Cole back in December 2012.

I never knew Mitchell personally, but he had a huge impact on my life in playing through the barrier of his heart condition. He helped me, and I’m sure many others, to go through life without fear and with confidence, as one can never know what tomorrow may bring. He also had a massive impact on the rise of Stevenage Football Club, whether that’s through his 6 minute hat trick from the bench at Eastbourne, or his game-changing display at Wembley in 2007, which seemed to set the benchmark for Stevenage’s remarkable success.

I can imagine Mitch would have been looking down on the team and laughing at just how insane we all were, but it seemed appropriate to do something physically demanding to honour a great guy taken before his time. The walk started at the Kassam, where we met a few of the Oxford players (Alfie Potter, James Constable and Jake Wright)- all of whom were terrific lads. They wished us well and we set off, ready to begin the challenge.

We started in the wrong direction, but eventually getting back on track, made good time to the first campsite just outside Haddenham. After a terrible night’s sleep for all (apart from Adam, who slept like a baby seemingly!), we set off again- next stop, Lilley, just outside Luton and Hitchin. We marched through country lanes and alongside A-roads, through Aylesbury, Dunstable and Luton before arriving after 30 miles of walking. In all honesty, motivation is a difficult thing to find when going through Luton, but the determination from some of the lads was extraordinary and something I’ll never forget; Kieran, Josh, Simon and Craig especially. Even Terry fought through what looked like a horrific injury, which is something I’ll always admire. The whole team, however, deserves credit for its application throughout the walk. We had the extremely selfless Lucy; the mother and physio of the team, Neil Trebble; a true team leader, Adam; the logic behind the team, his dad Steve; the support vehicle who we’d have struggled without, Craig and Terry; the chuckle brothers, keeping spirits high and Josh, Simon and Kieran- the three who had determination and ability to smile throughout the pain, which was inspiring and will get me through many a dark day in future.

Finally day 3 arrived; the big KO. 10 miles to go. We were in good spirits as we walked on, and the Stevenage sign in truth had never looked so beautiful. After finally arriving to an unbelievable reception, we realised what an important person Mitchell Cole really was around this part of the world. The result wasn’t great (a 4-3 defeat), but that needn’t matter. The experience of the previous 3 days had been one that will never be beaten.

Until next year maybe…?

So Mitch, if somewhere, somehow you can read this, that was for you, mate!

To donate, do so here; https://www.justgiving.com/teams/MarchforMitch

or contact me on Twitter (@govey24), Facebook (Liam Govey) or by e-mail (govey24@gmail.com).