Martin O’Neill Is in the Managerial Elite Even If a Top Job Eludes him

O'Neill

London – Blink, and you might have missed the part Shepshed Charterhouse, in the puddles and potholes of the Northern Premier League, played in the professional life of Martin O’Neill, back in the days when aspiring managers were prepared to start at the bottom and learn the hard way.

O’Neill’s first steps in management were actually with Grantham Town, grubbing around for points in the then Beazer Homes League, Midlands Division, a couple of rungs below the Conference. O’Neill arranged the deal at a bed-and-breakfast on the A52 and had a five-year plan in place until he ended up falling out with the chairman and, still in situ, found his job being advertised in the Nottingham Evening Post. Shepshed were next but O’Neill’s time at the Dovecote was distinguished only by how quickly he came and went. The unofficial website for what is now Shepshed Dynamo summed it up rather neatly: “1989 – July – appointed Martin O’Neill as manager. October – sacked Martin O’Neill as manager. Wonder what became of him.”

In fact, O’Neill was not sacked and the truth makes for an even better story. O’Neill, like many ex-pros of that time, had been embarking on a career in insurance, working in the offices of Save & Prosper while his old pal and team-mate, John Robertson, his No2 at Shepshed, was out on the road trying to drum up business. It is a situation that could never happen now: two European Cup winners adjusting to a nine-to-five office job. The problem was combining that with trying to run a football team. “On one occasion we were almost late getting to a midweek match against Frickley Colliery in south Yorkshire,” Robertson recalls. It was obvious it could not continue that way and O’Neill gave up Shepshed to concentrate on Save & Prosper.

It is a great story bearing in mind what we know now, almost 30 years on, about his list of achievements, most recently as manager of the Republic of Ireland, the conveyor belt of players who speak about him in awe and the unmistakable sense, more than anything, that they will give absolutely everything they have to get his approval.

My first professional dealings with O’Neill came at Leicester City – the club where, I always maintain, he put together his most outstanding work. O’Neill had taken over in the same week that I had moved to the city and, as a young agency reporter putting out the old rotary-dial telephones in the pressbox, it was a marvel to see, up‑close, how much the players and fans at Filbert Street disliked him when he took over and how, by the end, he had the entire city dancing to his tune.

O’Neill faced down the makings of a dressing-room mutiny and transformed a second-tier team in such an invigorating way the people of Leicester, pre-2016, could have been forgiven for wondering whether it would ever get any better. There were four top-10 finishes after securing promotion with virtually the final kick of O’Neill’s first season, in the 1996 play-off final. His team reached three League Cup finals, winning two, and lifted their first silverware since 1964. They went to Anfield four times, won three and drew the other.

Everyone remembers Dennis Bergkamp’s improvisational brilliance for his hat-trick goal at Leicester in August 1997. What tends to be forgotten is that it came in the third minute of stoppages and O’Neill’s team still found the time to conjure up the final goal of a 3-3 draw. Bergkamp left the pitch that night shaking his head in disbelief and that, in a nutshell, was the O’Neill effect. In all the years since, it is difficult to recall more than a handful of teams with such a spirit of togetherness.

It certainly wasn’t a surprise to see Ireland qualifying, at the expense of Wales, for a place in Tuesday’s draw for the World Cup play-offs and there have been so many other examples of O’Neill’s expertise in the interim years it does feel slightly unfair, perhaps, that he has never been given a chance to manage one of the Premier League’s elite clubs.

It tends to be forgotten, for example, that there was once a time when O’Neill was the overwhelming favorite to take over from Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. O’Neill was managing Celtic at the time, where he won seven trophies and reached the Uefa Cup final, and the Manchester press corps still talk about the 2003 press conference before the two teams played a pre-season fixture in Seattle. When O’Neill was asked about replacing Ferguson he answered with great diplomacy bearing in mind the man himself was directly to his left. Yet the journalist who asked the question was already feeling a pair of Glaswegian eyes boring into his skull. “Don’t worry about him,” Ferguson whispered to O’Neill, quietly enough not to be heard by his audience but loud enough to be picked up by the tapes. Ferguson always sounded extra Glaswegian and talked a little bit quicker when his temper had been roused.

All good fun. The problem for O’Neill if he did fancy that job was that Ferguson – “The Man Who Couldn’t Retire,” as the Daily Telegraph called him – stayed for another 10 years and when United did finally need a new manager, in May 2013, it was two months after “Squire”, as he is still known by his old Nottingham Forest team-mates (a nod to his university background), had been sacked for the only time in his career. Even the most accomplished managers tend to have one club on their CV where it goes wrong. For O’Neill, his spell in the managerial wasteland of Sunderland came at the worst possible time.

What is more surprising, perhaps, is that his four years at Aston Villa are not remembered more fondly by their supporters. Villa finished 11th, up from 16th, in his first campaign and then sixth in each of O’Neill’s last three seasons at the club, qualifying for Europe and, in 2010, reaching a Wembley final. They improved their points total every season and in his second campaign they scored more times, 71, than they had since winning the league a quarter of a century before. The 1980-81 team managed 72 – but that was over 42 games, not 38.

The call won’t come now, though. O’Neill recently agreed a two-year extension to his contract with Ireland. He will be 68 when it expires and he might just have to accept that some of the elite clubs could be put off by his team’s lack of artistic merit.

Equally, take a close look at the squad before questioning why Ireland don’t pass the ball more elegantly. Eighteen of the players O’Neill called up for the Wales game were from teams in the Championship, whereas only 11 came from top-division clubs. Of those, only three played for teams that finished in the top half of the Premier League last season. Where Roy Keane once patrolled, it is now David Meyler of Hull City. For Robbie Keane, it is Daryl Murphy of Nottingham Forest. James McClean is now probably Ireland’s best player. He will run until he drops and his goal against Wales was taken beautifully – but, as wingers go, he is hardly in the class of Liam Brady. Or even Damien Duff. Is it any wonder the opposition often have more of the ball?

The point is there are all sorts of ways to win a football match. O’Neill won the European Cup for a side whose backs-to-the-wall operation against Hamburg in the 1980 final was denounced in the German press as “Blitzkrieg football” and described by Brian Glanville in the Sunday Times as “tactical cowardice”. Do you think Clough cared when he had the trophy on top of his television? And would you imagine O’Neill will worry about the unrealistic snobbery if he makes it to Russia next summer with one of the least distinguished groups of Irish players for some time?

For now, O’Neill’s CV is the best response. It always was. Robertson remembers what his mate was like in the world of insurance. “By his own admission, Martin’s knowledge of the financial services we were trying to sell was not the best. But he came across as though he knew the business inside out.”

The Guardian Sport

World Cup 2018 Power Rankings: Germany on Top among Qualified 23

Germany

London – Twenty-three nations have booked their places for the World Cup in Russia, with the holders and Brazil looking in good shape, but we rank England in 13th place, below Iceland:

1) Germany
If the world champions were frustrated by their failure to win continental honors at Euro 2016 they have certainly taken it out on everyone else since. Germany won 10 qualifying games out of 10 and, even if San Marino’s presence in Group C needs taking into account, a record 43 goals scored suggests things are back in their old working order. So too did their Confederations Cup title in July, achieved with an experimental squad. Joachim Löw can select from an unrivaled depth of talent and, while winning back-to-back World Cups remains a huge task, none of next summer’s contenders has an equivalent selection of tools with which to tackle the different challenges they will face.

2) Brazil
Brazil look revitalized under Tite and the light work they made of the fiendish Conmebol qualifying procedure was deeply impressive. The manager has openly stated they should be listed among the leading contenders next summer; it is hard to disagree and it is worth listening to Dani Alves when he says Tite’s human touch makes him “very distant from all Brazilian coaches”. Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Casemiro, Philippe Coutinho and an energized Paulinho are among those benefiting from the transformation and perhaps a sequence of failing to lift the trophy since 2002 will be ended in Russia.

3) Spain
Will it aid Spain that, certainly unlike most of their European rivals, they have already had to dispose of another World Cup contender in the qualifiers? Italy may well make it through the play-offs and, in fairness the rest of Group G was not up to much, but that 3-0 win at the Bernabéu last month was ominous and La Roja’s new generation appear ready to challenge seriously next summer. Álvaro Morata is developing into a genuinely world-class striker; Marco Asensio has a glittering career ahead at just 21; and the in-form Isco, who scored twice against the Italians, has been given room to express himself by Julen Lopetegui. Spain have emerged from their rough period to look a major force once again.

4) France
Qualifying was not without the odd hiccup – but for the frame of the goal that home draw with Luxembourg could have become something far more humiliating – but France did well in one of the more awkward groups and the potential of Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Ousmane Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé trumps that of virtually any side that will be playing in Russia. Can Didier Deschamps get the best out of them all? If he can then France, who have few obvious weaknesses on paper, will deserve to be ranked among the favorites next summer.

5) Belgium
Belgium put on one of Europe’s better qualifying campaigns, negating any real threat from two potentially tricky rivals in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece. Perhaps the unlikely combination of the Spaniard Roberto Martínez and the Frenchman Thierry Henry can deliver where Marc Wilmots failed and produce a run of convincing tournament performances. Romelu Lukaku’s form for club and country makes Christian Benteke’s struggles all the less troublesome, while Dries Mertens is in the form of his life for Napoli. None of their other mainstays need too much introduction and there remains the tantalizing prospect that, should everything be harnessed correctly, Belgium can do something special.

6) Portugal
They only scraped into the automatic qualification place although, save for a post-Euro 2016 hangover defeat in Switzerland, there was not too much wrong with Portugal’s campaign. Now the question is whether Fernando Santos can get players such as Bernardo Silva and André Silva to perform on the highest stage, and whether Cristiano Ronaldo – who will be 33 when Russia 2018 comes around – can handle a game every three or four days for, potentially, a month. Should Santos succeed then Portugal ought to be more fluid than the team that did not win too many friends in taking the European title.

7) Argentina
The bones will be picked out of a qualifying campaign that flirted with disaster and required saving by a Lionel Messi masterclass in Ecuador, but Argentina have made it and will automatically be installed as one of the favorites. It is worth pointing out that everyone bar Brazil came close to missing out in an extraordinary Conmebol qualifying group; it will also be a big concern, though, that the gap between Jorge Sampaoli’s team and their bitterest rivals – whom they did defeat in a summer friendly – was so big. They certainly have the individual talent to bridge it in Russia – and, in what will probably be his last World Cup, Messi has the incentive to deliver more magic.

8) Poland
There is a strut to Poland under Adam Nawalka and they fit neatly into any “dark horse” assessment – not least because the world’s sixth-ranked side will be one of the eight seeded teams in Russia. That is almost entirely down to their outstanding form during qualifying, marred only by a puzzling 4-0 defeat in Denmark; goals are not usually a problem and especially not for Robert Lewandowski, who scored 16 of their 28 in Group E. They are fast and assertive at their best. The worry would be that, as seemed to be the case at Euro 2016, Lewandowski may try to do too much and blunt his own effectiveness in the penalty area.

9) Mexico
The urbane Juan Carlos Osorio may not be universally popular in Mexico but his team barely had to break sweat in a poor qualifying group, an irrelevant (to them) late defeat away to Honduras notwithstanding. The Colombian Osorio has been criticized for his rotation of players, among other things but El Tri play with clarity and, with Carlos Vela and Javier Hernández both in their prime, carry a serious threat. It is still hard to see them mustering a performance that can overthrow one or more of the favorites, though.

10) Nigeria
Nigeria have started to get their house in order and there is distinct optimism around a generation of players that looks their best hope of a last-eight spot in some years. Victor Moses, Wilfred Ndidi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi add Premier League quality. The coach, the German Gernot Rohr, has molded a balanced and organized side that can be lethal on the counterattack and maybe, after a series of nondescript World Cup appearances, Nigeria are now equipped for something more.

11) Uruguay
The one guarantee with Uruguay is that they will always hang in there and second place in the South American qualifiers was a pleasant tonic after a run of three consecutive defeats either side of Christmas. Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani always give you a decent chance and they have an exceptional midfield talent coming through behind them in Federico Valverde. They finished up in good form with a 4-2 win over Bolivia although, with 20 goals conceded, Óscar Tabárez may be concerned that some of their time-honored solidity needs recapturing.

12) Iceland
The Iceland manager, Heimir Hallgrimsson, believes his side should turn up in Russia with the same hope of winning as anyone else. Nobody would dare laugh nowadays: Iceland kept their heads to win a fiendish Group I after Croatia folded with the finishing line in sight, and the question now is whether they can at least emulate their last-eight finish of Euro 2016. They can be such a difficult team to analyze, sometimes lacking an obvious pattern of play, but they benefit from an exceptional knowledge of one another and unswervable self-belief. Those two factors, added to the match-winning excellence of Gylfi Sigurdsson, could leave them perfectly equipped for another eye-catching campaign.

13) England
England were barely dealt a single problem in the most sterile of qualifying groups. Performances in the last two major tournaments speak rather less favorably of their prospects and they are left in a curious position where, after years in which their potential was often grossly overstated, expectations will perhaps move a little exaggeratedly in the other direction. Gareth Southgate’s team are competent enough and have an outstanding striker in Harry Kane; the problem is that nothing about what goes on behind him seems at all intuitive. There has been plenty of talk about lessons being learned in the team’s wider approach to tournament football; that may be so but the smart money is still on England pulling through the group stage comfortably enough before floundering against bolder opponents.

14) Egypt
What a story Egypt’s World Cup qualification, their first since 1990, provided and the good news might not stop there. Héctor Cúper’s team showed at the Africa Cup of Nations, where they finished runners-up to Cameroon, that they know their way around a major tournament and in Mohammed Salah they have a talisman who can decide tight games against anyone. They have an experienced spine, plenty of momentum and an immediate target – the Argentinian Cúper has already asked them to make the last 16 and, if they can take the initiative against sides that drop deep, it should not be beyond them.

15) Colombia
Colombia spluttered over the line and will need to be better if their quarter-final finish of 2014 is to be emulated. It is almost certainly a final chance on this stage for Radamel Falcao, who so cruelly missed out four years ago, while a repeat of last time around from James Rodríguez – generally disappointing since then – will probably be in order too. José Pekerman was relieved his team secured qualification by drawing with Peru and the resilience the Argentina-born coach showed in the critical draw in Peru will be required in spades eight months from now.

16) Serbia
It has been quite a turnaround for Serbia since, almost exactly three years ago, they underwent the shame of that fateful Euro 2016 qualifier against Albania and the picture looks altogether brighter now after they came top of a hard Group D. Nemanja Matic is the linchpin of a team with a pleasing blend of youth and experience. Slavoljub Muslin probably lacks the goalscoring power for a deep run next summer, but Serbia have been under-performing for some time and should, as a minimum, provide larger countries with an awkward moment or two.

17) Iran
“Team Melli” have never been past the group stage at a World Cup and, while they topped Group A in Asia’s third qualifying round by seven points, it would appear difficult for the Portuguese Carlos Queiroz to inspire something better next summer. Iran found it much harder to put teams away than their position suggested, although they were hardly averse to grinding out a result – five away games brought just two goals in total, both in 1-0 victories. They have a solid defense and a forward of great talent in Sardar Azmoun, but may struggle against stronger sides.

18) Costa Rica
Costa Rica continue to punch above their weight and their record in qualifying against the USA – inflicting two grievous blows in winning 4-0 and 2-0 – was eye-catching. They have a world-class goalkeeper in Keylor Navas although the squad as a whole is aging somewhat. It is a stretch to imagine they have the potential to reach the quarter-finals again, although only a fool would dismiss them out of hand. Their last meeting with a European side, a narrow defeat to Spain two years ago, suggests they should compete.

19) Japan
Vahid Halilhodzic looked to be on borrowed time before Japan, in beating Australia 2-0 six weeks ago, secured their progress to a sixth successive World Cup. The chances of bettering their two last-16 finishes seem fairly remote, although the Bosnian Halilhodzic took Algeria through the group stage in 2014 and, in a funny way, looks a better fit for the final tournament than for the qualifiers. Japan have plenty of European experience these days but, like Algeria, will still need to show signs of over-performing to move up these rankings.

20) Russia
Rarely has the buildup to a World Cup brought such little local enthusiasm for the home team, although Qatar may run Russia close in four years’ time. At the Confederations Cup it was Cristiano Ronaldo, rather than Stanislav Cherchesov’s stodgy side, that brought the crowds out in their droves and there is little obvious reason for that to change. Friendly results, including a win achieved in a slightly eccentric assignment against Dinamo Moscow, have been decent enough but it would currently take an optimistic soul to look beyond a last-16 exit at best.

21) Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia thanked Bert van Marwijk for taking them to a first World Cup in 12 years and promptly parted company with the Dutchman, negotiations for a new contract breaking down amid suggestions that he was not spending enough time in the country. It means they have lost the services of a 2010 World Cup finalist – with Holland – for next year’s tournament and the Argentinian Edgardo Bauza, who had been coaching their qualifying group B rivals the United Arab Emirates, will lead them to Russia instead. They did well to pip Australia to automatic qualification and look forward to players such as the prolific Mohammed al-Sahlawi to step up and have an impact.

22) South Korea
An unconvincing set of qualifiers was compounded by friendly defeats to Russia and Morocco – 4-2 and 3-2 respectively – this month and optimism is distinctly lacking. South Korea have not won a game since March, when they beat Syria 1-0, and bar the admirable Son Heung-min they possess few names to make opponents sit up. Shin Tae-yong, appointed in July, has a battle on his hands – not least to win round South Korea’s fans, who still hold out hope of a glorious return to the fold for Guus Hiddink.

23) Panama
Barely known to most without a keen interest in the Concacaf qualifying tournament, Panama are a welcome new face and will be ready to bloody a nose or two. If we are being harsh, their form in a group low on quality was essentially middling – and they had a decisive slice of luck against Costa Rica on Tuesday when their equalizer was given despite not crossing the line – but nobody in the country will care. They disrupted the USA, among others, with some strong-arm tactics on the road to Russia – perhaps recalling Honduras’s performance at Brazil 2014.

The Guardian Sport

Premier League Clubs Missed their Chance to Keep Christmas Eve Special

Arsenal

London – The almost total lack of regard in which broadcasters hold football fans is no secret, so it should have come as no surprise to learn Sky Sports is proposing to reschedule Arsenal’s home match against Liverpool for Christmas Eve in what the Football Supporters’ Federation has described as “a new low point in putting the interests of football broadcasters over those of match-going fans”. And yet somehow it did come as a surprise. Even by the notoriously cut-throat standards of TV networks scrambling for subscriptions, this seems unnecessarily grasping.

With an already hectic festive grind looming, footballers would almost certainly rather not play on Christmas Eve. Fans, some with other commitments and others faced with the return journey to and from London from Liverpool on what is a chaotic day for transport, would almost certainly rather not travel on Christmas Eve.

Matchday staff earning not much more than minimum wage for their shifts would almost certainly rather not work on Christmas Eve. On a day that vast swaths of the British population set aside for last-minute trolley dashes, family reunions, festive roistering and all the domestic disquiet that entails, we could almost certainly do without the added distraction of Premier League football on television. Couldn’t we?

Apparently not, despite the fact almost everyone involved apart from the broadcasting company that paid £11m for British TV rights for the match appears to agree it is a ridiculous idea. Even before a final decision has been made, both football clubs involved have complained, as have their supporters.

But while Sky Sports has not yet publicly acknowledged any of these gripes, early indications suggest it is likely to respond to this almost unanimous groundswell of disapproval by – yes, you’ve guessed it – scheduling a second Premier League match for the same day and transforming Christmas Eve into a Super Sleigh Bell Sunday featuring two games instead of the more traditional and generally accepted none.

A spokeswoman for Sky said she was not in a position to comment given the fixtures for December have not been selected but that an announcement will be made in the next fortnight. “Twice in recent years [2011 and 2016] Christmas Eve has fallen on a Saturday,” says the FSF. “In both those years the Premier League has not scheduled any fixtures for that day, presumably in recognition of the significance of the date. For broadcasters now to move fixtures to Christmas Eve, and on a Sunday at that, flies in the face of that policy.”

On Monday, it emerged the second match being mooted for rescheduling to Christmas Eve is West Ham v Newcastle, which would almost certainly occupy the 1.30pm TV slot and mean a round trip of 560 miles for traveling Geordies, who, unlike Father Christmas, do not have the luxury of airborne sleighs drawn by reindeer to speed them home.

Expect more entirely justified disquiet from a set of supporters whose location means they are already treated particularly contemptuously by TV schedulers.

The clubs, despite their predictable carping, can have no complaints as they are lying in a cash-strewn bed of their own making. When Sky and BT Sport paid a combined £5.136bn for the UK TV rights of the Premier League in the famously lucrative carve-up of February 2015, it was the former network that paid the lion’s share of the money, £4.176bn, to win the vast majority of the TV slots available. Two of those are on Sunday afternoons, with kick-offs at 1.30pm and 4pm, windows dictated at the time by clubs mindful of potential viewing audiences and hoping to rinse the maximum revenue possible out of the bidders.

Much to their delight the money duly arrived but in the ensuing contract negotiations the clubs either did not bother, did not want to, or perhaps just never thought to insist on clauses precluding Sky or BT Sport from rescheduling matches that would quite clearly inconvenience fans traveling long distances at great expense.

Evidently they also failed to reckon on Christmas Eve 2017 falling on a Sunday and the potential problems that might cause. Sky has two slots to play with on Christmas Eve Sunday. One can be moved to the previous Friday night, but this would still leave one Sunday slot vacant.

Should Sky decide to keep match-going fans and the FSF happy by not broadcasting Arsenal v Liverpool or any other match on Christmas Eve, it would to all intents and purposes be throwing away the £11m it paid for the right to do so. Even at a time of goodwill to all men, this course of action is one it would be understandably reluctant to take.

This could easily have been avoided. As equal shareholders in the Premier League, along with the 18 other clubs who comprised English football’s top flight at the time the deal with Sky and BT was struck, there was nothing to stop Arsenal, Liverpool or the other shareholders preempting such a scenario and colluding to ensure it never came to pass. They did not and, as usual, it is their fans who will suffer the most.

“Spirit Of Shankly have been made aware that Liverpool’s away fixture against Arsenal, scheduled for 23 December, is being considered for a move to Christmas Eve,” said a Liverpool’s supporters’ group, which pointed out the impact such a switch would have. “SOS are contacting relevant personnel to put forward our case that it is completely unacceptable to expect fans to travel for a match at this time. The suggestion of such a change again shows zero regard for supporters – much like the corresponding fixture where Euston station was closed over bank holiday weekend.”

The FSF has declared it will continue to work in conjunction with supporters’ groups to engage with the Premier League and broadcasters “to register our discontent and to seek full involvement and consultation with supporters in determining future scheduling”.

Good luck to them but history suggests their hopes of being paid anything other than lip service would constitute a Christmas miracle.

The Guardian Sport

Shadow of Pep Guardiola Made Carlo Ancelotti a Man out of Time at Bayern

Ancelotti

Munich – When Bayern Munich came to London in March to face Arsenal, following one 5-1 victory and just about to register another, everything seemed rosy in the kingdom of FC Hollywood. Sure, their football in the Bundesliga had hardly been edge-of-the-seat stuff, but Carlo Ancelotti spoke confidently, almost bullishly, of his team before the game in the press room at the Emirates Stadium.

He talked of his side approaching their physical best and of their “real energy”. It felt like his plan to take them back to Champions League glory – the reason that he was appointed to replace Pep Guardiola in the first place – was coming together at the right time. It felt like Bayern could be becoming Ancelotti’s team at last.

Once we walked up into the stands to see Bayern go through an innocuous 15-minute warm-up in the chill of a north London evening, it became clear that was perhaps less the case than the Italian would like to believe. The players immediately organized themselves into a high-tempo rondo – the piggy-in-the-middle one-touch game so beloved of Guardiola that set the tone in his reign from the very beginning. For all the world’s media, the indelible mark left on the squad by the Catalan tactician was plain to see.

It is living in the shadow of Guardiola that has ultimately cost Ancelotti his post at Bayern. The club’s management always knew there would be a drop-off in intensity when Guardiola – to their disappointment – left, and there was even the suggestion in some quarters that might not be a bad thing. Working under Guardiola is demanding and some of the squad, notably Franck Ribéry, had become tired of his micro-management.

Yet those players who breathed a sigh of relief at seeing the back of his three-line whip perhaps came to crave its return. They went from being kept on a short leash to being allowed to run around the park for hours. Still, as Bayern have underachieved this season, there has been a lot of dishonest revision of Ancelotti’s attributes, or apparent lack thereof.

Some have even gone as far as to suggest he does not do anything. This is plainly nonsense – ask Paris Saint-Germain, who mourned his loss for a prolonged period after his 2013 departure. Ancelotti showed PSG what being an elite club was all about, getting the players into the habit of recuperating and spending time with each other at Camp des Loges – just as the great Milan teams did at Milanello – and persuading the likes of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic that the club were for real. “Paris lui doit tellement” – Paris owe him so much – said the headline in Wednesday’s L’Equipe, on the eve of that ultimately ruinous defeat at Parc des Princes. For those who thought Ancelotti has no eye for detail, there was even the anecdote that he ordered ball-boys for training in his time at PSG to minimize the dead time between exercises.

Tactical nuance, however, clearly is not his thing, and this began to frustrate the German champions’ squad – and those upstairs, who had seen Guardiola create a discernible Bayern brand of football. International observers may keep coming back to Guardiola’s failure to take Bayern back to the Champions League final in his three-year spell, but locals will remind you the football that the team produced in that time was out of this world.

Such peaks were the product of no let-up. That is not Ancelotti’s style, and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge knew that when he appointed him. The lack of dazzle in Bundesliga action did not cause any initial alarm – if underwhelming domestically meant having plenty left in the tank for the final stages of the Champions League, then that was a price that Bayern were prepared to pay to allow Ancelotti to work his magic.

The majesty with which they overwhelmed Arsenal was all too brief, though, and the awful second half performance in the quarter-final, first leg against Real Madrid was the beginning of the end for the coach. Rummenigge may have spent a long time bemoaning the officiating in the second leg at the Bernabéu but deep down, he knew what he saw at the Allianz Arena the week before – his team, faced with a setback against a high-quality opponent for one of the first times that season, and with absolutely no answer to it.

Accordingly, Bayern went into this season with what amounted to a lame duck head coach, with the hope that he would keep everything shipshape until Julian Nagelsmann could arrive with a new energy next summer. A series of disjointed performances, a pertinent loss to Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim and scarcely-concealed rebellion in public comments by Thomas Müller, Robert Lewandowski and, after the humbling in Paris, Arjen Robben has brought things to a head sooner than Rummenigge or Uli Hoeness would like.

Whether right now is the right moment for Nagelsmann is questionable – he is a prodigious talent but still only 30. In the meantime, Bayern have turned once again to Jupp Heynckes, appointing him manager for the fourth time since 1987. During his last stint, he led Bayern to win the treble in 2013. In his fourth stint, Heynckes will not only be required to bring in new ideas to the club, but he will have to quickly put a lid on any dressing-room unrest.

Ancelotti will walk away with his reputation largely undamaged, and that is fair. He was maybe the right type of coach for Bayern at completely the wrong moment.

The Guardian Sport

Gareth Southgate Must Give Freedom a Chance after Numbing England Spectacle

England

London – Put out more flags. Dust down the red and white jester’s hat. Root out the gumshield, the crumpled Yekaterinburg metro map. And prepare to head once more into that strangely grueling territory between bruised and fearful cynicism and the eternal quiver of tournament hope.

England have booked their place at the World Cup in Russia after surely the most meandering, flaccid qualification victory yet devised by any England team. Slovenia were beaten by Harry Kane’s goal but make no mistake – this was both a dreadful game of football and a numbing spectacle for those loyal supporters still willing to drag themselves out on a Thursday night to enter the vast money-rinsing concrete cauldron of the Wembley entertainment complex.

Victory may have sealed qualification, but it also deflated further any realistic expectations of what might happen when England get there. This should be of great concern to the Football Association. There are only so many times even England fans will be prepared to pay £40 for the pleasure of throwing paper airplanes at the pitch, which brought the loudest cheers of the night right up until Kane’s finish in stoppage time.

At the end England’s players gathered in the center circle and wandered around applauding the empty red plastic seats and the backs of people queuing to leave while the PA burbled gamely about the prestige friendlies to come. As an image of England football 2017, and the slow, gilded death for what was once football’s most compelling theater, it is probably quite hard to beat.

England were at least terrible in a grimly fascinating way. Gone are the days when a poor England team sent it long, seeking out the head of some game forward battering ram. Here they were terrible in the new style, passing to each other but setting out with two lumbering central midfield wardrobes shielding a defense threatened only by its own misplaced passes. In the opening hour they produced a performance so lacking in purpose and precision it was like watching a piece of performance art, a 45-minute Warhol-style short film called Wembley Angst No94.

England did improve after the hour mark but by then they had a lot of ground to make up from a standing start as the game congealed early on into another game just like the other games. Jordan Henderson had the ball quite a lot, worrying about from side to side, always looking back into the yonic safety of his defense. Midway through the half England produced a stunningly terrible free-kick routine, working the ball very slowly backwards and finally teeing it up for Henderson to perform a spectacular falling-over air-kick on the edge of the area. Grimly, Slovenia cleared.

Only Marcus Rashford seemed really interested in trying to run forward quickly. Raheem Sterling ran quite a lot. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. And that was pretty much that for the most soft-pedaled minor chord moment of qualification imaginable, given a spark of life at the death by Kane’s opportunism.

What now then? One thing is clear. England does not expect. It has been more than a decade since the national team had the luxury of traveling in a state of doomed optimism, the mood ever more stricken since that golden, foolish summer of 2006 when the world was still young, when Crouchie did the robot with Prince William, and when the idea of some grand Premier League talent-legacy waiting to be spent died for good on the fields of Stuttgart, Cologne and Gelsenkirchen.

The challenge now for Gareth Southgate is not to try to reach the World Cup final. It is to produce a team that people actually want to watch. This has been a deathly qualification, with only 16 goals scored and a feeling of having spent endless hours watching England’s furrowed and fearful back five play a variety of keep-ball.

From here it seems absolutely clear Southgate needs to take a chance, to chuck out the Dan Ashworth handbook of mind-bogglingly dull and outmoded possession football, to accept that playing with adventure, life, pace, and risky attacking vim might revive not just the dwindling England brand but his own managerial career.

In their current guise, watching England is like watching a 12-round under-card split decision wrestle-off between a pair of ponderous 15st taxi drivers, the craft-free double defensive midfield bolt the managerial equivalent of tucking both your shirt and your vest into your underpants.

What is the point of playing this way? From here to next summer every moment of Southgate’s time should be devoted to trying to wring the most out of what he does have, a spritz of genuine forward talent in Kane, Dele Alli and Rashford. He needs a midfielder who can pass. And he needs to trust his defense to carry the ball forward.

Success for this team would involve simply playing with a little freedom, exploring their own limits and refusing to leave the competition until they have at least been beaten by a demonstrably superior team. Score some goals. Produce at least one performance that lets everyone feel giddy and stupid and deluded for four days in June.

There is a wider issue here about international football itself. When the away fans in Malta last month sang against their team, they weren’t angry or incensed or spoiling for a fight. They were taking the mickey out of the whole thing: England, us, them, the enduring disjunct between a domestic league of such screeching urgency and a national team who have withered in its shadow. Take note, Gareth. It is when they stop booing you really want to start worrying. For now England will travel with hope, as ever. But not much of it.

The Guardian Sport

Egypt Qualifies for FIFA World Cup for First Time in 28 Years

Salah

London – Egypt qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup for the third time in its history on Sunday after defeating Congo 2-1 in Alexandria.

Liverpool striker Mohammed Salah scored his country’s two goals, giving Egypt the victory that allows it to play in the World Cup for the first time in 28 years.

Egypt becomes the second Arab country after Saudi Arabia and the second African country after Nigeria to qualify to next year’s tournament that is hosted by Russia.

Egypt had previously played in the 1934 and 1990 World Cups, both of which were hosted by Italy.

With Sunday’s victory, Egypt managed to avoid the play-off round. They ended the group stage of the qualifications with 12 points from four victories. They only lost once. They ended their campaign four points ahead of the nearest competitor in group E that included Ghana, Uganda and Congo.

Egypt had taken the lead against Congo with a Salah goal in the 63rd minute. The crowd of some 75,000 fans then had to endure some tense moments after Congo equalized in the 87th minute, but a Salah penalty in the fourth minute of added time sealed Egypt’s qualification to euphoric celebrations across the country.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, telephoned later on Sunday Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to congratulate him on his country’s achievement.

More Arab countries could join Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Russia next year if Tunisia and Morocco earn draws against Libya and the Ivory Coast respectively in next month’s African play-offs.

Syria will meanwhile face Australia on October 10 to determine whether it will reserve a place for itself in the Asian play-offs.

The draw for the group stages of the 2018 World Cup will take place in Moscow on December 1.

England Reach the World Cup again – Can they do Better this Time?

England

London – England have qualified for the tournament in Russia and are so far unbeaten in their group but that does not guarantee they will have a successful tournament. Here we chart how they have got on after winning in 1966

Mexico 1970
England qualified as holders and finished second in their group, behind Brazil, the eventual winners. That meant a quarter‑final against West Germany. Sir Alf Ramsey’s side led 2-0 before losing 3-2, with Gerd Müller’s goal ending England’s hopes of retaining the Jules Rimet trophy.

West Germany 1974
For the first time since England entered the qualification process, in 1950, they failed to reach the finals. They had to beat Poland in a Wembley qualifier in October 1973 but despite taking 36 shots, forcing 26 corners, hitting the woodwork twice and having four efforts cleared off the line, they simply could not find a way past the Poland goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski, who was infamously dubbed a “clown” by Brian Clough at half-time.

Argentina 1978
England may have had a different manager in Ron Greenwood but for the second time in succession they failed to reach the finals. It came down to goal difference, with the Italians booking their ticket thanks to their 6-1 defeat of Finland.

Spain 1982
England required victory against Hungary at Wembley in November 1981 to reach their first World Cup in 12 years and managed it thanks to a slightly clumsy Paul Mariner goal. At the tournament they started well with a 3-1 victory against France. A goalless draw with West Germany meant Greenwood’s men had to beat the hosts to advance to the semi-finals. They drew 0-0.

Mexico 1986
Bobby Robson’s side qualified with relative ease, topping their group thanks to an undefeated record of four wins and four draws. In Mexico, Gary Lineker’s six goals guided England to the quarter‑finals, where they were undone by Diego Maradona through fair means and foul.

Italy 1990
Robson led England to a second successive World Cup finals after they finished second in their qualifying group. At the tournament, a Paul Gascoigne-inspired side reached the semi-finals and came home as heroes.

USA 1994
Graham Taylor’s one and only qualifying campaign as manager was a disaster. They were pipped to the two qualifying places by Norway and Holland and Taylor, who died earlier this year, became a figure of ridicule and humiliation.

France 1998
A defeat against Italy at Wembley was the only stain on a near‑perfect run in the qualifiers for Glenn Hoddle’s side, with a goalless draw against the same opponents in Rome sealing England’s place at the finals. There they faced Argentina in the last 16 and lost on penalties following a match including Michael Owen’s stunning goal and David Beckham’s needless sending off.

South Korea and Japan, 2002
David Beckham’s dramatic free-kick against Greece at Old Trafford sent Sven Goran-Eriksson’s side to a tournament where they got revenge over Argentina before eventually being knocked out by Brazil, via Ronaldinho’s free‑kick, in the quarter-finals.

Germany 2006
The “Golden Generation” secured their place by finishing top of their qualifying group. At the tournament, they flattered to deceive, eventually exiting via a quarter-final defeat, on penalties, to Portugal.

South Africa 2010
Fabio Capello side qualified with ease, winning nine and losing one of their group games. If only their performances in South Africa were as convincing – England stumbled into the knockout stages where they were thumped 4-1 by Germany.

Brazil 2014
Yet again England impressed in qualifying, going through their group undefeated. But, again, they were terrible at the tournament, failing to progress to the knockout stages after losing against Italy and Uruguay and drawing with Costa Rica.

The Guardian Sport

Everton’s Lukaku-Shaped Hole Leaves Praise of Summer Buys Looking Hollow

sports

London — An ancient cliche was conspicuous by its absence when Everton’s owner, Farhad Moshiri, gave Ronald Koeman a vote of confidence the other day. Older football followers in particular might have noted that in reporting it hardly anyone used the word “dreaded”.

Presumably it is safe to say votes of confidence are still dreaded, because no manager particularly wants one and they still tend to mean what they always meant, that the stay of execution will be terminated anyway if results cannot be quickly improved.

But the V of C itself does not seem to belong in the Premier League era; it is a throwback to the dim and distant past and the sort of relationship between chairman and manager encapsulated in The Damned United when Jim Broadbent spells out the facts of football life to Michael Sheen in the middle of the pitch at a deserted Baseball Ground. The facts of football life being that managers are easy to remove and easy to replace, and therefore occupy the lowest rung of importance on the payroll, way below the players.

Things have changed a little since, not least owing to Brian Clough proving some of his former employers wrong. Managers are held to be highly important these days, and paid on that basis, with contractual safeguards to deter all but the most trigger-happy of chairmen from dismissing them on a whim. But what is also new in the present era is the fortnight-long international break, an uncomfortable period for any club going into enforced inaction on the back of a poor result, and Moshiri probably acted wisely and fairly in stating the club’s position clearly at the outset to try to give Koeman and his staff some backing and breathing space.

Whether Koeman deserves it after a disappointing start to the season remains a matter of lively debate, though Everton’s unfortunate opening serves to highlight another aspect of modern football, namely that it is difficult to gauge a club’s development on the field from its perceived success in the transfer window. Each year before the summer trading finishes a notional league table is drawn up based on comparative spending and quality of acquisition. Some clubs are judged to have bought well, others to have bought badly, and still others will be accused of not buying at all. Then the actual season commences, and within weeks these projections based on expenditure will be shown to be useless.

Remember Manchester City being mocked for spending a fortune on full-backs? Now those very acquisitions are being credited with the success of Pep Guardiola’s gameplan at Stamford Bridge, albeit with Fabian Delph standing in for Benjamin Mendy. Chelsea themselves were deemed to have had an underwhelming summer of transfer business, yet apart from the first-day shambles against Burnley seemed to be putting some impressive results together until injury struck Álvaro Morata.

Everton remain the attention grabbers here though, for they appear to have fallen into the trap of enjoying spending the proceeds of Romelu Lukaku’s sale without remembering why Manchester United were willing to fork out £75m up front. They were widely considered to have had a productive summer, at least up to the point where they admitted they would not be getting hold of Olivier Giroud. Koeman was praised for acting early and decisively, and the captures of Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane were greeted as signs of ambition and proof that the club was investing for the long-term.

Wayne Rooney’s return could not be dressed up in quite the same way, and the inactivity after missing out on Giroud must have been disappointing for a manager who continually stressed his desire for a goalscoring target man to replace Lukaku, but the window appeared to end happily when Everton parted with a record fee to sign the long-term attacking target Gylfi Sigurdsson.

Except when the season started it became clear that not only Rooney and Sigurdsson but also Davy Klaassen had been signed for the same position, while the gaping hole left by the departing big fella in front of them had not been filled. Not even Koeman, it transpires, can see Dominic Calvert-Lewin or Sandro Ramírez maturing in time, and Rooney, just as Manchester United watchers warned, simply looks over-mature.

Burnley, in contrast, received few accolades for activity or imagination in the market over the summer, even though they broke their transfer record by paying Leeds £15m for Chris Wood. The New Zealand striker seemed to be just a duplication or a slight upgrade on players the club already possessed – the same could also be said of Jack Cork, Jon Walters, Charlie Taylor and Phil Bardsley – but the key here seems to be that Burnley had a good balance and a strong work ethic and quite sensibly decided not to disrupt anything.

Burnley are now being hailed as a tight, well-disciplined unit who play as a team and fight for every minute of the 90. Nothing new there – that was pretty much their hallmark last season – yet suddenly they are finding points easier to come by and proving troublesome opponents for even the biggest clubs. All on a modest budget with no great dramas in the transfer window. Sometimes, in fact, the size of some clubs’ budgets gets in the way. Arsène Wenger said a couple of years ago that people would have laughed if he had nipped over to France and come back with Riyad Mahrez, because people expected Arsenal signings to cost at least £10m. Maybe Koeman felt the same when it came to replacing £75m Lukaku. He said he wanted a target man but didn’t get his wish, yet Burnley picked one up for £15m, while Spurs landed the admittedly 32-year-old Fernando Llorente for a little less.

That is not to suggest either would have solved Everton’s problems, or even that Wood’s goals have been behind Burnley’s rise to sixth place. Just to point out that options are always available. The manager who claimed he didn’t want to go down to option C or D after missing out on Giroud has been left with his option Z, otherwise known as Oumar Niasse. It is unclear what Moshiri thinks about that, though plain to see that, despite bringing in half a dozen new players over summer, Everton failed to address the most notable departure.

Collectively that is quite an embarrassment for a club that pinched Steve Walsh from Leicester to head up player recruitment. No one imagined it would be easy to replace Lukaku; there are not many players of similar size and ability around, and whoever Everton brought in might have found it difficult living up to his predecessor’s strike rate. But Lukaku was always going – whatever else Everton say they cannot pretend they were caught on the hop. And after only seven league games two of the most frequently asked questions around Goodison over the past few years – are Everton a one-man team, and however will they manage without Lukaku? – now have answers. They just happen to be unflattering ones, and there are three months to wait for the next transfer window.

The Guardian Sport

Antonio Conte is Not Alone in Brushing Up His Football English

sport

London — Antonio Conte was snapped on the beach this week basking in the Italian sun, taking time off during the international break. Cue a few jokes about budgie smugglers, whether Diego Costa was invited and why, after a year in England, Conte was caught reading a book called Football English: Soccer Vocabulary for Learners of English, by Tom Challenger.

The book is a practical guide to football-specific phrases and terminology. It is broken up into thematic chapters – there is one for coaches and one for training – and set at three levels of difficulty. It is not a phrasebook, though. It is written entirely in English, so one needs a basic understanding of the language before one can start. “There’s nothing special about football English,” says Challenger, presumably referring to the vernacular rather than the book. “Within that community of speakers, however, they use particular phrases more often than others and I tried to identify those in the book.”

Challenger teaches English as a foreign language in Vienna, where he lives with his wife and trilingual child (German, English and Hungarian). His book was the result not of a gap in any market but a desire to improve his CV as a teacher. Over two years he hand-built a database of articles, press releases and interview transcripts from which he worked out the most commonly used terms.

“The idea is to give you the most useful language,” Challenger says. “The first chapter, for example, deals with what wages are and the fact in the UK we quote the salary per week. I think they should know what a cone is, what a marker is, what the outside of the boot is, because we tend to say boot rather than the outside of the foot. They should know what the difference is between manager and coach. Though that’s not really well defined.”

Conte, after the transfer window he has just had, can probably identify with that final statement. For Challenger, who was not aware of his newfound tabloid infamy when the Guardian spoke to him, what started out as a résumé enhancer has become a nice little earner (with an emphasis on the little). He self-published online and copies of the book are printed on demand. He estimates that, given the hours worked and the copies sold, he has made at least minimum wage from his endeavours.

Sales have also been rising year on year and Challenger suspects word is getting round in an industry increasingly using English as a second language, whether in the UK or not. “There’s actually a lot of English teaching going on within Premier League academies,” he says. “I also noted the Man United soccer school franchise bought 150 copies at one point. But it’s useful, too, for players in Austria who might want to learn English before a possible move or for players in a new league who use English as they adapt to the domestic language.”

Given the exposure provided by Conte, Challenger may expect an extra boost in sales yet. And as for the Italian, there is no shame in brushing up further on his football English. The intricacies, after all, can often be subtle. “One phrase that’s difficult to explain is ‘being let go’,” he says. “In many languages they won’t have a different word for leaving your job because it was your fault or just because of bad luck. In German, in fact, they don’t have that word.” Wonder if that is also true in Italian?

The Guardian Sport

Football is Heading for Trouble Over Brain Injuries Caused by the Ball

sport

London — In happier times, there was a story Eric Harrison used to tell his players at Manchester United, as the coach who helped bring through the Class of ’92, about a piece of advice he once received from the centre-half he regarded as the hardest man he had ever seen on a football pitch.

George Curtis will always be best remembered as John Sillett’s managerial partner on the day Coventry City won the 1987 FA Cup. Yet for Harrison’s generation in the 1950s and 1960s he was the kind of centre‑half who could trouble even the most granite-jawed opponent. Harrison played with him on their national service and was always fascinated how a man of 5ft 11in won so many headers against players who were well over 6ft. “No problem,” Curtis explained, “early in the game, when the first ball comes up the middle, I don’t head the ball. I head the back of the centre-forward’s head against the ball – and he doesn’t usually come back for more.”

Harrison liked what he heard so much he adopted the same tactic, as you might expect for a man whose nickname during 10 years as a wing‑half at Halifax Town was “Chopper”. Harrison, by his own admission, saw every header as a personal challenge, no matter what was in the way.

Yet it had its consequences. His wife, Shirley, told me a story recently about her first pregnancy and the arrival of their baby daughter, Kim. Harrison was in another part of the hospital that day, suffering one of his regular concussions, and missed the birth. That one wiped him out for three days.

He is 79 now and the most famous players from his list of successes Old Trafford are still in thrall of their old coach. Yet it hasn’t been easy for anyone when they have called in to see him this year. “Eric still talks about them – Giggsy, Beckham, Scholesy, the Nevilles – but he doesn’t recognise them now,” Shirley explains. “He recognises me and his daughters, but not even the grandchildren. The players have all been to visit but it wasn’t the Eric they knew. Scholesy, in particular, found it really hard. They all did. It was upsetting for all of them.” Beckham had turned up with a carrot cake he had baked with his children and a bottle of whisky. Afterwards, he sat in his car and wept.

By now, you have probably read about Harrison’s deteriorating health and the inevitable concerns that maybe he has suffered from what the coroner in Jeff Astle’s inquest described as “industrial disease”, namely dementia brought on by heading the ball.

Nobody can be sure if there is a connection but, as Shirley acknowledges, it is something she and her family have to consider when there are so many stories of other former pros from bygone eras – in particular, players who were renowned for their heading ability – who have suffered the same way. Astle’s family have led the campaign for greater research, first featured in this column in March 2014, and maybe we are finally getting somewhere now the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association are planning to commission a study to examine the risks and see what can be done.

Yet it has been a bewilderingly slow process, to say the least, bearing in mind it was actually 2002 when the two organisations announced there would be a joint 10-year research programme and I wonder how Kevin Doyle feels about that now football has a story of a modern player who has been forced to retire, on medical advice, because heading the ball was causing persistent headaches. Doyle’s announcement follows what he describes as “numerous” concussions, including two this season, as a player who was always renowned for his aerial ability, scoring a high percentage of his goals that way at Reading, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Colorado Rapids. He is 34 and says his doctors have advised him to end a career that also features 64 caps for the Republic of Ireland to “avoid the possibility of these symptoms becoming more serious and permanent”. The risks are simply too great.

At least he has got out now, rather than subjecting himself to any more punishment, and hopefully that will mean no further problems, whereas there once would have been a time when a footballer in that position would have been encouraged to carry on regardless. Yet it always comes as a jolt when a professional sportsman is advised to quit on medical grounds and particularly in Doyle’s case when many of us, I imagine, might presume there is not a great deal to worry about from heading the ball in today’s game.

It is an easy assumption to make and I must confess I was one of those who thought the dangers had largely been removed once football phased out those heavy, leather balls, often saturated in water, that have been blamed for the issues relating to previous generations. That, however, might be a common mistake because if you listen to some of the experts who have been studying these cases it is a complete red herring.

The balls might be lighter these days but that just means they travel much faster. The game is getting quicker all the time and that means more crosses are being made and more headers are necessary. There might not be the same kind of physicality compared to the days, to quote Harrison, when “trying to break opponents in half” was part of your average Saturday afternoon. But the greater speed also means there is a higher risk of players taking accidental bangs to the head.

Willie Stewart, the neuropathologist who examined Astle and likened what he found to the brain of an old boxer, calls it a “lazy characterisation” to think of it as merely a problem of the past. Many people still do, however, and maybe that explains why the authorities in England have chosen to look the other way for so long, never taking the trouble to confront the evidence properly.

It is certainly worth recounting what happened after the FA promised the Astle family in 2002 that it would treat the issue as a high-level priority. Instead the family received two letters and did not hear from the governing body for 12 years until Greg Dyke, the then chairman, had the decency to apologise on behalf of a previous regime. The first letter was from the FA’s solicitors to advise against legal action. The next could easily be described as a sweetener – a tactic the FA used many years later with various sexual-abuse victims – by offering free tickets for the next England friendly, albeit with the rider that it would be difficult to squeeze them all in. Two seats was the limit.

Thankfully, there are other countries where they have devoted time to these studies without leaving the impression they had to be pushed into seeking answers. One study in New York found that players in their 30s who headed the ball 885 to 1,550 times a year had significantly lower water movement in three areas of their brains and those who did so more than 1,800 times tended to do notably worse in memory tests. American sports have been much quicker to recognise the dangers of concussion and when it comes to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease caused by repeated blows, Boston University announced last week there had been a significant breakthrough diagnosing it in living humans rather than having to identify it posthumously, as was previously the case.

The United States feels so far ahead in terms of its research, its response (heading has been outlawed for under‑10s since 2015) and its understanding that the people playing sport have a right to know the risks. It might not change the way they play, or what their coaches demand, but at least they would be in possession of the facts. Doyle moved to Major League Soccer in 2015. It doesn’t reflect well on English football that he might still be going up for headers every Saturday, come what may, if he had stayed put.

Burden of proof on Ox to show worth

Who did Gareth Southgate mean when he admitted being dissatisfied with his latest England squad and volunteered the information that “one or two players” did not warrant their places judging by their club performances so far this season?

Southgate was too gentlemanly to say but nobody should be surprised if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain featured prominently in the thoughts of the England manager after a run of form that has merely confirmed the view here that Arsenal did extraordinarily well to coax a transfer fee of £40m out of Liverpool.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is a curious player because he certainly does not lack admirers. Arsène Wenger wanted to keep him at Arsenal and, as well as Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool, Antonio Conte had him on his wish-list for Chelsea. Roy Hodgson spoke highly of him during his time as England manager and Southgate keeps selecting him.

At the same time, it is not always easy to understand the attraction and the difficult truth, looking back over his Arsenal years, is that it is trickier even still to recall a key fixture when Oxlade-Chamberlain has played the leading role. He has started only one game for Liverpool, a Carabao Cup tie, and if there are hidden layers it is time he found a way to bring them out. Oxlade-Chamberlain is 24 now and at that age no footballer should want to be talked about for mere potential.

The Guardian Sport