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Montenegro a challenge for England

by Christopher Davies

It is a moment Jonathan Pearce will never forget.

Pearce, who now has a leading role in the BBC’s football commentating team, was covering the 1994 World Cup qualifying game between San Marino and England for the commercial radio station Capital Gold in November 1993.

As the home side kicked off Pearce began his commentary: “Welcome to Bologna on Capital Gold for San Marino vs. England with Tennent’s Pilsner, brewed with Czechoslovakian yeast for that extra Pilsner taste and . . . ENGLAND ARE ONE DOWN . . . “

San Marino 1, England 0. England never touched the ball in the 8.3 seconds it took computer salesman Davide Gualtieri to become the answer to a trivia question. Stuart Pearce slipped and Gualtieri beat David Seaman from eight meters, the goal remains the fastest in qualification history.

England’s players were so shell-shocked by the goal, it took them 22 minutes to equalize before going on to win 7-1.

San Marino is 207th in the latest FIFA rankings alongside Bhutan and the Turks and Caicos Islands; England will beat the joint-worst team in the world Friday as the 2014 World Cup qualifiers resume, probably without conceding a goal inside 10 seconds. Victory over Montenegro in Podgorica on Tuesday is a different matter.

England’s buildup to the game, which will do much to decide its World Cup qualifying fate, has been dominated by Rio Ferdinand’s oh-yes-he-will oh-no-he-won’t pantomime callup and withdrawal from the squad because he has to follow an “intricate pre-planned training program” set out by Manchester United.

Why this was not discovered before Ferdinand was recalled to the international setup remains a gray area.

Ferdinand, 34, is England’s most in-form defender and would have been an asset against Montenegro, which drew twice with Fabio Capello’s side during the Euro 2012 qualifying program.

In Stevan Jovetic (Fiorentina) and Mirko Vucinic (Juventus) Montenegro has two of the best attackers in Europe.

Worryingly, Roy Hodgson is not exactly spoiled for choice when it comes to central defenders — apart from Ferdinand, Phil Jagielka and Michael Dawson are injured, Gary Cahill is not fit enough to play against San Marino, Joleon Lescott has not been a regular choice for Manchester City, while Spurs’ Steven Caulker, Newcastle’s Steven Taylor and Chris Smalling of Manchester United are international rookies with five caps between them.

Hodgson will choose Cahill, if fit, and Smalling in Podgorica, with Lescott next in line. A prayer may be needed.

The absence of the injured Jack Wilshere is a major blow and leaves captain Steven Gerrard as the only midfield certainty. James Milner’s defensive qualities will be needed with two from Theo Walcott, Tom Cleverley, Scott Parker and Frank Lampard.

Up front will be Wayne Rooney, sent off on the last visit to Podgorica, and Danny Welbeck, impressive for England but the scorer of only two goals for United this season.

Hodgson may leave three or four key players out against San Marino for fear of injury or a red card, but whoever he plays against world football’s basement side will not affect the outcome.

An England victory over Montenegro would put it on course to top the group and qualify automatically. A draw would leave qualification in the balance. Defeat would mean the sound of knives sharpening with various targets, starting inevitably with Hodgson.


THE HYPOCRISY of the Football Association was laid bare as the governing body achieved what I believed was impossible — it united Planet Twitter.

For the F.A. to allow Wigan’s Callum McManaman to escape scot free for a potential career-ending challenge on Newcastle’s Massidi Haidara drew not a solitary alternative tweeting voice. Never has opinion against the F.A. been so unanimous and damning.

Referee Mark Halsey was not correctly positioned to see the studs of McManaman’s right boot connect with Haidara’s left knee. Assistant referee Matthew Gilkes saw the incident but did not think it worthy of informing Halsey it was even a free-kick offense, something he can ponder on during his rest from duty.

Given the seriousness of Haidara’s injury and the reaction of his teammates, Halsey must have been belatedly aware the Frenchman was not the unfortunate victim of a 50-50 tackle. It was not so much a red card as crimson.

The F.A.’s disciplinary regulations state: “Where at least one of the officials has seen the coming together of players retrospective action is not taken, regardless of whether they have seen the full extent of the challenge. Retrospective action can only be taken in scenarios where none of the match officials saw the players coming together.”

To add insult to a nasty injury, on the same day they allowed one of the worst cases of serious foul play most can remember to go unpunished, the F.A. handed Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha a one-game suspension for making a V-sign at Leeds fans. Staggering.

The F.A. says it is against re-refereeing games and taking retrospective action, yet it is happy to allow clubs to appeal against wrongful dismissal and overturn a red card. Retrospective action is not a two-way street with the F.A.

I called the F.A. “the governing body” though that is not strictly true. FIFA disciplinary regulations allow for “obvious errors by the referee to be rectified,” but for that to happen the F.A., the stakeholders, notably the Professional Footballers’ Association and Premier League, would have to agree to a change in their regulations.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.