LONDON – The reaction will be as predictable as it is meaningless.
If England beats Slovakia in Trnava on Sunday, then Sam Allardyce will be a better manager than Roy Hodgson, whose team drew 0-0 with them at Euro 2016. Well done to the Football Association for appointing Big Sam.
Should England’s opening 2018 World Cup qualifying game end in another draw it will be a case of same old, same old. Or in the tabloids, Sam old, Sam old.
A new manager inevitably brings new hope, but Allardyce knows he could have had an easier start to the job he so obviously loves. Slovakia has been defeated once at home in almost three years and has lost two of its last 12 games overall.
Only once since September 2013 has Slovakia conceded more than one goal on its own turf.
The nightmare scenario of a Slovakia win will have the English media’s vitriol flowing, calling for Wayne Rooney and other Euro 2016 failures to be replaced, the fact that apart from Marcus Rashford none of the Under-21’s seems ready for the senior squad irrelevant.
When the countries met in France, Hodgson had made six changes which disrupted the side’s rhythm and Slovakia’s experienced defense did its job. In playmaker Marek Hamšík, Slovakia has one of Europe’s most gifted players and Allardyce will need to cut the supply to the Napoli forward.
There will be few changes in personnel to the team that flopped in Saint-Etienne when England lost 2-1 to Iceland, a sentence that still seems unreal. England’s problems have rarely been in qualifying — for Euro 2016 it won all 10 matches. It is when the Three Lions reach finals that they play like pussy cats, so Allardyce’s real work will not start until (hopefully) the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Allardyce’s appointment was greeted with mixed emotions, but he has handled himself superbly with the media and it is difficult to dislike the man, even if some still have reservations about Sam the manager. He takes over a team whose confidence must still be a little fragile after being lost in France; Chris Smalling has been on the Manchester United subs’ bench, while Harry Kane and Daniel Sturridge have yet to get going this season.
On the plus side, John Stones and Raheem Sterling are clearly benefiting from playing under Pep Guardiola, left-back Luke Shaw is ready to resume his international career after proving his fitness with Manchester United, and Joe Hart has swapped Manchester City for Torino so he will retain the England jersey as he is playing club football regularly.
Allardyce has a reputation, not entirely justified, for route one football, but he is far from a dinosaur and he was one of the first managers to embrace Prozone, nutrition and sports science. It would be wrong to underestimate him and the mood in the England camp has been positive as he starts the biggest challenge of his career.
Despite speculation bordering on fantasy and farce that Jordan Henderson would be the new captain which earned bookmakers a hefty bonus, Allardyce confirmed Rooney will retain the job. In his first game in charge the head coach was never going to lob a public relations hand grenade and stripping Rooney of the armband as some wanted would have guaranteed the story overshadowed the match, a distraction Allardyce did not need.
Rooney’s problem is that his place in Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United is still a matter of speculation, though if England’s leading goal scorer was not a regular starter it would make Allardyce’s decision easier to move the captaincy on without a national scandal.
The bad news is that there is no obvious or natural successor to Rooney, and as England puts more emphasis on the captaincy than other countries, then who wears the armbands is a very big deal. The role is perceived to be far more than simply leading the team out and calling “heads” or “tails.”
In reality a football captain has no on-field influence other than being the player he is with or without the armband. He cannot change tactics or the formation, he does not decide substitutions, but the English put the importance of the national football captain just below that of the Prime Minister. Some, probably, above it.
Allardyce would do well to consider the system used by Spain, Germany and Italy, to name just three, where the player with the most international caps is the captain, so the leader effectively selects himself. This way would take the sting out of the argument, but England being England (we invented the game, remember) Allardyce will probably stick with a dated tradition that is guaranteed to cause a headache one way or the other for the head coach.
With the English method the captain has to be an automatic choice, plus having leadership qualities. Liverpool’s Henderson is his club’s captain, but is far from an England regular and the reality is there is no player in Allardyce’s squad who ticks both boxes.
One goal and two assists in three league games are decent stats, but Rooney has not played particularly well for United, though it would be typical of the player to score the winner in Trnava. Whatever challenge is put in his way he usually rises to it.
Cause for confusion: When it comes to ensuring no one can misunderstand an original tweet, hats off to Mansfield Town for this clarification.
Mansfield Town FC’s Twitter account, @mansfieldtownfc send out this messag: “FREE BEER: One Call Girls will be in & around the stadium giving away a limited amount of FREE beer tokens tonight.”
An hour later, @mansfieldtownfc tweeted, “For clarity, as our fans are aware, the ‘One Call Girls’ is a byname given to the marketing promoters at One Call Insurance, our sponsors.”
Blunt assessment: Jamie Carragher is obviously not a huge fan of Mario Balotelli, who left Liverpool for Nice on a free transfer. The former Anfield legend said: “Balotelli on a free is still paying over the odds by Nice.”
Balotelli scored one goal in 20 Serie A appearances last season on loan to AC Milan after one goal in 16 Premier League matches in 2014-15 for Liverpool — not the sort of consistency clubs normally look for.
The Italy striker will earn £3.8 million a year in France.
He must have the mother of all agents.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.