"There's Activity Down On the Bench...."

There are certain incidents in a match where the co-commentator feels compelled to offer an opinion. One such moment is a substitution. At this point, we are treated to a full rationale of why this replacement is being made. Thankfully, as with many things, the co-commentator can call upon a comfortably wide range of stock reasons:

This type of substitution also appears under the guise of the straight swap or the ready-made replacement. Normally used to indicate that the player coming on is uncannily similar in style and position to the one he is replacing, usually because of an injury. A good example of the co-commentator's traditional compulsion to jump in and offer an incisive observation, a like-for-like substitution absolutely never goes unmentioned. Furthermore, the player coming on (although this is usually reserved for unspectacular positions in defence or midfield) will be said to "slot straight in" the same position. Although not necessary, if the players concerned look alike, then the cliche is sealed perfectly.

Example: Claude Makelele (Lassana Diarra, 45)

Fresh Legs
Most apparent when cup-ties go to extra time, the concept of fresh legs can be applied to pretty much any substitute, however pacy they may be. One distinction, perhaps, is that fresh legs are more commonly introduced in the midfield engine room.

A solid, reliable choice for a late substitution.

Example: Tomas Rosicky (Alexandr Hleb, 101)

To Offer A Different Option
Pre-match, a manager may be fortunate enough to be said to have "got options on the bench". In extreme cases, where the options are of very high quality, it may be necessary to provide a rundown of how many of them are "full internationals".

The offer of a different option (or simply "something different") essentially boils down to two things - pace (which is invariably "injected") and height (although the latter's rather rudimentary appearance may be disguised as "aerial ability"). A workhorse wide midfielder may be replaced by a youngster with "bags of pace", while a diminutive forward may be swapped for a beanpole of a target man. Either way, a different option has been offered.

Pacy substitutes may find their career hampered by the unhelpful label of "impact player", which means that they often can't be trusted from the start, but will definitely be called upon to come on and change the game at some point.

Example: Teemu Tainio (Aaron Lennon, 63) - pace
Example: Craig Bellamy (Peter Crouch, 67) - aerial ability

Shore Up the Defence/Midfield
This substitute's general responsibility is to provide extra defensive cover for his team, in order to either sit on a lead, or for the purposes of damage limitation. Often the task for utility players who may find themselves warming the bench on a regular basis.

Example: Ryan Giggs (John O'Shea, 81)

The Time Waster
With their team a goal to the good, managers may wish to use their final substitution in the dying minutes. Wise to the ploy, the player about to be substituted will have conveniently moved himself to the opposite side of the pitch, and will begin to trudge slowly towards the dugout. That is until the crowd's anger rises to the point where he breaks out into a light jog. Even allowing for the unwritten rule that 30 seconds will be added to the period of injury time, this method of timewasting is as effective for the side in the lead as it is frustrating for their opponents. The player entering the fray suffers the very minor indignity of being brought on for reasons completely separate from his footballing abilities.

Example: Andriy Shevchenko (Shaun Wright-Phillips, 90+2)

The Raft of Substitutions
Since the maximum allowable number of substitutes in a competitive game is not sufficent to qualify as a raft, even when done simultaneously, this is the sole reserve of the international friendly. A raft of substitutions is now generally recognised as the symbolic (if not actual) final whistle, and the sensible time to pack up your England flag and tuneless airhorn and vacate Old Trafford.

Example: Steven Gerrard (Joey Barton, 78), Wayne Rooney (Jermain Defoe, 78), Ashley Cole (Phil Neville, 78), Frank Lampard (Jermaine Jenas, 78).

Substitute is Substituted
An unusual occurrence that arises when either circumstances demand it (a keeper is sent off, and one of the used substitutes is seen as the sacrificial lamb) or when the player is so performing so badly that he is hauled off in unceremonious fashion by his manager. A collector's item for the football anorak, who will scan the end of match report to see the glorious indignity that the substituted substitute has received - the double brackets.

Example: Matthew Le Tissier (Ali Dia, 32 (Ken Monkou, 85))

The Standing Ovation
Similar to the Time Waster, in that is "too late to make an impact" for the player coming on, and he isn't expected to anway. For his role is to high-five the player leaving the field to a standing ovation. Standing ovations are given to forwards that have either had an exceptional game (a brace, or a couple of assists, etc.) or expensive signings that have not had a good game in the slightest but whose confidence the fans kindly don't want to beat to a pulp. The former is obliged to leave the pitch performing a difficult above-head-clap/360-degree twist combination.
Bringing a player off to a standing ovation also serves the secondary purpose of saving hat-tricks from being taken for granted. The number of hat-tricks that players have been "denied" thanks to a standing ovation is not recorded, but may run into the hundreds of thousands.

Example: Peter Crouch (Dirk Kuyt, 89)

The Final Throw of the Dice
The third substitution. A goal is required, and the last remaining player on the bench that is anything approaching a forward is brought on, and is heralded as the "final throw of the dice". This players instructions are usually reported post-match as having been "get out there and maybe nick a goal". They often do.

Example: Patrice Evra (Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, 84)


"Look Away Now..."

A rare and almost forgotten art is still practised in this country today. I’m not talking about maypole dancing or basket-weaving. I’m talking about the epic undertaking that is avoiding the scores. It may be that you are unable to follow your team’s progress on a Saturday afternoon, due to some sort of sudden and unforeseen incapacitating accident; or that your wife has dragged you off to the shops by pain of death…or that you just want to run a masochistic gauntlet by hiding from all forms of media and physical and verbal contact with any other human being - for seven long hours.

The practice was made famous by the classic 1973 episode of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads called ‘No Hiding Place’, in which Bob and Terry spend all day trying to avoid learning the score of the Bulgaria v England football match, in order to watch the televised highlights that evening. Despite exhaustive attempts to avoid the result - and a malevolent bloke from the pub intent on making it as difficult as possible for them - they manage it, only to find the game is abandoned due to flooding as they grapple with the possibilities of a snatched glance at a headline beginning with “England F…”. Cult viewing at its finest.

For all those that attempt this task, there is a set of simple rules that will determine whether you succeed and sit down in front of the Match of the Day credits with a smug, excited grin or if you end up swinging for your girlfriend as she chooses that exact day to give a shit about YOUR ‘hobby’ and gleefully tells you that your team has just conceded a fourth at home to Wigan.

This is as close as you’re likely to get to the magnitude of planning the perfect murder or a military assault on a small Central American country. You must work out the environment that you must survive in for the next 7+ hours between kick-off and the MotD credits. If you are leaving the house, then expect the unexpected and prepare for:

- Multi-screen displays of Soccer Saturday in the television departments of John Lewis

- Any groups of two or more males above the age of 4, or singles talking into their mobiles

- Women. Often considered harmless, but in the same breath can be your downfall (look for the tell-tale club scarf for most over-enthusiastic female supporters)

If you are staying in, avoid all television and radio channels with any kind of news update or sporting connection. Magic FM and The Fashion Channel are thus highly recommended. With all forms of media blanketed there really is only one possible enemy left: everyone you know.

There are two ways of handling your friends, family and girlfriend/wife in this situation: warn them and then ignore them. If you choose to text them all, or start every conversation with a speedily-delivered mantra “I’m avoiding the scores, so don’t tell me anything”, then be prepared for the mischievous (or perhaps even plain stupid) mate to haunt you throughout your difficult hours.

The most dedicated Score Avoiders will turn their phone off. A phone call or especially a text message during the 90 minutes will cause you to speculate wildly about its meaning, but at the end of the day you know that text is not going to say “I’m so pleased for you that your centre-back has just scored from 30 yards to make it 3-0 for your lot”. Texts = bad news. To make absolutely sure, it is also worthwhile making absolutely no eye-contact with anyone, however harmless you think they might be. Many a time has my girlfriend revealed the exact details of a thumping defeat with a momentary look of concern, after she overheard some bloke on the bus laughing heartily at your team’s misfortune.

ITV and Sky generally don’t get it. The BBC became the first true ally in the war against knowing the scores when the sports newsreader first began to utter the famous words “…and for those who don’t want to know the scores, look away now”. Unfortunately, even this unique empathy with the die-hard Score Avoider has been tarnished recently by the need to actually read out the scores – probably to benefit the moaning blind people who can’t watch Match of the Day. Bastards. However the addition of “...and put your hands over your ears” in the newsreaders’ warnings has led to visions of grown men across the country sat on their sofas with their fingers in their ears, eyes clamped shut, singing “LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA” for far longer than necessary. If you’ve made it this far – well done. But you’re not out of the woods yet.

For some unknown reason, certain football highlights programmes have little faith in the abilities of the Score Avoider, or perhaps simply don’t care. Creeping into these shows, particularly on those that are contractually bound to show advert breaks, are often flashed highlights of the day's play – often including, criminally, the goals. Someone has to tell them that the use of an obscure camera angle does not hide the fact that the fans behind the goal are going ballistic. A truly sad attempt to maintain viewer interest by suggesting “Yes! There was at least one goal today! What an exciting programme it will be!”. Then there are the studio presenters and pundits who are desperately trying to hide their emotions and remain as poker-faced as possible, while your eyes flicker across Hansen’s face in the vain hope he’ll reveal something about West Ham's leaky defence.

You find yourself at the unpredictable mercy of the commentator and the programme’s editor. Recently, the commentator on Ford Football Special decided to reveal at the start of highlights of the recent crucial Watford v Wigan relegation battle that “Watford don’t have a keeper on the bench tonight”. Good thing that Ben Foster didn’t get injured then….oh.

Then, there is the dreaded Yellow Card Highlight. Any prolonged footage, complete with graphic confirmation of a player getting booked in a highlighted game - can mean only one thing. It is similar to the beginning of an episode of Casualty. That talismanic defender, crucial to your side’s survival in the top-flight, might as well be climbing his roof to fix his aerial during an electrical storm. He’s in it. And he’s going to get sent off. Don't be fooled by the commentator saying "he's got to be careful now" and is "walking the disciplinary tightrope", because he is absolutely guaranteed to fall off the disciplinary tightrope.

There is, of course, one final spanner in the works that is never likely to be a flooded-out England game. It’s simply your own team. On MotD last. Drawing 0-0. Nothing on this earth can prepare you for this disappointment. The thing is – you know that you caused it.

Ollie (for once...)

"And that concludes the draw..."

The draw for the FA Cup quarter-finals is nigh, and I have 45 minutes in which to attempt a nostalgic (but not blindly nostalgic) review of this pleasant tradition. I hope I finish it in time, as the following list of FA Cup draw cliches is one I'd like you, dear reader, to tick off as the draw progresses:

The Pre-Draw Headlines
Being such a momentous occasion, any draw for the major competitions requires a pointless generic build-up article, which are nowadays usually the domain of Ceefax/Teletext and the internet. Invariably given the headline "Clubs Set For FA Cup Draw", the article will then reveal exclusively how the remaining entrants are "awaiting " (often "eagerly", where any lower-league club is concerned), and is rounded of with a list of the "all-important" ball numbers.

The Presenter
A modest 15-minute slot is dedicated to the formalities of the draw, now presented to the nation in marvellously wooden fashion by Sir Trevor Brooking. Brooking's predecessors have included the adequate but forgettable David Davies and the helium-powered Graham Kelly. A more challenging role than it perhaps looks, the frontman of the proceedings must juggle the following tasks:
  • Introduce the star guests who will perform the draw
  • Provide snappy and suitably uninteresting information on each team as they are drawn, usually pertaining to the way they progressed from the previous round. ("Number 4 is Plymouth Argyle....2-0 winners over Derby in Round Five.")
  • Ensure that all the balls have been emptied from the bag by one of the guests. This is traditionally the first source of cringe-inducingly awkward "comedy" during the draw coverage.
  • Engage slightly in mid-draw banter, whilst keeping in mind the need to keep the draw flowing.
The Guests
The logic behind the choice of guests can be a lottery in itself. Sometimes they can be topical invitations (players/managers recently involved in the competition) and sometimes they can be bafflingly inappropriate, like the two overfunded, underachieving "athletes" that performed the 5th round draw. Today's proceedings will feature England management team Steve McClaren and Terry Venables, more of whom to come.
Whoever performs the draw, it is customary to be very careful and precise (showing a level of care and concentration usually only seen when drinking tea from a cup and saucer at your grandma's) and to stand (when not ball-plucking) as all footballer folk do on occasions such as this - hands clasped behind straight back, legs shoulder width apart.

One of the Guests Selects His Old Team
With Middlesbrough and Tottenham in today's draw, the likelihood of this occurring is incredibly high. Another rich source of teeth-grindingly painful "humour" mid-draw, one of the guests is obliged to call upon a wide range of witty responses to choosing his own team. The most popular one, understandably is to smirk and either a) "apologise" for randomly, and not at all deliberately, drawing them to play Chelsea away, or b) produce a shrug that politely says "got them an easy one there!".

In fact, McClaren is likely to be incredibly unbearable in general throughout today's draw. Smug smirks are guaranteed upon the drawing of Middlesbrough and Manchester United's balls, while Venables will get in on the act with Tottenham and, to a lesser extent, Chelsea. Exactly why such a brief, tenuous link with one of your former clubs is such an impressive act of comedy is not clear.

With the draw imminent, I shall leave it there. For something that is supposed to be entirely unpredictable and random, the FA Cup draw has become very easy to forecast...


The Science Of, If Anything, Hitting The Ball Almost TOO Well.

Football has always seemed to have a problem with upper limits.

Many have noted footballers' reluctance to be restricted by the draconian percentage system, choosing to declare their desire for 110%. Logic renders this impossible, of course, but its sentiment is understandable and ingrained in the fabric of the football cliche tapestry. Players, managers and supporters all agree that, at the very least, they want to see the full quotient of effort, grit and determination.

A less well-established paradox exists, however. Borne out of the advent of the slow-motion replay, it represents possibly the most nonsensical statement a co-commentator can make (for it is he, rather than the commentator, who is most often guilty of its use). It appears frequently, and as follows:

"If anything, he almost hit that too well."

First, let's take a moment to reflect on what this means, or is intended to mean. Years of experience tells us that shots that are if anything, almost hit too well are heavily characterised. They must be struck powerfully and must miss the goalframe (either to the side or above) by only a matter of inches (millimetres are also acceptable, if a little overzealous in their precision. Curiously, however, centimetres are very rarely called upon as units of expressing the proximity of a shot to the goal. There is, as yet, no clear rationale for this.)

So, a powerful shot that narrowly misses the target is classified as if anything, almost hit too well.

The significance of the "if anything" portion is questionable. It could be regarded as a good indication of the assumed obligation for a co-commentator to provide a verbal backdrop to all slow-motion replays. Quite literally, the co-commentator seems to be telling us: "Look, I've got to say something here. about this?". Admitting that there is nothing of note to be said would be tantamount to resignation for the co-commentator, and is a dangerous taboo equal to dead air on the radio. So, there must therefore be something - anything. If this isn't enough, a second qualifier appears in the form of "almost". Similar to the phrases highlighted in The Angle's previous feature, this is a classic non-committal by the co-commentator. Furthermore, it could be argued that it demonstrates that even the most vacant-minded co-commentator suddenly realises the absurdity of "if anything, he almost hit that too well", and attempts to distance himself from his opinion, before he's even revealed it.

So far, so wishy-washy. The co-commentator has already warned us, early doors, that the imminent observation isn't going to be particularly valuable. But now he's telling us that, in addition, he's not really confident that it's entirely true. This does not bode well.

And so, on to the crux of the matter. How exactly can a shot be if anything, hit almost too well? Surely, the more "well" a shot is struck, the greater the likelihood of it resulting in a goal? To begin to deconstruct this nonsense and find some logic deep within, we must start from the very bottom - a shot not hit at all well. Assuming that complete airshots don't count (they aren't, despite their name, actual shots after all), the least "well" a shot can be hit, The Angle... would argue, is to scuff it. The full range of how "well" a shot can be hit can be graphically represented thus:

Fig 1.0

So, the most "well" a shot can be struck is, in our estimation, for it to be hammered. Any more than this, and a distinct ceiling is reached:


It can be concluded that the statement strongly relates to the excessive power of the shot in question, to the detriment of precision and placement. Occasionally, the viewer/listener is treated to the clarification that the player "went for power over placement", although this is usually the case only with penalty kicks. A shot that is hit almost too well will always have an impressively pure trajectory as it whistles past the post or is blazed over the bar, but ultimately suffers from its excessive wellness.

So that is how, and indeed why, a shot is said to, if anything, be hit almost too well. Interestingly, it would appear to be one aspect of the game of which a manager should be careful not to demand 110% from his players - otherwise Row Z would be kept rather busy.


For a classic example of a shot being hit almost too well, look no further than this speculative effort from 1994...


A Postmodernist Deconstruction of the Post-Match Interview

Along with television commentary, the post-match interview is the clearest possible opportunity to observe how football clichés have permeated the consciousness of all those involved in the game. Seemingly unwittingly, players (and, to a lesser extent perhaps, managers) conduct these interviews by calling upon a vast reserve of stock phrases and words for answers. The overwhelming presence of these well-established verbal safety-nets does make the seasoned football cliché enthusiast wonder if the interviewee really has anything of note to say at all.

Regardless, the demands of Sky Sports mean that their on-air time must be filled, and so these inane Q&As continue. While the average footballer is hardly an intellectual, you get the impression that the players at the less knowledgeable end of the spectrum use clichés in order to survive an interview, rather than give one. With media training now a common part of an Academy player's development, it wouldn't be outrageous to assume that they are taught these phrases, much like a secondary schoolchild would be taught the appropriate vocabulary they would need on a very unlikely trip to a restaurant in Germany (Ich mochte ein bratwurst, bitte.)

Postmodernist thought often refers to the concept of cultural recycling. Apparent, for example, in film genres such as film noir, it relates to the reappropriation, or even mere imitation, of verbal and visual cues to the extent that a genre is thus established. Pastiche films almost mindlessly draw from previous productions, while parodies do the same, although with a notable level of self-awareness and irony. If footballers continuously looked at the camera after each cliche, and gave the nation a knowing wink, they'd easily qualify for the latter. However, it is currently beyond the comprehension of most of today's players to display such self-reflexivity - they are too preoccupied with somehow plucking out a phrase to answer Geoff Shreeves' latest conundrum to realise that they are referencing and regurgitating football history. The odd "I know it's a cliche, but..." does represent some hope, though.

It should be no surprise that any player that does manage to momentarily eschew the Footballer's Code will be regarded with near wonderment and awe. These "articulate" players will inevitably be either a) tipped for a future job in management or b) earmarked for a future role in the media. For example, "studious" professionals like Gareth Southgate can be assured of a position on the touchline at the end of their playing days, while any player that can string a sentence together by themselves is very likely to feature on MOTD2 by the end of the season. Matt Taylor's appearance on Sunday's edition, aided by his penchant for speculative long-range efforts, would seem to lend support to this theory.

However, such heresy as to try and go without football clichés is a direct threat to The Angle..., and all that it seeks to lampoon. Therefore, in customary style, we present the following utterances, which you may well have heard from a footballer at some point:

A fair and loyal bunch, strikers "don't care who gets the goals, as long as we get the three points", but can't resist adding that "it's always nice to score". The Angle... is yet to witness a striker (a player who is supposed to be "selfish") announce that he absolutely does care that it was he who got the brace in a 2-0 win, or perhaps that it's "only sometimes nice to score". The most self-indulgent a player lets himself become is when, at the behest of the brown-nosing interviewer, he contemplates whether his 35-yard volley was "one of the best goals" he's ever scored.
Long-serving full-backs, understandably ill-versed in the art of getting on the scoresheet, resort to hilarious bouts of self-deprecation when confronted over their goalscoring exploits. Allusions to "nosebleeds" are commonplace for those players who "don't get too many".

Victorious Players
Magnanimity turns into blatant patronisation for the victorious footballer. "Credit" is always offered to inferior opposition (on paper, at least) for "making it hard for us".

Goalscoring substitutes
Often fairly humble about their effective late introduction to the game, a goalscoring substitute will invariably be asked what his instructions were upon coming on. The classic reply would be:

"The manager just asked me to get out there, put myself about a bit, make a nuisance of myself and maybe nick a goal. And that's what I did."

Foreign players
Whilst it would be highly ignorant to draw attention to any foreign player's lack of command of the English language, it does appear that the first words any overseas signing is taught upon arrival are "happy", "important" and "very". Amazingly, this heavily-restricted vocabulary still suffices when answering Geoff Shreeves' less taxing enquiries.

Player Returning From Injury
Delighted to be back in action after a long injury lay-off, the more melodramatic players will recount how "there were times when I thought about packing it all in."

After a Dramatic Comeback
When inevitably asked if they had thought, at 2-0 down, that the game was over, a defiant captain/goalscorer (usually) lies and claims "No, we never stopped believing. We knew that if we got the first goal...."

Faced with accusations of malice after a tackle that leaves an opponent injured, the guilty party (or, more often, a team-mate) will attempt to construct a desperate defence of their character. Even the dirtiest player will still be heard proclaiming that "I'm/he's not the sort of player who'd deliberately go out to try and injure a fellow professional."

Impressive (But Previously Under-Fire) Team-mate
Praise of a match-winning team-mate is bread and butter for the interviewee:

"He's a quality player and he showed that today."

If said player has been on the end of media criticism, reference to his performances "in training" may be necessary to lend further support.

Manager interviews perhaps offer a greater sense of self-awareness regarding the use of cliches. While their young players come across as rabbits in the media spotlight, the older, wiser managers are well-versed in the art of the post-match interview. Media-savvy bosses (or, at least, those who very obviously like to think so) use cliches so readily and so smugly that it is impossible to countenance that they aren't fully aware of what they are saying. The Alan Pardews, Alan Curbishleys and Stuart Pearces of this world use the post-match interview, usually the first opportunity to communicate with the fans, in a manner normally associated with a slimy MP, all spin and shameless grovelling. Pearce, for example, regularly abuses the phrase "football club", which should really only be used sparingly at the end of statements at add some profundity.

Post-match interviews can separate the magnanimous winners ("[The opponents' manager] is a good manager, and his team was well organised today") from the bitter losers ("The best team lost today, for me...") and the gracious, if a bit cowardly, losers ("Looking through their teamsheet, you can't compete with the quality they've got"). The referee is more or less protected from criticism nowadays as the managers bite their lip and "don't want to say too much, because I'll get into trouble [with the FA]", but the odd one can't resist and doesn't "care if I get into trouble".

The smuggest post-match interviews, where a smiling manager will gleefully spout the cliched answers expected of him, come when he reaches some sort of landmark, be it a certain number of games or years in the profession. Asked if he is "still enjoying it", the veteran boss can be relied upon to make a flippant remark about his wife or his blood pressure.

With manager's positions more precarious than ever in the modern game, many of them rely on the post-match interview as a desperate method of staying in employment. Ready-made, vacuum-packed cliches are called upon when the going gets tough. The nearer the manager gets to the axe, the more desperate he becomes. The Managerial Axe Desperation (MAD) Spectrum is exemplified as follows:

The process begins quite accidentally, when a bored tabloid "journalist" glances at the recent Premiership results, and sees that one team have not won in eleven games.

"Speculation [about my future] comes with the territory."
"Football is a results business."
"Ultimately, I will be judged on results."
"Both myself and the board want what's best for this football club."
"I've never walked away from anything in my life, and I'm not going to start now."
"The fans were magnificent today. They deserve better."
"The fans pay their money and they have every right to make their feelings known."
"All I'm interested in is preparing for the next game on Tuesday."

The manager leaves the club "by mutual consent".

Of course, sacking a manager without adequate forethought can always backfire. When a suitable replacement cannot be readily found, a struggling club search for answer within, an a caretaker manager is appointed. A sacrificial lamb to the hungry dogs of the media, the Comedy Caretaker emerges about once a season. A few brave post-defeat interviews later, and the Comedy Caretaker (conspicuous by his distinctive markings - his initials on the tracksuit) is also out the door. The Premiership has seen (to name but a few) Steve Wigley (Southampton), Chris Hutchings (Bradford), Frank Burrows (the flat-cap wearing no-mark at West Brom a few years ago) and Kevin Ball (who, at Sunderland, could at least plumb no further depths than Mick McCarthy), while England were forced to endure Howard Wilkinson for a short period.

The post-match interview, be it with a player or a manager, serves to perfectly encapsulate the painting-by-numbers nature of football coverage. Pre- and post-match, football (if we are honest) just isn't as interesting as Sky's hour-long build-up would have us believe. Therefore, television's bloated balloon of hype must be supported by the scaffolding of the football cliche.
But the signs are, however small, that players and managers are becoming more and more aware of themselves going through the motions. The Angle... awaits the post-match interview's continued progression into postmodernity.


For an example of when the football cliche handbook goes at least partially out of the window, however, look no further than Newport County manager Peter Beadle, after his side's controversial FA Cup 1st Round tie. What a twat.


"So, what have we learnt?...."

At some point this week, a football supporter will wonder out loud, to his friends: "are we playing this weekend?" The answer he receives is enough to chill the blood of any normal human being:


I know some people get rather excited about England games - people looking to get a bit of trumpet practice in before their Grade 1 exam, perhaps - but there are also people who get rather excited about the music of Cliff Richard, so let's not allow the feelings of the insane get in the way. Some followers of lower-league clubs relish the opportunity to support the likes of Lampard and Rooney guilt-free, but even they will be hoping their Northern Irish Under-21 centre-half returns from Turkmenistan unscathed. Further up the league pyramid, however, fans of Manchester United and Chelsea are already eagerly eyeing up the next round of Premiership fixtures.

The people that would seem to care most about these games are the media - and they care a lot. Temporarily freed from their roles as transfer rumour-mongers, it is time for the press pack to actually do something and change the world. Or, more likely, to give the England manager a hard time, boss him about a bit and, ultimately, try to get him sacked. In the face of such tedious sniping, it has nowdays become increasingly difficult to distinguish between supporters' genuine discontent with the England team and mere boredom with international friendlies in general.

They won't go away, though, so here is The Angle's Rough Guide to the International Friendly:

The Build-Up

The squad is announced. Six players immediately withdraw, some having conveniently limped off in the 87th minute at Old Trafford earlier that day*. McClaren describes this as "a blow", but vows "to experiment" nonetheless. Phil Neville is "drafted into the squad as cover".

England captain John Terry is first to face the press conference, understandably going through the motions. Declaring that the "spirit in the camp" is good, Terry explains how much of an honour it is for these "quality players" to "pull on the England shirt". Steven Gerrard, the media's darling, is next. Of course he can play with Lampard, he says, unconvincingly. He likes playing central-midfield, but will give 100% on the right side, "if selected". In fact, he will play anywhere he is asked to - even in goal. The press find this hilarious and lap it up.

The customary new face in the England squad (someone "young and exciting", who probably got a montage on Match of the Day the previous week) is asked about the moment he got the call to report for international duty for the first time. This is the traditional initiation ritual for a potential international debutant. He passes with flying colours - by reciting the age-old tale of how he "thought it was a wind-up at first". Again, a small ripple of laughter ensues amongst the gathered hacks.


The BBC, reflecting the passion of the nation before this fascinating encounter, begin their coverage ten minutes before kick-off. We are immediately presented with:

- Alan Hansen looking bored
- Alan Shearer rabble-rousing half-heartedly and using his vast experience as a top pro to produce insights like "we all want to see a decent performance". Shearer, much like ITV's Andy Townsend, has developed a tendency to continuously point towards the pitch behind him, adopting a patented thumb-over-the-shoulder technique.
-Ian Wright, to his credit, delighting thr BBC execs by describing the match as "muggy" and "two-bob".

Hansen is briefly roused from his stupor of indifference by a montage of Michael Carrick's "qualities". The "anchor role in midfield" has seemingly joined the perennial left-sided problem, climate change and the war on terror as worrying (if now rather passé) issues.

1st Half

John Motson, apart from the foam-finger-waving schoolchildren admitted at a discount, is the only spectator in the country who is genuinely excited by the prospect of the next ninety minutes. Lawrenson successfuly tempers this with near Hansen-esque apathy.

Twenty minutes pass. Come on, admit it. Sometimes you just think it would be better if the opposition scored. San Marino after 9 seconds, Macedonia from a corner - these are the guilty pleasures of international football. Even with such illustrious opponents as Spain turning up next weekend, we will be able to revel in the mediocrity of it all.

The remedial trumpet players don't lose gusto. Hell is the Official England Supporters Band performing their hit parade of "England 'Til I Die", "The Great Escape" and, most nauseating of all, "Come on England", the musical equivalent of being forced to watch Frank Lampard line up the same free-kick over and over again. Fortunately, the unofficial England band - the adolescent airhorn-blowers - lose enthusiasm and tail off eventually.

Attention switches to the visitors. Despite every Premiership game being filmed from every angle and beamed around the world, commentators will deem it necessary to identify a cunning foreign spy in the opposition ranks, who "plies his trade in English football" and can give his manager the "lowdown" of the world-famous England team.

Half-time. 0-0.

We return to the studio and Gary Lineker, who looks suitably and justifiably embarrassed to be associated with this rubbish. The pundits have that look on their faces that suggests they'd rather be at home watching The Bill. Ian Wright will blame Sven. It's football's equivalent of anti-Blair rhetoric - lazy, but a safe bet. The second Michael Carrick montage will be played, and will probably be used again as the pre-match Michael Carrick montage for the next friendly. Lineker sends us to Cardiff for highlights of the Wales game. John Toshack's Giggs-less side are 3-0 down, in a half-empty Millennium Stadium, to an East European nation that didn't even exist 4 months ago.

Desperate to find something to talk about from the first half, the pundits analyse a half-chance for England on the stroke of half-time. It will be referred to as England's one "bright spot in the first half".

2nd half.

The raft of subsitutions begin. This is apparently evidence of the manager's "experiment", which appears to be to field a side least likely to ever play with each other again. Despite their suppressive effect on the game as a spectacle, supporters don't really mind seeing their club's prize assets leaving the field to be replaced by bright-eyed Portsmouth and Reading one-cap wonders. Debutants are forced to play in a position they may have played once or twice before in their careers, as they are shoehorned into the chaotic second-half line-up. Of course, it will be a complete mystery why their England careers failed to take off.

The main effect of these subsititutions, as the co-commentator is allowed to mention in his tirade, is that they cause the game to "peter out" to become more like a "training game". England appoint their ninth new captain in the space of 78 minutes, as England's eternal second-half substitute Jamie Carragher takes the armband. He will not necessarily be required to point and shout in a captainly manner.

Full time. 1-0 (scrappy England goal, 84 mins)

Back to the studio once more, and the tired analysis begins again. One of the debutants' performances is examined. A montage of basic heading, tackling, passing and shooting skills leads his display to be hailed as "assured". At some point, reference will be made to "stepping up to International level". Generally accepted to be a "big ask", it requires established Premiership players who share a pitch with the likes of Ronaldo, Drogba and Henry each week to adapt to sharing a pitch with the likes of Marcus Schopp, Marc Bernaus and Szabolcs Huszti. No, neither do I.

Then, the moment we've all been dreading (if you haven't turned off your TV at the final whistle, anyway) - Garth Crooks interviewing Steve McClaren. McClaren tells us that he has "taken a lot of positives" from the match, while not actually going into too much detail about what those "positives" are. The general consensus is that the performance was more important than the result (unless we win, obviously).

Back to the studio: "So, what have we learnt?".

Absolutely nothing, Gary.


Since Wales captain Ryan Giggs made his debut in June 1991, his country have played 112 full internationals. Giggs, arguably their greatest ever player, has taken part in 60 of those. That's a pathetic 54%.