The Stuttering Academy of Football

International break doldrums, Hammer-free England squads and an Academy firing blanks.

Academy of FootballAnother international break to endure this weekend as national teams around the world compete for a place in the World Cup finals in Russia in the summer of 2018 even though the format of qualification is designed to ensure that the same teams (plus a few wild cards) qualify every time.  Even if something goes wrong it would be no surprise to hear of Russian hackers interfering with results to ensure the correct outcome.

The script for England will be the same; runaway winners of a very weak group, heightened media expectation and ultimate quarter final elimination amid scenes of running street battles in the ‘prospekts’ of St Petersberg.

Personal interest in the national team tends to be proportional to the number of West Ham players in the team and thus the reading is currently close to tepid.  At present Antonio, Carroll and Cresswell are at the periphery of selection but the odds are not be high on any of these being in the squad and/ or still at West Ham come the 2018 Finals.  It seems to be all Tottenham and Southampton players at the moment.

We like to imagine a happier time where there was a production line from the famous Academy of Football into the national team.  Even if that were occasionally true the machinery requires urgent repair as the Academy goes through one of its cyclical periods of defective goods.

Since the beginning of the 2006/07 season the following academy graduates have made a first team appearance (excluding Europa League) for the Hammers:

Jack Collison, Freddie Sears, James Tomkins, Zavon Hines, Junior Stanislas, Josh Payne, Anthony Edgar, Jordan Spence, Callum McNaughton, Dan Potts, Robert Hall. Matthias Fanimo, Dylan Tombides, Elliot Lee, Leo Chambers, Pelly Rudock, Sebastian Lletget, George Moncur, Callum Driver, Blair Turgott, Reece Burke, Reece Oxford

Only James Tomkins from that list went on to become an established Hammer, although Jack Collison’s career was unfortunately cut short by injury and the tragic Dylan Tombides was never allowed to fulfil his potential.  Of the others, Junior Stanislas built a useful career at Bournemouth but the remainder had to settle for playing in and around the lower leagues.  None of them were ‘ones that got away’.  Who can forget that 5 of the last 6 academy graduates made their debut in the disastrous FA Cup defeat at Nottingham Forest?

One of the criticisms levelled at Slaven Bilic (and Fat Sam before him) is the reluctance to blood youth players.  The evidence suggests that, despite any other shortcomings, this particular point might be unfair criticism.

There was a feeling of optimism back in August, not only that we would enjoy a good campaign on the back of a seventh place finish but that there were, at last, a crop of new youngsters coming through the system.  A number of these are now (or have been) out on loan to various lower league teams but how have they fared:

Reece Burke (Wigan), Reece Oxford (Reading), Marcus Browne (Wigan), Martin Samuelsen (Peterboro), George Dobson (Walsall), Stephen Hendrie (Blackburn), Tony Martinez (Oxford), Alex Pike (Cheltenham), Josh Pask (Gillingham), Doniel Henry (FC Horsens), Kyle Knoyle (Wigan), Jaanai Gordon (Newport)

Looking at their records, only Josh Cullen has been a regular starter (in what is his second season at League One Bradford City) although Reece Burke had been earning good reviews at Wigan before picking up an injury that saw him return to West Ham for treatment.  Josh Pask and Doneil Henry also suffered injuries while on loan.

Highly rated Reece Oxford has yet to make a start at Reading and despite a strong goal-scoring introduction Tony Martinez is no longer a certain starter at Oxford United.  The rest have been peripheral figures at their adopted clubs which reflects either on their own abilities or the wisdom of the loan system.

A highly rated player who has not been packed off on loan is Domingos Quina and he has occasionally found himself on the first team bench without ever being called upon to get warmed up.  Maybe we will get a look at him before the season is out.

Putting on my Utopian claret and blue spectacles I have high hopes that Quina and both the Reeces can make the step up to the first team at some stage; I also liked the look of Marcus Browne on his brief Europa League appearance.  Apart from those though I am unconvinced although will admit that the instinct is coloured by the impact players are having on loan rather than from the position of watching them play regularly.  When the likes of Ferdinand, Lampard, Carrick and Defoe went out on loan as young players they all made their mark.

Everyone loves an academy graduate and we are long overdue the pleasure of seeing home-grown talent rise up to the challenge of first team football.  The Academy needs to reclaim its reputation.

England Expects

Can Aaaron Cresswell become the 40th Hammer to earn an England cap?

1962 World Cup Squad

If Aaron Cresswell earns his first international cap tonight he will become the 40th player to play for England as a West Ham player.  The odds have improved for a Cresswell cap with an injury to Ryan Bertrand adding to Southgate’s intention to rest Danny Rose so that he is fresh to face us on Saturday.

It would be a tremendous achievement by Cresswell to represent his country and it always provides added incentive for following an England game when there is a Hammer in the team.  Otherwise England matches have simply become a chore and an unwelcome interruption to the club season.

My first recollection of an England game was an international against Mexico in 1961.  The game played on a Wednesday afternoon was being shown live on TV and can remember excitedly hurrying home from junior school to watch the closing stages as England romped to an 8-0 victory.  I wouldn’t bother to cross the road and watch the game in Radio Rentals window nowadays.  There were no West Ham players in the England team at that time but starting with the 1962 World Cup finals Bobby Moore became a fixture in an England shirt for the next decade.  A fascinating newsreel report of the Mexico game below:

 

Of the 39 players winning England caps while at West Ham only 12 pre-dated  Bobby Moore and, of these, Len Goulden was the only player to win more than 10 caps.  Goulden had become established in the England team in the late 1930’s with  14 caps only for his career to be interrupted by the Second World War. Goulden featured in the infamous May 1938 friendly against Germany in Berlin in front of a watching Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess and Joseph Goebbels (Hitler was due to attend but Ticketmaster messed up his booking!)    Despite Germany invading Austria in order to strengthen their squad and sending their players off for an unprecedented two week training camp (as the England players marked the end of the season with a pint of mild and 10 Woodbines) the game ended in a 6-3 victory for England.  Before the match the English players had been encouraged by the British Ambassador to give a Nazi salute during the German national anthem as a mark of respect.  Goulden broke the net when scoring the last of the six English goals and is alleged to have remarked “Let ’em salute that one!”  After the war Goulden moved to Chelsea and received no further international calls.

Moore (108), Hurst (49), Brooking (47) and Peters (33) are the only players to have earned more than 20 caps while at West Ham while a further 9 players have won 10 or more caps: Martin (17), James (17), Goulden (14), Upson (14), Sinclair (11), Green (11), Byrne (10), Ferdinand (10), J Cole (10).  There have been 12 one-cap wonders and then there are the criminally overlooked Billy Bonds and Julian Dicks.

If Cresswell gets the deserved nod tonight in what is likely to be a fairly tame encounter I hope he gives a good account of himself and remains injury free.

It is looking increasingly like Gareth Southgate will be the uninspired  choice as England manager heralding a golden era of mediocrity.  It is a Roederesque appointment whereby those in charge appear to have no clue and so appoint the guy holding the parcel.  At least England can’t get relegated.

England 3 Scotland 0

Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

Likely LadsIn the mid-1960’s there was a comedy programme on TV about two young football-mad Geordies. It was called the Likely Lads and was one of my favourites at the time. It starred a young James Bolan and Rodney Bewes. It was written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who wrote other successful comedy series such as Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

It was set in Newcastle and the two working class friends, Bob and Terry, had different outlooks on life. Bob (Rodney Bewes) aspired to be one of the middle classes, whilst Terry constantly accused him of being a traitor to his class. This “class warfare” was the basis of much of the humour in the sitcom, and was a common theme in comedy programmes of the 1960’s and 1970’s. There was a very famous sketch in the Frost Programme in 1966 which featured John Cleese, Ronnie Barker, and Ronnie Corbett, representing the upper class, middle class, and working class respectively. The beauty of the routine was enhanced by the heights of the actors who were very tall, medium height, and short. For me it was one of the all-time brilliant comedy sketches.

A few years after the Likely Lads finished it was reprised in 1973 with two further series entitled Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads. My favourite episode was first aired on 20 February 1973. I remember the date very well for reasons I won’t expand fully upon, but West Ham had just beaten WBA 2-1 on the previous Saturday afternoon, with a 98th minute goal scored by Pop Robson, which was just desserts as West Brom had produced one of the most negative, time-wasting performances I have ever seen from a team. A scrapbook I kept at the time included a Sunday Telegraph report of the game where David Miller wrote “this wretched display by West Bromwich – hacking, arguing, and niggling throughout – will leave few of those present shedding tears at their imminent disappearance into the Second Division.” Another cutting in my scrapbook, this time by Sam Bartram in the Sunday People, includes the words, “Referee Kerkhof’s rumbling of the Albion time-wasting tactics was one of the few things that he did right all afternoon.”

The following Saturday, along with my fellow writer, Geoff Hopkins, we visited the Victoria Ground in Stoke, where we lost 2-0. My main recollection of that day was the long trip home, finally arriving at 4am before getting up to play Sunday morning football the following day.

Sorry, I digress. My favourite “Likely Lads” episode was called No Hiding Place. It consisted of Bob and Terry’s attempts at avoiding the score of an England international game being played in Bulgaria one afternoon, as they wanted to watch the highlights of the game at 10.20 that evening without knowing the score. In those days of course, there were fewer resources for finding out the outcome of games, but they still had to avoid TV news, radio reports, and evening newspaper coverage. The situation was exacerbated as they had a £5 bet each with another character in the programme that they could avoid finding out what happened before settling down to watch the game at night. This other person, Flint, played by Brian Glover, was intent on tracking them down; the comedy unfolded as they went to extraordinary lengths to avoid knowing what happened. The irony in the end was that the game had been postponed due to a waterlogged pitch.

I was reminded of the episode when trawling through the TV channels a couple of weeks ago and came upon it on one of those stations that constantly broadcasts old comedies. It brought back memories and I set myself a challenge to mirror the programme by avoiding the England v Scotland live game on Friday evening, and watching the highlights without knowing the final outcome.

I went to the cinema when the game was on, but I had to make sure I didn’t turn my phone on for the whole evening, and also drove with the radio turned off. I also had to be certain  that when I got home I avoided the news on TV which followed the game, as they always like to tell you what happened (look away now if you don’t want to know – and then they give you about half a second to find the remote control!).

In my younger days I loved to watch international football. Perhaps it was because there were usually West Ham players involved? These days I am not too bothered, except perhaps for tournaments, but I have many memories of the England v Scotland encounters of the past, and I was keener to see this than usual. However, I was not that keen that I wanted to watch the whole game!

As it happened I succeeded in my personal challenge and settled down to watch the match without knowing the outcome. ITV condensed the highlights into about 20 minutes of football, and then a much longer discussion about the game. In what I saw England looked good going forward; they scored three headed goals with clinical finishes, but looked woeful defensively. Against better sides they might have conceded a few goals. Scotland, too, looked quite good going forward, but their finishing left a lot to be desired to say the least!

On the whole it was a good evening. An enjoyable film followed by brief highlights of the game which had the right result. I was glad I didn’t stay at home to watch the whole match. I did wonder to myself how hard it would have been these days, to avoid knowing the outcome of a game for around ten hours, as in the Likely Lads.

And whatever did happen to the Likely Lads? James Bolan has been a successful TV actor throughout his life, most recently in several series of New Tricks. Those readers with young children or grandchildren will know him as Grandpa, in Grandpa in My Pocket. Rodney Bewes has appeared on TV, the stage, and films, but not much recently that I can recall. Reputedly, the two actors have not spoken to each other since falling out in the 1970s.

The Window to Watch

Dear Santa, please bring me a set of transfers for Christmas.

Transfer WindowIt’s another international break and rather than going on holiday, twiddling their thumbs or feigning interest in England’s world cup progress most online media has turned its attention to the surefire fail-safe topic of the upcoming January transfer window; remeber there are only 81 shopping days to go and I, for one, am getting excited for the launch of the John Lewis Transfer Window video.

A few days ago we published our review of the season to date and without doubt the outcome of those next 8 Premier League games will set the tone for any transfer activity that takes place during January. We are supposedly a club with growing ambition but if we continue to flounder in the lower reaches of the league at the end of December then player recruitment will, by necessity, be focused on survival rather than growth.

Having had a (generally accepted) disastrous pre-season window it would be doubly disappointing to be forced to bring in players whose main attribute is either their experience or an ability to roll up their sleeves for a relegation dogfight. It goes without saying that maintaining Premier League status is the top priority but I had hoped the days of the short term fix were well behind us. If we are able to claw our way to mid-table obscurity by mid-season than at least the plan can return to one of continuous improvement; even if the execution of that plan is not always successful.

Scanning through the steady trickle of transfer speculation that has started to surface we have already been linked with a bench-full of unsuitable players looking for another big payday; while on the other side of the equation it appears that several Hammer’s names are being pencilled in as other clubs prepare their list of targets prior to opening up their war chests.

Players reportedly ‘on our radar’ include: striker Mario Mandzukic (31), probably because he is Croatian, who is currently out of favour at Juventus; Branislav Ivanović (32) and snarling Cesc Fàbregas (29) who have both fallen down the pecking order at Chelsea now that they are a decent side again; and Mamadou Sakho (26) the hopeless Liverpool defender. Unsurprisingly, there is nothing there to get the juices flowing I have already mentally filed them as made up nonsense as all would be desperate signings. In the case of the Liverpool Sakho my assumption is that the link was a Friday afternoon post pub cut and paste error and should really have been West Brom. where he would be far more suited.

Over recent seasons West Ham have thrown off the reputation of being a selling club even if the real reason for this is that we have not had any players that other clubs wanted. Now the times appear to be changing again with predators allegedly sniffing around Payet and Obiang and even the injured striking duo of Carroll and Sakho. It would be disappointing but not surprising if Payet left to capitalise on his new found superstar status with a final bumper contract at one of the Champion’s League clubs where money doesn’t matter (such as PSG). In theory I guess a club can refuse to sell but in practice they generally yield to players looking to leave to further their bank balance rather than have them skulk around the training ground.

The injury records of Sakho and Carroll would seem to make transfers in a few months time extremely unlikely. A scenario where such a player returns to full fitness, demonstrates their goalscoring ability (at a club where a striker has not scored all season) and is still sold is too fanciful even for West Ham.

Loan flops Simone Zaza and Gokhan Tore should certainly be dumped out of the January window if not before. With Tore, it seems that Besiktas are proving reluctant to accept returns for damaged goods and we may have the same battle as trying to return unwanted Marks and Spencer underwear after Christmas if not in the original packaging. My fear with Zaza is the emergence of another classic West Ham cock-up (from the makers of Mannygate and Tevezgate) where we have mistranslated the Italian in the lone arrangement and by bringing him on as 85th substitute at Leicester on 31 December we mistakenly make the deal permanent.

My real hope for the next window is that we have identified some realistic targets who can hit the ground running to improve the first team options from day one and then go about our business quietly.

The Third International Break

Another enforced interlude provides the opportunity to review the season to date

On 9 November one year ago I was writing my first book, Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford, which chronicled West Ham’s final season at the Boleyn Ground.  On that exact date I wrote a chapter reviewing the Premier League season as we went into the third international break. Twelve months ago we were just twelve games into the season when it was interrupted for the third time to allow international matches to take place. This time we have played one fewer.

On 9 November 2015, Aston Villa occupied the bottom slot, Sunderland were just above them, and Bournemouth made up the trio of teams occupying the relegation places. Of course, only one of them went down, as the Mackems and the Cherries climbed to 17th and 16th respectively by the end of the season. The other two relegated teams, Norwich and Newcastle sat in 15th and 17th place on this day. Is this a warning to Middlesbrough and West Ham?

A year ago we were sixth in the table, just one point below Tottenham. Our North London neighbours had only lost once, but drawing half of their games kept them down in fifth place. This season Spurs are unbeaten so far, but drawing six of their eleven games has once again kept them down in fifth. Ironically the first game after this break in 2015 was a visit to White Hart Lane where we were “Kaned” 4-1. History repeats itself fixture-wise this season, but I am hoping that we don’t get a repeat of the score from last time.

What a difference a year makes for Liverpool. This time last year they sat in mid-table and were lucky to be that high thanks to some dubious refereeing decisions going their way. They had just lost at home to Palace and after that flop, some way off the top, Klopp had a strop, caught everyone on the hop, and had a pop at the Kop (not so easy to say) for deserting the ground before the final whistle. A year on they do now sit at the top after a breathtaking demolition of Watford last weekend, a performance matched by Chelsea in their exhilarating 5-0 victory over high flying Everton. Manchester City and Arsenal follow closely on their heels (they occupied the top two positions a year ago) so it looks like the title will be won by one of the top four.

After their unexpected success last season Leicester have reverted to where you would expect them to be and only have one more point than ourselves. The league is very close if you ignore the top seven and bottom two, with just five points separating Watford in eighth and Hull in eighteenth.

We are seventeenth, in part due to a shocking goal difference of minus 9; only the bottom three clubs have a worse figure, Hull (-14), Swansea (-11), and Sunderland (-12). Last season 38 points (or exactly one point a game) was the figure needed to keep your place in the Premier League. This time around a similar pattern is emerging with just the bottom three not averaging a point a game. But we are only just on that level, and with the tough (on paper) run of fixtures to come against teams occupying 5th, 6th, 4th and 1st, we could easily find ourselves in the relegation mix (usually termed a dogfight) early in December. We really need to raise our level of performance in those games and take something from them.

After that run we have easier games (on paper, again) at home to Burnley and Hull, before visiting Swansea and Leicester to finish off 2016, and to reach exactly the half-way point in the season. But we haven’t shown that we can easily beat “relatively weaker” sides either this season (or indeed last). Our two home victories (out of six home games) were very late 1-0 wins over Bournemouth and Sunderland, we managed 1-1 draws with Middlesbrough and Stoke, and lost to Watford (2-4) and Southampton (0-3). We have managed just six goals in our six home Premier League games, a very poor figure, especially given the fixtures. This is matched by our five goals in five away games. So, eleven games played, eleven goals scored, and eleven points on the board. Not what we were expecting after last season, perhaps!

So now I’ll put my prediction hat on, and say that in the next eight games, taking us up to the midpoint of the season, we will amass a further eleven points taking us up to 22, which would be seven short of where we were in the middle of last season. Anything much less than this and we will still be in potential relegation trouble. The bookmakers think we’ll be OK. We are joint sixth favourites (with Crystal Palace) to be relegated, after Sunderland, Hull, Swansea, Burnley, and Middlesbrough.

How many of our players can look at themselves in the mirror and be pleased with their performances to date this season? Antonio, perhaps, early on for his goalscoring which earned him an England squad place, although the goals have dried up recently. Obiang, who has been man of the match for me in most of the games he has played, and who surely has cemented his place in the starting line-up. Fernandes and Fletcher have shown a lot of promise from limited opportunities, too. As for everyone else, I don’t think any of them have reached the level they played at last season. I am pleased for Aaron Cresswell getting his chance finally in the England squad, though he has hardly played since returning from injury; the call up is based more on his consistency last season, and a new manager prepared to recognise it.

Ponchos For Goalposts: Part deux!

There’ll always be an England (as long as we can find eleven players).

England TeamA few weeks back I used the tedium of the international break to take a look at the composition of the squads in the Premier League in relation to nationality. Overall it showed that only 35% of Premier League players were English although this increased to 40% if you included the other home nations. I wondered at the time whether if you looked at those actually making it onto the pitch the situation would be even worse and so have used this recent break to undertake further research in the context of the continued underwhelming performance of the England national team.

England appear to be in a Groundhog Day cycle where they generally qualify with some ease (usually from a group where even a mid-table Championship would hope to do well) and then disappoint when it comes to the finals. We then replace the manager and start the cycle again. In truth this has been going on for almost 50 years (well before the Premier League and the foreign invasion) but it does remain a conundrum whereby England has the most famous and cosmopolitan league in the world but a extremely ordinary and uninspiring national team. Are the two related in anyway?

So far this season we have had seven rounds of Premier League matches; a total of 70 games in total which have featured 414 different players of which 342 have started at least one game. Bournemouth and Burnley have been the most frugal with fewest different starters (14) while Sunderland have had the most different starters (22). Chelsea have used fewest players if you included substitute players (18) while Sunderland have been the most lavish with 25.  (It is an interesting contrast with Aston Villa winning the First Division in 1981 using only 14 players all season; how the game has changed.)

Of those starting and featuring (i.e. including substitute appearances) in a Premier League the proportion that are eligible to represent England is 34% and 33% respectively; this is consistent with the overall squad make-ups and so my assumption that it would be lower was not correct.

Bournemouth are the most English team with 72% of starters while Watford have had the least at 9% (just Troy Deeney). Only 3 clubs achieved over 50% of English starters (Bournemouth, Burnley and Palace) while Watford, Arsenal and Chelsea were all below 15%. The equivalent figure for West Ham is 25%.  Collectively, the ‘so-called’ Big 4 (two Manchester Clubs, Chelsea and Arsenal) managed to scrape together 18% of Englishmen.

The average Premier League side then has less than 4 players eligible to represent England in any given lineup. In total that is somewhere over 70 playing Premier League football on a regular basis (allowing for injuries) giving them a 1 in 3 chance of being selected for an England squad.  To my knowledge, Joe Hart is the only English player of note performing overseas.

The big ‘chicken and egg’ question that this raises is: Does the lack of quality English players lead to the recruitment of so many overseas players or does the number of foreign players restrict the development of good young home grown talent?  Whatever way it is difficult not to conclude that the the declining number of English players in the Premier League must have had an adverse effect on the national side.  How to fix this without impacting the ‘brand’?

Far be it from me to defend the largely clueless England manager’s that we have seen over the years but there has not really been the depth of talent for them to work with. All the more reason, in my opinion, to find someone (like Sir Alf) who has a system and will then find the players to fit it; rather than the other way around.

No wonder my interest in the England team is going down quicker than sterling (the currency not the Man City player that is)!

International Football – England Win in Slovakia

Big Sam’s First Game in Charge of the National Team

England TeamI am not particularly a fan of international football these days. I prefer the club game and of course watching West Ham. However I am still proudly English and like to watch the major tournaments and the qualifying games. I am definitely not a fan of friendly games where unlimited substitutions take place. These are not true football matches, and serve little purpose in preparing the team for tournaments. They hold no interest for me whatsoever and I don’t usually watch them at all, unless of course a West Ham player is involved, in which case I might sneak a look. But, of course, despite the ever increasing dearth of English talent playing in the Premier league these days, West Ham’s English players have not had a look-in in recent times.

It was a different matter when I was growing up in the 1960’s. England international games were one of the few opportunities we had to watch football on TV. There was something quite magical about watching the national side then, and of course this was enhanced by England winning the World Cup when I was just 12.

Since we hosted Euro 96, when we came very close to winning, (losing to Germany on penalties in the semi-final) we have never gone beyond the quarter finals in a major tournament, often not getting that far. Despite this we have frequently qualified for the tournaments with ease, so something is very clearly wrong in how we tackle tournament football.

Since 1996, when Terry Venables lost his job, we have had six managers up to and including Euro 2016. Can you name them? In order they were Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan, Sven Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson. Apart from one notable failure (the famous “wally with the brolly” headline refers when McClaren was outwitted by Super Slav) we have qualified every time, but not achieved very much in the finals themselves.

What do those six England managers have in common? They all won their first game in charge, something our old friend Big Sam has replicated with the last minute win in Slovakia. I won’t say too much about the game, other than that I think we deserved to win, we controlled the game, but we showed again how difficult we find it to score goals.

I was pleased for Allardyce, and despite my reservations about what I believe are his limitations as a manager, as a patriotic Englishman I hope he does well. One thing that is amazing really is how the England team has changed in the four years since Roy Hodgson’s first game just over four years ago in May 2012. England’s starting XI today under Sam was Hart, Walker, Cahill, Stones, Rose, Dier, Henderson, Sterling, Lallana, Rooney, and Kane. Personally I don’t have too many qualms about his choice, although I’ve never personally rated Henderson, and other attacking players such as Lallana and Sterling, despite being very good footballers, need to score more goals. Perhaps this is where our own Michail Antonio will get his chance (as long as he doesn’t get picked in the right back role!)

I looked up the starting eleven chosen by Hodgson for his first game, and not a single one of them were in the starting line-up today. His team was Green, Jones, Jagielka, Lescott, Baines, Milner, Parker, Gerrard, Young, Downing, and Carroll. There were four players with a West Ham connection, either then or later. The last West Ham player selected for England was Downing a couple of years ago when Hodgson picked him for one game, played him in a position that he wasn’t occupying for us at the time, and then discarded him.

So qualification for the World Cup in 2018 is now underway, and the initial results couldn’t really have been better. Three points from an away game in Slovakia, one of the tougher fixtures we will face, in a qualifying group that additionally contains the might of those footballing giants Malta, Scotland, Lithuania and Slovenia. It was boosted still further by the latter two drawing in Lithuania and therefore getting one point apiece. I am writing this before Scotland’s trip to Malta is more than half an hour old, with the score currently 1-1. But that result shouldn’t really matter in the final reckoning.

Big Sam’s absolute minimum requirement is to qualify for the World Cup finals with ease, just like his predecessors have usually done. The important thing will be what happens when we actually get there. That’s where his credentials to manage the national team will be tested. He will probably only get one chance.