So there we go.
I watched the game in Cambridge, a city I once called ‘the Other Place’, but of which I am now so fond that that seems inappropriate. I particularly like the Corn Exchange, of which more in a moment.
In the company of Oliver and Richard, and Richard’s flatmate Tom, I joined an enormous number of England fans in a huge pub in Cambridge. Mercifully I spotted a small screen on the way in, so we had a great deal more space than we could have anticipated, and also seats. The main part of the pub was jammed solid. I had hoped not to have to watch a single game in a pub; in the event I was glad to be in the good company I was in.
We had to leave as soon as the game was over, so this time there was no sitting in stunned silence as we were hurled out of the World Cup. But it is telling how surprisingly agonising it always proves. To an extent I like that – I like to feel that some things other than family and friends (who are a given) really matter (not that they matter as much as family and friends). It’s the same reason why I can handle pre-comedy nerves – they make me feel alive, and I didn’t feel that way for a very long time.
I think the rights and wrongs of how we played are subtle and nebulous, and I only have any respect for the views of bone fide
experts. A sensible case can be made for or against Sven’s tactics and selection. But for what it’s worth, my take on key issues is as follows.
Sven DOES care, and assuming that he doesn’t because he had an eye on other opportunities, or is foreign, or is undemonstrative, is wrong. But he has not managed to make the team greater than the sum of its parts, which is what any manager must do, especially at international level where you have the blessing of already talented and knowledgeable players, but the difficulty of necessarily limited selection choices.
Owen Hargreaves is a good player, and did well. Aaron Lennon was excellent whenever he came on. Several other players underperformed. It was right to take Rooney. I wonder if they should have realised Michael Owen was so fragile, but we may never know the answer to that one.
It’s galling to lose yet another penalty shootout, but that method of deciding a game is preferable to tossing a coin, or calculating possession or the number of corners won, or removing players or having a golden goal. Playing on until someone scores after extra time is up is not guaranteed to be practical. As Ray Wilkins once said, at least with the shootout it is decided by the skill of the players. It is not unique in that sense, but for other reasons I still think it is the best way to do it.
International footballers should be able to hit the target in normal circumstances. I’m no good at football, but I can take a pretty much unstoppable penalty (I can also sky the ball over the bar, or pass it straight at the keeper). My flatmate Paul is right – you can’t recreate the atmosphere of a World Cup penalty shootout, but would you rather stride out for one having taken 100 penalties or having never taken one?
Yet Sven says they did practice, and I think we can only conclude that taking a penalty in a World Cup shootout is almost intolerably nerve-wracking. And imagine scoring, only to be told to retake your penalty, like Jamie Carragher was.
So we’re out. Who’s going to win? Right now, I don’t really care. I don’t dislike whole nations, so I’ve got nothing against any team (although I agreed with Oliver when he said it would be a bit hard to stomach France having two stars on their shirts (for World Cup wins) to our one). And right now, I am still grieving.
So the evening was – inevitably – miserable, right? No - so very, very wrong. I was in Cambridge to see a concert with the aforementioned friends Oliver and Richard. Kate Rusby
was in town, and having been introduced to her music properly by Oliver, it was a no-brainer to go when Richard, who lives in Tabland, suggested it.
It was a wonderful night. Kate is lovely, and hit just the right balance in cracking jokes about England’s exit. She has a startlingly good voice, and is backed by an absolutely first rate band. It’s a gift, albeit one that I know needs to be replenished and embellished by lots of hard work, to have that level of musical proficiency. And how life affirming it is to see people having and enjoying the chance to share that gift. The best of music and the best of stand up comedy is a completely no lose thing – no-one has to suffer for others to excel, and it is a communal event in the best possible sense. Don’t get me wrong – I love sport, but sometimes it’s nice when everyone can leave with a smile on their face.
The Corn Exchange is a splendid venue, and the staff are very pleasant. I enjoyed seeing Omid Djalili and his support act Hal Cruttenden giving a stand up masterclass there in February, and last night was just terrific. I fell a little bit in love with Kate, got a tiny, tiny bit jealous at her effortless ability to make people laugh between songs, and most importantly enjoyed some really, really fabulous live music. That I was able to lose myself in it so soon after England were knocked out of the World Cup is a tribute to Kate and her boys.