How do you solve a problem like England?

It’s a question people are sick and tired of pondering. I’d go as far to say that apathy towards our national football team has never been greater.

The whole Sam Allardyce thing was a totally unnecessary farce – what was the bloke doing?! – but it doesn’t change the fact that watching England has become a chore.

I’m a football fan, I don’t support a club side, but at the moment, I can’t be bothered to watch the national side either. I didn’t even watch ten minutes combined of the two qualifiers this week.

It’s an odd one, qualifying campaigns. We tend to breeze through them, but when we do that, even that isn’t good enough. We won every game in the campaign for Euro 2016, yet people still moaned that we weren’t getting the results we should. I guess they were ultimately proven right in France that England just aren’t good enough.

But when have we been? I can just about remember Euro 88, but for me Italia 90 was the start of my interest in international tournaments. Then, as chronicled in the brilliant One Night in Turin, expectation was low – both on and off the pitch. But thanks to a spirited performance the likes of which we’ve barely seen since, England got to the semi-finals. As an eight-year-old, it was a brilliant spectacle.

Since then though, the euphoric Euro 96 aside, it’s been a let down. Time after time after time. There’s themes through it as well – shonky results in group games costing us later in the tournament by getting us a tougher draw, or being unable to beat one fella from 12 poxy yards.

It’s all just generally uninspiring. England’s three games so far this season have brought three goals for and none against. How bloody riveting. It’s naïve to expect England to steamroller every team they come up against, but the pride, the passion, that’s what we want to see.

For about a minute in Euro 2016, that pride and passion appeared. A manic final attack against Wales and Daniel Sturridge slammed home, sparking wild celebrations. Surely this was the start of something? Nope. A pathetic showing against Slovakia in the final group game meant second place in the group, and, well, the less said about Iceland the better.

But what’s wrong? Well, I think the national team is the biggest loser in all the money that’s now pumped into the game. Both before and after the Sam Allardyce reign – all 90 minutes of it – we’ve seen discussion about who should be the next manager, and let’s face it, the list of English candidates is not a long one. But that’s because with all the money the top clubs have, they go out and get the best managers. And that means someone who has won top-level trophies. The days of a manager – like Allardyce – winning the fourth tier and going on to be a top-flight regular are probably behind us. Chris Wilder isn’t going to end up in the top flight, I’m pretty sure.

The likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United have their eyes on the Champions League, and therefore as admirable as the job Eddie Howe has done at Bournemouth is, he’s not going to be on their radar.

That logic extends to the players as well – and the money every club is getting from the TV rights is only going to make things worse. No club in the Premier League needs to bring young players through any more. They can compete with almost any club in the world for the best talents in terms of both wages and transfer fees.

There’s no need for a Burnley, a Watford or even a Bournemouth to bring through their own players, so they don’t bother. It’s a results game, immediacy is key. What’s the point of blooding the youngsters and losing when that defeat could cost you your Premier League status?

Funnily enough, I’ve finally got around to watching Class of 92 this morning. I can’t see that happening again in the future, all the time the money is there. Yes, Marcus Rashford is breaking through at United and there are a handful of others, but the criticism of Jose Mourinho’s cull of the rest isn’t really that merited as none of the former crop seem to be in the same league as the likes of Beckham and Scholes.

So the knock on of all of this is that the English players aren’t getting the chance to breakthrough at the big clubs unless they are an exceptional talent – and those who don’t make it then end up down the system, and then, as we’ve seen time and time again, get big price tags on them, halting their ambition to get back up the leagues.

So the player pool is ever dwindling – and all the time the players are earning the extortionate wages they get for their clubs, pulling on an England shirt is sadly never going to mean as much.

So, nearly 850 words later, how do you solve a problem like England? Well, I think I’ve solved it.

Stop caring. England will be what they will be, and there doesn’t seem to be anything us fans can do about it.


Crystal Palace man’s on-loan opener is great to see

I was at passport control at Gatwick Airport in January 2015 when I got a text from Margate press supremo Ryan Day to tell me that striker Freddie Ladapo was on his way to Hartsdown Park.

At that exact moment, it wasn’t my number one priority, but I’m sure if pushed, I would never have predicted that 21 months later, he’d be on the books at a Premier League club and scoring on loan in the Football League.

And score he did yesterday, Oldham Athletic’s leveller in what ended up being a 2-1 win just up the road from Margate at Gillingham.

Now while I obviously enjoy the final outcome of that match, I’m even more pleased for Freddie.

Now 23, over his time at Gate I got to know him fairly well in that journalist/player way. I even once woke him up with an unsolicited phone call at around 9.40am one day. We spoke several times after games, and I was very fortunate that my relationship with him and the club was such that I had all the inside track on his move to the Eagles.

He’d arrived at Gate technically from Kidderminster Harriers, who had loaned him out to Grays Athletic, where he’d banged in plenty of goals in the first half of that 2014-15 campaign. He kept on scoring for Gate, a hat-trick at Met Police being among the highlights – we spoke after that game and he admitted he’d forgotten to ask for the matchball that he was gleefully clutching – and set up the winner as Margate won the play-off final, 1-0 at Hendon.

Like most of the Margate side, he struggled in the early stages of last season, but once Nikki Bull took over, he was an absolute revelation. Usually in a lone striker role – one that I think even he had a few doubts about initially – he grew in front of our eyes.

His form in December and January that season was sparkling, and the transfer talk started. After the game against Bishop’s Stortford two days before the window shut, I managed to talk to him. I knew what was going on in the background, but he showed his maturity by simply insisting he wanted to focus on his football.

Offers from Grimsby and Barrow were snubbed by either the player or the club, and he kept banging the goals in. His decision to stay at Gate was vindicated when he got the chance to go on trial at Crystal Palace. A hat-trick against Watford U21s later and Freddie was in with a shout of a dream move.

It was a protracted move, happening around the time of big changes at Hartsdown Park, but as we spoke on the phone during it, Freddie remained level-headed, but incredibly excited at the opportunity. He had worked his backside off for this chance – he never had a job away from football as a part-time player, spending his time in the gym or running in a bid to be in the best shape possible.

Again, we spoke just after the deal was done and he was great. He certainly got better at the interviews as we went along – and without blowing my own trumpet, I think I helped him. In one of my final chats with Bull before I left my old job, he told me of another player who had grown from the experience of being at Gate, even being interviewed by the likes of me was a massive thing for them. That’s another big cross in the Trinity Mirror ‘non-league football isn’t worth covering’ box…

Freddie grasped his chance at Palace and played a bit for the first-team in pre-season, and was even on the bench in a couple of early Premier League games. Then came the loan move to Boundary Park. He’d always been expected to go to League One or Two, but Oldham seemed a tad surprising – and a tough one for him to go in to.

But he’s done it now, and that moment for him at Priestfield – where he once scored for Gate in a Kent Senior Cup semi-final – is one he will cherish.

It’s not an Ian Wright-style rags to riches story – he began his career at Colchester so has been in the system before – but to see a bloke who two years ago was playing against the likes of Peacehaven & Telscombe netting in the Football League is, simply, bloody brilliant.

I hope it’s the first of many for Freddie.

Michael Vaughan comes up trumps with a great block

I always used to enjoy Michael Vaughan’s cover drives. Yet today, I’m quite a fan of his block.

Vaughan is annoyed at the ECB for their tough stance against Durham. He’s not alone, and he’s probably right.

The one thing that has riled him the most about it all though is the removal of their Test ground status.

Now, as I mentioned in my last blog, Vaughan is one of the biggest fans of this city T20 malarkey. As someone who isn’t, I found this tweet fairly amusing, so I responded…

This from a man who wants 10 counties to have no top-class T20. Unbelievable.

— Jon Phipps (@jonphipps81) October 3, 2016

Vaughan, probably my third favourite England captain, could have used this opportunity to have an interesting debate, point out his own hypocrisy and engage with people with a different opinion.

He decided, however, to block me and go back to talking about golf.

I’m quite honoured. My first celebrity block, and for just pointing out the man’s inconsistent views on cricket in this country.

Great player, Vaughan. I always enjoyed him as a batsman, the Ashes 2005 was amazing. I backed him on Strictly. Hell, I even live in a road named after him* – but I think blocking me – and I’ve since learned I’m not alone – for pointing out his wayward opinions is the best thing he’s done.

* – well, not true, but I won’t be referring to it as Michael Vaughan Drive any time soon…

The turkeys voted for a T20 Christmas

I’ve long been against the idea of a city-based T20 tournament in this country.

And oddly, since it was voted for by a staggering 15 out of the 18 counties, I’ve found even more evidence as to why it’s a terrible idea.

I shall try not to make this too ranty – I racked up 1100 words* on this topic in a column at my old job, and I’d definitely link to that now had their online archive not disappeared.

But the basic fact is that this new-fangled T20 tournament, which was voted in earlier this month, is going to put county cricket in severe danger.

The attitude of pundits connected to counties at Test grounds is very clouded to say the least – Michael Vaughan in particular keeps banging on about how cricket in this country NEEDS this new league.

So, to clarify, the T20 system that produced this year’s finalists in the World Cup, NEEDS improving. The argument that it “works in India and Australia” doesn’t wash with me either. The IPL is brilliant. For me, the Big Bash is even better. But does that mean we need to replicate it? No.

Australia’s cricketing landscape is so different from ours. They have six first-class teams, competing for the Sheffield Shield. When they created the Big Bash, they added two more, an extra one each in Sydney and Melbourne. Apparently, 65% of the population of Australia live in the vicinity of these eight teams.

We have 18 counties. The new league is set to have eight teams too – based at Test grounds, although it is not clear yet which of the nine will miss out. The stats say that 25% of the population live around those nine grounds. So instead of the mass-market appeal that those in favour bang on about, we’re actually reducing the appeal to a smaller market.

I always use Warwickshire as my example here. They struggle to sell out their T20 games, even when they changed their name to the Birmingham Bears. They hardly seem to be turning crowds away in international fixtures either. But why should the counties like Somerset, Worcestershire and my team, Kent, have to suffer because their marketing isn’t up to scratch?

I saw all but two of Kent’s home games in this year’s T20 Blast, with packed houses. In the new competition, there won’t be any games in Kent. Yes, the Blast will still be running as well, but you cannot tell me that it won’t become a second-rate competition. The big names – Gayle, McCullum et al from abroad and maybe even the home-based stars like Buttler and Root may well find it hard to be interested in a secondary contest when the big bucks are waved in front of their faces.

Which brings us to the subject of money. And the article that inspired this blog tonight. Hampshire chief Rod Bransgrove today shared his thoughts on the competition, and given his county are one of those expected to be hosts, it’s no surprise that he’s in favour. That the counties had been bribed into the decision was not really news – around £1.3m each is the figure – the confirmation that the host counties will be raking in around £500k on top of that was the killer for me.

Two division cricket is a great idea, but it has led to teams with money having success. The nine-team top division of 2016 contained eight of the sides whose base is an international ground. It’s not a clear fix – Durham’s much-publicised financial issues (with more quotes from the beloved Mr Bransgrove which make him look like a real decent chap) illustrate that – but it helps.

So the smaller counties are up against it in that aspect. There is no doubt that the £1.3m will be a lifeline for some, but when everyone is getting it, it’s not going to close the gap, is it? And in fact, with the extra HALF A BLOODY MILLION QUID on top, the financial chasm is only going to widen.

Kent – along with Sussex and Surrey – were one of the three to vote against the new league. They see the value in their brands, their future and their own fans. Kent’s CEO Jamie Clifford has taken a club from near-oblivion to a sound financial footing. It can be done without selling your soul.

I hope I’m wrong, but three years of this city-based league – “not a franchise” as another Test-ground connected pundit, David Lloyd, frequently points out – could well be enough to eliminate some counties, counties who are producing players to play at the highest level in both white and red-ball cricket for England.

The short-term impact may look positive, but there’s no way I can see this league benefiting anyone other than the Test ground money men in the long run.

* – Just the 815 then. Plus these ones…

Will the transfer window save managers?

This time last year, three managers had been sacked in the Football League. Two more followed on September 28. In all, 32 out of the 92 clubs in the Football League and Premier League had made a change by the end of December – most of them sacked.

Yesterday – September 26 – saw the first managerial departure of this season when Andy Hessenthaler left Leyton Orient. The Os are 14th in League Two, certainly worse off than they might have expected to be, and Francesco Becchetti is hardly immune to making the odd change or two – Hessenthaler was the fifth to leave Brisbane Road in just over two years – so perhaps it was always on the cards.

But are there many other twitchy trigger fingers out there? This time around, I’m not so sure.

In the past, the loan window must have made a change of manager more appealing. The players not up to it? Well, change the manager, let him loan some in and see what he can do. That was certainly the case at Hessenthaler’s old club Gillingham in 2007, when Mark Stimson took over in November and promptly signed more than a handful of his former players on loan. They still went down, mind.

But this year, that’s not an option. Once the transfer window slammed shut, that was it. You have the players you’ve got and that’s that. The only out-of-work managers who can surely have any sort of chance are the type who will come in and reinvigorate what’s already there. And I’m guessing that most managers capable of that sort of turnaround are already gainfully employed somewhere.

So does that mean that instead of a third of clubs in the top four divisions changing manager by the time the new calendars are on the walls, we might see a bit more patience?

It might well make for a more interesting period with chairmen and boards who have backed their managers in the summer – which they had to do anyway to make sure they had a big enough squad to cope – are surely going to give them the time to turn it around with their own players.

Some – the LMA, I’m sure – have long said there is a need for a transfer window for managers, which is, frankly, absolute piffle. If the rot has set in, who wants to see it continue until a cut-off date determined elsewhere?

But in a time where managerial spells have become shorter than ever, the FIFA-enforced transfer window may just have forced a positive change.

About this blog

I am a former sports journalist – it’s still weird to say that – who has moved into the field of Communications. But the thing is, I still love sport, I still go to sport – on my terms though – and I still want to write about it.

So I started this blog in September 2016 to keep my hand in, so to speak. It’ll be a mixture of things, opinion pieces, match reports, maybe even the odd interview if I can be bothered, but whatever, I hope you enjoy it.

I live in Kent and am passionate about local sport. Well, most of it. It’s something that is sadly not as well covered as it used to be, and although my other commitments – the ones that pay the mortgage – will mean I can’t be a comprehensive one-stop shop for sport in Kent, I’ll try and do what I can.