Sunday, 12 September 2010

Taming of the Shrews

(PIC: Stephen McCaskill)

Gillingham 2-1 Shrewsbury
The last time the Gillingham played Shrewsbury, it was for a place in League One. That warm spring day at Wembley will live long in the memory as Simeon Jackson’s late winner catapulted The Gills back into the third tier of English football at the first attempt. Sixteen months later, they were back in League Two after a dismal 2009/10 which saw them relegated without a single away win to their name. Just one victory on the road would have secured their League One status for another season, and a lacklustre final day defeat to Wycombe, combined with other results going against them, sealed their fate. For a team that beat some of the bigger teams in the division at home, it was a depressing end for a season that promised so much.

This season has started the same way the last one ended. Gillingham hadn’t won in five league games and had crashed out of both the League Cup and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Shrewsbury came to Priestfield top of the league which meant that this wouldn’t be an easy task for the Kent club. The arrival of the Shrews was always going to evoke memories of two seasons ago and perhaps further entrench the disappointment of relegation in the Gill’s fans minds. Former manager Mark Stimson paid the price for failing to consolidate the club’s position in League One and was replaced by Gillingham legend Andy Hessenthaler. ‘Hess’ managed the club between 2000 and 2004, leading the club to their highest ever league position of 11th in what is now the Championship in 2003. Hessenthaler’s return has done much to lift the mood at Priestfield, despite the club’s poor start to the campaign.

The contest took place in cool temperatures and in front of 4,815 spectators, a far cry from the sunshine of Wembley in front of over 50,000, but Gillingham started the stronger of the two sides. The cries from the Shrewsbury end of “League One and you fucked it up” were soon silenced by the Gills support. The fans were rewarded after Chris Palmer bundled the ball home after Jack Payne’s long throw wasn’t dealt with by the Shrewsbury defence. Gillingham were the better side throughout the first half, but failed to get the second goal that their play deserved and would settle the fans’ nerves. Shrewsbury were revitalised by the break and looked threatening at the start of the second half. Despite their opponent’s consistent pressure, Gillingham earned a penalty in the 50th minute after a handball decision. Adebayo Akinfenwa, a summer recruit from Northampton, saw his penalty saved and Gillingham hoped that it wouldn’t come back to haunt them. Fortunately, it didn’t as just nine minutes later, Gillingham were awarded another spot-kick after Danny Spiller was fouled in the area. Chris Palmer took this penalty and slotted home for his, and The Gills’, second of the afternoon. Shrewsbury almost pulled one back late on, but Lance Cronin, another summer signing, saved well from Mark Wright. Gillingham endured six minutes of injury time but Priestfield erupted when the final whistle was blown as it meant a first win of the season.

Despite the loss of Simeon Jackson to Norwich, there is reason for optimism at Gillingham this season. The Gills have a good squad and with Andy Hessenthaler they have a man who can inspire his players to an immediate return to League One. Eighteen year old Jack Payne looks like a prospect while Danny Spiller’s return is a real coup for the club. A former academy player, Spiller was linked with West Ham during his first spell at Gillingham before leaving for Millwall in 2007. Injuries plagued his time at the Den, while unsuccessful spells at Wycombe, Welling and Dagenham & Redbridge followed before he turned down a move to MLS side Chicago Fire to rejoin Gillingham (who wouldn’t). Spiller showed his class at times today and if he manages to recapture the form that made him a fan’s favourite in his first spell, then Gillingham have a potential matchwinner. Other positives included the lively Cody McDonald and possibly the world's least mobile striker, Adebayo Akinfenwa, who worked tirelessly throughout the game.

Gillingham should fear no one in this division and hopefully today’s victory will kickstart their promotion challenge. Now all they need is an away victory…

Friday, 10 September 2010

Fog on the Rhine

Switzerland 1 3 England

After Friday’s 4-0 demolition of Bulgaria, England travelled to Switzerland for what was on paper their toughest fixture in their European Championship Qualification campaign. The build-up to the game was dominated by tabloid allegations about Wayne Rooney’s private life and whether he was in the right state of mind to start the game in Basel. Capello selected Rooney, who scored and built on his good performance against Bulgaria, removing any doubts that some sections of the media held over his selection.

England’s 3-1 won was one of their most impressive away performances under Capello as they took command of Group G with two consecutive wins. There were a number of positives to take from the match, most notably the continuing upward trajectory of Adam Johnson’s fledgling England career. Johnson, who narrowly missed out on selection for South Africa, scored his second goal in as many games as he took the ball around Swiss goalkeeper Diego Benaglio and coolly finished from a tight angle. The Manchester City winger threatened from the right-hand side, cutting inside on numerous occasions. Capello has obviously been watching Manchester City a lot over the last few months, with the Italian manager adopting Roberto Mancini’s system of deploying left footed Johnson the right to allow such runs. Unfortunately for Theo Walcott, Johnson’s success was at the Arsenal winger’s expense after he was injured in the build-up to England’s first goal. Walcott has struggled to combine form with fitness since he moved to Arsenal four years ago and this latest injury setback, combined with Johnson’s rise, may hinder his efforts to making the right-midfield position his own.

The England goal which led to Walcott’s injury was scored by Wayne Rooney, the man at the centre of all the pre-match build up. Rooney scored from close range in the first half to set England on their way and in doing so scored his first competitive goal for England for twelve months. Rooney, who was out of sorts at the World Cup, has produced two performances that will give Fabio Capello great confidence for the rest of this qualification campaign. Whatever his problems may be off the pitch, Rooney left England in no doubt of his importance to the team.
Rio Ferdinand and John Terry’s absence from the squad created the chance for one of England’s central defenders to stake a claim for a starting place in the team. Phil Jagielka did his chances no harm with two competent performances which betrayed his inexperience at this level. Michael Dawson’s injury sustained in the match against Bulgaria and the poor recent form of Matthew Upson mean that Jagielka may well have established himself as England’s main understudy at central defence.
After all the uncertainty over the position in the lead up to the World Cup, the goalkeeping position is no longer a dilemma for Capello as Joe Hart is surely the undisputed number one for England. After a good season for Birmingham City last year, he has now displaced Shay Given as first choice at Manchester City. Hart has been in sensational form for club and country so far this season and although there were a few nervy moments against Switzerland, England could finally have some stability between the posts.
Switzerland were not at the top of their game and rarely posed a threat. While their defence has been their strength in recent years, most notably at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, their inability to score goals let them down in both tournaments. Veteran Alex Frei of FC Basel and Leverkusen striker Eren Derdiyok led the line, but never looked to threaten the resolute England defence. Stephane Lichtsteiner showed his indiscipline as he was sent off for two yellow cards. The first was avoidable, a yellow card for dissent while the second one was the result of a poor tackle. One positive for “Die Nati” was Xherdan Shaqiri, the 18 year old wonderkid from FC Basel. His goal from outside the area was spectacular and demonstrated why the Swiss are so excited about him.
England’s next game is a friendly against France which will be used as preparation for the game against second placed Montenegro, who have also won their first two games despite being deemed the weakest team in the group. England may not have banished the memories of South Africa, but there is reason for optimism after two impressive wins that leaves them in command of the group.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Friday Night Lights

Friday heralded the beginning of a brand new European Championship Qualifying campaign and England did their best to silence the critics who have been calling for the players’, and indeed the manager’s, heads since the disastrous campaign in South Africa. Jermain Defoe scored England’s only winner at the World Cup and he was in equally predatory form again at Wembley, scoring a hat-trick while Adam Johnson, who was left out of the final squad in June, scored his first goal for the Three Lions. The qualifiers for this tournament will take place on Fridays and Tuesdays, a break from the normal scheduling of Saturdays and Wednesdays, in the hope that it will give club managers more time to prepare for domestic fixtures when the players are released by their international sides. Inevitably, this has been criticised by fans who have complained that the timing of these matches means that their attendance is dependent on the ability to get time off work if they live outside of London. While this is a considerable oversight by those at UEFA, there has been one advantage of this decision in that for the first time in a long time there has been virtually no football over a weekend during the season.

International breaks have been seen by some fans, especially those who don’t see the value in international football, as a distraction from league football. Although there is far less football than usual it was still possible to make a weekend of it as fixtures for the Home Nations were staggered and if there was South American qualifying, there were games on in the small hours too. This was not possible with the new scheduling as most games kicked off around eight o’clock unless they were in Eastern Europe like the Republic of Ireland were. What resulted was a weekend void of Premier League, Championship or international football and while the media gave much time and space to analysis of the qualifiers, it was refreshing to see other sports and other levels of football in the spotlight.

The Aviva Premiership Rugby season kicked off on Saturday with the London double-header at Twickenham. ESPN are beginning their coverage of the competition and broadcast both games, devoting most of their Saturday afternoon to the clash between last years runner-up Saracens and London Irish and Wasps v Harlequins. Today, BBC Radio 5 live will broadcast commentary of Northampton v Leicester, something that would not happen during a weekend heaving with Premier League football.

Much attention was also paid to the conclusion of the county cricket season as both the Clydesdale Bank 40 and County Championship competitions enter their final stages. Sunday’s Twenty20 international between England and Pakistan would have been in the headlines regardless, owing to the current match-fixing scandal, but with no other sporting event aside from the aforementioned Premiership clash being able to rival it, the Cardiff contest becomes the main sporting event this afternoon.

Lower-league football and non-league football also received a boost from the Euro 2012 qualifiers. League One fixtures were live on Sky Sports and on BBC Radio 5 live, while the 3pm kick-offs did not have to contend with an England game which would have affected attendances at the grounds. Much attention was paid to the East London derby between Dagenham and Redbridge and Leyton Orient as well as Southampton v Rochdale. Saturday was declared ‘Non-League Day’ as fans were encouraged to use this day off to attend a non-league match. BBC Radio Kent received calls from many fans who had been attending non-league games for many years and from those who were attending their first match.

While American sports leagues have often been criticised on this side of the pond for their capitalist nature, their submission to television networks and their propensity to move cities, American sports culture allows for the domination of more than one sport, something that ours does not. While American football is perhaps the most dominant of the ‘big three’ sports which also includes baseball and basketball, they share air-time and column space. This is in stark contrast to the British sports media which predominantly consists of wall-to-wall football. While this results from many factors which cannot be explained here, it is refreshing to see.

Football is undisputedly the most popular sport in this country and there is no danger of that changing in the near future. The Premier League dominates every other league in this country in terms of revenue, attendance and influence meaning that other sports and other leagues barely get a look in. With the international games moving to Friday however, a window has opened for these sports as well as the lower leagues of the football pyramid to get some of the limelight.