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The Loneliness of the Short Distance Reporter No.4 - June 14th 2016

“A Golden generation” – the glib catchphrase that’s trotted out more times than a pantomime horse on a theatre stage in this modern era of international football.

England’s has supposedly come and gone with Sven’s time; Wales are right slap bang in the middle of one having missed chances with previous incarnations; Northern Ireland and Iceland are surely experiencing one at the moment…and then there’s Belgium.

This enigma wrapped in a puzzle folded into a mystery that is Belgium. Darlings of the FIFA rankings in the last couple of years (they were top of the pile during 2015 at one time) they stumbled and stuttered their way to the quarter finals of the World Cup in the most unconvincing fashion. A year later Wales bludgeoned them into submission at the Cardiff City Stadium in the Euro Qualifiers and won by a solitary Gareth Bale goal, which meant they’d taken 5 points off Marc Wilmots’ side in the process.
Last night, Stan Collymore & I witnessed the latest shortcoming of this squad that makes them look almost as laughable as the Belgians were made to look on Jeux Sans Frontiers back in the 70’s. Italy by contrast were superbly drilled and focused by Antonio Conte with a game plan that worked to a tee. Kevin de Bruyne suddenly looked like an inhibited young man with no confidence in his ability, Jan Vertonghen’s body language spoke of a man highly frustrated to be put at left back to accommodate Thomas Vermaelen, and the most consistent player in their side was right back Laurent Ciman, who was only winning his 12th cap (I’ll also mention here how Dries Mertens showed his teammates up with his dynamism and work rate coming on as a sub).
So England aren’t the only country in recent years to have a talented crop of players but seemingly little idea how to blend them into a cohesive unit. Saying that, some sides lose their first game in a tournament and go on to reach the final (Portugal in 2004) but you just cannot see the cohesion needed for Belgium to cause Sweden and the Republic consistent problems. At this rate, Martin O’Neill could go into the Irish dressing room before the game on Saturday in Bordeaux and paraphrase Sir Alex Ferguson’s pre-Spurs speech and say simply; “Lads, it’s Belgium…” and walk out again.

Some of you who’ve been in touch since my Euro blogs began have made mention of my prep notes for my commentary matches, citing OCD issues and such like. It’s all good – every commentator has their own little foibles when it comes to pre-match homework. Many of my younger colleagues use a variety of all-singing all-dancing apps on their tablets and laptops to make ready for kick off. That’s fine for them (and the app providers that supply them) but it’s always suited me to make handwritten notes – call it a generational thing, but I’ve always found that scribbling stuff down in colour-coded sections helps commit information to memory, as well as being an easy to navigate reference point if you need to locate something in a hurry mid-game. It all only truly comes in handy if the game itself is a dog with fleas, or if there’s a long injury stoppage that leaves you with nothing to commentate on. Thankfully that’s never occurred – yet.
Feel sorry for all my rocker mates who are probably still caked in mud and drying out from a slightly moist Download Festival at Donington – there’s a few Maiden die-hards I know that simply couldn’t last until their Sunday night headline set, such was their exasperation at the conditions. Next month, I’m really looking forward to spending some time at the Steelhouse Festival in South Wales, but when the heavens opened there last year, it led to cars needing to be individually towed off the car park after the last night by the resident tractor…character building, I suppose. Fingers crossed it’ll dry up by then.

Portugal v Iceland tonight with Micky Gray and then I’m off to hook up with Colin Murray in Lyon ahead of Northern Ireland’s crucial 2nd game against Ukraine. Ronaldo’s fitness will be something I’m keen to check up on after a gruelling end of season at Real. Iceland’s entire population is roughly that of the city of Bradford, so it really is a mis-match from that point of view. But Holland will tell you how tough the Icelandics are to play, having lost both qualifiers despite dominating possession.
A team triumphing despite have much less of the ball than the opposition? Ah that’ll be a one off won’t it?… *cough*Leicester*cough* ;)

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