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Tuesday 11th March 2014 - New job, same old negativity

Some years ago, Charlie Watts was asked by a reporter what it had been like playing for 30 years as Rolling Stones drummer. His reply was short and to the point: “It wasn’t 30 years of playing – more like 5 years of playing, 25 years of hanging around”.

Having spent the first part of this week in and around the England camp, there are doubtless many print and broadcast journalists who’ve followed the national side for decades who could trot out exactly the same statistic.

Not that I’m complaining, you understand. This was the start of my new job at talkSPORT – official England correspondent to go along with my regular presenting and match reporting duties. Pretty soon, I’ll be heading off with Roy’s final 23 to Rio via Miami (2 warm up games before Brazil) and spending a good few weeks (hopefully) following the 3 Lions around this huge country that’s 7 times the size of South Africa where we ended up 4 years ago.

When you start a new job, or even just a new position within an existing company, it can feel like the old ‘first day at school’ feeling. You don’t know exactly who is in authority that you can make ask questions of, you certainly don’t know their names in any case, and you pray that some of your mates are there to help you settle in.

Thankfully it didn’t take long to realise that mates were in plentiful supply as I arrived at the team hotel in Hertfordshire late Monday morning. Henry Winter of the Telegraph, John Cross of the Mirror and Neil Ashton from the Mail were all on hand to offer initial words of encouragement, and as sandwiches and wraps were proffered, along with bizzare looking tea bags called ‘tea sticks’ that you stir into hot water releasing the tea, I was ushered into the radio room where I was to wait for players to be brought to us – the manager would be ready for interview on Tuesday.

In said radio room were several members of Radio 5 Live staff, with whom I’ve had good relations over the years and they were a great help to me over these few days giving me the lowdown on pre-match and post-match protocol for us broadcast types. They did warn me about the potential waiting about – to be fair, you don’t have to be on England reporting duty to be kicking your heels and constantly looking at your watch.

It was especially frustrating, though, being made to wait for players whilst all around was secrecy and cloak & dagger as the England players were being photographed in some new corporate wardrobe or other behind huge black cloths draped around the area where they were sent. Security guards patrolled the outside and I cheekily asked one whether he’d kill me if I attempted to peek behind the curtain. He replied with a sly grin, “Nah…I’d take you outside…then I’d kill you…”

But before I had the chance to even think of testing the bloke’s resolve, the players started to arrive in our midst. Adam Lallana & Alex Oxlade Chamberlain were our subjects and both came across as calm, intelligent and focused – the Ox especially so. Hard to believe he was making his 1st team debut at Southampton 4 years ago as a 16-year-old. He is surely too versatile to be left behind. Lallana too offers the sort of left-sided nous to be vitally important to the balance of Roy’s squad. His performance as a substitute on Wednesday bore that out. The once taxing ‘left sided problem’ appears to have been solved by players like Lallana.

From the team hotel, I was detailed to head for Wembley Stadium to try and get some pre-match thoughts of Denmark players as they took part in a training session on the hallowed turf. As the players emerged from the tunnel we called several over to us with English footballing connections. Liverpool’s Daniel Agger wasn’t in especially talkative mood, giving mostly 1 or 2 word answers and generally having the air of someone who saw our presence as a nuisance – I’ll assume it was just a bad day. By contrast, Kasper Schmeichel could not have been more friendly and accommodating in his 3 minute chat with me, as he made it clear that such friendly games in the final furlong of a league season are anything but a nuisance.

Roy Hodgson is a man I’ve spoken to before in his days as West Brom manager and he always appeared happy to talk and never needed much encouragement to talk at length. Nothing much has changed from meeting him again on the day before the game. He never lets his mouth run away with him and only occasionally paints himself into a corner when questioned. It’s clear he’s liked by the press pack in general and he doesn’t indulge in a great deal of media cliché speak, which makes his interviews stand out from the norm…not in a way that Jose Mourinho’s or Ian Holloway’s do. But they are intelligently delivered, whether you agree with them or not.

Which I do, by and large – I was never a Redknapp acolyte for the position Capello vacated and with the descending proportion of English talent getting regular selection for Premier League sides, the job of any England manager appears to be getting tougher by the Super Sunday.

The other problem Roy has is that the small developments he has overseen since taking charge are not enough to silence the howling mob. Gone are the days of England goalkeepers lauching goal kicks down field for a 50% fight ball to be contested, or similarly full backs getting to midway inside their own half before hitting a percentage ball of their own – but such improvements aren’t good enough for most. “We’re England – we should play to our strengths and get in their faces etc etc” is the oft heard cry – well, if a genuine physical presence up front such as Andy Carroll was fit and firing, then Roy would use him, as he did at Euro 2012. Ricky Lambert does fall into a similar category, but he works the channels a little more and isn’t quite the archetypal No.9 that some supporters crave to set play up from long balls into his chest.

That’s not to say Roy doesn’t do odd things. Witness his placement of Daniel Sturridge on the left of a front 3 as the Denmark friendly got underway, with Rooney & Sterling alongside him. Granted, there were switches between the 3 at times, but not really enough to back up Roy’s assertion to me post match that Daniel had played as much through the centre as anywhere else.

Sturridge himself trotted out the usual “I’ll play wherever I’m asked by my country” quote when I quizzed him in the tunnel afterwards – understandable to a point, but it’s not getting the very best out of a man whose 2014 games to goals ratio beats anyone in Europe, even CR7 and Zlatan. Perhaps secretly Roy felt it one last chance to ‘experiment’ – if that was the case, then it was similarly odd that neither Fraser Forster nor John Ruddy, both fighting with Jack Butland for 3rd goalkeeper status, got a single minute to prove their worth.

Ashley Cole was given 45 minutes at left back and showed how curious it is that Jose Mourinho has preferred Azpilicueta – who’s been terrific it must be said – in the same position for Chelsea. Luke Shaw’s 2nd half tour de force as Cole’s replacement has given Roy the most pleasant of headaches – a young talent showing the necessary positional sense and temperament to be a trustworthy addition despite his tender years. Not forgetting his team mate Lallana’s superb cross for Sturridge to net the winner. But I’ve mentioned him already

All too soon, my duties were done and I was off back to pick up my car via the Metropolitan Line, nowhere near as depressed as some of those ringing talkSPORT to react to the game. Maybe it’s the exuberance of being in a new job, a new responsibility that made me look on the night with less negativity than some – but then I’ve never thought for one minute that we’re going to win the sodding World Cup this summer.

We’ll be hanging around for that prize a good while yet.

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