With a new stadium and back into European domestic football's premier competition, there are plenty of reasons for smiles from Athletico Bilbao supporters...
...what happened to the fourth Champions League place the last time an English team won the thing. Plus, who would want to pay £60 to watch the current England team?
We all know what international night holds for the TV-watching England fan: it involves hoping Roy Keane is very, very vicious and that everyone else shuts up. It involves wondering how Andy Townsend is still doing this work and it will at some point involve shouting at the screen in sheer frustration at either the football on display or the coverage of it.
Wednesday night was no different, not least because many at ITV seem to have got the memo which says that no TV commentator is allowed to point out Joe Hart's many errors. The desire to elevate the England goalkeeper to world class status is so hungrily pursued that no matter how many times per game he comes, flaps and misses a ball, it will be ignored and remain unseen. Last night Hart had an absolute shocker of a game. Indeed, he could barely do anything right, was at fault to some degree for every goal and threw in a series of typical flaps, indecisive "should I stay or should I go?" stunts and several aimless hoofings. What did Clive and Andy say about this? If it had been a foreign keeper he'd have received both barrels but no, the Sainted Joe remains unsullied by criticism, which is surely part of his problem. He's suffering from complacency through this media assumption of his genius.
Anyway, aside from this tedious but predictable aberration, we thought it would be fun to watch the other neighbouring nations' games and contrast them to watching England. Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland had games away to Luxembourg, home to Azerbaijan and home to Greece respectively. Oh, we also caught a bit of the Stelling-less Midweek Gillette Soccer Special Doo-Dah which featured Paul Merson, Graeme Sharp, Iain Dowie and Pat Bonner. Surely this is the cast of the greatest Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman joke ever, if only someone could devise it. Joining us on our evening's viewing was a companion who rarely if ever watches football on TV: "Why are we watching a TV show where we watch people watch football on TV?" asked the companion, a question to which we had no reasonable answer.
Turning back to the actual televised football, the first thing one notices in the coverage of these games, especially the Scots and NI, is the lack of puffed up expectation or indeed worry that goes with an England match. ESPN's game had recently deposed assistant Scotland manager Peter Houston on the panel alongside ex-Barclays Premier League manager Owen Coyle. Houston was somewhat disgruntled at how the Craig Levein regime had been treated but the bitterness didn't seem too all-consuming, possibly because not managing Scotland is more of a release from bondage than a rejection. Ex-Barclays Premier League manager Coyle told us he hadn't been offered the job, possibly because it is not one which is sponsored by Barclays. He went on to tell us about the great rates of interest on Barclays Super Saver accounts. We think. That may have been the medicine talking.
Over on Sky, Graham Little was introducing the Norn Ireland game alongside Pat Jennings, who at 67 looks disturbingly unchanged from his late 1970s self: same hair, same genial calm expression. Remarkable. We felt he should have been wearing a green jersey and not a suit though, especially not a suit that looked like it was the last word in fashion in 1978. Alongside him was Stephen Craigan, who put us in mind of a sickly looking vampire, but not in a bad way.
Both programmes were very, understandably, low key. There was little expectation and no hubris. Indeed it was the opposite of an England game and given that the Northern Irish drew against Azerbaijan this turned out to be entirely appropriate. Scotland won, and that pleased everyone but few long-term conclusions were attempted and rightly so. Craig Burley, who was doing the co-comm gig on ESPN was brutally honest at one point, saying, in effect, that Scotland just doesn't have much football talent these days.
The Republic of Ireland have obviously had a bit more to shout about in the last few years than the Scots and NI but even still, their coverage was free of the kind of agonised hyperbole that is attendant with England. There were some familiar, elements, though. In Steve Staunton, they had the standard outraged ex-pro on hand to rant about an, admittedly dreadful, refereeing decision on a first-minute Greece handball that was not given. "They shouldn't be there if they are not there to help," said Stan of linesmen, in general, as if this particular linesman had deliberately and wilfully made a bad situation worse, like a man slowing down at a traffic accident to nick the hubcaps.
The game was introduced by Rob Hawthorne with "Ireland and Greece are two teams that have punched above their weight". How wonderful it would be if England games were covered with similar honesty and realism.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
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