Read my blogs from the UEFA U21 Championship in Sweden in 2009;
Pride in the Three Lions
Thursday, 11 June, 2009
Dressed in my FA suit, with the Three Lions crest sitting proudly on my chest, I boarded the plane at Luton today with the England squad and the rest of the team staff to head out to Sweden.
For me to be in this position it is truly a real honour. Not only is it the England team, but it’s also a very good group of people, both players and staff.
The cameraderie you build up being in this environment for an intense period of time is unforgettable. I was in Holland two years ago, when we did so well, reaching the Semi-Final, and today brought some of those memories flooding back.
But the overiding feeling I have is one of luck.
To have been a player in this position, heading to a major championship with my country, is something that has not yet transpired – though I’m too old for Stuart Pearce’s team, if Fabio ever needs a big striker to unsettle a defence with a lightening quick trot, he needs only to look in the Essex and Suffolk Border League and Boxted Lodgers.
For now, though, I’m here representing TheFA.com and, joking aside, it’s as close as I’ll ever get to playing for England.
This team is the best of the best in the country, at this age group. Between them they have more than 1150 Premier League appearances scoring over 80 goals. And there’s even a hat-trick for England’s senior team tucked in there for good measure.
But it’s not only players who are top of the tree. The staff is made up of technical and medical professionals, many of whom come from Premier League clubs. They are all there to give England the best chance to winning this Championship.
Everyone knows what to do, and if it comes together we’ll be in for an exciting couple of weeks. I can’t wait.
Sun starts to shine as last two arrive
Saturday, 13 June, 2009
This is my first trip to Sweden, and when I was thinking what it would be like here, especially at a spa resort next to the sea, I was expecting the sun, blonde hair and suntans.
However, our arrival on Swedish soil was greeted by torrential downpours. Not what we expected.
Watching yesterday’s training session in the heavy rain, it looked like the lads all enjoyed themselves. They were pleased to stretch their legs, and the ball was zipping around quickly.
But today the sun started shining a bit and it brightens the place up no end. The beach is just a few yards from the hotel door – a nice place for a tea break, or even where I can conduct some of the player interviews for the website.
As well as Theo and Milly rolling up late last night, the lads from Sky arrived in the last 24 hours, too. Martin Tyler and Andy Burton were also the duo in Holland two years ago, so it was good to catch up and talk England. Alan Smith is doing the co-commentary with Martin and is also staying in the hotel here in Varberg.
I have a feeling we’ll be having similar chats over the course of the tournament.
The Final countdown
Sunday, 14 June, 2009
Today is what is known in UEFA circles as Match Day minus one, for tomorrow we meet Finland.
Up today was Stuart and Craig Gardner, and both were just eager to get the games up and running. Craig is a very friendly lad, and spends some of his spare time with Pat the kitman in the kitroom.
But the lads are all decent and friendly enough and watching them in the training session after the press conference, they all showed how much they want to get in Stuart’s first starting eleven tomorrow.
After the session, we went back to the hotel and I was able to edit together all the footage I had filmed from training and the press and look through the photos I’d taken. As I was watching Craig on my computer screen, in he walked and came down and sat with me while I finished off the edit and uploaded to the site.
The office is often a real hub of activity, with myself, Johann our team’s press officer, Carol the team administrator, Jane, who co-ordinates the scouts, Rachael who’s backing them both up, and Steve and Mike the video analysts, there’s always something going on. Inevitably, the lads will come in for a chat to help them pass the time.
It was the same in Holland, too. But though we had a bigger room, the view here makes up for it, overlooking the bay. I could certainly think of worse places to spend the next couple of weeks.
The calm before…
Thursday, 18 June, 2009
The boys resting, the hotel is calm. But outside there are other forces afoot
With thoughts of the game in my mind, the nerves are starting to build – it’s hard to know what the players are thinking. A win tonight and we qualify for the semi-final with a match to spare in the group.
We don’t usually do it that way, but the players know just what is required of them after a hard-working performance against Finland on Monday.
I got a sneak preview earlier of the video Stuart Pearce will show the players before they step out on the Gamla Ullevi turf tonight. It was stirring stuff; goose bumps, pride, hairs on the back of my neck standing. If it has the same effect with the players, we’re in for a good night.
With the boys sleeping, I took the opportunity to step outside onto the beach just twenty yards from our office.
Now the forecasts, following a few days of sun, didn’t look great for the next few days – rain, rain and rain – like when we arrived here last week. It was hammering against my window as I awoke this morning, but in the afternoon the sun has come out again, but it’s very windy.
Down on the beach you can really see the power of mother nature – if it wants to flatten anything it will. Waves are crashing against the rocks as the wind whistles. Not ideal football weather, but the windsurfers around the other side of the cove are having the time of their lives in what Stuart said was even bigger waves when he returned from his run.
The weather is changeable, as we from England know all too well. Just yesterday the same sea was quiet, almost flat. But today it’s full of energy, full of power, full of excitement. Don’t mess with the sea when it’s in this mood you’ll never win.
It’s quiet in the hotel. Calm, still.
Is it the quiet before the storm?
Reputations growing but more still to do
Saturday, 20 June, 2009
Thursday night was a very good night in Gothenburg.
Before the tournament began, Stuart Pearce said that playing out here was a real opportunity, not only for the players to win something, but for them individually to enhance their own reputations.
Mark Noble did it last time in Holland, making his debut just before they flew out and, like James Milner, continues to inspire the side from the midfield. They are both massive driving forces in this team.
This time around we’ve already seen a number of players make the most of their chances. Martin Cranie might not have even been in the squad had Pearce been able to pick the likes of David Wheater and Steven Taylor, but he has performed very well in training and in the two wins so far. He’s been solid, his passing has been assured, he’s looked confident and also showed his adaptability, filling in at centre back when Michael Mancienne saw red against the Finns.
In central midfield, Lee Cattermole – a top lad in his off-pitch double-act with Craig Gardner – has covered more ground in the two games than anyone else. Tenacious, but with the eye for a pass, he’s hungry for success here and wants something to show for the team’s hard work over the last two or three weeks.
Up front, we know all about Gabby and Theo, especially after the Arsenal flyer came on to scare the life out of the Spanish. But we also have Fraizer Campbell, a stylish goalscorer who probably warranted more than his ten Premier League appearances for Spurs last year. Coming off the bench in both games so far, his left-foot strike in Gothenburg was smooth, crisp and delivered with precision. Something he is capable of with both feet – I’ve seen him do it in training.
I think Kieran Gibbs’ experience at the Emirates towards the end of the season was the first step towards super-stardom, and he’s such a nice, polite and down to earth boy, he can go a long, long way if he stays on this road. The way he has looked over here; quick, solid defensively, energetic going forward and a left foot that many can only dream of, is a major positive for England’s future at Under-21s and even senior level.
But a player who has given me more pleasure than any is Fabrice Muamba. He’s always been a good player to have in the side, but talking to the journalists here before the first game, they were speculating on their starting line-ups. Muamba was in as many as he wasn’t.
It’s not just his performances on the pitch though – a hard-working Patrick Vieira-like display against Finland, bettered against Spain when he made the evening a nightmare for Bojan. As well as that, he is a very nice lad.
He’s often in our office in the hotel having a chat with us and seeing what we’re up to. He’s softly spoken and is certainly thoughful, sending home some of the pictures I’ve taken of him in training.
And what’s more, he’s young enough to play in the next Under-21 Championship in 2011. Along with the experience in Sweden, adding to his Premier League appearances with Bolton, and before that Birmingham, will only help develop this young man.
But like England in this competition, two good games doesn’t get you what you want. It takes more than that. And for these players it doesn’t stop there.
The players are learning to cope with tournament football it seems. Not just the matches but what goes on in between. In training they have looked very good and in their spare time they’ve relaxed, focused on winning.
It really does give you hope and belief. It’s an exciting time, and one we should all make the most of.
Question time keeps boys buzzing
Thursday, 25 June, 2009
Managing the time between games is always the hard part of tournament football.
Two years ago in Holland, there really was little for the players to do other than play in the games room or watch films.
But in Sweden, the days just fly by and the lads seem to be enjoying the whole experience.
Training has been excellent throughout, even the last couple of days when the searing heat could have slowed down the pace. The players do seem very hungry.
After they return from the training ground in the early afternoon, the rest of the day is there’s.
The recreation room – where the boys watch TV, play on the Wii (Mario Kart appears to be the favourite game), play pool, table tennis or darts – is the main congregation area after lunch.
I was wandering through there a couple of days ago and while Walcott and Stearman battled it out in table tennis, Michael Mancienne was playing darts by himself and challenged me.
Usually a quick game of 301 is just that, quick. When I hit 130 with my three practice darts I took a psycholigical boost over Michael.
But when the arrows started to fly, he was soon down on a double finish, while I was chasing with three figures.
However, we both ended up on double-one and the game was dragging on, so I suggested nearest the bull to settle it.
On the oche first, I sunk the tungsten tip right in the bullseye. Again, Michael was reeling with my dart pretty much covering the red bit. That was until he went to the line and sent his dart straight in to join mine in the fifty.
These boys never give up do they. We called that a draw, with both our prides still intact.
Another place the players go to relax is the medical room, where massuers Stewart Welsh and Mark Holmes, physios Dave Galley and Derek Wright and the Doc, Mark Waller, do their stuff.
The TV in there has been showing games from the other group, and Confederations Cup matches too. The other night, I flittered between there for the Italy-Belarus game, and the basement TV room, where Sky’s Martin Tyler and Andy Burton were watching the Sweden-Serbia game.
Last night was one of the trip’s main team-building exercises – the quiz night. Organised by Steve Wigley, the Doc and Pat Frost the kitman played hosts and Mike, one of our video analysts, was in charge of the music round.
The boss picked the teams, and I was in team five with John Elsom from our international committee, my FA colleague Rachael as well as Mark Noble, James Milner, Fraizer Campbell and Richard Stearman.
And despite our poor team name which attracted boos from all around, The Academy of Football – Nobes was our captain and Rachael’s a Hammers season ticket holder – were off to a flyer.
The picture round saw us move out in front thanks to the hawk-eyes of Milly and Nobes. But it was the music rounds that pushed us over the line. Fortunately for our team, Queen’s Fat Bottom Girls and Jamiroquai’s Deeper Underground are both on my ipod and some of the rubbish that booms out of the dressing room after a game helped Fraizer fill in the gaps.
So we ended up winning by four points, but all we got as a prize was a bit of Micah Richards’ birthday cake, but it was nice.
The team was disappointed not to get any reward. This was just for pride though, we’re here to win something else. Something much more important and it doesn’t take a genius to know the answer to that one.
The business end
Sunday, 28 June, 2009
It’s the business end of the tournament, and the team have moved to Malmo.
Behind us are 14 games – unbeaten – and our friends in the beautiful town of Varberg.
When we arrived in Varberg, our base for 18 days, many of us who were in Holland two years ago were only able to hope this experience would equal that.
On the pitch, the team have gone one step further, their showdown with Germany between them and glory.
Off it, the platform the whole camp has been given has enabled everyone to remain relaxed, focused and committed to achieving our goal.
A spa resort on the west coast of Sweden, halfway between our two group venues in Halmstad and Gothenburg, Varberg is a hidden gem.
The staff at our hotel, Varbergs Kurort, did everything they could to make our stay just right, and the surroundings were simply magnificent.
A beach just a few yards from the hotel doors, by day provided a place of rest and by night, the rippling water and the amazing sunsets gave peace and tranquility.
Last night after the sun had dropped below the horizon, four of us, the Doc, Physios Dave and Derek and me, took one final stroll around the bay, along the rocks to a little jetty where we spotted crabs and starfish.
A few of the lads were sitting chatting in the lobby when we got back, as Stuart, Steve Wigley, Martin Thomas and Brian Eastick walked in.
They’d been out along the coastal path the other way, towards town, and looked relaxed and content. Our usual coffees and chit-chat outside in the warm evening followed. While the topic of conversation wasn’t always football, it was difficult not to notice people drift off into their thoughts of what could be on Monday.
As Mark Noble said, we’re in a final and no one can take that away from us.
And as we head south, with memories of Varberg and the seaside resort etched on our minds, our new base for the next two nights awaits.
I’m sure it won’t have the same atmosphere and scenery as the one we have left behind. A city hotel in a commercial part of Malmo, a stone’s throw from a shopping centre.
But it’ll be perfect for our short stay because we are going there on business.
Seize the day
Monday, 29 June, 2009
I’m not sure how to feel today. Days like this is what football is all about, everyone wants to be a part of a winning team, and to become one you must face what we have before us here in Malmo. A major Final.
It’s not often enough that we are in this position, and it’s for that reason I don’t know whether to be excited or anxious. As Stuart Pearce said in his press conference yesterday, not winning against Germany tonight would not be deemed a success, but from England’s past experience this is a major achievement.
But I know exactly what the boss means. We arrived in Sweden 19 days ago so that we would still be here today, with the aim of finishing the job off.
We need to be used to tasting victory in matches like the one the boys have been preparing for. For over 22 months, the work has led to today. And this morning on the Malmo Old Stadium pitch, which is literally a goal-kick from the pitch England will be playing on tonight, they had their final training session of the trip, their last chance to put the finishing touches on their plans for European success.
The team have remained unbeaten since the start of the campaign, they’ve played some great games, and they’ve rode their luck. The mood after Friday’s semi-final was subdued, considering the significance of the victory, but tonight any victory will be greeted with delight.
With our record as it is, a Final place is never guaranteed, they don’t come around often. So everyone must savour the opportunity, it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever been this closely involved in, and I’m sure it is the same for many of the players and staff.
This group of players have a chance tonight to carve their names into England’s history and become winners. They looked focused as they sat on the bus back from training this morning, some were in quiet contemplation, some relaxed and smiling with their team mates.
I’ve been helping out the team’s video analysts Steve O’Brien and Mike Baker with the video that will be shown to the players before they leave the dressing room tonight. It’s messaging will be simple; Make the most of this chance, have no regrets, and do your team, yourself and your country proud.
Seize the day.