London Sports Writing Festival Lights Up Lord’s

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Is sports writing a literary genre that we take for granted? That was the question being debated for the past four days, as the inaugural London Sports Writing Festival (LSWF) took place at Lord’s.

Sports personalities have congregated at the Home of Cricket to launch not just the arrival of their books in stores across the country, but to challenge the perception that sportsmen and women cannot be classed as literary.

Those in attendance were treated to a myriad of discussions across a wide range of sports from an enviable pool of speakers.

These included British rower and 2012 Olympic gold medallist Katherine Grainger, England rugby World Cup winner Matt Dawson and experienced football manager, Neil Warnock, among many others.

Rebecca Winfield, co-founder of the event, alongside fellow literary agent David Luxton, told me of the event’s origins and the reason behind the creation of a festival entirely devoted to sports writing.

‘The idea started in January 2012, when David and I lamented the fact that, although there were lots of literary festivals happening around the United Kingdom, there were not many opportunities for sports writing to be showcased.’

 Now that the event has drawn to a close, the literary agents will be determined to make the LSWF a regular fixture on the literary festival calendar – and provided the event’s partners have been convinced of sports writing’s growing demand, Winfield believes this can become a reality. 

‘The hope is that Lord’s and the MCC will feel that the event has worked very well for them to broaden out their base, and that they will feel there is enough of an audience.”

Now that the event has drawn to a close, the literary agents will be determined to make the LSWF a regular fixture on the literary festival calendar – and provided the event’s partners have been convinced of sports writing’s growing demand, Winfield believes this can become a reality.

‘The hope is that Lord’s and the MCC will feel that the event has worked very well for them to broaden out their base, and that they will feel there is enough of an audience.’

Due to unforeseen circumstances, there were one or two guests who were unable to fulfil their commitments of speaking at the festival.

On the Thursday, British & Irish Lions tour-winning captain Sam Warburton was in line to speak alongside Matt Dawson and Brian Moore, but his late withdrawal made for a somewhat diluted discussion on what has been a glorious year for British rugby.

Similarly, the closing event to the festival on Sunday, ‘Project Rainbow’ – the name given to Rod Ellingworth’s book that details the four-year plan to make Mark Cavendish a World Cycling Champion – was regrettably shorn of David Millar’s presence, a British national road champion who resurrected his career having been banned for two years on the admittance of taking a banned substance in 2004.

Both these guests would have certainly added extra panache to the otherwise excellent talks, and despite the contributions of those who were present, some of the audience might have come away feeling short-changed by the absence of the aforementioned sports personalities still plying their trade.

Furthermore, the last day was overshadowed by a family bereavement for the speaker of ‘Andy Murray: The Real Story’, which understandably resulted in the talk being cancelled.

Indeed, Winfield told me that enticing speakers to a first-time event was one of the biggest challenges she faced in putting on the festival.

‘One of the difficulties that I think every literary festival organiser has, is that we have to establish in the mind, not just of publishers, but also sportsmen and women – and their agents – that we are a serious concern, and that we can bring a big enough audience to the party’.

It was for this reason that, at a time when many sporting celebrities are releasing autobiographies, the LSWF was over-looked by some as a platform on which to promote their material.

‘One or two of the bigger names felt that perhaps Cheltenham or Hay [festivals] were better bets for them than this year’s festival.’

Despite such obstacles, the event’s organisers will certainly look back on Friday as being a resounding success, when football took centre stage.

In addition to Neil Warnock’s musings on the daily running of a football club (‘The Gaffer: Trials and Tribulations of a Football Manager’), Anthony Clavane, journalist and author of the bestselling homage to his beloved Leeds United, ‘Promised Land’ and the more recent ‘Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?’, was joined on the sofa by out-going PFA Chairman, Clarke Carlisle, Arsenal Ladies and England’s all-time record goalscorer, Kelly Smith, and former England and Tottenham Hotspur centre-back, Ledley King.

There was barely time to reflect on the startling symmetry of the trio’s injury-blighted careers before Evening Standard columnist Patrick Barclay (‘The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman’) was joined by fellow authors of Arsenal FC to discuss the club’s greatest figures.

This preceded a battle of gladiatorial proportions between Spanish football writers, Sid Lowe (‘Fear and Loathing in La Liga’) and Graham Hunter (‘Barça: The Greatest Team in the World’), in which Matt Dickinson had the onerous task of chairing the two ‘El Clasico’ aficionados as they discussed whether it was Real Madrid or Barcelona who had made the greater impact on European football.

That evening was brought to a close with Guillem Balague and Avram Grant delighting the auditorium with an extremely fluid, yet no less polished discussion on Lionel Messi, the subject of the former’s most recent book.

Given the noticeable boom in sports literature that has filled our shelves, and the clamour from newspapers to serialise segments of new releases, as seen most recently by the Daily Mail’s week-long offering of Harry Redknapp’s new autobiography, ‘Always Managing’, Winfield was acutely aware of the potential for hosting a sports writing festival back in January 2012.

‘We had pretty high expectations, and we knew that there were a lot of good sports books being published in the next 18 months,’ she said.

‘For us, the challenge was finding the venue, finding the media partner, and persuading those personalities that this was going to be a big enough draw for them’, Winfield concluded.

With the arrival of Autumn, St John’s Wood, like SW19 after a Wimbledon Championship, has been known to resemble somewhat of a ghost town; yet it would appear that Lord’s offers fertile ground for off-season occasions such as these, when British sport’s most celebrated authors and personalities come together to display their literary prowess. And crucially for organisers, housing the event is an accolade which the Home of Cricket would do well to retain.

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5 Key Areas for Roy Hodgson to Focus On Tonight Against Poland

18,000 Poles will descend upon Wembley tonight, meaning Waldemar Fornalik’s side won’t be there to make up the numbers. Indeed, they will be hoping to deal England the killer blow that will afford their co-hosts from Euro 2012, Ukraine, automatic qualification for next year’s World Cup in Brazil.

 
Poland are peppered with players with pedigree in big occasions. Dortmund pair Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszcykowski will provide a stern test for England’s reshuffled back four and in Artur Boric, they have one of the Premier League’s in-form stoppers. He will be eager to add England to his list of clean sheets this term and will have taken inspiration from Jan Tomaszewski, the Polish ‘keeper famously branded ‘a clown’ by Brian Clough in the lead-up to a crucial World Cup qualifier. Tomaszewski’s heroics led The White Eagles to the 1974 finals in West Germany at England’s expense. History has been known to repeat itself.

 Below is a list of key issues England manager Roy Hodgson must surely have made plans for by now:

1).Nullifying the threat of Lewandowski
 
Roy Hodgson and England’s back line will pay particular attention to Poland’s main attacking threat this evening; and with good reason. Robert Lewandowski scored four goals for Borussia Dortmund against Real Madrid in the Champions League last season, and it is believed he has signed a pre-contract agreement to join Bayern Munich. England’s back line has been found wanting recently against sides who deploy an out and out target man. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s four-goal display last autumn will still haunt Gary Cahill and co. Despite the fact Poland have nothing to play for but pride, they are more than capable of causing an upset. If they do, you can be sure this man will have had a large say in proceedings.
 
2). Selection at Right-back
 
The difference between Kyle Walker and Glen Johnson is minimal – both are known as much for what they offer in the opposition’s half as they are for defending their own goal. The same cannot be said of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Neither offers the same offensive threat, but you could argue both offer greater defensive resilience. Smalling’s height could come in handy on the occasions Lewandowski drifts wide, while Jones is much more comfortable on the ball. His passing ability supplemented by his tough tackling means he is favourite for the number two jersey. A word of warning though; they have acquired just 14 caps between them.
 
 
3.) Scoring an early goal
 
Poland’s goalkeeper, Artur Boruc, has been in scintillating form for Southampton this season. Should the Poles opt for a cautious approach as expected, it may prove to be a frustrating evening for the Three Lions if they fail to get that all-important early goal. Boruc has already foiled both Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge this season in the Saints’ 1-0 league win at Anfield last month.
 
 
4). Unleashing Andros Townsend
 
Roy Hodgon’s selection of the Tottenham Hotspur winger was a master-stroke on Friday, but his combination down the right with club-mate Kyle Walker is set to be disrupted by the full-back’s suspension. Townsend himself is a doubt this evening after picking up a knee injury in the win over Montenegro.
 
Hodgson said: “Andros took a knock, several knocks but one he told the doctor about. We’re very confident and I don’t expect him to report anything different. We’re very hopeful. There are no other injuries.”
 
5). Get men in the box
 
In many ways, one of England’s greatest assets could well become their undoing. Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge have all impressed this season for their clubs, with their fluidity baffling opposition defences. However, this three-pronged attack is very much a work in progress at international level. Their tenancy to roam into pockets between midfield and up front saw delivery from Townsend and Leighton Baines wasted on occasions against Montenegro. Hodgson will have to impress on his forwards the need to get into the box and on the end of these crosses from wide areas. That and to take their chances when presented them. That always helps.
 
 

RC Toulon 51-28 Glasgow Warriors

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Matt Giteau of Toulon races between Mark Bennett and Alex Dunba

Two tries apiece from Matt Giteau and Maxime Mermoz gave Toulon the perfect start to their defence of the Heinekein Cup, but the holders were made to work hard for their 51-28 victory over Glasgow Warriors at the Stade Felix Mayol.

In what was more akin to an exhibition game than an opening pool fixture of the premier club tournament, Toulon withstood a brave fight-back from the early pace-setters of the Pro 12 league to provide a big statement to the rest of Europe.

Only two sides have successfully retained the cup – Leinster and Leicester – but with a display as dominant as that in the first period, few could dismiss their title credentials once more, in what is incredibly only their third appearance in the tournament.

Many had feared that there would be a gulf in class between these two sides, but it was Glasgow who were denied the lead after a blistering start.

Control and precision were missing in the Toulon midfield, and a searing break from his own half by Niko Matawalu coupled with exceptional footwork enabled the Fijian international to place the ball over the line. A knock-on in the turn-over kept the score at 0-0.

It was the wake-up call that Toulon needed. Minutes later, Glasgow were penalised at the scrum, and Jonny Wilkinson duly knocked over the penalty.

Keen to put to bed early handling errors, the hosts then ran over a superb team try that had the watching public out of their seats.

A wonderful take from Wilkinson and backhand skill from Matt Giteau allowed Delon Armitage to have time and space to cross over in the corner. Wilkinson converted from out wide to give the Toulon a 10-0 lead, with 10 minutes gone.

Try number two was not long in coming, in spite of a suspected final forward pass. Sublime handling down the right from Giteau following a great turn of pace from Joe van Niekerk, resulted in Maxime Mermoz being on hand to receive the decisive pass before going over.

Toulon were swiftly moving through the gears by now, and it was proving difficult for Glasgow to claw themselves back into the game, with so much defending sapping their strength. By contrast, the reigning champions were clearly enjoying themselves, and it was the turn of the forwards to display their prowess.

Juan Fernandez Lobbe won a line-out, and Glasgow were unable to prevent a maul being created. Joe Masoe led the shove, and it was he who carried the ball over the line to stretch the home side’s advantage.

A bruised Glasgow appeared bereft of ideas, as the intensity of Toulon’s play coupled with the warm weather left the Warriors shell-shocked. They were made to look a shadow of the side that has taken their domestic league by storm with an immaculate record to date.

The Glasgow midfield were being out-muscled and out-thought by a sea of red, and another maul saw Claarsens break from the back to tee up Michalak, who in turn invited Mermoz to go over for his second try of the match.

The home supporters were throwing newspaper around in the stands. Glasgow must have thought of throwing in the towel. It was ruthless, it was unrelenting.

Without a platform, there was little for Strauss and company to play off, and holding on in the breakdown presented the hosts with another three points from in front of the posts for Michalak, who replaced Johnny Wilkinson following a hand injury.

The half-time whistle was welcomed by the valiant visitors, as Gregor Townsend set about instilling belief back into his group, having been brutally outclassed in every department.

At 34-0, and with the all-important bonus point secured, the holders were keen to build on their unassailable lead with a second-half performance that would lay down a marker to the remaining pool teams.

There is a great belief in the Glasgow squad, however, as seen throughout the early weeks of the Pro 12 season, and it was they who drew first blood in the second period. Having been denied an early try in the first half, their early endeavour at the start of the second was this time rewarded.

A weak pass from Lobbe was intercepted by Mark Bennett, and as a gap opened up, greater care with the ball left Danie Rossouw powerless to prevent replacement DTH van der Merwe from going through under the posts.

It was much better from Glasgow, and with greater urgency, the Warriors frantically searched to convert their early second-half pressure into a second try. Better composure and discipline from Maitland and Grant may have resulted in another score, but having absorbed the onslaught, a heavily-reshuffled Toulon were soon back in their stride and celebrating their firth try.

Superb speed at the breakdown saw Jackson and Dunbar lose their men in the midfield, and Giteau, who’d moved into number ten, found plenty of space to go through and score. Michalak added the extras to reopen the 34-point lead.

Such a deficit was short-lived, however, as through a combination of vision and pace, Ruaridh Jackson managed to skip a couple of tackles before finding Matawalu back inside to give the visitors a second try.

It was to Glasgow’s credit that they were starting to make a game of the second half, and they were soon sensing at least a losing bonus point, as Jonny Gray received a pass from Ed Kalman to reduce the arrears to 41-21.

What had begun as a show of immense pride was threatening to become a bit more than that, as a 20-point margin was soon reduced to 13.

Further intricate passing in the midfield saw van der Merwe go over for his second try, and Glasgow’s fourth in 23 minutes. It signalled at least a losing bonus point, which had looked extremely unlikely at the interval.

Glasgow’s buoyancy was checked by a penalty that enabled Michalak to keep the score ticking over for the home side. It would prove to be the decisive moment in taking the sting out of the visitors’ courageous efforts, and the last word was reserved for Giteau, who rounded off an impressive individual performance with a second try of his own.

Toulon is more than picking up a big pay cheque at the end of one’s career – it’s about winning trophies. On this evidence, it would appear they are ready to mount a serious defence of their crown as European champions.

Copa do Mundo 2014: Quem vai qualificar-se?

 

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 A estrada para o Rio está cheia de obstáculos para muitas das seleções Europeias

 
Não são muitos os que têm a oportunidade de jogar uma Copa do Mundo. Com o final do programa de qualificação europeia no horizonte, está chegando a hora de avaliar o quem ainda está na luta pela participação na Copa Mundial 2014.
 
Este final de semana marca a penúltima rodada de jogos, com a última ocorrendo quatro dias depois. É uma marca da natureza competitiva de qualificação que, com duas jornadas pendentes, apenas duas nações, Itália e Holanda, já reservaram o seu lugar no avião para o Brasil.

A Alemanha está à beira de assegurar sua presença no ano que vem, ter em conta que requer um ponto solitário das partidas restantes contra a República da Irlanda e Suécia. Pela sua parte, a Suécia pode garantir seu lugar numa repescagem se evitar a derrota contra a Áustria, em Solna. As permutações são semelhantes para a Bélgica no grupo A, que precisa de evitar uma derrota na Croácia, na sexta-feira, para embarcar no avião para o Rio.

Na segunda colocação de grupo que tem a Espanha como líder, a França será condenado aos ‘play-offs’, contanto que os atuais campeões mundiais vencem a Bielorrússia ou a Geórgia na próxima semana. A situação e ainda mais complicada por Les Bleus visto que se não consegue um bom resultado contra a Finlândia, seu ranking da Fifa vai manter inferior à Croácia, Suécia, Grécia e Portugal, e portanto, enfrentaria uma dessas seleções num confronto duro na repescagem.

No grupo H, a Inglaterra está perto de se qualificar, mas qualquer deslizes em casa contra o Montenegro pode abrir a porta para uma série de equipes. A seleção inglesa tem muitas opções ofensivas com os retornos de Wayne Rooney e Daniel Sturridge, mas os montenegrinos já dão um empate com os Inglêses, e terão como objetivo principal a idéia de capitalizar sobre os nervos dos anfitriões. A vitória da Ucrânia sobre a Polônia na sexta-feira irá garantir-lhes, pelo menos, um lugar na repescagem, como eles jogam San Marino no último jogo, embora os poloneses ainda possam se qualificar se eles vencerem.

A Suíça está na primeira colocação de grupo E, e parece destinado pela Copa desde o começo das eliminatórias, graças a um sorteio favorável. Seus adversários fracos inclui a Islândia, Eslovênia, Noruega e Albânia – os quais ainda tem uma chance de terminar na segunda colocação. A equipe da Suíça sabe que a vitória sobre a Albânia, nesta sexta-feira, significa a qualificação para o torneio pela décima vez na sua história.

Os outros grupos nas eliminatórias europeias parecem ainda mais árduos e intrigante.

No grupo F, apesar dos esforços de seu craque popstar Cristiano Ronaldo, o Portugal (com 17 pontos) está em perigo de ficar fora da Copa, ou pelo menos, da qualificação automática, devido as complicações na sua tentativa de ultrapassar a líder Rússia (18). Duas vitórias russos contra Luxemburgo e Azerbaijão obrigaram os lusos a jogar a repescagem.

No grupo G, a Bósnia-Herzegovina visa livrar-se de sua reputação como as chamadas ‘chokers’, ao alcançar a sua primeira Copa do Mundo. Os Bósnios terminarem em segundo lugar em ambos as duas últimas campanhas de qualificação para uma grande competição, e foram posteriormente derrotado nas duas ocasiões pelo mesmo equipe, o Portugal, na repescagem. Nesse momento, ocupam o primer lugar, e tudo aponta para um final feliz, uma vez que já derrotou o rival mais próximo, Grécia, em março, e agora enfrenta dois jogos muito ganhaveis, contra Liechtenstein e Lituânia. Qualquer fracasso deve ser agarrado pela Grécia, que está atualmente no mesmo número de pontos na segunda colocação, mas com um saldo de gols inferior.

Com nove grupos, e apenas oito vagas na repescagem, o segundo colacado com os piores resultados contra as nações da sua secção seja eliminado. Ninguém quer perder uma Copa do Mundo no Brasil. Com várias nações poderosas ainda não garantidas lugares no torneio, as apostas são altas.

Make or break time for England

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England manager Roy Hodgson knows what’s at stake.

The next eight days see England face two home fixtures that will decide whether or not they shall play in next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil. First up under Wembley’s arch this Friday is the visit of Montenegro, followed by Poland four days later – two nations that have already taken a point off the Three Lions during qualification.

Given the manner in which they have struggled to overcome so-called lesser opponents at Wembley in recent times – as was the case against the Republic of Ireland and Scotland over the summer – it is far from a foregone conclusion that Roy Hodgson’s men shall be boarding the plane for Brazil come early-June. 

So what of the squad that has been assembled for this crucial double-header? It can be argued that many of those that are set to gather for the first training session at St. George’s Park this morning arrive on the back of a sustained period of good form for their respective clubs, with one notable exception, of course. 

While the form of Joe Hart has been much-scrutinized, from the back of tabloids and broadsheets to the nth degree on the various social media, the emergence of talented ball-carriers such as Ross Barkley and Andros Townsend, alongside the maturity in front of goal shown this season by Daniel Sturridge, means that there is huge cause for optimism going into the qualifiers. Throw into the mix Rickie Lambert’s seamless transition to the International fold and it is clear to see why many believe England should prove too strong for their opponents.

With no fewer than five squad members featuring, Manchester City’s 3-1 victory over Everton during Saturday lunchtime’s hotly-contested clash at the Etihad will have given the on-looking England manager plenty of food for thought; not least due to the performance of James Milner, who did his chances of a starting-berth against Montenegro no harm in a disciplined display that both nullified the trademark attacking runs of fellow countryman Leighton Baines and enabled the likes of Silva and Yaya Touré greater freedom going forward.

Given the absence of Theo Walcott and Ashley Young through injury and a dip in form respectively, the squad is shorn of experienced personnel who can provide natural width. As a result, it is easily Hodgson’s biggest call who to pick in this department. With a full 90 minutes under his built as ideal preparation, don’t be surprised if Hodgson calls on the dependable Milner again to answer his dilemma out wide. 

What is more a formality should be the back five. Fresh from that morale-boosting victory over the Toffees and a vote of confidence from his manager, Joe Hart is set to keep the number one jersey. This is not the same Hart that has grabbed everyone’s attention ever since his stellar displays during his loan spell at Birmingham City in 2009/10. Back then, it was refreshing to see an English goalkeeper oozing the sort of confidence that resembled someone guarding the net in his back garden rather than on such a prestigious stage.

Some have argued he’s taken his eye off the ball; that his TV commercial appearance has, well, got to his head. There are several theories as to why the player hasn’t looked ‘The Great Wall’  as he was once dubbed by the Spanish press; one that is looking less plausible is the lack of stiff competition, given the heroics of Fraser Forster during Celtic’s recent 1-0 defeat to Barcelona. The level of chastisement levelled at him from all corners for failure to perform routine saves in the 3-1 defeat to FC Bayern last Wednesday cannot have helped his confidence; Hart is the sort that would appear unfazed by negative publicity, and yet he will not have needed reminding of those errors. Unfortunately, the nation loves to beat someone when they’re down, and currently Hart is receiving the ‘Torres treatment’. 

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In front of him, a solid understanding has developed between Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill in each of the past five international fixtures. Having a settled side is paramount going into a major tournament, and it would appear Hodgson has pinned his colours on experience over youth. What they lack in pace they make up for in being exceptional readers of the game. With Montenegro and Poland expected to provide limited attacking forays, it is important that England stay concentrated during  the occasional moments they do come under pressure. 

Ashley Cole’s withdrawal during Chelsea’s hard-fought 3-1 victory over Norwich on Sunday would previously have had England managers fretting in the same week as games of such magnitude; not when the form of Leighton Baines has been so superbly consistent. Hodgson knows that should Cole be unable to shrug off a rib injury, he has in Baines a more than trusted deputy, not to mention the creator of more goal-scoring opportunities than anyone else in Europe last season and a dead-ball specialist.

On the right, Glen Johnson’s absence means that Kyle Walker should add to his eight caps, but a week’s training will give Hodgson and his staff ample time to assess any signs of complacency or fatigue that were on show in Tottenham’s surprise 3-0 defeat at home to West Ham United.

Such a damaging scoreline means the international break comes at a good time for Jermaine Defoe, who will point to his impressive scoring record against continental defences as reason for his inclusion over the coming fortnight. It would appear, however, that at the age of 30, Defoe has accepted the role of an impact substitute capable of stretching tired defenders.

The form of Daniel Sturridge has been a major focal point in Liverpool’s surge to the summit of the Premier League, and given Rooney’s rediscovery of his appetite for goal, it will frustrate many of those attending the games if either are deployed out of position. Such an exciting prospect should be given freedom to blossom, and provided Hodgson is bold in his midfield selection, this should prove the perfect platform on which to form a partnership together that is just as devastating as those they enjoy at domestic level, alongside Suárez and van Persie respectively.

Which brings me back onto the midfield and the selection of James Milner. Granted, had either of Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain been fit, we would most likely have seen a far more expansive England side than the one that will line-up on Friday, but given the options at Hodgson’s disposal, it would be wrong to throw Townsend or Barkley in from the start.

Milner will be keen to show he still possesses the creative side to his game that has been disregarded since his selection against Ukraine was largely viewed as unglamorous. His unrelenting work-rate is the sort that will wear weaker opponents down, and the same can be said of Danny Welbeck, who would seem most comfortable playing in a position where he’s not the centre of attention. 

In the centre of midfield, a case can be made for either of Lampard or Carrick to partner captain Steven Gerrard, especially given Jack Wilshere’s slight dip in form this season. The youngster’s fine strike for Arsenal in Sunday’s 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion  – his first in the Premier League for three seasons – will have breathed fresh confidence into the 21-year-old, but as observers of the game will testify, there is a fine line between tenacity and ill-discipline, and Wilshere has shown signs of over-stepping the mark on more than one occasion since his return from a long lay-off.

Those with an England allegiance will hope Mezut Özil’s arrival at the Emirates won’t have a detrimental effect on the development of one of the nation’s biggest prospects; indeed, many will point to the signature as a positive move that will hopefully take the attention away from such a precocious talent.

The Gerrard-Lampard axis might be in the winter of its international existence, but it still provides arguably the best platform from which to dictate proceedings in the attacking third. Provided there are no mid-week withdrawals due to a flailing Phil Jones boot, England should be confident of coming through these final tests of nerve. It’s make or break time for England. Whatever you do, Roy, leave the brolly at home.