Resurgent England break down tartan wall on road to redemption

Resurgent Rooney: The Manchester United striker (centre) has 18 goals in 28 matches under Roy Hodgson.

Resurgent Rooney: The Manchester United striker (centre) has 18 goals in 28 matches under Roy Hodgson.

Such was the despondency and apathy surrounding the England camp following an abysmal World Cup in Brazil that not even a rousing response of six consecutive wins, including this latest polished performance in navigating a route past the auld enemy, will alter the end of term report card.

Neutralising the blood and thunder of a first fixture in Scotland for 15 years is a sign of growing maturity, but as Graeme Souness summarised, Champions League players beat Championship counterparts every time – especially four days after such a high-octane throwback battle against the Irish involving all but one of the same players.

The confidence instilled by an immaculate European Qualifying campaign from four games should not be undervalued, however, when one compares the difficulties experienced by many of the other international super powers.

World Champions Germany were given stiff autumn tests by both Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, and the encouragement generated by the new qualifying format in the Group D rivals is reflected in fellow home nations Wales and Northern Ireland and across the continent, as four of the five lowest ranked UEFA nations, including San Marino, picked up at least a point in the latest round of fixtures.

As Spain, Germany and the Netherlands continue to experience growing pains in their respective transitional periods entered post-Copa, Roy Hodgson has reconstructed a young and exuberant England side that are slowly emerging from the shadows of the golden generation that failed before them.

With each passing performance, Wayne Rooney is growing into the captaincy role vacated by the waning Steven Gerrard. Much was documented over the past fortnight about Rooney’s place among the pantheon of greats to bear the Three Lions shirt, and here he was answering his critics with cartwheels and straining neck muscles.

Tweaking the system to a fluid 4-3-3 last night, England emit ‘work in progress’. But while it was a blend of youth and experience which worked so effectively in the east end of Glasgow, it is the emergence of Nat and Jack that will entice England fans back to Wembley for the season’s resumption against Lithuania and Italy next March.

Jack Wilshere is of course nothing new in body, but a change in positioning and personnel around him has breathed fresh life into this latest rebuilding project. Unshackled by the retirements of rivals, and spurred on by a frustrating three months with Arsenal, Wilshere was the unstoppable freight train reaching top speed against Slovenia, and he took his plaudits with him to Celtic Park, only lifting his foot off the gas when stopping to produce a gorgeous assist for England’s opener.

The pinpoint pass to club-mate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was Beckhamesque, a moment of class to break Scottish hearts. The still only 22-year-old has reached the highest level for both club and country through playing the game high on intensity, but his injury track record suggests it has come at a price.

Getting the best out of a fit Wilshere in a deep-lying, more specialist role has surfaced as an even greater perplexity than the Gerrard-Lampard dichotomy of old, but finding the answer may well be the ticket to England’s best tournament showing in 20 years by the time France 2016 comes around.

While Hodgson will continue to refine his midfield blend in the New Year – with the form of Jordan Henderson and fitness of Ross Barkley inevitably set to improve – far less clouded must he be on the subject of Glen Johnson’s successor.

Nathaniel Clyne will struggle to produce two displays of such defensive assuredness in the rest of his international career, after the right-back built on a promising debut on Saturday by adding another £10million to his valuation last night.

England may just have finally found a worthy replacement for Gary Neville, and an answer to the right-sided conundrum that had been accelerating since Johnson’s demise and Kyle Walker’s unending spell on the sidelines.

Classy Clyne: Southampton's full-back has taken his opportunity with two impressive displays

Classy Clyne: Southampton’s full-back has taken his opportunity with two impressive displays

Bigger tests await Clyne, but in the absence of those aforementioned pair of ‘modern-day full-backs’ and belief in either Chris Smalling or Phil Jones ever reaching the required standard shelved, the discovery of a right-back whose love is defending will have pleased Hodgson as much as anything.

The continued improvement of Danny Welbeck, in the absence of the injury-blighted Daniel Sturridge, will have come a close second. Rooney’s relationship with the striker forged at Old Trafford, as well as Welbeck’s fine goals-per-game ratio, will make for an intriguing debate in 18 months’ time when selection really matters.

But for now, the Arsenal striker picks himself. Souness spoke before of Welbeck being ‘the type of player you want to see do well’ and afterwards of the contrasting quality in the line of attack, palpably envious of all the qualities the striker had once more dazzled him with. While Derby’s Chris Martin ploughed a lone furrow, Welbeck showed steel in the tackle, and then the selfless side to his game, taking up a wide position before his withdrawal.

Olivier Giroud will have returned to action for Arsenal by the time England next regroup at St George’s in four months’ time, but Welbeck’s all-round game and knack of thriving off competition make dropping him unpalatable at present.

Less effective, but not surprising, was the failure of the Stewart Downing experiment. Eyebrows were raised when the 30-year-old was recalled to the international fold for the first time since Hodgson announced his first England squad, but in being deployed out of the position that has brought his own resurgence, Downing will have been frustrated by an ineffectual 45 minutes which may prove his last at this level.

Hodgson resisted playing him at the tip of a diamond formation working so effectively for Hammers boss Sam Allardyce, but he may argue the playmaker’s inclusion served its purpose. It is a characteristic of the current England manager not to brandish caps without lengthy deliberation, and with Downing adding his 35th over two years after his 34th, the belief among players in the autumn of their careers that good form doesn’t go unnoticed is alive and well.

Hodgson’s biggest test for 2015 will be to keep the players from boredom, believing in his management and vision throughout the inevitable challenges posed by club managers over the necessity of selection, and after the initial excitement of ‘a new era’ has again worn off. The past 12 months will forever be remembered for the nine days of torment in June, but with Rooney, Welbeck, Wilshere and Clyne at the fore, there are once more grounds for optimism.

Houghton ready for historic battle with Germany

Stephanie Houghton (no5) made her England debut against Russia in 2007.

Stephanie Houghton (no5) made her England debut against Russia in 2007.

England Women’s captain Stephanie Houghton says she is relishing the prospect of leading out the Lionesses against Germany in front of a record 55,000 Wembley crowd on Saturday.

England are seventh and five spots behind second-placed Germany in the world rankings ahead of the friendly to be played in front of the highest attendance for an England Women’s game.

Houghton, who scored for Team GB in a 1-0 win over Brazil under the arch during London 2012, studied Sports Science at Loughborough University before becoming a professional footballer. Having won the Continental Cup with Manchester City this season, the 26-year-old is hopeful of creating more memories down Wembley Way this weekend.

“When we walk out and hear the crowd and the national anthem, I think it will be a very emotional moment, but a very proud one for everybody involved,” Houghton said. “It’ll mean everything to us – we don’t get too many opportunities to play in front of so many people, but it just shows how far the women’s game has come.”

England made light work of mediocre opponents in qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Canada – clocking up double figures in the 10-0 demolition of Montenegro in September. But Houghton knows European Champions Germany will be an entirely different proposition.

“We’ve played friendly games against Canada, Sweden and France so we’ve tested ourselves against some of the best teams. We need this type of challenge before we go to a World Cup and experience playing in front of big crowds – there’s probably no bigger challenge in women’s football than playing against Germany at present.”

England Women’s head coach Mark Sampson believes the huge crowd attracted by a fixture against the European Champions is indicative of the progress being made in the women’s game and Houghton, having been made captain in Sampson’s first game in charge against Norway in January, is determined to make the swirl of support count on the biggest of stages.

“When I got a phone call to say that we had sold that many tickets, and that there was going to have to be a cap on it [due to engineering works around the stadium] I was amazed. You just get goosebumps thinking of the game.

“It’s a great honour to play for England anyway, but to see your shirt hung up in the dressing room of this great stadium, I’m very privileged. I’ll be nervous but it will be a very proud moment to walk out into this stadium.

“Wembley is home, so it is going to be an amazing occasion, and hopefully we can put in a performance to go along with it.”

England take on Germany on Sunday 23 November (KO 3pm) and the match is live on BBC Two, with coverage starting at 2.45pm.

Friday Interview: With Triathlete Tine Holst

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It’s 10am in Hawaii and humid. As many revelers on the honeymoon island stir in their idyllic beach huts, one traveler has been up since dawn. It’s ten days since Tine Holst finished seventh at an Ironman event in Mallorca, but the physio turned triathlete is not here for a sun tan. She’s been out swimming and performed ultrasound on a local before she’s even called me, fresh-faced, from her sofa.

Winner of the Cologne Triathlon Festival earlier last month, the Dane is recuperating alongside her supportive duties to boyfriend Christian who is preparing to embark on a 140-mile journey in the Ironman World Championships this weekend. We’re just about to get started when a bird flies in through her apartment window.

Holst treats its arrival with the same unperturbed response that greets the deliverance of a letter, such is the abundance of natural scenery in the nothernmost tip of the Polynesian triangle. After all, she is not unlike our intruder, spending much of the year away from her nest in Küsnacht, a municipality in the canton of Zurich. Indeed, there is very little that now startles the 34-year-old, after making a full recovery from a serious knee injury whilst skiing four years ago.

“Everything was planned for me before the accident,” Holst told me, after freeing our winged friend. “I wanted to qualify for the World Championships and see if I could do it in my third year as a triathlete. Two months after I had finished first in the Barcelona Ironman, I got this injury. I remember I was crying in bed, thinking my plans to go to train in South Africa with local people were over. I had already booked my place in the Ironman there in April that year.

“As a physiotherapist, I know that an ACL operation is so complicated that in a year you can virtually forget about sport, about running and competing at a high level. Maybe, your career is finished. I was lying there with all these thoughts, but I had been there before.”

Holst had survived a car accident in Spain a year earlier, and sought the same doctor to put her back together again then. He instilled in her the belief she could make a full return to competition, and her motto ‘don’t stop believing’ has stuck with her ever since. Against all odds, she was able to use the Ironman event in Port Elizabeth as a training exercise and by August – seven months after the skiing incident – she was fit to compete at the Ironman UK in Bolton.

“I knew that I may not have been able to finish the race, but I didn’t stop believing that I could qualify for the World Championships in Hawaii,” Holst added. “It was a miracle that I finished second in my age group and qualified. The course in Bolton was extremely hard. Ocean temperatures were as low as 14 degrees and it was raining heavily so to come through it really lifted my spirits, and made me realise that I could do more than what was believed possible.”

Holst – who performed gymnastics at an elite level during her childhood – has arrived late to triathlon, taking up the endurance sport at the age of 27 when many of her competitors were either in their prime or even looking towards retirement. But she isn’t the sort to dip her toes in the water when entering the unknown. Her first experience of the sport came in 2007 when she attended an Ironman event in Copenhagen.

“Watching it, I thought I could do it,” said Holst. “I couldn’t swim 25m crawl and I’d never ridden a road bike, but I decided to sign up for an event at the end of August that year. I did breast stroke for 900m and rode an old worn-out bike the full 45km despite two punctures. It was cold but I continued through the struggle because I knew I could run. It was a test to see if this was something I really wanted to do, and I came out thinking I would do my first Ironman the following summer.

“Many people have said that if my parents had put me on a race bike when I was 14, I would be a professional cyclist today. I would have been on a completely different level today had I started early. I had everything against me. I could have given up thousands of times saying, ‘forget about it’. Training 30 hours a week is hard, and requires a lot of discipline. But what spurs me on is my love for the sport, and the way in which my story has influenced others to become healthier.

“I’m the type of person who takes a chance. I don’t think that I have to train many years before I do a half or a full marathon. I believe that I can do anything I put my mind to. I’d only been running three months before I did my first half marathon, and it made me feel that I had talent. Before I knew it, I’d done two marathons.

“But I thought it was actually less healthy for your body to just do running. Far healthier would be to do three disciplines – that was my perspective on the triathlon. I wanted to do something that would give me a full-body workout. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t bike and I couldn’t swim, and the fact that I learned it all is something I can use now in motivational speeches. It is something that makes me happy, because my success is shared as a reference point for others. It inspires them to solve their own problems.”

Holst doesn’t work in a clinic. But helping others to emerge from their own tunnel of pain is an obligation to the dedicated athlete. The certified ski instructor, who also conducts her own Fit Camps in Mallorca, takes a dim view on sport being used solely for financial gain.

“I believe certain athletes who run with sponsors on their backs do it for the money,” said Holst, whose nutrition partner is Herbalife. “When I see people running with certain brands on their clothes, I don’t think they have even drunk the product. I’m a very honest person who takes responsibility for what I do, and I couldn’t say yes to a brand that I don’t identify with.

“My wish to be a professional athlete and my injury history turned out to be a motivation to many people. It has led me to many sponsors for me. The success in Bolton coupled with the ACL injury and being driven over by a car turned out to be motivational story for many people.

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“My main goal in becoming a professional was knowing that if I was successful, I would have a bigger impact on people around the world as opposed to just those who attended my clinic in Denmark or in Switzerland. I would treat ten people a day, but as an athlete my help to others has multiplied a lot. I want to do the best that I can in order to help others feel they can get the best out of themselves.”

Holst is clearly eager to make up for lost time, and targets winning an Ironman and competing in the World Championships professionally as attainable objectives. Having a healthy body and leading the right lifestyle, few would bet against her achieving those lofty ambitions despite being by her own admission ‘up against the watch’.

“There are only 35 girls that can start here at this year’s World Championships, and I know they are better then me. It’s motivational. I still have a lot to learn, but I look back at how far I’ve come and believe anything is possible.”

REBOwall Launch Causes Racket in Hackney

No membership required: REBOwall has taken tennis out of traditional environments, and placed it firmly in the heart of Hackney.

No membership required: REBOwall has taken tennis out of traditional environments, and placed it firmly in the heart of Hackney.

Andy Murray’s former coach Mark Petchey believes a new UK-wide initiative will help ignite passion for tennis within the children of Hackney.

The former British number was speaking on Tuesday evening’s launch of REBOwall – an easily adjustable angle-faced rebound practice wall – at the Young Hackney Concorde Centre.

Adrian Hutchins founded the concept geared at making tennis more accessible to inner-city children last year, and Petchey was visibly encouraged by the enthusiasm engendered within the 8-10 year-olds who were present to try out their new toy.

“It’s pouring with rain, but the kids are having fun,” Petchey, 44, told me. “You can still see a smile on their faces. Every time kids are given a goal, you see them coming together and wanting to do better. It’s a positive environment, as you see light in the eyes of the kid who at first couldn’t hit the ball being able to connect with it.

“It doesn’t take long when you’ve got a practice partner who is not going anywhere to get better. You only need one ball, one racket and you can play for hours on end. That isn’t a huge cost.”

Eight local kids who had never picked up racket before joined Petchey and Hutchins on the day REBOwall was installed at the Concorde’s playground, and Petchey believes it will galvanize more first-timers to come forward, free of any financial excuse.

“One of the things that I don’t think we’ve done well in this country is introduce kids to the sport, and it’s a bigger issue as to how you can retain them,” Petchey continued. “This is a very functional, relatively inexpensive way for kids to have access to tennis in the rain or whenever you want, hitting balls against the wall, and potentially igniting a passion for the sport. More importantly, you can have kids burning off energy doing something productive.

“I watch a lot of tennis coaching lessons – my kids both play – and the one thing I’m big on is hitting tennis balls. I see a lot of talking, a lot of picking balls up and group sessions where you hit one ball ever four. I question how much fun a kid is having. Kids don’t want to stand in a line, so the more you can have a situation where they can hit the ball, the better.”

Petchey believes REBOwall teaches many important aspects of tennis, including positioning, footwork and ball connection.

Petchey believes REBOwall teaches many important aspects of tennis, including positioning, footwork and ball connection.

Petchey insisted that all the very best players, including Rodger Federer, Jimmy Connors, Caroline Wozniacki and Novak Djokovic all started by using a rebound wall, with its large surface area enabling them to improve ball control and footwork from a very young age.

Founder Hutchins is delighted to have someone of Petchey’s standing within the game on board to promote tennis in a non-traditional environment and believes the creation of a wall that provides a natural upward ball trajectory is only the start for his brand.

“This is a genuine tennis REBOlution,” Hutchins enthused. “The most exciting element of the launch is being able to expand it out into parks, playgrounds, communities and areas where you can’t put a tennis court. You can put one of these into a car park, under a railway arch, under a fly-over and start offering lessons.

“Someone of Mark’s experience will hopefully be very inspiring to the kids here. He brings a lot of kudos to the brand, and as he himself grew up using a rebound wall, he immediately bought into the idea.

“Some academies in America won’t let their juniors onto the tennis courts until they’ve had six sessions on a rebound wall. This makes them instantly accurate, their footwork and contact with the ball instantly improves. Once you translate that onto a court, you’re already a better tennis player because you understand what it feels to hit a tennis ball from the middle of the racket.”

The Concorde Centre, which is part of Hackney Council’s £5 million investment to improve facilities for young people in the local area, offers sports and healthy living facilities and allows children to take part in sports such as tennis, basketball, trampoline and badminton five days a week.

Mark Petchey was speaking at the launch of REBOwall’s national campaign to make tennis more accessible to inner-city children. To find out more visit REBOwall.com