Jim White

Football’s still our bread and butter

Jim White

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In this glorious summer for British sport, the golden months of Wiggo, Rory and Andy, of Mo, Jess and Sir Chris, everything has been touched with delight.

So ludicrously endowed have we been with moments to savour, the BBC montage of the best bits that was screened last month lasted half an hour. Everything has been wonderful. Well, almost everything. The football hasn't been great.

In every competition over these weeks of sporting nirvana, the footballing representatives from this island have come up short. In the Euros, England were evicted at the quarter-final stage, as is customary on penalties.

While their Olympian colleagues were hoovering up the bullion, both Great Britain's men and women were knocked out without becoming acquainted with the podium. Even in the Paralympics, where sound funding has made the British the second strongest operation competing, neither of the blind or cerebral palsy sides could manage a victory between them, both coming bottom of their qualifying groups.

Jon Allen Butterworth, a former RAF man who lost an arm in an insurgent attack in Iraq and turned to a bike during his rehabilitation, claimed as he took a couple of Paralympic medals last week that cycling was now the national sport. If you wanted to enjoy success, he said, forget football and look to Britain's two-wheeled heroes. That was where, as the great bard Elvis put it, satisfaction was guaranteed.

Cycling the national sport? In his dreams. Sure it is a growing interest, sure the mighty Wiggo's summer of triumph has led thousands to pull a bike from the shed and purchase some unnecessarily vibrant lycra, sure the Tour of Britain, as it starts today, will attract record crowds to the pavement edge.

But one thing is for sure, tonight far more people will tune in to watch England play Moldova in a World Cup qualifier than will engage with the life-affirming joys of the Paralympics. We will eschew the weepy possibility of learning about the courageous back story of sitting volleyball players who had their legs blown off in civil war and mayhem and instead listen to the familiarly reassuring tones of Clive Tyldesley telling us about England's inability, despite possessing a set of limbs, to keep the ball.

Why? Because while the fun and games of the summer may have been a distraction, it is football that matters. And however much we tell ourselves that our club is more important, that — given the choice - we would much rather our lads won the league or gained promotion than Steven Gerrard lifted the World Cup, however frequently we have been let down by our national representatives, still we can't help ourselves when it comes to England. Albeit it peeking between the fingers while positioned behind the sofa, we will be watching.

And what will we see? A certain England win. Their opponents Moldova sit 141st in the Fifa rankings, just south of Malta. While those rankings may not be the most accurate measure of a country's efficacy (after all, England currently are claimed to be third) 141st carries something of a message. This is a side, after all, which finished below Luxembourg in their last World Cup campaign. Whatever the condition of the pitch, whatever the distractions of a fiercely partisan crowd, this should be a routine victory.

For Roy Hodgson, the likeable, intelligent, grown-up now in charge of the England set up, it should offer another opportunity to demonstrate his principal quality: competence. We can expect three points accumulated without alarm or distraction. Probably without much in the way of thrill or excitement either.

If he lets Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain off the leash together we might just enjoy a few thrilling moments of pace. But the chances are that Hodgson's conservative nature will provide James Milner with another start just in case anyone needs to track back. Plus, with Scott Parker and Jack Wilshire injured, we can all endure the latest round of the "can Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard play together in the same midfield" debate.

Whatever the answer thrown up by this encounter to that perpetual conundrum, you can bet the house in this: the result should be a first three points to England.

Because this is what they have now become: a side who — except when Steve McClaren was in charge - qualify in a straightforward fashion. The campaigns organised by Hodgson's predecessor, for instance, contained no alarms or concerns. The problems have come not in the preliminaries but once the English arrive at the start line, against the best in the world.

Fortunately we have nearly two whole years before the next time that happens. So in the meantime, we can tune in without undue anxiety. And as we watch pray that by the time 2014 comes around, we will have discovered a Mo, Wiggo or Sir Chris who can kick a ball.

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