So, much as I’m loathe to turn this blog over to football yet again, I feel that needs must in the light of last week’s European Championship Qualifiers, and their connotations for British football…among other things.

With a 1-0 defeat against Spain, away, due to a deflected Xavi strike, Northern Ireland finished third in their qualifying group, behind the Iberian perennial under-achievers, and the Scandinavian over-achievers Sweden. They managed to consign ’92 winners Denmark to third place. It’s difficult to lavish praise on the Irish without sounding patronising, especially when they came within two victories of qualifying for their first major finals since 1986. Regardless, it’s a massive achievement for a side who had to jump stream in mid campaign when their manager defected to club football, and it’s worth noting that with a population around the same size as Birmingham’s, Northern Ireland are by far the smallest country to finish in the top 3 of any of the qualifying groups.

Like Scotland, not qualifying when it seemed for a while that it might actually be possible, is undoubtedly a crushing blow. But like Scotland, Northern Ireland’s performances and subsequent results have seen them rocket up the FIFA World Rankings, overtaking their neighbours in the South, and assuring them a place in the third pot of seeds for today’s World Cup qualifying draw in Durban. Qualification might have been a near miss, but a slightly more favourable draw for the next tournament’s qualifying will be a result in real terms for both countries.

 Scotland came a little closer than Northern Ireland. They needed just one victory from their final two qualifiers to seal their place. Unfortunately, after some superhuman effort in previous games, the wheels came off in Georgia, and despite a battling performance against Italy at a rain-soaked Hampden Park, Scotland were eventually even denied a nail-biting Wednesday evening hoping Georgia could turn over the French by one of the most ludicrous refereeing decisions I’ve ever seen.

True, it could be argued that Scotland’s equaliser, Barry Ferguson, was offside when he scored, and that Italy had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside (wrongly disallowed for offside, but Di Natale handled the ball in the build up, so…). The referee and linesman conspired to get several decisions wrong for both teams, but these were calls that you could accept human error in, where the action was happening just to quickly for human eyes to assess the situation accurately. These kind of decisions will go against every team, and will generally balance themselves out over time, but the free kick award which lead to Italy’s winner was quite clearly wrong. No subjectivity here, it was just wrong.

I’ve seen this incident a few times now, and how the assistant and the referee cna possibly conspire to award the free kick to Italy is beyond me. Frankly, I will never understand it. Yes, we should have defended the set piece better (against one of the world’s greatest exponents of free kicks), but then it simply shouldn’t have been a free kick in the first place.

 Wales finished fifth of seven in their group, which is needless to say disappointing. The loss of key players due to retirement and ructions with manager John Toshack haven’t helped, although like Scotland, some promising young players have come through. Wayne Hennessey and Gareth ‘Christian’ Bale look like international veterans at the ages of just 20 and 18 respectively. The Republic finished two places above them in the same group, and both sides struggled to make their mark in games they needed to win. Although a 0-0 draw against Germany in their final game will hopefully add a bit of resolve to the young Weslh team.

And then we’re left with England. On Saturday, unbelievably, two results elsewhere in the group put not only qualification back in England’s hands, but allowed them the chance to finish top of the group after Croatia were beaten by their near-neighbours Macedonia. Second-Choice Steve as he will surely always be known by English football fans from here on in, had overseen a very average qualifying campaign (with a draw at home against Macedonia, although the Balkan side were clearly punching above their weight through the group, and a defeat away to Croatia), but now had to simply avoid defeat to ensure his side reached the finals. Their opponents were Croatia, who despite their reversal four days previously, had already qualified.

You probably know what happened. Croatia raced into a two goal lead, England as ever fought back, but ultimately had no answer to an opponent with more guile and technique and them. And so the hand-wringing began.

Population size is often mentioned as a factor in international football. Because you can’t just go out and buy a player to fill the position you might be lacking in, you have to rely on indigenous talent coming through. A nation with a population of 50 million might be expected to have more chance of producing a great squad (squad, not team) than a nation a tenth their size. Of the winners of the last eleven World Cups, only Argentina have a population of less than 50 m. Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Italy and France all have weight of numbers, a history and passion for the game, and ingredient X. Indeed, the smallest nation to contest a World Cup final in recent years has been Holland, whose insane team of Total Footballers contested the World Cups of ’74 and ’78. It’s clear then, that if a nation with a population of less than ten million is going to struggle to compete with the big guns. A small nation could produce maybe four or five players worthy of competing on the world stage, but to win the world cup, you need between 20-40 world class players. That said, the European Championship is continually won by smaller countries, although rather more determined small countries who don’t have to face Brazil and Argentina.

Croatia as a country has a population of 5 million, less than the city where they played England on Wednesday night. Yet they dispatched England for the second time in the group with such aplomb that many fans left Wembley scratching their heads. While Croatia lacked the physical strength, and arguably the strength in depth of the England squad, they were consummately more able with the ball at their feet, able to exectue tight passing triangles and play their way out of trouble, causing consternation for England with their pace on the break. England meanwhile were lashing long balls up to lone target man Peter Crouch, who while being a very good player with the ball in the air, is pathetic in the air given his height (compare with Jan Koller here). Thus, the ball wasn’t sticking for England, and Croatia were able to launch their counter-attacks time and time again.

This of course caused English football culture to go into meltdown. Not qualifying for the European championship was unthinkable, and someone had to be held accountable. The FA acted immediately by sacking manager Steve McClaren, and the papers seemed to pepper the entire footballing landscape with flak, but no single cause has been identified as the root of the problem.

 O RLY? From where I watched the game, it was apparent that Croatia’s players were more comfortable on the ball, even allowing for the treacherous surface. They were able to switch play more rapidly and their passing and movement was light years ahead of England’s. The smaller countries in Europe know they have to play like this; they won’t be able to over power their larger rivals, so they have to overwhelm them. The problem is this will only get a team like Croatia so far before they end up facing one of Northern Europe’s artists. Again, ignore Greece winning Euro ’04 here.

The game also surely saw the end of the so-called ‘Golden Generation’, a crop of players who had steadfastly managed to not proceed further than the quarter-finals in any tournament. They had been knocked out on penalties twice by Portugal, and once by Brazil. The blame for these failures was laid clearly at the door of the manager; particularly in the last three tournaments, Sven Goran Eriksson was castigated in some quarters for not doing more with the ‘world’s best players’. That kind of hyperbole was especially evident in the build up to last summer’s world cup; I heard one England fan opine that his side were guaranteed to win the tournament as they had the best player in each position of any country there. While this wasn’t a consensus view, similar opinions were expressed, and the contrary position was assumed by few. At least, not before the quarter final knock out.

 But here we reach the crux of the matter; do England really possess the ten or so greatest players in the world? It’s hard to agree with this view even in retrospect, simply because there are so many players out there who are frankly better and more successful. For example, several insular England fans expressed disbelief that their national team should struggle to finish in the top two of their qualifying group while continuing to play well domestically. It’s worth noting however that a good deal of the current England squad come from the top four Premiership sides, where every week they play with a mixture of other nationalities. It could be argued that Frank Lampard misses the back up of Michael Essien and Claude Makelele, and Steven Gerrard misses Xabi Alonso and Momo Sissoko, or it could be argued that their foreign team-mates are making them look a lot better than they actually are. It’s probably a mixture of the two, as can be evidenced by two goals scored on Saturday on the return to domestic football. At Newcastle Steven Gerrard scored a superb 30 yard free-kick for Liverpool, something he is capable of doing for Liverpool but very rarely displays any sign of doing for England. However, 150 miles south, Portsmouth’s Niko Kranjčar was scoring an equally impressive free-kick. And as it was he who scored Croatia’s opening goal on the Wednesday, it was perhaps a sign that England are currently unable to do anything that Croatians can’t match.

And here we’re faced with more questions than answers. Top end technique is frowned upon slightly throughout Britain, unlike on the continent. However, continental teams are much more likely to win things than the British. So, you do the math.

 Oh, we Brits can do maths either, can we?

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 Jeannie Wilkieson Kirkwood nee Marquis was born on the 26th May 1923 in the Hurlet, then a small village on the South West border of Glasgow. She was the sixth and youngest child of Donald and Janet Marquis. Her eldest sister Meg (Margaret) was twenty years old when Jeannie was born, and never tired of playing with her younger sibling, something Jean wasn’t overly keen on.

As a teenager she lost her two front teeth to a toffee apple at Neilston Cattle Show, and not long after that she met her future husband Archibald Kirkwood. Like many others, her life was disrupted due to the war. She worked in a munitions factory, but her life with Archie wasn’t affected as much as it could have been; as an engineering draftsman, his profession was protected, and he was therefore unable to sign up. She and Archie were married in the late 40s, and not long after Jean fell pregnant for the first time. The child, stillborn, was named Richard. The couple’s first valid child was Dickson, born in 1952, and Janet arrived in 1955. Like almost all the female members of the family, Janet became known by a name other than the one she was christened by; Janice in this case.

The family settled in Archie’s hometown of Barrhead, initially in Levern Crescent and then in Arthur Avenue. Archie continued to work as an engineer, and Jean would irregulalry work in the local corner shop. Unfortunately, in 1976, Archie died of a stroke. Jean was distraught at her husband’s untimely death, but this was ameliorated a little when her first grandchild was born to Dickson and his wife Margo in 1978. Darrin was followed in quick succession by Janet’s two children Jay (1980) and Kara (1982). By the time Dickson’s second son Jacob was born in 1990, her last grandchild, Jean was retired and living in a small flat round the corner from the house she shared with her family. 

She had enjoyed playing bowls for many years, and did so up until the late 90s, when she started to suffer from mental ill-health. The development of agorophobia was followed a few years later by a mini-stroke, but physically she remained fairly robust. She became a great-grandmother in 2002 with the birth of Ailie, and acquired a second great-grandchild with the arrival of Rachael three years later. However, her mental well-being began to decline rapidly in recent years, and she had spent time in hospital and respite care. Unfortunately, the death of Dickson in February of this year did nothing to help her situation. Just after she had gone into full time nursing care, she died of a viral infection.

She is survived by her daughter Janet, her four grandchildren, and her two great-grandchildren.

I’m immensley dissatisfied with my life at the moment. Everything seems to be assuming the shape of a garden full of pears, and I seem utterly powerless to do anything about it.

Item after item irritates me immensely to the point where I should have a big list of things to write about, but sitting here with the laptop in front of me, I can’t think of a single one. Suffice to say I’m sick of people’s smug, lazy attitudes to many things, though specifically towards music; the notion that one band’s music is infinitely more worthy than another, or the individual’s opinion this is the case has been around for many many years. But that just means it’s boring and everyone’s sick of it. And it’s the same old debates, the same subjective responses, and the supply of several names of other bands, supposedly far superior, and yet almost identical in terms of musical dna, down to the last few allelles.

In the end, people’s opinions don’t really matter that much. And I think that terrifies some of them.

I’ve never been a huge fan of lyrics; I can listen to songs hundred, maybe thousands of times and not have the slightest idea what the lyrics are, or what they’re about. Which is odd for someone with such a keen interest in words. But I like music as well, and just as I don’t listen to music while I’m reading because it distracts me, I find I’m much more likely to listen to riffs and chord progressions than what the singer’s actually getting at. Which might be a bad thing, but fuck it, it really doesn’t bother me that much.

 That said, there are a few Morrissey/Smiths lyrics I like. ‘How Soon Is Now’ is one; ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ is another. In fact the latter is one of a select few songs I actually like the lyrics more than the music. There’s just something so universal about “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now”, that transcends its origins in the frustrated north of England in the mid 80s. It’s an especially relevant lyric to me at the moment, because I have finally embarked on a career, and while it may not be the career I initially aimed for, it is a promising one. And since my appointment was confirmed, I’ve never felt so fucking miserable.

 Even spending a large amount of money (paid in cash) for a flight to the U.S. next April, where I will hopefully see three of the places I’ve long been enraptured by, hasn’t cheered me up. I can’t quite put my finger on why I’m feeling so down at the moment, but there are a number of potential candidates; the clocks have gone back, and soon I’ll be leaving and returning from work in the dark. I also have to do this by the incredibly erratic local bus service, and I still live with my mother. The latter I’m not sure there’s a huge amount I can do anything about; even the cheapest monthly rent would be around £300, and buying my own house is almost out of the question. Even a one-bedroom flat in a reasonable area is costing around £80,000 at the moment, which is frankly ridiculous. And if I do buy a grotty flat round here, no doubt the housing market would go into reverse, and I’d be struggling to get half of what I paid for it.

 I’m also resolutely single. As the girl has now taken nearly two days to reply to the last text message I sent her, I guess this means she’s not interested, despite her claims to the contrary.

And football was pretty crap as well. Despite me scoring with my right foot from the half way line. Which never happens.

So, in summary; job is good, but man cannot live by bread alone.

He needs cake as well at times.