Euro 2020 Final Review: The Final Hurdle

So that was Euro 2020. 4 weeks of football filled with highs, lows, cheers, tears, and Peter Walton agreeing with every refereeing decision. The stage was set for two gladiators of European football to battle it out to see who would be crowned European champions. The mighty Azzurri of Italy against the Three Lions of England trying to bring football home, or bring it to Rome. Rome would be the destination football went to with Italy narrowly beating England 3-2 in a penalty shootout. Tricky old penalties yet again becoming England’s undoing and while 55 years of hurt never stopped them dreaming, the wait for glory carries on. For Italy it would be their second Euros title with their previous win coming in 1968 in what has been an unbelievable rebuild and turnaround for the squad in recent years. From failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup to the Roberto Mancini appointment to now champions of Europe again, it’s been quite the turnaround. So without any further ado, let’s get into the review!

Italy vs England

Result: Italy 1-1 England (Italy win 3-2 on penalties)

The match couldn’t have got off to a better start for England. It took only 1 minute and 56 seconds before Luke ‘Shawberto Carlos’ Shaw fired England into the lead with a brilliant half volley. Early goals always give teams confidence and the Three Lions were going to need it if they were going to stand a chance against Italy. England really impressed me in the first half. They looked dangerous every time they attacked and they could’ve been more than 1 up going into half time. Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips controlled the midfield completely with Rice looking solid and managing to keep the shape of the midfield well while Phillips aka the Yorkshire Pirlo created chances and got himself into handy positions. Harry Kane had Giorgio Chiellini completely beat in the aerial battle winning headers and making his presence felt against the Italian captain. Italy didn’t come without their threats in the first half. Tournament breakout star Federico Chiesa was creating chances and getting forward well. Into half time England went with their 1 goal lead and many England fans dared to dream. This was the closest football has been to coming home in 55 years. All those years of heartbreak could be put to end in just 45 minutes.

However they didn’t take one important thing into consideration, the Italian second half. I don’t know what it is but in the second half of games this tournament Italy just look that bit better. The substitutions Mancini made helped turn the tide of the game. Bryan Cristante came on for Nicolo Barella who didn’t have the best game and Dominico Beradi replaced Ciro Immobile who was surprisingly quiet. Following this the onslaught of Italian chances came. Waves after waves of pressure came along with England completely losing shape. They started to tire quite quickly as Jorginho and Marco Veratti completely controlled the ball in midfield. Then in the 67th minute the inevitable happened when Leonardo Bonucci equalised. From here on in it didn’t get too much better for England. I was surprised that Declan Rice was substituted for Jordan Henderson, I thought Rice was doing a good job of trying to keep shape and chased absolutely everything but he did look tired. Neither team could get through in the remaining 20 minutes and it was extra time we went.

Neither team particularly threatened that much in extra time. Italy managed to control the midfield well and they still looked fairly strong in attack even without Chiesa. England had a few chances down at the other end but never really looked like scoring. It was pretty clear that both teams towards the end were playing for penalties with Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford coming on for England towards the end of the second half of extra time, and it would have to be penalties to settle it where the Azzurri would be victorious. Harry Kane and Harry Maguire scored their penalties with Jordan Pickford managing to keep out Andrea Belotti and Jorginho. But misses from Rashford, Sancho, and teenage wonderkid Bukayo Saka meant that penalties from Beradi, Bonucci, and Federico Bernardeschi were enough for the win.

Italy are deserved winners of this tournament. From the first game they have been many people’s favourites and yet again it stays true that if you beat Wales at some point then you’ll probably win the tournament. That last bit is true, look at the 1958 World Cup where Brazil beat Wales 1-0 in the Quarter Finals and Euro 2016 where Portugal won 2-0 in the Semis (that has to count for something, right?). As I’ve said many times before, Mancini has completely turned this team around. From exiting Euro 2016 at the Quarter Finals to not going to the 2018 World Cup full stop this Italian team needed some serious work, and that’s what it got. They’ve played brilliant football all tournament and even at times when they didn’t look so convincing they managed to find a way. Not only do they have depth in every position, the quality of the backup players is outstanding. Players like Bernardeschi, Beradi, and Manuel Locatelli are good enough to get into most national team’s starting XI’s, this shows that they are just that good. The best team at the tournament this Euros and without shadow of a doubt will be many people’s favourites for Qatar in 2022. I hope they can end up getting quite far in the next World Cup, the thought of them playing the likes of Brazil, Argentina, or Uruguay makes me very excited. But let’s not look too far ahead yet, they still need to qualify first.

As for England, you can be damn proud. From the team and manager to the majority of fans, you’ve held yourselves in good light. This is a team that is likeable for the first time in however long. A team that stands up for what they believe in. Showing solidarity with black people all around the world and the Black Lives Matter movement by taking the knee before games as well as wearing the rainbow armband in support of the LGBTQIA+ community. Gareth Southgate has been central to this, defending his positions of solidarity and his players when questioned by politicians, aspects of the media, and even small minorities of idiots who have there nerve to call themselves England “fans” despite booing the team when taking the knee. They didn’t win Euro 2020, but Southgate brought football home again for England. English fans now have a national team that they can be proud of and can relate to no matter their background. A team that represents people regardless of their gender, sexuality, or race and a team that stands in solidarity with the English public’s struggles. Some might try and hijack their success and use it to fuel division and their own idea of nationalism i.e. Boris Johnson and Priti Patel jumping on the bandwagon despite criticising them for taking the knee and saying fans had the right to boo it, but this isn’t what this England team represents. It represents a better and more united future. The support that has been shown for Rashford, Sancho, and Saka since they missed their penalties in the shootout has been incredible. Good hearted fans are holding racist thugs accountable online whenever they’ve used slurs against the three of them leading to one losing their job for posting a racist tweet and another 50 year old man arrested for similar. In a world of hate we need to mirror with love and compassion and that has been shown in the last few days since the final. Love will always overcome, and hate will never win.

This was a tournament like no other. With how unstable the last 16 months have been around the world the Euros brought a bit of normality back. It lifted spirits after what’s been an incredibly tragic period in our lives and shows that there is definitely light at the end of what has been an incredibly long tunnel. It was the last bit of football that was played in the UK before the start of the new season in August, and with any luck the stadiums will be full once again because my god it’s been far too long.

Euro 2020 Semi Final Review: Lasergate, Penaltygate, Southgate

And then there were two. The final hurdle is in sight but there’s only room for one at the top. This week we were treated to back to back semi finals at Wembley where four of Europe’s elite battled it out to get that step closer to winning Euro 2020. I’m sure by now you’ve made your choice of who you want to see lift the trophy under the Wembley arch, or maybe you’re like me in that you don’t really care who wins because your national team aren’t playing in which case good on ya! But before Europe halts to a standstill at 20:00 BST this Sunday, there’s still the task for me to look back at the semi finals. Two pretty decent games all in all, and two long games at that. But at the end of it all the two favourites made it through to set up a final between arguably the two best dressed managers in international football, but Gareth Southgate loses a few points for ditching the waistcoat. Dapperness debate aside, lets get into the reviewing!

Italy vs Spain

Result: Italy 1-1 Spain (Italy win 4-2 on penalties)

Bit of a cagey opening this one. Italy are at their most dangerous when they hit on the counter and with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci at the back they can afford to be. However I was quite surprised at how little Italy did attack in the first half. Granted, they created some decent chances and did always look dangerous going forward but couldn’t quite get through. Spain on the other hand looked very strong. They were creating a lot of chances and were able to get shots away but the lack of a recognised striker was showing slightly. In the 60th minute Italy’s midfield maestro Federico Chiesa fired them into the lead and it looked as if it would be a dead cert that the Italians would hold on to see them through to the final but as is the rules, football doesn’t care for things making sense and the football gods only want scenes. Alvaro Morata came off the bench to score the equaliser that came in the 80th minute sending us to extra time. Neither team could break through and after some incredibly questionable penalties in the shootout, Italy prevailed making them the first team to make the final. This was a pretty fun game for the neutral. I’m not sure that it was the incredible game that the commentators and pundits made it out to be, nor do I buy Danny Murphy’s claim that it was the best game he’s seen in years when it wasn’t even the best game this tournament. There were some tired bodies out there by the end but luckily for Italy the other semi final would end up going to extra time in order to level the playing field a bit. Italy’s style of football just works. After what was a pretty woeful couple of years Roberto Mancini has got them back to playing at their best. They’ve no doubt benefited from the improvement of what were previously somewhat smaller teams in the Serie A in the last few years. Players such as Manuel Locatelli and Domenico Beradi from Sassuolo, Andrea Belotti from Torino, and Rafael Toloi from the incredibly impressive Atalanta team paired with quality from the big usual suspects such as Juventus, AC Milan, Internazionale, Napoli, and the two Rome teams (Lazio and Roma) then the base is there for a quality national side. The balance of youth and experience seems to be spot on whilst under the watchful eye of Mancini. They’ve more than bounced back from the disappointment from failure to qualify for Russia in 2018 and now they stand on the brink of greatness. As for Spain, with any other team I think they would’ve won that game. They played really well but as I said before I think they’re lacking an out and out striker. Morata is talented but far too inconsistent and whilst Gerard Moreno set La Liga on fire last season he’s not really done it at the Euros. But Spain can take pride in the fact that they proved me wrong, they actually are quite good at football.

England vs Denmark

Result: England 2-1 Denmark (aet)

Ooh this was tasty. This had a bit of everything which made it enjoyable for the neutral and 120 minutes of absolute living hell for the fans of either side. I personally had my heart set on penalties again because I find them fun, some men just want to watch the world burn (it’s me, I’m men). Denmark got off to a very strong start. They were winning the ball back well and looked dangerous every time they went forward. England started to creep back into it slightly before Mikkel Damsgaard scored an absolute belter of a free kick after 30 minutes to fire the Danes into the lead. Was it a free kick? The foul leading to it was a bit soft and it wouldn’t have been given in the Championship but regardless, for the first time this tournament Wembley was stunned into silence… for about 9 minutes. Bukayo Saka’s couldn’t be cleared by Simon Kjᴂr with the Danish centre half firing the ball into his own net. The second half came and went fairly quickly without too much fanfare and then, oh and then, we get into extra time. The game was only going to go one way once this happened. Denmark looked absolutely spent and had used most of their substitutions by that point. Then we get to the penalty which has caused the mother of all debates online from whether Raheem Sterling did his best Tom Daley impression and everyone on earth becoming an expert in military grade lasers overnight. For my two pence, I thought the penalty was a bit soft from Mᴂhle’s challenge but it looks like there was contact from Jensen on the follow through. This is where Peter Walton would’ve been able to give some actual insight but just used the old “plain and obvious” line and agreed with the referee’s decision, in other news the sun is hot. Kasper Schmeichel saved Harry Kane’s penalty but couldn’t keep out the rebound to give England the lead. Denmark did threaten in the second half of extra time but England held on to set up their first major final appearance since 1966 leading to Baddiel and Skinner, Neil Diamond, and Atomic Kitten to be played around Wembley. An interesting trio but I’ll let it slide, my main Spotify playlist is a lot more varied than that. Something weird has happened here, the England is quite team likeable. I know the anyone but England crowd exists and fair enough I totally get why, but you can’t honestly sit there and say you hate Marcus Rashford, Sterling (maybe you can if you support Liverpool), or Saka. The togetherness they’ve shown is admirable and Gareth Southgate’s persistency to stand up for minorities when facing backlash and criticism from politicians in the highest offices in the country and some fans shows incredible leadership. From Southgate wanting players to continue to take the knee in a stand against racism and Kane wearing the rainbow armband in support the LGBTQIA+ community, they’ve shone themselves in a good light. This is how you use a platform to bring awareness to struggles in society. As for Denmark, hold your heads up high gentlemen because my god you’ve made your country proud. To come back from the most horrific of all starts to the tournament to make the semi final is absolutely outstanding. Damsgaard has proven himself to be one of Europe’s best youngsters and Kjᴂr should be in the team of the tournament for the leadership he showed when Christian Eriksen collapsed and performing CPR until the medical team came with a defibrillator. You’ve done your country proud and gained a lot of new fans on the way, be proud of yourselves.

So it’s Southgate vs Mancini, The Three Lions vs Gia Azzurri, Steak and Ale pie vs Spaghetti Bolognese, James Newman vs Måneskin (Eurovision 2021 joke, my references know no boundaries), Carling vs Birra Moretti (I know exactly which one of those I prefer), England vs Italy. If you’re lucky enough to be going to the game then enjoy it, there’s a lot of people who would love to be where you are so soak up every second of it regardless of the result. Just promise me one thing, fans from both teams now, don’t boo the national anthems. It’s beyond disrespectful and booing any national anthem just makes you look like a bit of a mug and yes that includes home nation fans booing God Save the Queen (plus Il Canto degli Italiani is easily in the top 3 best national anthems in the world and a certified banger. And the Italians make a lot of noise so it’ll sound amazing Sunday). Geopolitical(ish) issues aside, this should be an incredible game. Two fairly different styles of play between two teams who not that many people would’ve bet on making the final. I thought it was going to be France-Netherlands myself but both of them went out in the last 16, brilliant cutting edge analysis yet again from yours truly. This will end up being either an absolute trouncing or a 0-0 settled on penalties, there won’t be anything in between. Only thing is I have absolutely no clue which team will do it. Whether you hope football’s coming home or football’s coming Rome, finals on stages like this are always exciting. And I for one can’t wait.

Euro 2020 Quarter Final Review: It’s the (quarter) Final Countdown

Ooh it’s getting close now! Another week down and another step closer to finding out who will win Euro 2020. 4 teams are that step closer to making their dream become a reality whereas 4 had them crushed and were sent home packing. We’re into the final stretch now but before looking forward any further we have the small job of looking back at the game week that was. 4 action packed games filled with goals, drama, last ditch defending, questionable officiating, and Peter Walton agreeing with referee decisions again. This round had some absolute belters, and that’s something I’ve noticed as the tournament has gone into the latter stages. Some of the sleeping giants are starting to wake up and are playing some absolutely brilliant football and it’s making for incredible matchups. So, without any further ado, let’s get into the reviews!

Switzerland vs Spain

Result: Switzerland 1-1 Spain (Spain win 1-3 on penalties)

Okay fine, I was wrong about Spain. I’ll admit it, this team are a lot better than what I gave them credit for. They’ve been one of the previously mentioned sleeping giants and look incredibly strong after a questionable at best first two games in the group stage. Spain started off well with Jordi Alba’s shot taking a huge deflection off Denis Zakaria after 8 minutes played. After this I thought it would be a bit of a stuffing but to be fair to Switzerland they held their own leading to Xherdan Shaqiri scoring the equaliser in the 68th minute. Extra time was needed after the game was deadlocked after 90 and a few brilliant saves from Swiss keeper Yann Sommer meant it would be penalties where Spain won 3-1 in what was a shootout with some awful penalties. I can’t help but think Spain are missing a quality striker to boost their line. That’s no disrespect to Alvaro Morata or Gerard Moreno but they’re not the same level as the quality Spanish strikers of the last 10-15 years or so. Could you imagine how lethal this team would be with a David Villa or Fernando Torres leading the line? Or even a prime Diego Costa? The team are good but with a world class striker they could be even better. Switzerland can be proud, they’ve had to travel an insane amount this tournament and still managed to knock out France and take Spain to penalties. I imagine some Premier League teams or Europe’s elite will come knocking for some of the Swiss players (not Barcelona though, they’re still too busy trying to convince their dead wood players to take pay cuts which they don’t want). Sommer has proved himself to be an incredible keeper, Kevin Mbabu really impressed me and Breel Embolo is turning out to be the player football manager players knew he could be. Congrats to Spain and commiserations to the Swiss, two good teams who have a good amount to offer.

Belgium vs Italy

Result: Belgium 1-2 Italy

Game. Of. The. Tournament. You’d have forgiven Italy if they took a more cautious approach after the Austria game in the last 16 considering they were up against the world’s number 1 ranked team but they put any questions to bed. The Azzurri came flying out playing more of the attacking and possession based football that they did in the group stage games. Leonardo Bonucci thought he’d given Italy the lead after 13 minutes only for VAR to overturn the goal. But that didn’t matter as Nicolo Barella fired them into the lead after just over half an hour played and Lorenzo Insigne scored an absolute screamer just before half time. Belgium were given a lifeline, a penalty awarded in added time in the first half was converted by Romelu Lukaku to make it 2-1 at the break. Then the second half comes, pure insanity. It was like watching a game of basketball with both teams just giving it their all piling their deadly attacks forward. Italy’s defence managed to hold on however with Giorgio Chiellini and Bonucci rolling back the years like they have all tournament. Yet again, Belgium fall short of the grand prize for the third tournament in a row. This will really hurt Belgium, and I do feel bad for them. The term golden generation is thrown around so much and usually the said golden generation team in question doesn’t do well. England under Sven-Goran Eriksson and Steve ‘the wally with a brolly’ McClaren fell short at Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup and didn’t even qualify for Euro 2008 despite having a fantastic team in their prime. Argentina had some of the world’s best between 2013-2015 yet still lost the finals of the World Cup and Copa America to Germany and Chile respectively, it’s a cursed term to use for a team. Some questions will start to be asked of a lot of people within the Belgium setup which is a shame because they play incredible football, it just wasn’t to be yet again. As for Italy, it’s a date in London with Spain in front of what will probably be a crowd of about 7 Italy and Spain fans respectively and tens of thousands of Brits. Covid has absolutely ruined the setup of this tournament which was a stupid setup to begin with, Chris Gunter hit the nail on the head with his Instagram post when Wales went out. Anyway, moaning aside it should still be a decent game.

Czech Republic vs Denmark

Result: Czech Republic 1-2 Denmark

Why couldn’t this be a semi-final? I’ve enjoyed these two teams this tournament and I always love and underdog story. Denmark were ruthless in the first half in what was a pretty similar performance to the one against Wales. Thomas Delaney headed the Danes into the lead with 5 minutes gone followed by Kasper Dolberg scoring yet again in the 42nd minute. After half time the Czechs would pull one back through everybody’s new favourite player and resident big man up top Patrik Schick but in the end it wasn’t enough. I thought Denmark would end up on the back foot a bit after Schick scored but they kept pushing on and playing in an attacking way. This tactic just works for some teams and Denmark are at their best when they play like this so why change a winning formula? With everything Denmark have had to overcome this tournament regardless of the score on Wednesday in the semi final they’ve made their country proud. The Czech Republic players can hold their heads high too, I saw a lot of people having them finishing bottom of their group without winning a game but they proved the doubters wrong. Clive Tyldesley said before the game that this tournament needed teams like Denmark and the Czech Republic going far after the Super League shambles and he’s spot on. Football should be all about daring to dream when the odds are stacked against you, and that’s exactly what both of these teams have done. Credit where it’s due, they’ve both been great teams. While Denmark make it to the semi final and are two wins from repeating their 1992 triumph, I doubt highly that it will be the last we see of the Czech Republic on the national stage making it this far into major tournaments.

Ukraine vs England

Result: Ukraine 0-4 England

 Man this was weird. England in a knockout game but looking completely comfortable for 90 minutes? Well I’ll be damned. With the ghost of Iceland past lurking the England team it felt like this could be a perfect opportunity for England to slip up to give them credit that didn’t happen, nor did it look like it would ever happen. Harry Kane put England into the lead with an early goal in the first half which was needed to settle any nerves. *ARMS UP* HARRY KANE! HARRY KANE FINALLY SCORED!! 10 points if you get that reference and if you’ve not seen that video of Boris Johnson “celebrating” Kane’s goal against Germany which I’m referencing then consider yourself lucky. Harry Maguire added another just after the second half started and Kane got his second in the 50th minute. All for it to be topped off with Jordan Henderson scoring his first goal for England and on that night in Rome, the Three Lions make it to another semi final under Gareth Southgate. Wembley will be buzzing for this one but England can’t overlook Denmark. The Danes are a fantastic squad and have played some incredible football this tournament. I can see this being a very close game and by no means an easy task, but with a home advantage and a (mostly) packed Wembley, who knows what could happen. England will be desperate to make the final after heartbreak against Croatia at the 2018 World Cup and Denmark will want to replicate their unlikeliest of all successes of ’92. This is a game I’m looking forward to a lot and I genuinely have no idea which way it will go. Here’s to it being a great game.

Euro 2020 Last 16 Review: Oceans Rise, (Football) Empires Fall

What a round of fixtures that was. Exciting games, goals galore, and a few shock results. At times it felt like this tournament was a bit of a slow burner and was going to pick up as it went on, and pick up it did. As my dream team took a bit of a battering, this round saw some of the most exciting and best quality games of the tournament so far. Fans of teams are already starting to plan their route to the final (some more than others) in brackets where it really can be anybody’s tournament. There are golden generations, powerhouses, sleeping giants that are waking up, and some dark horses who all believe they’ll be in with a shot at the grand prize that is Euro 2020. This will end up being a pretty long post because well it has to be it has to be, there were 8 games and 8 reviews is quite a lot. So without any further ado, let’s get into it!

Denmark vs Wales

Result: Wales 0-4 Denmark

I’m fine, I’m totally fine. I just don’t want to talk about it, okay? This was a tough one to take as a Welsh fan. Having reached such highs in the group stage and managing to get through to the last 16 finishing second in a very tough group, the Welsh public were starting to dare to dream again like we did in Euro 2016. Denmark were always going to be tough but on the day they were a different level of class. The opening 25 minutes were positive for Wales, Gareth Bale had a couple of decent opportunities while Dan James and Aaron Ramsey looked sharp. However, much like the Switzerland game, Wales stopped and let Denmark attack. This would be Wales’s downfall as it led to 2 goals for Kasper Dolberg and goals from Joakim Mᴂhle and Martin Braithwaite in a convincing win for the Danish. Denmark looked dangerous every time they came forward and their lethal finishing saw them through comfortably. I’m not going to sit back and blame the referee because he wasn’t the sole reason Wales lost, but Daniel Siebert did have a bit of a stinker. Wales can hold their heads high, they had to play 4 away games with next to no fans, travel over 5,000 miles in a short period of time all the while Ryan Giggs is facing trial for coercive or controlling behaviour, causing actual bodily harm, and assault by beating. All of these factors were going to take their toll on the players eventually but they pushed on when there was doubt and made a nation proud. Chris Gunter hit the nail on the head when he said the tournament format was an absolute joke but we as the Welsh need to keep our heads held high. With all things considered, I think it’s been quite a good tournament for Wales. Rob Page’s red army march on (hopefully to Qatar in 2022 for the World Cup) and I wish Denmark the best of luck for the Quarter Finals. Now I just need to do the small task of convincing Gareth Bale to sign for Cardiff City, come on Gazza! Mae’n amser dod adref (that means it’s time to come home for those who don’t speak Welsh).

Italy vs Austria

Result: Italy 2-1 Austria (a.e.t)

This was a really weird one. I’m convinced Wembley Stadium is cursed where top level international teams don’t play that well there (apart from England). Italy didn’t look that interested, and definitely didn’t look like the Italy of the group stage. Austria looked quite dangerous on the counter and probably should’ve scored a couple themselves. Italy’s lazy play was very nearly punished when Marko Arnautovic thought he headed Austria into the lead in the second half only for it to be ruled offside after a VAR check. VAR has worked quite well this tournament yet in this game it was back to its worst that Premier League fans know. Funny how it was efficient enough all tournament until it was a Premier League referee at the helm, coincidence? I’ll let you be the judge. Italy couldn’t capitalise in the time remaining of the 90 after Arnautovic’s goal was disallowed and it was the first game of the tournament to go to extra time. The next 30 minutes were a million times better than the previous 90. I can only imagine how unhappy Mancini must have been because Italy massively woke up with brilliant goals from Federico Chiesa and Matteo Pessina being enough for the win. Austria did get one back with Sasa Kalajdzic scoring from a corner but it was too little too late. The Azzurri march into the quarters with what I imagine are many people’s bets following game week 1 still safe for now.

Netherlands vs Czech Republic

Result: Netherlands 0-2 Czech Republic

SOUND THE ALARMS!!!! IT’S GIANTKILLING O’CLOCK!!!!! What a crazy game this was! In the first half the Dutch looked to be in quite comfortable control despite not threatening massively while the Czech players looked quite handy themselves. They were solid defensively and looked like they could be dangerous in attack. It was that kind of game we’ve seen a million times before where the favourite look a bit meh before they end up scoring a few at the end to make themselves look good (case in point, Italy-Austria). I thought it was going this way before a handball from Matthijs de Ligt earned him a red card and the tide started to change. A defender down, you’d think surely an attacker would come off for a centre half so the Netherlands could go back to a back 3. Not the Frank de Boer way though! Instead opting for taking off Doynell Malen for Quincy Promes to boost their attack. Just… why? Unbelievably it didn’t work and the Czechs poured on the pressure with the man advantage before Tomáš (good name) Holeš fired the Czech Republic into the lead. The Netherlands tried to muster up some kind of response but to no avail with my new favourite player, Patrik Schick, scoring in the last 10 minutes to seal the game and causing the first upset of the knockout stages. This Czech team are good, like really good. Their attack is dangerous and can cause damage for any team in the tournament and they have a solid defensive unit. Up next is Denmark which is a game I’m really looking forward to. Expect lots of attacking from both sides in what is bound to be a physical game between two top sides. As for the Netherlands, they need to regroup and go again for the World Cup. They will have been expecting a good tournament following failure to qualify for the Russia World Cup in 2018 which to be honest, they haven’t really had.

Belgium vs Portugal

Result: Belgium 1-0 Portugal

Not a giant killing but still a big team out. Winners last time round but this time it wasn’t to be as Portugal were knocked out and Belgium went through in what was a little bit of a dud. Portugal threatened quite a lot and enjoyed most of the possession however they didn’t really do anything with it. They had quite a lot of chances but couldn’t break through with Thibaut Courtois having an impressive showing making some decent saves. I was impressed with Belgium’s incredible attack and their seeming ability to make chances out of nothing, which is what more or less happened when Thorgan Hazard fired Belgium into the lead just before half time. In the second half Portugal attacked more with Joao Felix having a few decent opportunities and Ruben Dias having a strong header saved towards the end of the game. I’ve seen a lot of people online slate Bruno Fernandes but he isn’t to blame at all, the Portugal team as a whole haven’t been that good all tournament with the exception of a few players. It wasn’t enough in the end and Cristiano Ronaldo had another one of his trademark strops when the game didn’t go his way. He’s easily one of the best players of all time and by all accounts a really nice guy but my god he’s a sore loser. Belgium will be absolutely desperate to win the tournament. After disappointment in the quarter finals at Euro 2016 and the semis of the World Cup in 2018 there is a real risk that yet another country’s golden generation could end up not winning anything. It’s a tale as old as time and the term “golden generation” is almost a kiss of death in international football but thankfully for Belgium they don’t have Steve McClaren overseeing it, am I right England? Enough with the England jabs I promise (okay maybe 1 or 2 more). All in all, solid performance from Belgium and one worthy enough to send them to the last 8.

Croatia vs Spain

Result: Croatia 3-5 Spain (a.e.t)

So…. wow. If you know anyone who’s starting to flirt a bit with becoming a football fan but isn’t quite there yet and want to show them highlights of a game to get them fully sold, then this is one you have to. I was convinced that Spain aren’t actually that good at football and had a solid patch between 2008-2012 which made them look good, oh how wrong I was. The game started off with a hilarious own goal from Pedri after an Unai Simon howler, it was genuinely the funniest thing I’ve seen all tournament. Spain responded with their fairly predictable tiki taka style play but actually making it work with Pablo Sarabia equalising in the 38th minute. In the second half Spain looked strong and scored twice with goals from Cesar “Dave” Azpilicueta and Feran Torres to more or less seal the game with 10 minutes to go. However Croatia don’t play by your rules with Mislav Orsic and Mario Pasalic deciding to set up unbelievable scenes with both scoring in the last 5 minutes. It would’ve been easy for Spain to lose their head after this but to their credit they remained calm, cool, and collected with Alvaro Morata and Mikel Oyarzabal scoring in extra time. What a game this was. Spain turned up to play and Croatia are absolutely no mugs and weren’t willing to be swept aside. I thought this would end up being a somewhat boring conservative performance from Spain and I’m glad I was wrong. Well done Spain but Croatia can be proud of themselves, this is why we love this sport.

France vs Switzerland

Result: France 3-3 Switzerland (Switzerland win 5-4 on Penalties)

If you know anyone who’s starting to flirt a bit with becoming a football fan but isn’t quite there yet and want to show them highlights of a game to get them fully sold, then this is one you have to. Also, SOUND THE ALARMS!!!! IT’S GIANTKILLING O’CLOCK!!!!! The world champions are out! And you know what, apart from 20 minutes or so in the second half they didn’t impress me at all. They showed with the two goal from Karim Benzema and one from Paul Pogba why they’re world champions with their comeback having been 1-0 down and Switzerland missing a penalty but their bottle went and ended up doing their best Spain tribute act and conceded twice late on. Extra time was a bit meh and we FINALLY got penalties, I was absolutely desperate for them. It seemed like none of the attackers wanted to take penalties and Kylian Mbappe showed why with his effort saved by Yann Sommer at what was essentially sudden death to send France out and the Swiss through. This was always going to be a tough act to follow after the Spain-Croatia game but it lived up to expectations and some. France haven’t looked all that convincing this tournament. Maybe it’s a bit of a World Cup hangover but I honestly thought they’d end up doing better than they did. I had them winning it as did many others and again I was wrong. I just need to stop backing World Cup winning teams in their next major tournament because they never do well, it’s like some kind of football law.

England vs Germany

Result: England 2-0 Germany

SOUND THE ALARMS!!!! IT’S GIA-okay so not a giant-killing per se but I wasn’t too sure that it would happen, especially after the first 20 minutes. Kai Havertz was getting himself into useful and potentially dangerous positions and Germany looked solid defensively. England couldn’t create much and were bullied off the ball by the German defence and midfield. Germany looked really dangerous to start but then decided to do their best Wales impression and just stopped. England managed to creep back into it with Bukayo Saka yet again having a very good game. England’s Mr. Reliable, Raheem Sterling, got the first goal with 15 minutes left before Harry Kane got his first goal of the tournament in the 86th minute to wrap up the result for the Three Lions. This was a very good performance from England. I thought Gareth Southgate would revert to the defensive football he’s prone to in big games but he didn’t and England attacked well. They’re at their strongest when attacking and it proved in this game. As well as this though I thought England defended well. Germany’s chances were very limited with their best one coming in the form of the Thomas Müller’s shot that went wide just before Kane’s goal. David Baddiel and Frank Skinner watched on in the stands as their famous song was played around Wembley and there is a genuine feeling among England fans that this is finally the year that football’s coming home.

Sweden vs Ukraine

Result: Sweden 1-2 Ukraine (a.e.t)

My god this took a while but we’re finally at the end. In the last game of the last-16, Ukraine were victorious over fellow team that play in yellow, Sweden. Both teams started well creating a couple of decent chances. It was Ukraine who struck first through Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko who scored an absolute beautiful goal. Sweden nearly scored soon after from a Seb Larsson free kick which caught Ukrainian goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan off his line and having to make a last ditch save. However Sweden did come back with their star man Emil Forsberg scoring just before half time. Quite a few chances came and went in the second half for both sides with Andriy Yarmolenko and Forsberg both hitting the post but neither team could break through. Extra-time would come next and it wouldn’t come without controversy. Marcus Danielson was sent off after a high challenge via a VAR check. I think it was a fair decision, I’ve not seen Danielson commit such a dangerous challenge since the 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament Final with his high kick on Johnny Lawrence… I’ll show myself out. Ukraine made the man advantage count with Artem Dovbyk choosing the last minute to score his first goal for Ukraine to send them into the quarter finals. I think they’ll be fired up for England in what will be a physical game. I can see them trying to rough England’s attack a bit like Germany did in the first half and try and hit them on the counter. Regardless, well done Ukraine on making the quarters when they were undoubtedly underdogs for this one.

Man, that was a lot of writing and reviewing. As always thanks for reading, I’m off for a lie down. See you next week for the quarter finals!

Home Nations Gameweek 2 and 3 recap: And That was the Group Stage

What a surprise, I’m late on posting something again. I know I said I’d do reviews for each gameweek but do you know how quickly they come around? Especially when there was only a 2 day gap between England v Scotland and Wales’s last game. I know it sounds like excuses, and the truth of it is they are, but the point still stands. I was busy Friday night and all day Saturday and it felt weird to post a review for Wales’s game against Turkey the day they were playing Italy, so apologies. To make up for it this will be a longer post where I’ll go over the last two group games for the home nations to make up for a bit of lost time. Promise I’ll be better for the last 16 and later rounds. Without further ado, let’s get down to business!

Wales

Vs Turkey

I. Love. This. Team. Little old Wales showing everyone up again! A tale as old as time. To the world’s surprise (again) Wales started off gameweek 2 with a very solid performance with a 0-2 win against Turkey in Baku. Some dark horses eh? In truth, I’m actually super grateful for Turkey for scoring against Switzerland to ease the goal difference pressure a bit, thanks gents. Everything was spot on (apart from the penalty but let’s not get into that) in what was probably their best performance since the Belgium quarter final in 2016. Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale have both still got it (as if there was any doubt about that), Ben Davies is a national hero, Kieffer Moore is winning the Ballon d’Or, Joe Morrell and Joe Allen are the Welsh Xavi and Iniesta, Dan James is proving yet again how good of a player he is, and Joe Rodon… I knew I’d end up liking an ex-Swansea player eventually.

Vs Italy

Next came Italy in Rome and a 1-0 defeat with Wales playing with 10 men for most of the second half. For what it’s worth I thought that was an unbelievably harsh red card for Ethan Ampadu, made even worse with Peter Walton agreeing with absolutely every refereeing decision so far. But it turned out to be enough as Switzerland couldn’t overturn the goal difference and Wales finished second going into the last 16. There’s absolutely no shame in losing to Italy, they’re most people’s favourites by now and have the coolest manager on the planet in the form of Roberto Mancini. But we did enough to get into the last 16 in back to back tournaments. This team has come so far in the last decade. From ranked 117th in the world in 2011 with *that* TalkSport Facebook post which has aged like a fine milk to where we are now is unbelievable. Some might think we’ll be out in the last 16 with Denmark in Amsterdam but keep writing Wales off and they keep shocking the world.

England

Vs Scotland

History is full of iconic duo’s. Albert and Costello, James Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry, and Gareth Southgate and playing conservative football in big games. Yeah it was bad. England met Scotland at Wembley on a rainy Friday night in the capital and were frustrated to a 0-0 draw. There were some decent performances, Reece James had a fairly good showing and Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish looked good when they came on. But they were exceptions rather than the rule. England looked flat and were generally quite boring. John Stones was unlucky not to score in what was England’s best chance of the game but that was it really. Not good enough, not creative enough, didn’t do enough for the win. I think Grealish is England’s best creative outlet and definitely needs to play more, but what do I know.

Vs Czech Republic

What a surprise, starting Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish means you create more chances. This was a much better display from England than it was against Scotland. It was always going to be a potential banana peel but they managed to pull through with Raheem Sterling’s first half goal. Saka was a breath of fresh air into the team giving them that bit more attacking quality that was not there for Scotland. His positive style of play mindset was central to England getting a result and was deservedly man of the match. England go through as group winners and next it’s Germany at Wembley in the last 16. Arguably the biggest game of the last 16 and it has potential to be a classic. A rematch of the semi in ‘96 and the first time they’ve met in a tournament since the 4-1 humbling in South Africa. Expect Southgate’s missed penalty and Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal to be played as much over the next week as Gazza’s goal was before the Scotland game.

Scotland

Vs England

The mighty Tartan Army descended on a rainy London in their numbers and boy did they enjoy this one. Scotland weren’t bad, their aim was clearly a draw after a poor result against the Czech Republic. I though Billy Gilmour really impressed me and was central in Scotland getting a decent result. There’s no doubt in my mind that they would’ve preferred the win but a 0-0 at Wembley is a very respectable result. Scott McTominay impressed me and their defence looked far more solid with Kieran Tierney back. I knew Tierney and Andy Robertson both playing were important for Scotland but I didn’t realise they were that central. It leaves them in an okay position going into the last gameweek in Group D, Croatia won’t be easy but Hampden Park will be rocking. Out of all 3 I thought Croatia would be the most winnable and 4 points should see them through with the weird 3rd place qualification deal.

Vs Croatia

Okay so maybe Croatia are better than I thought. Scotland weren’t particularly awful, Croatia were just different gravy on the night. Luka Modric rolled back the years with his goal and proved that he can still perform at the highest level. There was a moment of excitement when Callum McGregor drew Scotland level just before half time following Vlasic’s opener, but two second half goals from Modric and Perisic put the game to bed. I thought Scotland would end up with at least a draw here with it being such a huge game at Hampden but in the end Croatia were just too good. Both teams were going to put everything forward to get as many goals as possible but Croatia just have more attacking talent. Niko Vlasic, Ivan Perisic, and Bruno Petkovic are just better players than Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes. Up next for Scotland is… actually never mind. Sorry, force of habit. Scotland fans can be proud of their team, it was a very tough group and maybe some other time with a better draw they might’ve got through but who knows. The unfortunate streak of being knocked out at the group stage continues as the Scots look to Qatar ‘22 to end it.

Home Nations Gameweek 1 Recap: The Good, the not too bad, and the lob from 50 yards

I’ll keep it honest with you guys, I’ve been a bit under the weather the last few weeks. My symptoms have included a weird feeling of excitement and nerves in my gut, the sudden urge to get myself to the closest pub, and a strong sense of national pride that I don’t always have. I spoke to NHS direct and my fears were confirmed, I’ve come down with a strong case of Euro fever with no cure in sight! Yep, last week Euro 2020 got underway after a year of waiting which felt like forever. This is a particularly exciting one as for the first time ever Wales, Scotland, and England all qualified for an international tournament (sorry Northern Ireland, there’s always Qatar for the 4 of us to get to). Better yet, Scotland and England have been drawn in the same group with Wales having a tasty matchup in gameweek 3 with world beaters Italy. So I decided I’d do gameweek recaps for the home nations throughout the group stage then general recaps for the knockout rounds whether any of the home nations are there or not. Got it? Smashing. Whether you think football’s coming home, fitbaw’s coming hame, mae pêl droed yn dod gartref, or what’s most likely to happen in my opinion la football rentre à la maison (I hope Google translate hasn’t let me down there, my French isn’t what it used to be), there’s plenty to get excited about. Without any further ado, let’s get into it!

Wales

Jeez Louise, another 2 group games like that will see me off. This was a weird one, the first 5/10 minutes we looked great. Dangerous whenever we attacked and were winning the ball back well. For whatever reason then we decided that it was going a bit too well and completely switched off for the next 65 minutes. The passing was incredibly lazy, Switzerland saw far too much of the ball and were happy enough to keep possession of it, and any sense of urgency was gone. Unsurprisingly, Switzerland take advantage of this and Breel Embolo (that’s a name familiar to Football Manager players) fired the Swiss into the lead just after half time. Wales woke up a bit after this deciding to attack a bit more before the best footballer (and human being) alive today, Kieffer Moore, used his massive head of his to draw us level. General Page then decided to take off Dan James in his infinite wisdom and the game finished 1-1. This isn’t a terrible result given how Wales played for most of the game, and the fact that Switzerland are a solid team. Whenever Wales attack they’re at their best, it showed in periods of this game and it showed in the first half of the France friendly before Neco Williams got sent off. Why they don’t do it more I don’t know, and they’ll have to adopt this attacking style of play against Turkey in what is a massive game on Wednesday. I’d make some changes to the side for Turkey. I’d swap Neco Williams for Connor Roberts, Ben Cabango for Chris Mepham, and Ethan Ampadu for Joe Morrell whilst keeping the rest the same. All in all, a good result against a very good team after not the best performance.

England

IT’S COMING HOOOMEEEE!!!! England supporters sing in jubilation after beating a geriatric Croatia side 1-0 in their opening game (oh come on I’m allowed one little dig, don’t tell anyone but three lions is a banger). The ghost of World Cup Semi Finals past was put behind the three lions as Raheem Sterling was on target for England to win their Group B opener. Wasn’t a bad game really. I thought England played pretty well in what wasn’t a bad performance at all. Phil Foden nearly set England off to the best possible start after his shot hit the post in the opening 5 minutes in what was the best chance and highlight of the first 45. Kalvin Phillips turned into prime Andrea Pirlo creating some incredible changes and setting up Sterling’s goal in the second half. I’m not too surprised Gareth Southgate opted for Declan Rice and Phillips, he’s a big fan of more conservative possession/defensive football in big games so this was always going to be a given. In the end it paid off and props to him. I’m also not too surprised that Jack Grealish didn’t feature, he’s played a lot of football in the last month for Aston Villa and England in the warmups. I think he will end up featuring at some point for the Scotland game in what will be a mostly unchanged side. It would be massively harsh to drop Sterling after his performance and Foden is Foden so I imagine Grealish will end up coming on as a substitute at some point. The best possible start for a tournament with a lot of hype and expectation surrounding England, but then again when isn’t there a tournament with a lot of hype and expectation for England. Good performance, and one that should beat Scotland with relative ease.

Scotland

Ah lads what went wrong. Wait 23 years to feature at a tournament, have your first game on home soil, and Marshall gets lobbed from 50 yards. I thought the Scots got off to a decent start. Up until the first goal Hampden was rocking and Scotland were playing alright. Andy Robertson had a good effort saved by Tomas Vaclik before and absolutely stunning cross from West Ham’s Vladimir Coufal was met by the head of Patrik Schik to put the Czechs 1 up just before half time. Scotland started the second half pretty well but Hendry’s blocked shot fell perfectly for Schik again who lobbed Marshall from the halfway line to put the nail in the coffin. Stuart Armstrong and Lyndon Dykes had some decent opportunities but Vaclik saved both well. This was a disappointing result for Scotland. Arguably their most winnable game in the group (I personally disagree, the Czech Republic are one of my dark horses and I’m not convinced Croatia are all that) but it wasn’t to be. No doubt they’ll be fired up for England where they’ll be hoping Kieran Tierney will be fit to play. I’m not saying at all they would’ve won if Tierney was fit but he offers more than Liam Cooper in a back 3. There’s still a kinda slim chance of making the last 16, especially with the format of the third place teams but we’ll see. England will be full of confidence and Croatia are still strong, although I think they’re definitely in with a shout against Croatia. It’ll have to be a better performance against England because if not then it could be quite grim reading at Wembley this Friday.

The Steelers: On Track To Be The NFL’s First 19-0 Team?

As I try and do absolutely anything to take my mind off the US Election*, I thought to myself why not write about something equally as horrible and nerve wracking in the very real possibility of the Pittsburgh Steelers being the first NFL team to go 16-0 and win the Super Bowl. (For any non-American football fans, that means they win all 16 games in the regular season, and all of their post season games thus winning the Super Bowl. A bit like winning every game in the World Cup but they wouldn’t have to play in the last 16 instead qualifying straight for the quarter finals because they did so well in the group stages… yeah it’s weird, better not to question it). As an Eagles fan the only positive thought I can muster up to this very possible situation is “well, at least it’s not Dallas!”, and that’s where the positive thoughts end. But the sooner everyone’s at peace with it the better.

*I don’t put my political opinions in here as it’s a sports blog but a quick trip to my twitter would show how I feel about the election… and this is from a Brit. I’d hate to think of the wreck I’d right now be if I lived stateside

I’m basically accepting the Steelers are winning the Super Bowl this year, I’m at peace with it and it’s time we all were. Let the Steeler Nation have their moment of fun because the last few years have been anything but, congratulations Pittsburgh! I say anything but fun it’s not as if they went full Bengals or Browns and ended up with a 0-16 season, or even have a losing season under Mike Tomlin, but what do I know. Pettiness aside and credit where it’s due, this is a really exciting time for the Steelers. Everything’s just started to fall into place, they’ve had the quality to do this for years but now it’s just working, and as hard as it may be it’s not impossible that they go all the way and lift the Lombardi Trophy this season.

So why do I think this could be Pittsburgh’s year and why do all roads lead to 19-0? In short, what’s stopping them? Their offense looks the best it has done in years and shows no real signs of anything going wrong anytime soon. Sure, there’s no Antonio Brown anymore but in all honesty, it’s for the best. To say Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger didn’t see eye to eye is like saying Joe Biden and Donald Trump aren’t exactly best friends (last election reference, I promise). Without the infighting between the two it looks like the offense has somewhat clicked and both men are happy that they don’t have to play on the same team anymore. (This isn’t me saying that Big Ben is the saint he thinks he is because I am far from his biggest fan, I can appreciate what he has achieved in football but good lord he’s not the nicest bloke.) The offense has been scarily good this season. Roethlisberger has had an incredible start managing to turn rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool into a breakout star with Juju Smith-Schuster, Eric Ebron and James Conner being in the form of their lives. I think the time off with the injury helped Big Ben in a weird way. He’s so much quicker now, not staying in the pocket as long throwing insanely long passes that didn’t always pay off. With a strong o-line it’s been hard for any defenses to get anywhere near him. Considering there were talks of retirement only a few years ago, time off with some r&r has clearly helped him turning him into the Leader of Men he’s always claimed to be.

Every good championship team needs a strong defense, and the Steelers definitely have one. When the offense looked a bit off against their toughest tests in the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens, the defense essentially won them the games. They made Ryan Tannerhill and Derrick Henry look average and Lamar Jackson look human which is far from an easy feat. If any team wants to even consider a sniff of a Super Bowl, they need quality on defense which they have. Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have all made strong early cases for Defensive Player of the Year and Robert Spillane has been perfect to fill in for the injured Devin Bush. If their defense manages to keep as strong as they’ve started then they’ll be completely unstoppable. I think they’ll be the key part in the quest for 19-0.

Aside from the quality of their side, who actually stops them? I can’t see them losing any of their remaining fixtures barring something going horrendously wrong and who would stop them in the postseason? The obvious choices in the AFC bracket are the Chiefs or the Bills but I think the Steelers just have a better side and both of them are beatable. The Raiders showed a great defense can stop the Chiefs and what did I spend my time saying in the last paragraph? In terms of the Super Bowl itself, the NFC have a few teams who could make it this year. The Seahawks, Bucs, Saints or Packers look most likely as the NFC East is a lost cause. But even then, I don’t think any of those sides end up beating the Steelers.

In terms of whether they actually go 19-0 or not I don’t know, it’s far easier said than done. All it takes is a few unfortunate injuries or suspensions for things to wrong. Plus with this season having the threat of covid postponements a few weeks off due to game delays can prove to be a nightmare for team routines and form, as shown by the Titans. In terms of what happens for the Steelers this season, they’ll probably quite comfortably make the AFC Championship Game with the Super Bowl being either the Chiefs or Steelers against the Buccaneers or Packers, and I wouldn’t bet against Pittsburgh winning against the NFC teams. Maybe this is the year Mike Tomlin gets his second Lombardi Trophy, Big Ben gets the MVP season confirming himself as the almighty Leader of Men and Pittsburgh get a perfect 19-0 season.

Hashtag United: How the YouTube Outfit are Changing Non-League Football

Love them, loathe them, don’t particularly care about them, if you’re interested in football then the chances are you come across Hashtag United FC. The brainchild of British YouTube star Spencer Owen (Spencer FC on YouTube), “The Tags” have seen their popularity skyrocket since their creation. They’ve gained a sizeable following in the last few weeks following their early success in the FA Cup qualifying rounds, with many social media stars attending games and continuing to tweet their support and admiration for what the club are doing. *As they play in the 9th tier of English football (or step 5 of the National League), they are able to have supporters at their ground as per Government guidelines*. Some of them included Jack Dean (better known as JaackMaate on YouTube), David Vujanic, Ellis Platten (who I am a massive fan of, just saying), Thogden, Elliot Hackney and many more. They’re changing the way non-league football is viewed by the neutral or supporters of bigger teams, be it for better or worse. Today, I’ll be taking a look at the short history of the team, why I think they’re changing non-league football and whether some of the criticism they’ve received is fair or not.

Picture the scene, it’s March 2016. Donald Trump is about to win the Republican Party nomination for the 2016 US Election, David Cameron hasn’t long announced the UK will have a referendum on its EU membership, Jamie Vardy was having one hell of a party with Leicester getting closer and closer to a Premier League title and for Welsh football fans a summer of a lifetime was just around the corner (reminiscing over it whilst sat in my room in a very rainy Swansea is making me sad, I can’t begin to stress how much I wish it was Euro 2016 again), but it’s also the time Hashtag United were founded. They were a bit of a gimmick to start, playing friendlies against all different kinds of teams with their highlights being uploaded to YouTube. It was a bit of harmless fun with what was essentially Sunday league games with bits put on the internet for fans of Spencer FC to watch. But after a while support grew for it and continued to grow. Spencer took a bit of a gamble to see how far it would go, and the gamble more than paid off. Before the 2018-19 season, it was announced that The ‘Tags would be playing in the tenth tier of English football in the form of the Eastern Counties League Division One South. They won promotion to the Essex Senior Football League after their first season and find themselves there today, currently in second place 3 points behind league leaders Cockfosters. From what started as a Sunday League YouTube highlights compilation has turned into a team playing in the English Football pyramid, it’s been quite the 4 and a half years for them.

So why does any of this matter? In short, they’re completely changing the way non-league football is being viewed and followed. Bold statement, I know, but hear me out. Their YouTube channel currently has 523k subscribers, 472k followers on Instagram and 214.6k followers on Twitter. No non-league club, let alone in the 9th tier, comes remotely close to those numbers. To put it into context, that’s more followers on Twitter than Swindon Town, more Instagram followers than Swansea City, and more YouTube subscribers than Everton’s official account. There are personalities on YouTube who make Hashtag exclusive content and there’s many in the British YouTube scene who have a soft spot/admiration for them. All this support will get the attention of people and that’s being shown with fairly decent, consistent crowds showing up. This will bring more eyes to non-league football and more fans, and more importantly families, showing up to lower league games. Kind of a domino effect in a way, but a positive one. More fans means more eyes on lower league football which should mean more interest is taken in it, everyone wins. Non-league has never seen this kind of platform before. I’m not at all saying that Hashtag United are the biggest or most supported club in non-league, teams such as Wrexham, Hartlepool, Yeovil Town, Eastleigh and many others are much bigger clubs. But if Hashtag continue to succeed in the years to come then I honestly believe it will be fantastic in terms of the support for non-league football.

But like with absolutely anything you do in life, there is criticism for the club. Some of the most vocal critics say how what Hashtag are doing are “cringe”, be it the name, how they were founded or the excitement supporters/those associated with the club have the dreaded 6 letter word always finds a way to show up. But in today’s day and age, what even in cringe anymore? Is following your dreams through building your own team and living the dreams of millions of people around the world considered cringe? Is it to follow and have a passion for a team even though they may have not been founded in a traditional way? Could cringe be filming yourself at a game for the purpose of uploading it to YouTube? It seems the word is thrown around so much nowadays somebody’s hobby within football or life in general which dares go against a social norm is considered cringe. And to be honest, I hate it. As a society we preach being kind to one another but are quick to use somebody’s interest as a way to goad or insult them, and although it may be harmless in intent or just a little bit of banter it can make people feel bad and really unhappy. Just let people have interests and hobbies and leave them to it.

I’m not saying that Hashtag are immune to criticism because nobody is. If you have an issue with the way they became the name that they are and building on an already large audience, then that’s okay. I know some people will feel a bit uneasy about it which is fine. But hurling abuse at them online without an argument or insulting fans just because it’s Hashtag United won’t get you anywhere. It’s a bit like shouting at the moon, it’s not achieving anything and will eventually just end up annoying people around you. Rightfully, criticism came in their FA Cup games with the lack of social distancing from fans. I did voice my criticism for that on twitter, but made sure I said how it wasn’t anything personal and acknowledged it was a problem with many non league clubs. If it becomes too much of an issue that continues to happen then it won’t be long before all football is played behind closed doors, which would be absolutely catastrophic for so many teams. But don’t attack them because they’re a bit different to your traditional non-league team. Let people have their own interests and hobbies, if it’s legal then who are they hurting? It’s not cool, nor does it make you look big and clever, to belittle somebody or make them feel bad for having a hobby, it just makes you look a bit mean.

As I opened with, love them, loathe them, don’t particularly care about them, they’re not going away anytime soon. At the time of writing they’ve just been knocked out of the FA Cup Second qualifying round by Braintree Town losing on penalties, which isn’t a bad run for a team making their FA Cup debut. Only time will tell how far they’ll go, but FA Cup runs like this and their league performances will get people aboard the hype train. As a result more eyes are on non-league, it gets more of a following, and who knows how bright the future could be for many clubs.

Yet Another Championship Playoff Preview

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” I can only assume Andy Williams was talking about the Championship Playoffs when he wrote that. Yes, after a (very) long season and 6 weeks of football more or less on everyday we’re down to my favourite part of the footballing calendar, the playoffs. There promises to be celebration, heartbreak, drama and some dodgy refereeing all leading to a spot in the Barclays Premier League. Going into the final day, it looked like a Brentford–Cardiff/Fulham–Nottingham Forest playoff bracket would take place. However this is the Championship and not everything always goes to plan. With the most mental last day imaginable the playoff picture ended up as South Wales vs West London in both brackets setting up the possibility of a Cardiff–Swansea playoff final. As a Cardiff fan that is the most horrible thing I can possibly imagine and I would ideally want to avoid at all costs. I don’t care if it would be an amazing advert for Welsh football or not, I’m sure Swansea fans would agree when I say playing a rival that big in the final would have far too much riding on it. Goes well and it’s the best day of your life (probably), goes badly and you’ll never hear the end of it for as long as you live. With all this being said, I’m going to take a look at all the teams in the playoffs this year and give a little preview as to how I see it going.

Brentford

Oh Brentford, what happened? Seems a little harsh saying that considering they’ve been in unbelievable form since the turn of 2020 but you can’t help but feel that they should’ve gone up automatically. They win two fairly winnable games against Stoke and Barnsley and they’re a Premier League club for the first time in their snazzy new stadium. However football is a cruel game and it wasn’t meant to be. Finishing third they (on paper) have the best shot at getting to Wembley and you’d be a fool to bet against them. They have quality in every area on the pitch and are incredibly dangerous going forward. Ollie Watkins and Saïd Benrhama have been different gravy this season and even on a slight off day are two of the best players in the league. Pontus Jansson is exactly the kind of player you’d want as captain. His passion for the team is unmatched and he’s exactly who you’d want to motivate you in the dressing room before a massive game. Brentford have been the surprise of the season for me. Apart from Brentford fans, nobody really expected much from them this year but how wrong we were. Thomas Frank has done a brilliant job and the players have stepped up to the plate on more than several occasions when called upon. They’re currently the favourites with the bookies and rightly so. However you’d be justified to have some reservations. To put it kindly their playoff record is fairly grim and their reliance to keep playing attractive football even if it isn’t working makes them a bit easier to play against. But there’s something magical about the playoffs, and if Frank’s men can produce the magic they have all season then it’s not too unlikely that West London’s red and white will be lifting the playoff trophy under the Wembley arch on the 4th of August.

Fulham

Arguably the biggest threat in the playoffs this year. Fulham are a strong all round Championship team. Solid at the back, control the midfield well and lethal up front. They have this season’s top scorer in Aleksandar Mitrovic who is a nightmare for defenders. Strong, holds the game up well, lethal finisher, just absolutely everything you’d want in a striker. Their football is fun to watch. Much like Brentford they keep control of the ball and attack a lot. Scott Parker has been perfect for Fulham and I’ll be honest, I didn’t think he’d do well. I thought it was Shearer at Newcastle 2.0 but I was very wrong. It was always going to be difficult for Parker after relegation however he’s coped incredibly well and has been one of the best managers in the Championship this year. The way the bookies have it at the moment, we’re heading to a Brentford-Fulham final which would be a fun watch for the neutral. Two quality teams with similar styles which would make for an entertaining game and difficult to pick a winner out of the two. However that could be their downfall. Like Leeds last year, they might suffer from overconfidence and assume they’ve made the final already. Cardiff are still a very strong team who can get good results in games where they’re the underdogs. Games this season such as Leeds at home and Nottingham Forest away prove that they can step up to the occasion against great teams when we need to. If Cardiff can get in their faces early and show they’re up for the fight and not intimidated by them then it could be a tricky few games for Fulham and not the easy route to the final many people are expecting.

Cardiff City

Cardiff. My beloved Bluebirds. When Warnock left and Harris took over we were in a terrible state. The team weren’t playing well and it looked like it would be a midtable finish a season after relegation. However something changed. Harris got the bluebirds flying and we managed to get ourselves into the playoffs. I was optimistic when Neil Harris was appointed, I’m a big fan of his work at Millwall and said how an absolute dream would be to finish in a playoff position (it’s true, I said it online and on the telly, it’s a matter of public record). Fans were somewhat divided at first but since we’ve found our feet in the lead up to and since the restart there’s a strong support for Don Harris as he’s called by fans on Twitter. Robert Glatzel has been unreal since the restart and the ability to get Lee Tomlin back from what was a season ending injury before the break due to coronavirus has been absolutely crucial. Whatever we’ve done over the break, it’s definitely worked and long may it continue. My biggest worry going into the playoffs is consistency. This season has basically been a rinse and repeat of do well for a few games, look like we’ll have a nice bit of form together, lose or draw a few games we should win or do better in, get a bit angsty, start the cycle again. If a game had to basically sum up our season it would be Brentford at home. 0-2 down after 20 minutes and playing awful, get 2 back before halftime having woken up a bit, playing well in the second half and should’ve probably ended up winning. Football eh. If we can nail our consistency over the next two legs then we can really cause a few shocks and maybe see ourselves through to the playoff final and the Premier League. Here’s to hoping.

Swansea City

To quote my favourite character from The Office, David Brent…. What are you doing here!! Yeah this is a surprise and I’ll be honest I didn’t see it coming at all. The script was supposed to be Brentford–Cardiff and Fulham–Forest. But as I’ve previously said, this is the Championship and the Championship couldn’t care less about any scripts so we got the craziest final day with Forest losing 1-4 and the Swans winning 1-4 therefore overtaking them on goal difference. In what was a similar capitulation to Yeovil Town in the 2007 League 1 playoffs (sorry to bring that up Forest fans, your team have a bit of a habit for this kind of thing), Forest missed out and Swansea took their place. Don’t really want to praise the Swans more than I really have to but I’ll give it a go and try my best (that’s a joke Swansea fans, please don’t hurt me). Swansea are a solid team with quality players such as Joe Rodon, Andre Ayew and on loan Liverpool star Rhian Brewster. They stand a decent chance against Brentford who, as previously noted, have a poor record in the playoffs. Swansea have been here before and won at Wembley, and although it was 9 years ago and it was a completely different squad, it may give them that slight mental edge. As previously touched upon, Brewster has been incredible since joining on loan and could easily make the difference for them. He’s the kind of player who can turn draws into wins or losses into draws. However you can’t overlook the fact they’re playing the best team in the playoffs. I didn’t really want to play Brentford and think Cardiff have a better chance against Fulham. They’re the outsiders with the bookies which is hardly surprising but again, this is the playoffs and you never know what might happen.

One of Brentford, Fulham, Cardiff and Swansea are three games from the Premier League. We could have a West London Derby final as we could have a South Wales Derby final. Both exciting for the neutral, both a horrible thought for the fans of the teams involved. The Metropolitan Police must be thanking their lucky stars that a possible Cardiff-Swansea final would be played behind closed doors. I feel Cardiff and Swansea meeting in the final would be a bit like that meme of Paul Rudd on Hot Ones (“look as us, hey look at us”, “who would’ve thought?”, “not me!”)… Yeah I’m not sure what that tangent was about either, anyway. Every year the playoffs are full of passion and drama, although there will be no fans in the grounds this time around it will be just as exciting. The best time of the football calendar (yeah I said it, come at me Champions League final) where form and team quality all goes out the window. It’s all about who wants it the most, and I for one cannot wait for it to kick off.

Seatbelts on: Real football is back and project restart is go

So… it’s been a while. I know I’ve not posted in far too long and yeah, sorry about that. Since January it seems my life has been uni deadline after uni deadline and I’ve not really had any time to do anything else. So what’s gone on in my absence? Tyson Fury beat Deontay Wilder in the States to become WBC Heavyweight champion of the world, Kansas finally had a winning team under the guidance of Mahomes and co., Tom Brady kissed goodbye to New England joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking his bestie Rob Gronkowski with him, Liverpool looked set to go invincible before Watford away but it’s still their year, Leeds were playing some incredible football and looked like they’d finally make it back to the top flight. What else? Oh yeah, just the small issue of a global coronavirus pandemic which put a halt to life as we know it across the world, a full scale lockdown in the UK and many other countries, the Olympics and Euro 2020 were postponed, multiple football leagues across Europe were either suspended indefinitely or, as were the cases in the cases of Scotland, France and The Netherlands, cancelled all together. But now it looks like things in the sporting world may be going back to normal… kind of.

At the time of writing, we’re only a few hours away from project restart kicking off with Premier League football coming back behind closed doors. There are adaptions obviously, some make a lot of sense such as up to 5 subs can be used and daily testing of players and staff whereas some not so much like socially distanced celebrations from players (because that’ll happen if Liverpool win the league at Goodison), fans voting on chants from an app and walk on music for substitutions? Makes sense in a weird way. But after weeks of hearsay and questions over whether it would start up again, the implementation of a points per game system or the dreaded (for some) null and void, the green light has gone ahead and we look forward to six o’clock this evening to some quality football in the shape of… Aston Villa v Sheffield United. But at least we’re getting Man City v Arsenal after that, so every cloud.

I’ll be honest, I was surprised when I heard that the season was going ahead. Once it was announced that League 2 and League 1 were going to use a points per game system to round up their seasons I thought that the Championship and Premier League were destined to follow suit. So when the announcement came that the Championship and Premier League were coming back, it was a surprise to be sure but a welcome one. I wasn’t expecting to be this excited for football to start back. Sure there’s been the Bundesliga for a while and La Liga for a bit of time now but it’s not really been the same. Lockdown hasn’t been fun in any way imaginable. The only thing that kept me sane for the most of it so far was the what seemed like endless mountain of University work I had to do, so this has come at an ideal time for me. We’ll still get to see the race for European places, promotion pushes, relegation battles, the FA Cup, champions league and my absolute favourite time of the football calendar, the playoffs.

It’s been far too long without football, and I like many other fans across the country and the world have missed it so much. We’re only a few hours away from the big moment now and the excitement is building. Weirdly I don’t usually get as excited as I have been in the last few days for the start of the season, I suppose absence makes the heart grow fonder. Maybe it’s because it was left in the unknown for so long as to when it would all start up again and it’s just a sigh of relief we get to watch our favourite sport after such an absence. From the outside in from a non fans perspective, this probably looks really strange. Why do people care so much about 22 men in shorts kicking a bit of leather about for 90 minutes? And to be honest, I really don’t know. I wish I had the answer, so then I could give one when friends of mine who aren’t fans ask me “why do you care so much about football?”. We don’t know, we just do. It’s not something you can really explain without experiencing it. It’s a community, almost a family in a weird way. It builds bridges between communities and people from all backgrounds and walks of life. A common interest and passion for your team. Bringing small towns or major cities together, the elation in seeing your team making you and your community proud. It brings hope, happiness and joy to millions, something we desperately need in these unprecedented times. The best way I feel like it can be described is in this quote from Franklin Foer who says football “isn’t the same as Bach or Buddhism. But it is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community’s fabric, a repository of traditions”.

What the future of football is in a pandemic world, I don’t know. Who knows when we’ll be able to go back to the stadium to watch our teams? It’s just too early to tell and I don’t want to start throwing predictions about. All we know is come 6 o’clock this evening, the sport we love is back (to quote Martin Tyler) AND IT’S LIVE!