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Project England – World Cup 2010

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Liverpool’s Manager, Pete Best, was feeling a little jaded. His club sat at the top of world football and had enjoyed unprecedented success under his 8 year reign, but something was wrong.

The Manager sat back at his desk, ran a hand through his greying hair, raised the glass of Bowmore to his lips, and sighed. He loved Liverpool, loved the club and the players, but he was getting a bit tired of the all too familiar surroundings. In recent weeks he had almost been going through the motions, the players more or less taking care of business by themselves in typically ruthless fashion. The fire in the belly was dimming, and it was a bad sign. A stint over in Europe was beckoning, something to rekindle his passion for the game.

Sure, it was great to see the young lads he had developed, such as Diego, Welsh, Vaughan, Dawson, Osbourne and Perez create a stir on the world stage, and to see young players of the calibre of Samba & Robben perform wonders week in, week out for the Reds, but it just wasn’t enough any more. The Manager was ready to thrown it all away and start again.

What happened over the next two weeks was a godsend. Both Brazil & England came knocking on the Managers door, looking for him to guide them to World Cup glory. There was only ever going to be one choice. The Manager accepted the England job, pushing aside the ill will that had seen him knock back the job in 2006 due to the previous incumbent’s non selection of Michael Owen, Emile Heskey & Stephen Gerrard from the last World Cup squad when they were pretty much fit after recovering from injury and had been amongst the best players in the premiership that season.

England had been travelling very well indeed, winning the European Championships in 2008 under Steve McLaren, and were topping their Group in the World Cup Qualifiers comfortably. Ill health had forced a change, and although the Manager knew he was taking a big risk, maybe risking everything by taking his eye off the ball at Liverpool and submitting himself to even more stress than massive amounts to which he was already accustomed, the challenge of trying to win England’s first World Cup since 1966 was too good to pass up. His assistant Manager was ready to take a bit more responsibility anyway, so here was his big chance.

At the press conference the Manager was forthright:

BBC: “Mr Best, do you feel that you are perhaps taking on more than you can handle by taking the England job while remaining in the hot seat at Anfield?â€

Pete Best: “No.â€

(Pete’s Media skills would need a bit of work in the months ahead …)

BBC: “Would you care to elaborate?â€

Pete Best: “Yes – I’m up for the challenge. Something was missing for me this season but now I’ve been fortunate enough to be offered this job, albeit in sad circumstances, I am more passionate about the game than I have ever been. Our thoughts are with Steve and his familyâ€.

Telegraph: “What can we expect from the team with you at the helm?â€

Pete Best: “I’ll not stand for any nonsense. I’m going to analyse all available players, set a preferred first XI and squad, and they will be the players who will do the job for England at the World Cup. Reputation will count for nothing. Any player who feels aggrieved is welcome to come and talk to me, but lets get one thing clear – everyone will know where they stand from day one. If a players form drops away dramatically or he does not do the job for me in the team, then they will be out of it and an opportunity will open up a new player – but I expect anyone I pick to be able to do the job.â€

Telegraph: “What about the style of play, will you adopt the same style that has worked so well for Liverpool over the last couple of seasons?â€

Pete Best: “No. The players, their abilities, and those of the opposition will dictate the style of playâ€

The Mirror: “How will you look at players objectively when you will be seeing many candidates for the England team every day in your duties at Anfield?â€

Pete Best: “Don’t be so bloody ridiculous! Players will be picked on ability and teamwork alone, nothing else. No favouritism. Next question.â€

And on it went for the next half an hour, the occasionally abrasive Pete Best sparring with the media hacks and winning few friends in the gallery.

The media conference ended rather abruptly with the Manager announcing “Look, I’ve had enough of this. I prefer to let my players do the talking on the pitch. I’ve got work to do. Thank you, and good nightâ€.

The Managers media minders were noticeably in a flap and were planning some long coaching sessions for the newly appointed England boss.

Later that night, the manager sat on the terrace of his home and looked down the long list of players and statistics on his laptop, and though, “right, time for some decisions.â€

Over the next month the Manager had seen all he needed to, and had pencilled in his squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Romania. There were plenty of surprises!

To be continued …

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Liverpool’s Manager, Pete Best, was feeling a little jaded. His club sat at the top of world football and had enjoyed unprecedented success under his 8 year reign, but something was wrong.

The Manager sat back at his desk, ran a hand through his greying hair, raised the glass of Bowmore to his lips, and sighed. He loved Liverpool, loved the club and the players, but he was getting a bit tired of the all too familiar surroundings. In recent weeks he had almost been going through the motions, the players more or less taking care of business by themselves in typically ruthless fashion. The fire in the belly was dimming, and it was a bad sign. A stint over in Europe was beckoning, something to rekindle his passion for the game.

Sure, it was great to see the young lads he had developed, such as Diego, Welsh, Vaughan, Dawson, Osbourne and Perez create a stir on the world stage, and to see young players of the calibre of Samba & Robben perform wonders week in, week out for the Reds, but it just wasn’t enough any more. The Manager was ready to thrown it all away and start again.

What happened over the next two weeks was a godsend. Both Brazil & England came knocking on the Managers door, looking for him to guide them to World Cup glory. There was only ever going to be one choice. The Manager accepted the England job, pushing aside the ill will that had seen him knock back the job in 2006 due to the previous incumbent’s non selection of Michael Owen, Emile Heskey & Stephen Gerrard from the last World Cup squad when they were pretty much fit after recovering from injury and had been amongst the best players in the premiership that season.

England had been travelling very well indeed, winning the European Championships in 2008 under Steve McLaren, and were topping their Group in the World Cup Qualifiers comfortably. Ill health had forced a change, and although the Manager knew he was taking a big risk, maybe risking everything by taking his eye off the ball at Liverpool and submitting himself to even more stress than massive amounts to which he was already accustomed, the challenge of trying to win England’s first World Cup since 1966 was too good to pass up. His assistant Manager was ready to take a bit more responsibility anyway, so here was his big chance.

At the press conference the Manager was forthright:

BBC: “Mr Best, do you feel that you are perhaps taking on more than you can handle by taking the England job while remaining in the hot seat at Anfield?â€

Pete Best: “No.â€

(Pete’s Media skills would need a bit of work in the months ahead …)

BBC: “Would you care to elaborate?â€

Pete Best: “Yes – I’m up for the challenge. Something was missing for me this season but now I’ve been fortunate enough to be offered this job, albeit in sad circumstances, I am more passionate about the game than I have ever been. Our thoughts are with Steve and his familyâ€.

Telegraph: “What can we expect from the team with you at the helm?â€

Pete Best: “I’ll not stand for any nonsense. I’m going to analyse all available players, set a preferred first XI and squad, and they will be the players who will do the job for England at the World Cup. Reputation will count for nothing. Any player who feels aggrieved is welcome to come and talk to me, but lets get one thing clear – everyone will know where they stand from day one. If a players form drops away dramatically or he does not do the job for me in the team, then they will be out of it and an opportunity will open up a new player – but I expect anyone I pick to be able to do the job.â€

Telegraph: “What about the style of play, will you adopt the same style that has worked so well for Liverpool over the last couple of seasons?â€

Pete Best: “No. The players, their abilities, and those of the opposition will dictate the style of playâ€

The Mirror: “How will you look at players objectively when you will be seeing many candidates for the England team every day in your duties at Anfield?â€

Pete Best: “Don’t be so bloody ridiculous! Players will be picked on ability and teamwork alone, nothing else. No favouritism. Next question.â€

And on it went for the next half an hour, the occasionally abrasive Pete Best sparring with the media hacks and winning few friends in the gallery.

The media conference ended rather abruptly with the Manager announcing “Look, I’ve had enough of this. I prefer to let my players do the talking on the pitch. I’ve got work to do. Thank you, and good nightâ€.

The Managers media minders were noticeably in a flap and were planning some long coaching sessions for the newly appointed England boss.

Later that night, the manager sat on the terrace of his home and looked down the long list of players and statistics on his laptop, and though, “right, time for some decisions.â€

Over the next month the Manager had seen all he needed to, and had pencilled in his squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Romania. There were plenty of surprises!

To be continued …

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The squad:

GK: Kirkland (Liverpool), Robinson (Everton), Steele (Man Utd),

D: Clement (WBA), Mullins (WBA), McEveley (Milan), Woodgate (Newcastle), Ferdinand (Man Utd), Dawson (Liverpool), Welsh (Liverpool); Giddings (Blackburn);

M: Parker (Inter); Schumacher (Bolton); Lambu (Millwall), Croft (Man C), Webb (Newcastle), Jenas (Newcastle); Gerrard (Liverpool), Dyer (Newcastle), Kay (Blackburn);

F: Owen (Liverpool), Samba (Liverpool), Brandy (Man Utd), Rooney (Everton), Smith (Barcelona), Bentley (Arsenal), Ashikodi (Millwall).

The squad selection caused quite a stir in the papers, with several seasoned campaigners axed, and being told they would most likely not be required for the finals

Some of the axed players had even gone to the press to bleat about their plight – “My world cup heartache†being one memorable article penned by Beckham, the ex England captain and one time golden boy.

Out were: Beckham, Mills, Vassell, Heskey, Lampard, Hoult, Butt & King.

There were surprises too with the inclusions: the experienced Alan Smith, Scott Parker and Rio Ferdinand making a return after seemingly being out of the England picture for the last couple of seasons, and Steven Gerrard making a welcome return after 2 seasons wrecked by injury.

The Manager had looked long and hard at all the available young talent, and was determined to blood the likes of Stuart Giddings, Stefan Schumacher, Moses Ashikodi, David Bentley, Goma Lambu and Danny Webb. Webb in particular had grabbed most of the headlines. Much like Gerrard, Webb had seen little action for the past two seasons, and was currently in the Newcastle Reserves after making his way back from yet another injury, but, at only 24, he was really just coming into his own, and the Manager had great faith in the dynamic midfielder, earmarking an AMC role in the starting line up, much to the dismay of the tabloids and a number of his squad.

Hayden Mullins, Lee Croft, Wayne Rooney & Fabian Brandy were all late withdrawals, making the Manager see red with their clubs. He read the riot act and demanded medical proof before he would sign them off, but it made no difference. The Manager would address the issue with each of the clubs Managers next week, and if there was any doubt to the authenticity of the players injuries, they would wish they had never tried it on.

Romania v England

Teamsheet (4-1-3-2 formation):

Kirkland; McEveley, Ferdinand, Woodgate, Welsh; Parker; Lambu, Webb, Gerrard; Owen, Samba; Steele, Clement, Dawson, Schumacher, Dyer, Ashikodi, Bentley.

The media had a field day, citing the 5 liverpool players picked as favouratism, the returned veterans and inexperienced youngsters as a recepie for disaster, but the Manager responded with a typically short response : "I'm the bloody Manager, and I'll pick the best team available - you can quote me on that"....

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A cold and foggy night in Romania wasn’t everyone’s idea of a great night out, but the Manager delivered a typically fire & brimstone speech to get his player fired up for what they probably though was a training drill. England had already qualified and were 6 points clear at the top of their group, but this was no time for complacency. The Manager told them they were representing England and that they should be proud to have the chance – they may never get another. That was enough really to put some steel back into their collective gaze.

The Manager shivered as his players ran out, and is wasn’t because of the damp chilly draft circling round his neck, this was a moment he had always dreamed of.

The match started in a disjointed manner, the new look England team struggling to work with the Managers new tactics. The small group of England fans who had braved the long distance and the cold started in good spirits, cheeky renditions of “Self Preservation Society†and “The Italian Job†beating out on huge drums, but the mood quickly quietened as England looked more like a 3rd Division side on the bumpy pitch.

Webb had not been sighted in the middle of the park, and the Manager was beginning to think he had made an error of judgement. Parker and Ferdinand also looked rusty, and the rest were not much better. Things took a turn for the better when after 35 uninspiring minutes Gerrard burst through the centre and release Owen on the left, the England veteran easily outpacing the Romanian defenders and pulling the ball back into the path of Webb on the edge of the area. Webb controlled it in one touch, dodged a defender and sent the keeper the wrong way with a lovely finish. 1-0 to England. This was a dream for Danny Webb, but the Manager still planned to dress him down at half time and tell him to get more involved. The goal was pretty much his first touch for the night.

After 38 minutes Romania hit back, Tamas heading home from a corner, Ferdinand slow to pick up the late run, and Parker asleep, left in his wake. The Manager was furious. 1-1 and a very poor showing at half time.

*The Managers half time speech has been censored*

England started the second half purposefully, playing a mix of short and long balls with precision, Lambu creative, Webb finding space and providing drive, and Gerrard showing some of his old run. Things started coming together, with England dominating play. Samba & Owen both went close, and Gerrard hit it over when put through by Lambu. 68 minutes … still 1-1.

Finally all the dominance paid off Gerrard and Parker combining to craft a lovely move that created a glimpse of space for Webb to burst through two defenders on the edge of the area and blast the ball past the hapless keeper. Goooooooal!! 2-1, a lovely move. Webb now had both goals, and had effectively resurrected his career in one game, showing pace, skill and strength as well as great control and finishing – the perfect attributes for the AMC role.

5 minutes later Samba got on the end of a great run and cross by Owen with a thumping headed goal which sealed the victory. 3-1 to England, a solid result in the end. The team had looked much better in the second half, and hopefully the defence would improve given a few games together. The Manager breathed a sign of relief and rubbed his hands together to ward off the icy cold. Ashikodi, Schumacher & Dyer were given a run late on and did the job they were asked to do, Dyer in particular looking impressive. Scott Parker got better as the game went on, controlling things with his probing accurate passes from DMC and stopping the run of the Romanian midfielders. The problem with being the England Manager was, the Manager thought, you got to see so much talent close up, it made you start to consider putting offers on the table that you probably would not have thought of. Danny Webb would certainly be a useful purchase, although D’Alessandro was already starring in the same role for the Reds …. food for thought.

Ratings: Kirkland 7; McEveley 8, Ferdinand 7, Woodgate 8, Welsh 8; Parker 9; Lambu 8, Webb 9 (MoM), Gerrard 8; Owen 8, Samba 8; Schumacher 6, Dyer 8, Ashikodi 7.

Group 2 (Eur) Table:

England P9 W8 D1 L1 F25 A3 Pts25

N Ireland Pts19

Romania Pts16

Israel Pts13

Malta Pts 8

Faore Islands Pts 1

The press conference went much better that previous efforts, the Manager relaxing into his new role – only getting tetchy when quizzed about the performance of Ferdinand and his defensive cohorts - maybe all those media coaching sessions were paying off after all.

Stan, The Mirror: “Mr Best, can we expect any changes to the line up for the upcoming clash with Israel?â€

Pete Best: “No Stan, and call me Pete, please. I was very pleased with the lads tonight, they showed me they had spirit and pride, and I wont make changes unless I am forced to …â€

And he sure would be!

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<BLOCKQUOTE class="ip-ubbcode-quote"><font size="-1">quote:</font><HR>

*The Managers half time speech has been censored*



Good to see another effort from you -always worth it. Some interesting inclusions in the squad there too I might add, good casting off Heskey \o/

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The lead up to the trip to Israel 5 days later was not going according to plan. The Manager had to content with McEvelely, Owen, Samba, Lambu, Steele and Welsh all pulling out with minor injuries. So much for consistency in team selections, though the Manager, as he drank heavily from another shot of malt whiskey at the bar that night. Still, the Manager would show faith in those who performed well for him, and it game others the chance to impress.

To compound the Managers problems, Beckham was at it again, whining in another tabloid about how he deserves to be in the squad, astounded that 19 year old James Kay from Blackburn could be picked over him.

Later in the day the Manager exploded at a press conference …..

[could have ended the story there ………… nice visual image that ……… but]

…. “that Beckham should concentrate on his game and allow the spotlight to fall where it deserves to be for a changeâ€.

The Managers minders were getting a bit concerned about the Managers drinking in the evenings, but had kept things pretty quiet so far, the Manager himself admitting he had a bit of a problem. This might explain his overly unpredictable outburst of late – but he had always been a bit narky, lets face it. This didn’t seem to slow his consumption, however, and that night he was once again basking in the warm glow that only three or four doubles of a particularly fine single malt can bring as he pencilled in the team sheet.

Kirkland; Clement, Ferdinand, Woodgate, Dawson; Parker; Croft, Webb, Gerrard; Brandy, Rooney; Subs Robinson, Mullins, Giddings, Jenas, Dyer, Kay, Ashikodi.

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A debut for young Blackburn pair Stuart Giddings and James Kay beckoned, as both had impressed with recent form – they knew that this was a once in a lifetime chance to make an impression before the World Cup next year.

It was a warm night in Tel Aviv, the stadium lights blazing and the crowd buzzing. Israel had performed well in the qualifiers and would be no walkover for the much changed England line up.

The Manager had a scorching headache, but it disappeared as soon as Israel kicked off and he started bellowing instructions to his players.

After a couple of scratchy minutes where not much happened, the England side started to gell, with Parker, Croft, and Gerrard putting some useful passes together. Rooney was looking full of life up front, and Brandy was causing all sort of problems for the Israeli Defenders in the air. The Defence looked much better too, the experience of Clement providing a calming influence. Ferdinand was looking something like his old self again, too.

England broke through on 15 minutes after efforts from Webb and Rooney had grazed the post and crossbar respectively, Brandy making a strong run, leaving defenders in his wake and firing the ball home into the bottom left hand corner. The small group of England fans went nuts, otherwise, there was silence. The Manager suddenly felt a bit conspicuous jumping up and down on the touchline, and returned to his seat grinning from ear to ear. It was a nice start and better was to come. England ran Israel ragged, maintaining the pace of the game and having many attempts on goal go close. Rooney finally made it 2-0 after 38 minutes with a nice finish close in after being put through by Webb, who seemed to be growing in confidence each outing. The half time break was quite subdued in the dressing room, the Manager feeling no need to deliver a sermon, instead sitting quietly and talking tactics with two or three players.

The second half continued in the same vein as the first, with Webb scoring a spectacular volley from 25m which cannoned in off the bar from an excellent cross by Kay. 3-0 it stayed, but England piled on the pressure for the whole 90 minutes, Parker and Gerrard excelling in the middle of the park. The Manager was well pleased. His tactics were starting to pay off now that players were more comfortable with their roles.

Giddings, Jenas & Kay came on late and fitted in well. Giddings getting caught out one by a long ball but otherwise giving a good account of his ability. Kay made some nice runs forward and looked to be a good backup for Webb & Dyer in the AMC role, also doing well when drifting out wide – nis natural balance and pace ghosting him past defenders with ease, also shooting over the bar towards the end.

26 scoring shots to 1 told the story, the Managers only regret was that his defence was not stretched.

Kirkland 6; Clement 8, Ferdinand 8, Woodgate 6, Dawson 7; Parker 9; Croft 7, Webb 8, Gerrard 8; Brandy 9, Rooney 8; Subs Robinson, Mullins, Giddings 6, Jenas 7, Dyer, Kay 7, Ashikodi.

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The Manager was starting to realise just how difficult being an England Manager can be. Even though his side had performed brilliantly, there were still plenty of articles questioning his selections and tactics, particularly his reliance on youth. The press were worried about a perceived lack of depth, but the Manager had seen enough from the players he had picked so far not to be too worried (barring injury of course, but that was the lot of all Managers). The Managers stress levels had effectively doubled, and his drinking was getting worse, his minders even having a quit word or two in his ear one morning when he was feeling particularly worse for wear.

Worryingly, the Manager had indeed taken his eye off the ball at club level, his assistant Manager making a poor decision to rest key players Robben, Deco, Gerrard, Adriano & Owen for the away tie to Ipswich. The result, a jarring 1-0 loss to a club struggling at the wrong end of the table which saw Man Utd and Arsenal skip away to a 5 point lead at the top of the table. The Manager vowed to pay closer attention at club level from now on. The Liverpool Board, who had been singing Pete Best’s praises for the last 6 months, now were publicly criticising him despite hia great track record. Perhaps they had a point.

There was one more England fixture to be taken care of this year, a friendly against Sweden at the new Wembley Stadium, a chance for the Manager to test his backup players. The Manager had decided to use Friendlies this year and early next to play 2 teams for 45 minutes each, a much maligned tactic sure to cause much consternation in the press. So, it was Sweden on December the 6th, then no England duties until February and April next year, when more Friendlies were lined up. The Manager knew he would have his work cut out keeping any sort of team spirit together over that period, but he had a few special speeches lined up which he hoped would get the message across.

The Manager had pencilled in his 2 teams:

1st half: Kirkland; McEveley, Ferdinand, Woodgate, Welsh; Parker; Lambu, Webb, Gerrard; Owen, Samba.

2nd half: Steele; Clement, Dawson, Mullins, Giddings; Jenas; Croft, Dyer, Kay; Rooney, Brandy.

Anyone not on either team list knew they would have to rely on injury to step up into the Managers plans. The likes of Alan Smith and Paul Robinson were particularly disappointed – but that was just life as far as the Manager was concerned, he wasn’t going to put up with any nonsense from the pair, and moved quickly to put a stop to the rumblings with a couple of late night phone calls. He thought he had solved the problem, until he read the headlines the next day …..

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BEST THE WORST! Screamed the back page headline of the News of the World. It was an ‘exclusive’ with Alan Smith. The Manager nearly choked on his cornflakes, but composed himself enough to read on, with much amusement. “Alan Smith, Barcelona star and England international, claims new England Manager Pete Best’s treatment of him is the worst of any England Boss he has served under ….†Etc. Smith had apparently gone on to say that he could not see the point of being in the squad if he was not going to be picked, that he deserved a spot upfront with Owen and that he considered his England career finished! “Well, that can be arranged†said the Manager aloud with a smirk.

A few phone calls later that day and everything was ironed out. Smith insisting he had been misquoted and saying he would be suing the paper. The Manager still had his doubts, but wasn’t about to let anything as petty as this affect his team selection policy. As fate would have it, Smith had his chance to impress in any case, Rooney turning his ankle in Training the day before the friendly.

It was a miserable night. Cold, foggy, intermittent drizzle … oh, & did I mention how cold it was!

The Manager was in a foul mood – everything seemed to be going wrong this week – the Manager upsetting his Board, his assistant Manager, his Liverpool players and several of his England squad along the way. The Manager’s mood swings were obvious to all but the Manager himself.

The way the game panned out did little to improve the Managers mood.

The first half was a dull, disjointed affair, the only bright spot Lambu’s creative play in midfield and a sharp finish from Samba on 44 minutes to put England a barely deserved equaliser (Farnerud had put Sweden ahead after 35 minutes with a superb long range strike which Kirkland either didn’t see or … well, lets just say he didn’t see it, thought the Manager – he was very interested to see how Steele performed in the second half). Samba’s reputation was growing with every England game, and he now had 12 goals from 13 England appearances. It was a shame his domestic record this season was not as good, the Manager thought to himself as he shuffled down the race at half time, a few jeers coming from some of the hardy fans.

More disjointed play in the second half, actually worse than the first had the Manager contemplating a change of tactics and reverting to a 4-4-2. After 67 minutes Giddings was caught out by a Kallstrom through ball and Farnerud raced though to plant the ball in the bottom left hand corner of the net past Steele’s outstretched glove – the keeper didn’t stand a chance. 1-2. Deafening silence and a few England heads went down. The Manager took note.

Thankfully Fabian Brandy pulled back a late equaliser after a scrappy goal line scramble to save the day, but both England teams had been awful, and there were few positives. Kieran Dyer again did well in the AMC role but had little support from Smith, the headline hunting player failing to show his value when it really counted. James Kay looked out of his depth, but would be given a chance to find his feet. An interesting aside - Danny Webb had failed to find the net for only the second time in an England shirt (7 Apps 6 goals)


1st half: Kirkland 6; McEveley 7, Ferdinand 7, Woodgate 6, Welsh 6; Parker 7; Lambu 8, Webb 6, Gerrard 7; Owen 6, Samba 7.

2nd half: Steele 7; Clement 7, Dawson 7, Mullins 6, Giddings 6; Jenas;7 Croft 7, Dyer 7, Kay 6; Smith 6, Brandy 7.

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The Managers tirade after the match did not seem to find its mark, the players indifferent to what they though was a respectable result. The Manager left the dressing room wondering what was happening to his new team. He’d tried to instil a sense of pride in them, been fair in selection and put a settled team out on the park, but to be honest the lads out there had not played as if their lives depended on it. Their footballing lives did, as far as the Manager was concerned. The Manager headed to the bar, where he was in for a long night. It was all a bit of a blur, the Manager arguing loudly with several other patrons and generally behaving like a bit of a prat. The Manager had to be escorted home at 3 a.m. after trying to start a fight with some poor geezer who bumped into him.Once home, the Manager headed for his study by the terrace, and opened the drinks cabinet searching for his favourite single malt.

The Manager finally realised he was in serious trouble the next morning when he woke up on the couch in his study and the ice in his glass of scotch had not yet melted. His drinking had gotten out of control and he really needed some help to get himself back on the rails. It dawned on the Manager that his behaviour had been erratic, emotional and boorish over the past couple of months – no wonder he was having trouble motivating the players. Feeling rather sheepish, the Manager dialled the number of a rehab clinic one of his minders had slipped him a few weeks ago. He had meant to toss the card as soon as the minders back was turned, but somehow it had remained in his wallet.

The next few months would be tough both emotionally and from the perspective of keeping the squad together and focussed. There were no matches planned for 3 months, and then only a Friendly against minnows Malta, then nothing again until April. The Manager dialled his assistant Manager, told him to take over for the next week, dialled his media adviser, told him to release a story to cover his tracks, said goodbye to the wife & kids, then dialled a cab. The Manager would use his enforced ’holiday’ to plan some strategies to re-motivate his squad. At least next week he could concentrate on his Liverpool squad once again, hopefully this time with a clear mind.

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The Manager threw himself back into his work, and guided his beloved Liverpool to a commanding lead in the premiership. By the end of March Liverpool were 9 points clear at the top and close to being crowned champions. A series of stunning attacking displays had laid waste to all challengers, as the free scoring reds marched on. The most memorable match was a classic encounter away to Manchester United, once the kings of English football and now looking to challenge again after winning only the Community Shield last season in the past 10 years. Liverpool were 2 goals down after 20 minutes, Fabian Brandy and the veteran RVN catching Liverpools defence sleeping with some crisp first time passing. With nothing to lose, the Manager instructed his players to throw everything at United, and within another 20 minutes it was 2-2. It was going to be one of those games. Just before the break United nabbed another from a corner 2-3 at half time thanks to Kieran Richarson’s powerful header over the top of the disappointing Welsh from Beckhams deliciously curled corner.

More of the same in the second half, with end to end play, both sides realising this games could well decide the championship race. Adriano was the difference in the end, smashing home three wonderful second half goals after coming on for Samba, one on the run from the edge of the area, the second a sublime lob over Steele after being put through by D’Alessandro and another tucked away from the six yard box after Robbens cross to make it 5-3. What a match! Liverpool had conceded more than in any game this season (now 16 from 33 games in the premiership) but had won in style. Adriano,now 28, was enjoying his best ever season for Liverpool, and had won plenty of games off his own boot to record 39 goals from 36 appearances this season, eclipsing past efforts (which had averaged at 0.83 goals per game).

Ratings: Dudek 6; Vaughan 7, Dawson 8, Mexes 8, Welsh 6 (Sub Lescott 7); Gerrard 8; Robben 9, D’Alessandro 8, Farnerud 7 (Sub Kaka 8); Owen 8, Samba 7 (Sub Adriano 10). Subs not used Luzi, Osbourne.

The Manager had been impressed by Beckham, who was trying his hardest to break back into the Managers Emgland Squad – but in reality he had been inconsistent again over the season and was not likely to earn a recall. Brandy had again shown his worth, as had Dawson & Gerrard. Bad news after the match, however. Stephen Gerrard had had a recurrence of his ongoing groin problem and would be out for at least 2 weeks. The Manager hoped this was not a sign of things to come, as Gerrard had been wonderful this season and had a big role to play in the World Cup Finals.

New Wembley, an amazing 92,578 fans turn up to see the clash between England and … um … Malta!!

Darius Vassell was pressing for a recall after a string of supberb performances and 19 leage goals, but still did not break back into the squad, the Manager staying with thoise he had shown faith in to date. Gerrard, Parker and Woodgate were the only injury concerns and missed the game. It would be 50/50 whether they would regain full fitness before the finals, a major blow to the Managers strategy.

The team: Kirkland; McEveley, Dawson, Ferdinand, Mullins; Jenas; Lambu, Webb, Dyer; Owen, Samba.

Subs: Steele, Clement, Giddings, Schumacher, Kay, Croft, Ashikodi, Rooney, Brandy.

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The Manager addressed his players before the game:

“Look guys, I know that things have been difficult in the squad and we have talked about that in the week, but its time to put all that behind us and have a good solid hit out tonight. I cant stress the importance of this match enough. I want you to think of it as a Group match in the World Cup Finals. You still have the chance to make or break your own World Cup campaign with your performance tonight, so I want to see 100% from every one of you. I know you’ll be thinking “its only Malta, just a friendly, but you are wrong, very wrongâ€. If you want to know how hard I expect you to try tonight, I’ll just say this one thing “how long does it take you to run a hundred metres?â€. Think about it. Now go out there and give it your all†….

The Manager had pulled out one of his infamous motivational brain teasers and he was not too sure how it had gone down, as some of his players had looked a bit perplexed. Some of them had got it, while others were probably thinking “ … about 11 seconds?? …â€. Perhaps he should have explained. On well, it was too late now. He had done his best to gee up his players for what should be a stroll in the park no matter how you dressed it up, but 92 odd thousand fans had turned up for a show, so the Manager would do his best to provide one, and hopefully so would his players.

But it was more of a horror show than anything ….

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Englands first half performance was so disjointed and painful to watch, with no flow to the passing, that the Manager was reminded of Liverpools performances under the previous incumbent, Gerard Houllier. Malta were surprisingly well organised in defence and England tactic of playing long balls for Samba to knock down was achieving little. It was scrappy and as the half wore on, the huge crowd became restless. Jenas, Lambu and Dyer were seeing plenty of the ball, but their passing was woeful, leaving Owen & Samba starved of opportunities. Little else happened to half time, a tame effort from Samba the only real opportunity.

The Manager played down his half time address. Rather than tearing into the players he patiently explained what his 100m speech was all about, and asked the players to be more patient and to exploit their superior skill and pace. The problem was, the team was playing with no confidence and without that, even minnows Malta could look competitive.

The same eleven players ran back out for the second half, which picked up where the first left off. The Manager fleetingly wondered whether he had lost the respect of the players, but was sure that they were unaware of his off field problems and equally sure that he had been firm but fair with each of them. The one positive was that Ferdinand & Mullins looked great at the back, and Goma Lambu continued his premier league form into the game, with powerful runs and deft passing. The rest of them looked a bit lost, and after a while, the jeering started.

After 65 minutes the Manager finally lost patience and threw on Giddings, Kay and Ashikodi for Dawson, Croft & Owen. The team did lift briefly, James Kay adding much needed spark in the middle, but overall the team continued to play without aplomb. More changes were made after 70 minutes but again this did little to improve things. By 85 minutes the Manager sat with his head in his hands, his head throbbed, and the more the crowd jeered, the more he shrank back into the dugout.

In the 90th minute Dyer took the ball, swept past two opponents and laod the ball off neatly for Moses Ashikodi, who quickly played the ball wide of his man, and whipped in a cross which deflected off a Malta defender and sent the keeper the wrong way. The ball fell into the path of Samba, who rolled it into the empty net. Silence. Hardly a cheer for a few seconds, then some begrudging applause for the move, which finally broke through the resolute Maltese defence and resulted in a luck winner. 1-0 at full time but by far the worst display by England in recent memory. There was even a moment late in the second half where McEveley almost underhit a backpass and Steele had to scramble to clear from his opponent, who was bearing down with alarming speed.


Kirkland (inj 35) 6; McEveley 6, Dawson 7, Ferdinand 7, Mullins 8; Jenas 6; Lambu 8, Webb 6, Dyer 7; Owen 6, Samba 7.

Subs: Steele 6, Giddings 7, Schumacher 6, Kay 7, Croft 6, Ashikodi 7, Brandy 7.

Danny Webbs first couple of games were looking like a flash in the pan, and Jenas and Croft had disappointed.

The Manager let rip after the game, letting all who had not performed know that their place in the squad was on the line. Privately, he was resigned to going back to the drawing board and finding a tactic that better suited the players available.

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The back page headlines the next day were no laughing matter. An example from the Tele: “Maltese Terror! – England awful against tenacious Terriersâ€. And so on…

To make matters worse in the following week, the Manager had some bad news about Michael Owen, who had dislocated a shoulder in Training and would miss the rest of the season, including the FA Cup Final & Champs League Semis. Owen would not be fit in time for England’s opening group game in the World Cup Finals, and it would be a risk to include him in the squad – but it was the Managers call, and although Owen at 29 was no longer the goal scoring machine of seasons past, he had added a new dimension to his game in the ability to create goals and was still at the top of his game if paired with a target man.

The Manager spent the next few weeks trying to concentrate on Liverpool’s run in to the end of the season but found that England matters were constantly occupying his actions and his thoughts. Fortunately the league was won in convincing fashion, Liverpool 10 points clear of Utd, the title clinched in a 5-0 drubbing of Spurs, who looked to be on their way to the 1st Division. Adriano carried his inspired form through to the end of the season, bagging yet another hat trick and man of the match performance in the process. Defensively this was Liverpool’s best ever season, conceding only 17. D’Alessandro was the stand out player over the season, bagging 20 goals from AMC, his style and form reminiscent of John Wark’s brief time at the club in the 80’s.

Adriano inspired Liverpool breezed through the Champs League Semi’s 9-2 on aggregate over a disappointing Inter, Robben and Farnerud outstanding in the middle of the park. Liverpool would once again meet Manchester United in the Final, hopefully in a repeat of last years final which the Reds had won convincingly.

The FA Cup final followed, Liverpool cruising past an outclassed Reading 3-0 and earning accolades all round.

The England squad for the upcoming friendly against Norway was to be decided, and the Manager was relieved to see Gerrard and Parker available. But there was a tough decision to make, the Friendly being just 3 days after the Champions League Final, and plenty of spots available that would normally be filled by Liverpool and United players. The Manager did not want to risk tiring the players or risking injury with such a busy schedule – they were bound to be well and truly spent after the Champs League Final – and so removed all players likely to be involved in the Final from his squad. The Manager hoped this would not be too unsettling, but at leat it gave some others the chance to shine, and changes were clearly required after the Malta disaster.

Out went :Kirkland, Steele, Dawson, Ferdinand, Welsh, Gerrard, Owen, Samba & Brandy, and in came Wright, Hoult, Ashley Cole (available again after long term injury and some good recent form – more good news on the injury front), Terry, Hearn; Dean Ashton and Darius Vassell.

It would be a new look England in more ways than one. But first things first, there was a date with destiny in Berlin with Manchester United to be taken care of ….

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Liverpool had knocked Manchester United and Arsenal from the pinnacle of English and European football in 2003 and hadn’t looked back. Uniteds demise had been complete and yet they were always challenging just when you were looking to write them off. They had pushed the Reds in the domestic competition for the last 2 seasons and made consecutive Champs League finals, so they were once again a force to be reckoned with – youngsters Kieran Richarson and Fabian Brandy heralding a second coming for the Red Devils.

It turned out to be the most bitter of defeats for Liverpool, who handed United their first real trophy for 10 years after a unusually flat performance in a tight game. Brandy was the hero for United, latching onto a Veron through ball in the 68th minute and rounding Kirkland with ease. Liverpool had tried to throw everything at them after that, but United were too strong at the back and Samba & Adriano both lacked their usual finishing finesse, both putting good chances wide. Liverpool had pounded United season after season, but now the tables had turned and the Manager headed into the week in a foul mood.

The Manager knew he had not put his usual amount of thought into the game and had paid the ultimate price. He had a feeling his stint as England boss may well end after the World Cup, whatever the outcome.

New Wembley. The well fancied Norway to provide pretty stiff opposition and an unusual looking England line up, with too many changes for the Managers liking. Still it would be interesting to see how some players responded to being thrown a lifeline. The Manager was keen to try his new 4-4-2 tactic as well, which he was sure would better suit the team.

Two teams would again play 45 minutes each.

1st half: Robinson; Cole, Woodgate, Terry, Mullins; Lambu, Croft, Dyer, Kay; Rooney, Ashikodi.

2nd Half: Wright; Clement, McEveley, Schumacher, Giddings; Parker, Jenas, Webb, Hearn; Vassell, Ashton.

After 90 minutes it was 0-0, a tight but uninspiring game with few clear cut chances. England had again struggled and to be fair were outplayed by an aggressive Norway outfit, well led by Carew & Gamst Pedersen. England were far from disgraced, but were limping into the World Cup Finals – not what the Manager had in mind when he took on the role. The team were booed off, with Vasell coming in for special attention from the fans after blasting two clear chances over in the last 20 minutes when put through by Giddings and Parker.

James Kay had looked the part, the Young Player of the Year creating plenty of drive, but there were few other positives and the Managers plans were in tatters. Jenas, croft & Webb had disappointed, and there was little joy to be had from the performances of the strikers.

Well, there was nothing to do now but start planning for the finals and head off to camp with the squad neat week - but first there were a few decisions to be made. That night, the Manager sat quietly in his study and glanced over at the drinks cabinet – he was sure he had a nearly full bottle of Laphroiag in there somewhere …

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4 a.m.. A half empty bottle of Laphroaig, the dim glow of a laptop, an empty glass on its side on the floor next to the Managers chair, and the Manager, old cold ….

The Manager work with a start as his neighbour shut their car door at 6 a.m. the Manager rubbed his eyes, looked around, tried to get up out of his study chair, decided against it, and instead woke his laptop and surveyed the decisions he had made last night:

The squad:

GK: Kirkland (Liverpool), Steele (Man Utd), Robinson (Blackburn).

D: Cole (Arsenal), McEveley (Inter), Ferdinand (Man Utd), Woodgate (Barcelona), Dawson (Liverpool), Terry (Chelsea), Mullins (WBA), Giddings (Blackburn), Welsh (Liverpool).

M: Parker (Inter), Gerrard (Liverpool), Schumacher (WBA), Lambu (Millwall), Webb (Newcastle), Croft (Man City), Dyer (Newcastle), Kay (Blackburn).

F: Owen (Liverpool), Samba (Liverpool), Brandy (Man Utd), Rooney (Everton), Ashikodi (Millwall), Vassell (Aston Villa).

The squad had a nice balanced look to it, with plenty of experience and a few young faces to keep everyone on their toes. Beckham, Smith, Heskey, Clement and Lampard were the main omissions, but really there were no surprises, the Manager had been clear on who would or wouldn’t be going from the start.

Owen (Liverpool), Lambu and McEveley would be in the squad even though their injuries may keep them out until the knock out stage in China. There was also a bit of a cloud over Parker, who had struggled all season with injury. It was a big risk, but one the Manager was prepared to take as they were key members of the plans he had drawn up in the middle of the night. The Manager was a little worried that the injury prone Gerrard, Webb & Dyer were also a big part of his plans, but he only hoped that luck was for once on their side and that the squad had sufficient depth to cover any losses, although if you took out Lambu, Gerrard, Parker, Webb and Dyer things were looking pretty thin in midfield. The Manager just hoped his tactics clicked in time for the first group game.

Anyway, it was off to Beijing today where England would attempt to knock holders Australia off their rather unlikely perch. Anything could happen in the World Cup Finals, as Australia had proven in 2006. This time the established powers were likely to be challenged by the holders, China, South Korea, USA and Tunisia.

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The first couple of days in camp were quite good, with spirits high and pale blue sunny Beijing skies. The hype leading up to the finals had been unbearable, but, now, locked away from the press, the Manager started to believe again. The England squad had some of the best talent in world football – the trick was to get them to play as a team, something that the media failed horribly to understand. Here is a sample from last night press conference:

Clive Waterhouse (Telegraph): “Pete, your preparation for the finals has hardly been ideal, and critics have suggested that the teams you have put on the park to represent England are the worst they can remember – do you really believe you can turn the side around?â€

Pete Best: “Sod off Clive, next question ….â€.

A gasp or two, stunned silence for a while, then muted sniggering as the Manager winks at his old sparring partner – furious scribbling from the local Beijing correspondents ….

Pete Best: “No, seriously Clive – what sort of question is that? Of course we can and of course we will – I have faith in the players I have selected, but it will take time for them to come together as a team. England has the depth of talent to bring the World Cup home, make no mistake. On our day, we can match it with the best of them. I’m not over stating our chances. I believe we can do it or I would not be here – but if we are good enough to make it to the final, and that is a big if, as we will need plenty of luck and we will have to play the game of our lives, that’s for sure.â€

And on it went for another half hour, the Manager fending off all sorts of questions designed to rile him and question every decision he has ever made as England boss – but the Manager knew it was all just part of the game. The real work was ahead.

The news the next morning was disastrous. Kieran Dyer had broken down in Training and would be on his way home. The Manager had tried to console the lad but he was too upset to really talk, it all coming out in the press the next day as the Newcastle tyro considered giving the game away. The news got worse. Jay McEveley had had a setback in his recovery and was now unlikely to be fit even if England made it through the latter stages, something the bookies had severe reservations about. New doubts were also cast over Scott Parkers recovery from a knee injury, and suddenly the Managers selection policy was looking none too clever.

China v Jamaica, the opening game, and a sea of red and a wall of noise greeted the Chinese, 3rd favourites to lift the trophy behind Brazil and France, as they ran out to commence their campaign. China were impressive, strolling to a 2-0 victory and matching it physically with the Jamaicans and eclipsing them technically. Li Bin impressed in midfield, creating both goals in a hard running display.

The Manager woke to the following headline:

“ENGLAND NO HOPE OF CHINESE TAKEAWAYâ€. A typically colourful effort by The News of The World summing up the countries pessimistic view of Englands chances after seeing a true team display from the much improved Chinese outfit.

The Manager would do his best to prove them wrong. Samba & Brandy were working well together in Training, and looked favourites to edge out the more experienced Rooney in Englands opener tomorrow night ….

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England were up against Algeria tonight, and the Manager brushed aside the morning papers and concentrated on his team selection.

England were also drawn with the exceptionally talented but inconsistent Uruguay and the quality of Denmark, so the Group was one of the toughest. The Manager was extremely pleased to kick off against Algeria, who would provide by far the easiest group game.

Michael Owen had surprised everyone and declared himself fit the night before, and the medico’s had agreed. The Manager knew he lacked match conditioning but he was a walk up start to any team and the first name to go on to the team sheet. Even 60 minutes from the England Legend would inspire his team mates, as Owen had had an uncanny knack of doing something special in big games throughout his career.

The second strikers spot was more difficult, as Brandy, Samba & Rooney all had good claims. The Manager still had to be convinced by Rooney, who’s round the ground play was always excellent, but he really lacked the goal poachers instinct that was so important in playing up front with Owen. Samba would have been an automatic choice even six months ago, but he had struggled with niggling injuries all season and was missing the killer touch of late that had propelled him to the top of most European clubs ‘Most Wanted’ lists. That left Brandy who was a more complete all round player than Samba and had the recent form to suggest he was sharp in front of goals. Owen & Samba would normally be the Managers first choice, but Brandy would get his chance.

The back four pretty much chose themselves: Cole, Ferdinand, Woodgate & Welsh and Luke Steele would have the job in goal and would keep it as long as he performed, Chris Kirkland was close to recovering from yet another injury but was not quite 100% which was terrible luck for Englands first choice keeper.

Midfield was another story- already decimated by injury – Lambu, Dyer & Parker all out, and posed a real problem.

The Manager stuck with the players who had been at the forefront of his plans across the middle of the park. Lee Croft to provide some run & creativity on the left, Danny Webb in the middle more by default than by form, but the Manager hoped he would recapture his touch, and the inspirational Stephen Gerrard on the right, finally making a world cup appearance after missing the last two through injury.

The DMC spot was a problem. Scott Parker or Gerrard would usually play there, Jenas had come up short &missed the squad, and the Manager did not think that Stefan Schumacher was ideal for the role, and although he was in the squad as cover he had not done anything to really impress and so would be starting on the bench. There really was no obvious choice unless Welsh came out of the back four, but the Manager did not want to break up the formation, which really only left Hayden Mullins, the erratic WBA jack of all trades who had hit the headlines with some magic displays (and some anonymous ones too) in the qualifiers. Give him a job, and he’d give it his all, that was for sure – but he was untried in the anchor role to date so it would be a gamble – but it was the only real option. The Manager really needed someone to step up and inspire the team, and with Mullins you just never knew.

So, it was decided then, this would be the England team for the Algeria game (4-1-3-2):

Steele; Cole, Ferdinand, Woodgate, Welsh; Mullins; Croft, Webb, Gerrard; Owen, Brandy. Subs: Robinson, Dawson, Giddings, Schumacher, Kay, Rooney, Samba

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In other games, Spain had opened their account strongly, a Fernando Torres double sinking the hopes of Turkey. Also:

Ireland 3 Saudi Arabia 0, a great start to the unfashionable (whatever that means) Irish, Robbie Keane providing a handful for the Saudi’s;

Tunisia 1 Czech Republic 1. Tunisia not looking anything like the young team who had dazzled in the qualifiers.

Holland 0 Trinidad & Tobago 0. Holland again failing when the pressure was on, their star studded line up, including the likes of Robben & Van Der Vaart looking anything but star quality as a team.

USA 0 Argentina 3. The much fancied Americans upset by a strong Argentinean side that could afford to leave the gifted Patricio Perez at home.

Italy 1 Australia 0. A well organised Italy easily outplaying the reigning champion Aussies, who did not have the sparkle of their last campaign. Harry Kewell’s fall from grace continued since his Liverpool days - unable to even secure a place on the bench.

Nigeria 0 Germany 0. Two well organised sides cancelling each other out in a cagey encounter.

A cool night and a cool reception greeted England as they ran out to tackle Algeria, the England fans unusually subdued. There had been some trouble the night before from some of the few who had made the journey, and the Chinese authorities were certainly not to be messed with, coming down hard at the first signs of unrest.

Still, that was to be forgotten now as the team finally kicked off their 2010 World Cup, chasing the ultimate dream of being crowned world champions. It had been 44 years since Bobby Charlton had held the cup aloft, and that was far too long as far as the Manager was concerned. The players were nervous before the game, saying little. the Manager fixed each player with a steely glare as the filed past him into the tunnell...

Algeria started well, and frustrated England by keeping most of the possession in the first 20 minutes. The jeering started. Algeria seemed to pose no threat going forward, Ferdinand & Woodgate chopping off any attempted through balls with ease. Webb & Brandy had Managed to shoot from distance but both had blazed over and there was little flow once again to England’s game.

28 minutes and Hayden Mullins, who had been busy early, saw something that of all the other players on the pitch only Michael Owen understood and caressed a lovely ball into a space that had opened up in an instant on the edge of the area. Owen took the ball in his stride, one touch, then lashed it around the charging keeper to raise the roof in the Stands, the Manager whooping with joy, the first good news he had had in quite a while. The dull ache of his hangover all but disappeared in an instant.

Two minutes later and the lead doubled, Owen again nipping in, this time from a long throw by Danny Webb, and smashing the ball past the helpless keeper 2-0!! England had got their World Cup hopes back on track at last.

Fabian Brandy capped a strong first half performance with a nice goal from the edge of the area after a good pass from Gerrard, asserting his considerable authority on the match and relishing the atmosphere.

By the end of the half the England fans were singing once again, drums beating out the familiar tunes, their pride and faith somewhat restored. The Manager was well pleased at half time, and told his players to go out and finish them off in the second half.

Hayden Mullins had been a revelation in his anchor role, intercepting through balls, tackling hard and passing with vision and accuracy, but he took his game to a whole new level in the second half. After 52 minutes, Mullins collected the ball in space after some neat work by Croft out wide, looked up, and lashed a stunning 40 yard strike that floated and swirled past the outstretched hands of the stunned keeper. It was a great goal, and after a split seconds silence the crowd erupted at what would surely go down as one of the goals of the tournament. Better was to come.

Mullins latched onto another long range effort soon after, this time from 35 yards, and ball went like a bullet , swerving into the goal just inside the left hand post – the keeper left clutching thin air – the noise was deafening and the crowd had surely witnessed one of the great all time world cup displays from Mullins, who was now showing exactly why there was so much attention from abroad for his signature earlier in the season.

5-0 at the finish, a great result. The Manager had to keep reminding himself that there was a long way to go yet, his team had walked all over weak opposition and the real teat would come in a few days against Uruguay. The Algerian defence had been laughable at times, so little could really be learned as far as Englands hopes of glory were concerned. At least the team had some confidence now, though, and would hopefully only get better. Dawson, Kay & Rooney had come on after 60 minutes and applied themselves well.


Steele 7; Cole 8, Ferdinand 8, Woodgate 8 (Sub Dawson 8), Welsh 7; Mullins 10; Croft 8, Webb 8, Gerrard 9 (sub Kay 8); Owen 8 (Sub Rooney 8), Brandy 8.

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The press conference after the game was much easier to handle, and the Manager was happy to talk about positives for a change:

Bruce McAveney (Channel 7): “Pete, that was a great performance today, do you now think you can go all the way?â€

Pete Best: “No, Bruce, I can’t say that for sure, no one can. All I do know is that I can go into the next game with a lot more confidenceâ€

Dave Stewart (News of The World): “Mr Best, would you say that Hayden Mullins performance was the best you have seen as England Manager, and will he be guaranteed his spot from here on in?â€

Pete Best: “No, …er …. Dave is it? Right. Well, it was a brilliant performance by the lad, certainly one of the best, but no one is guaranteed their spot – it depends on their performance and the right tactic for the right opposition. Lets just say that Hayden has done himself a few favours at the selection tableâ€.

Les Murray (SBS): “Pete, what do you think of the Australian team, will they challege you for the crown?â€

Pete Best: “I expect so Les, they have the potential to repeat their great achievement of 4 years ago, but time will tell – I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing an England Australia Final – but lets not get too far ahead of ourselvesâ€

Dave Stewart (News of the World): “What do you make of this then, Mr Best? Any comment?? [standing up, holding up the back page of his own tabloid – with the headline “BECKS SHOULD BE THERE – POSH EXCLUSIVEâ€]

Pete Best: “Noâ€.

The next couple of days saw the 1st round of group games come to a close:

Brazil 1 Georgia 0 – A polished performance from the favourites, Diego netting a fine solo effort.

Bulgaria 5 Angola 1. Anatoli Todorov putting in a commending display with a brace. No one was talking up Bulgaria chances after a big win, putting the England result in some perspective.

Belgium 1 Switzerland 1.

Slovenia 2 Indonesia 0. Bayern striker Borut Semler showing his undoubted class with two fine poachers goals – a player like Semler could take the Slovenians from class to World Class.

France 1 Ivory Coast 1. A great, open, attacking game. Liverpools Djiomi Traore won man of the match honours for his superlative display at the back. Ex Liverpool reserves player Vincent Pericard also making an appearance for the French.

Uruguay 1 Denmark 0. A close and bruising affair, with the veteran Olivera’s second half penalty the difference. The Manager was already planning his tactics to match it with the tough Uruguayan’s.

Mexico 1 Columbia 0.

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The mood in the England camp was greatly improved, with no extra injury worries from the Algeria game, so the Manager was able to fine tune his tactics and concentrate on some of the challengers. The Manager watched as many games as he could, as the main threats soon started to emerge, the story told in the following games:

China 2 South Korea 1. South Korea taking the lead through Lee San but the Chinese ran over the top of them with relentless pressure and strong running to virtually book a place in the knock out stages, Zhou Jian sealing the game with a strong header from yet another corner on 82 minutes. China were looking strong, and with home ground advantage would be hard to stop. South Korea, who many had predicted to go all the way, were indeed on their way, but most likely home after a dismal effort. They would need to beat Jamaica and rely on China beating Spain to squeal through.

[Note – I incorrectly included Turkey at the expense of South Korea earlier on]

Spain 0 Jamaica 1. A major upset, the flamboyant Jamaicans (with an astonishing 13 players with the first name of Fabian in their squad bouncing back, Spain left wondering what happened 0- the perennial underachievers now on the brink of another failed campaign.

Saudi Arabia 3 Tunisia 0. The Tunisians were overawed by the occasion, a major disappointment. Ahmed Al-Shari netting a superb hat trick.

Czech Rep 0 Ireland 0. A greta result for the Irish, Damian Duff scoring a tap in on 88 minutes to give a deserved win. The Irish were firming as contenders after another strong team performance.

Angola 1 USA 2. USA not particularly convincing. An Adu penalty and Landon Donovan volley from close range seeing them home. At leats they were still alive in the competition.

Argentina 3 Bulgaria 0. Argentina were looking superb, D’Allessandro capping off a fine game with a 25 yard strike on 90 minutes in only his 7th cap. Age 29, D’Allessandro typified the amazing depth of the Argentinean squad.

Georgia 2 Trinidad & Tobago 0

Belgium 2 Italy 1. A major shock, Emile Mpenza netting both goals and showing the sort of class he has been displaying in the English Premier League for Man City of late.

Indonesia 0 Nigeria 2. Nigeria putting in a solid display, their ageing side looking confident.

Holland 3 Brazil 0. this was the headline grabber. Almost unthinkable, Brazil had been dominated from start to finish, Robben scoring two great goals and showing what the Dutch could achieve on their day, Brazil now with a major question mark hanging over them.

Australia 5 Switzerland 0. Jay Lucas added at least 5M pounds to his value, the Soton striker scoring four superb goals in a true centre forwards display, the recalled Harry Kewell rolling back the years and providing the spark just when the Aussies defence of the title looked in trouble. The rest of the world duly took note.

Denmark 3 Algeria 0. No surprises there, a polished Danish performance.

Which brought us to the England game. McEveley, Parker & Lambu were still nowhere near fit, but the only other concern was a knock in training to Michael Owen’s ankle. The Manager decided to stick to the same team, but rest Owen and instead give Cherno Samba his chance, as he looked to have finally regained some of his old sharpness. Hayden Mullins would need to play a deeper role and mark Oliveira out of the game, Gerrard also asked to play deeper and man mark, leaving Croft & Webb on creative duties.

The side:

Steele; Cole, Ferdinand, Woodgate, Welsh; Mullins; Croft, Webb, Gerrard; Samba, Brandy. Subs Kirkland, Dawson, Giddings, Schumacher, Kay, Rooney, Owen.

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England ran out on a breezy and chilly night at The Workmans Stadium. This was the crunch game, the Manager had told his players, lose tonight and any momentum gained against Algeria would be crushed, win and it could build momentum – and who knows where it might lead.

The game was a stalemate for the first 20 minutes, with tough tackling and close marking the order of the night, Gerrard and Samba coming in for some extra special attention from the Uruguayan defence. Welsh lost his cool and was booked for a retaliatory tackle, and the Manager yelled for the team to calm down. He hoped no one did anything stupid.

After 25 minutes the first real chance fell to Recba who’s run and shot drew a fine save from Steele. Honours were even, both sides looking well organised. Soon after Danny Webb split the South American’s defence, Samba outpacing his opponent and blasting the ball toward goal. The Manager was on his feet and leapt into the air as the ball … cannoned off the bar with a metallic clunk and rebounded into the arms of the keeper. Samba had shown awesome pace and was causing the Uruguayan defence big problems. Gerrard, who seemed to be everywhere, but was already lucky not to be sent off, burst past 2 opponents and played a great ball into the path of Samba, who’s running was proving to be a revelation. Samba continued his run, jinking this way and that, suddenly finding space near the left hand touchline as his run took him past the keeper, Samba pulling the ball back into the empty net, defenders sliding in just too late. The crowd erupted – thing were going very, very well. Mullins was again inspirational and the defence looked solid, winning everything in the air. The match got considerably dirtier from there on in, with some disgraceful play acting from both sides. The Manager would let fly at half time at Mullins, who had gone too far tis time. The moheican haircut was bad enough, but cheating was not something he would tolerate, the lad had got too full of himself and needed a dressing down.

On 40 minutes a lovely through ball from Webb, who was his industrious best tonight, saw Samba take the ball first time, hitting a powerful low drive that left the keeper no chance and made it 2-0! England were really starting to play some great football, despite the best efforts of the tough tackling Uruguayans.

Samba hit the post after 46 minutes to close out the half, and had marked himself as a star in world football in a half of football, the Manager was pleased that he had recently extended his Anfield contract for another 2 years. Webb continued to create chances for Samba in the second half, and Gerrard was his bustling best, the fight seemingly had gone out of their opposition. The match deteriorated into a disjointed affair, riddled with free kicks, but overall it was an impressive display by England, many critics being forced to eat their words. The Manager was actually looking forward to the press conference this time!

Stefan Shumacher had come on for Gerrard after 61 minutes and impressed, the England captain getting a standing ovation in a man of the match performance.

England had just about booked their place in the next round, and the team had come together superbly, raising their collective game just when they needed to. England fans celebrated long into the night, with only some minor disturbances and few arrests. None of them were particularly keen on upsetting the Chinese soldiers who were on every street corner. The Manager had found a few bars that stocked a good whiskey, and lost himself again in the warm haze.

The ratings:

Steele 8; Cole 7, Ferdinand 8, Woodgate 7 (Sub Dawson8), Welsh 7; Mullins 8; Croft 8, Webb 8, Gerrard 9 (Sub Schumacher 8); Samba 8, Brandy 7 (Sub Owen 7)

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It was dark, cold and misty. Late into the night. This was the time Zheng liked the best, when all was quiet and he could go about this business undisturbed. It had been easy getting a job with the maintenance staff for the new stadium, Zheng was an expert at blending into the background, and this was the sort of job where no one would remember your face. Perfect for the job at hand.

Zheng finished his cigarette, had one final look around to make sure the coast was clear, then ducked down into the boiler room that provided the power for the giant and gleaming Peoples Stadium.

Zheng moved quickly down the maintenance corridor, stopping in an alcove that seemed to house nothing more than a broom cupboard. Zheng reached into the cupboard, found the trigger in the ceiling, and unlocked the panel at the back of the cupboard. The design was flawless, and he silently disappeared through the cupboard and squeezed his tiny frame between two massive concrete walls into the tiny space that he had become so familiar with over the past few months.

The contacts of his organisation were far reaching, and the proof of this was the space Zheng now occupied, specially designed during the construction process to look nothing more than an empty pocket of air, supposedly sealed on all four sides.

Zheng froze for a moment as he heard a scraping sound, his heart pounding in his ears and a cold sweat breaking out across his forehead. He waited 20 minutes before he moved again, before finishing his objective. Only a few more weeks now. All had gone well to date and soon he would achieve his goal.

Zheng slipped out of the space and back into his duties in the blink of an eye. No sign of anyone, just as he liked it ….

As Zheng quickly made his way home the short distance to his drab flat at 3 a.m., he passed a rowdy bar and was nearly knocked off his bicycle by a rather solid, dishevelled and very obviously drunk Englishman who reeled from the doorway into his path, having been pushed by security staff after a noisy altercation that Zheng had heard from some distance away.

The Englishman stumbled and confronted Zheng: “Oi, watch where you’re going you stupid git†he slurred, before a younger and more sober colleague whisked him away. Zheng overheard the younger man say “come on now Pete, time to call it a night ….â€

Zheng smiled the cold smile of the hunter,and cycled slowly on.

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England had a few days to rest, and everyone seemed to have pulled up well. Everyone, that is, except the Manager, who had had another heavy night out and was lucky not to have attracted too much media attention for it. His minders had saved him a few times in the night, whisking him away at the first sign of trouble.

The Manager knew he had serious work to attend to today, and that the next few weeks would be the most important of his life, but his head throbbed so bad and his body ached. Maybe if he just had a wee dram to get him going this morning. Hell, the sun was nearly over the yard arm anyway ….

The Final round of group games had all the great drama you would expect at the World Cup Finals. This was where dreams began and other were broken.

Ireland 3 Tunisia 0. Robbie Keane (2), having a superb World Cup, and Stephen McPhail securing the Irish a greta group topping result and sending the Tunisian’s home in disgrace.

Saudia Arabia 0 Czech Rep 1. Milan Baros scoring after a goalmouth scramble to edge the Czech’s into the second round, the plucky Saudi’s unlucky not to have held on.

China 0 Spain 0. A tense tussle between two well drilled teams. China matching it physically with the Spanish, and proving again that they can match it with the best. The draw enough to see both teams through.

Jamaica 1 South Korea 2. Too little too late by Korea, a major disappointment, failing to build on their last two great World Cup runs. Jamaica throwing away their chance, the Fabians proving to be too inconsistent to mount a serious challenge.

Angola 0 Argentina 2. Argentina storm through , joining Ireland as the only teams to go through with a 100% record to date.

Bulgaria 0 USA 1. Eddie Johnson netting a powerful drive from the edge of the area in the 14th minute, the USA defending resolutely to hold off Bulgaria and scrape through. Adu a commanding presence. Who knows, this could be the start of something big for the Americans.

Brazil 5 T&T 1. An Adriano hat trick as Brazil aim to prove their defeat in the last game against Holland was an aberration.

Georgia 0 Holland 2. The Dutch coming good with a silky display, and going through after a shaky start. Robben & Van Der Vaart again the heroes.

Belgium 1 Australia 1. A good even game, Australia showing some fight to pull one back, Mark Viduka cancelling out Roussel’s opener, enough to see them both through thanks to the Italians poor showing.

Switzerland 0 Italy 0. Italy crash out, the fans again crying foul at a string of dubious penalty claims not given. The Manager thought they got what they deserved, the players appealing so often for free kicks that were not there, you could not blame the ref for missing one or two. They were their own worst enemies yet again, and go home in disgrace to face a ferocious local media, sick of excuses. Heads would roll.

Indonesia 0 Germany 2. Germany predictably through – you could never count them out in the World Cup Finals.

Slovenia 0 Nigeria 2. The Africans finishing on a high note, but no one expecting much from them here on in.

France 3 Mexico 0. The French team finally clicking to qualify. Mexico through too.

Ivory Coast 2 Columbia 0. A nice result for the Ivorians. None of the Columbian players looking forward to getting home, for obvious reasons.

Which brings us to the England game. The Manager had few worries heading into the game other than a suspended Stephen Gerrard – better now than later really. Goma Lambu provided some good news and although lacking match practice, would warm the bench and perhaps get a taste late on. Stefan Schumacher had impressed when coming on for Gerrard against Uruguay, so was given the nod, the WBA man starting for only the 3rd time in an England Shirt. The Manager had the luxury of choosing a virtually unchanged line up, but opted for a change in tactics to counter the Danish strength on the wings.

The defence had a great look about it and knew each others game now, and Samba had done enough to edge out Brandy, Liverpool pair Owen & Samba getting the nod. “Stuff what the media thinkâ€, the Manager said to himself as he pencilled in the team sheet, the best XI would take the field no matter what.

The team that ran out on a sunny afternoon at the Dragon Sports Centre to rapturous applause, thumping drums and blaring trumpets (what a difference a week made) was as follows:

Steele; Cole, Ferdinand, Woodgate , Welsh; Croft 8, Mullins, Webb, Schumacher; Samba 8, Owen 7; Subs Kirkland, Dawson, Giddings, Kay, Lambu, Rooney, Brandy.

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The game started at a frantic pace, the Manager up and down from his seat like a yo yo, bellowing instructions as his players struggled to keep up with the slick passing and pace of the Danes.

England’s defence held firm, though, and as the game wore on, the Danish seemed to lose a bit of heart as their efforts were rebuffed time and time again. Woodgate having one of his best outings. Only Welsh on the right was being troubled consistently, not handling the more defensive role he’d been given in looking after young firebrand Mathiasen.

After a while the match evened out, although England were missing Gerrard’s drive in the centre, and seemed to have trouble stringing more than a few passes together.

Owen & Samba looked to be working well together, however, and Samba blazed wide after 22 minutes after being put clear by a neat Owen flick on, Samba’s pace and strength against taking him past defenders with ease. Hayden Mullins tried to recreate his magical efforts of the first game, but ballooned the ball over and looked unsettled in his more central role.

The Danish came close twice before the half was out from set pieces, and England weakness both in defending and attacking, the Manager realised, but Ferdinand, Woodgate & Steele combined to clear each time.

0-0 at half time. The Manager decided changes were needed and instructed his side to play some more positive football in the second half. No real progress was being made, and the Manager had heard that Uruguay were 2-0 up over Algeria so there was still everything to play for. After 60 minutes a speculative cross from Schumacher cannoned of an unfortunate Danish defender and fell into the path of Samba, who smashed the ball home from close range, the ball catching the underside of the bar before thumping into the ground and then into the roof of the net. Goooooal!! 1-0!!!It was a typically emphatic Samba finish, and the lad was really making a name for himself after being on the outer early.

After 65 minutes Rooney came on for the tiring Owen and Giddings was given his chance, on for a quiet Cole. Goma Lambu also made an appearance, replacing Schumacher, who had been rarely sighted.

The game petered out into an untidy long ball scrap more reminiscent of Wimbledon v Millwall than a World Cup Final game. There was one good moment when the creativity and vision of Lambu shone through the mire as he stepped around his direct opponent and played a lovely ball to Mullins, who had run a marathon today, Mullins firing wide.

The Final whistle blew, and the fans seemed satisfied. England had joined Ireland & Argentina as the only teams to have 100% records going into the knock out phase, but the Manager was disappointed by the patchy display – he knew his team would have to lift to get any further in the competition, especially considering the draw for the last 16, which had paired England against holders Australia, who would not go down without a hell of a fight.

Zheng rose from his seat as the final whistle blew and pretended to cheer and clap so as to fit in with those around him. He hated soccer, but it was good to get a feel for the conditions and atmosphere that would face him on the big day. Zheng had recognised Pete Best outside the bar the other night, and was happy now to support England’s quest to reach the final ….

Ratings: Steele 7; Cole 6 (Sub Giddings 7); Ferdinand 7, Woodgate 9, Welsh 6; Croft 7, Mullins 7, Webb 7, Schumacher 7 (Sub Lambu 8); Owen 7 (Sub Rooney 8), Samba 8.

The Manger got his wish of an England Australia game, albeit a bit earlier than he would have liked!

The other knocked games were:

Brazil v Argentina – a classic, and would have made a great final –Brazil paying the price for their slip up.

China v Czech Republic

Spain v Ireland

USA v Holland

Belgium v Uruguay – perhaps the softest tie here.

Mexico v Germany

Nigeria v France

Now it was really crunch time, this was where the World Cup truly came alive!The Manager couldn't wait...

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England were through to the last 16, with a good shot at getting further, and then, well, who knows? Australia stood in the way, and it was going to be a rough affair to be sure, the Aussies renowned for their physical prowess. In Lucas and Bresciano they had players who could turn a game. Kewell on his day could win it off his own boot, and then there was always the wily veteran Viduka to content with.

Ferdinand would have him beaten for pace, but if push came to shove then Viduka was always a chance. Bresciano would have to be reigned in, and Mullins would be the man for the job, back in the anchor role he had excelled in, allowing Gerrard to play his favoured attacking game. No Scott Parker as yet, but he could be back for the next if England make it through to add much needed depth to the match day squad. The likes of Giddings, Schumacher and Kay had done well enough, but lacked the quality to really make a difference when it counted. James Kay was still a chance to pget a run, as he was always full of surprises and would provide a pair of fresh legs if Gerrard started to tire. Goma Lambu was also ready for a start, but was unlikely to edge out Lee Croft, who had done well after an average season with Man City. Croft didn;’t really have the same cutting edge to his game as Lambu, but you just couldn’t leave him out on form.

The only other change the Manager was considering was Dawson in for Welsh. Dawson had a habit of rampaging forward from time to time, something that Welsh was less likely to do. Welsh was the more complete player, but cutting edge was really what the Manager needed in the knock out stages.

The other positions picked themselves. Steele could not be faulted, Woodgate & Ferdinand had been exceptional, and Danny Webb & Stephen Gerrard nothing short of inspirational. Cole deserved at least another chance, but Mullins was a quality back up option if Parker regained fitness.

The press were singing England’s praises, and the Manager was content to sit back and take the accolades, as next week he could easily go from hero to villain in the space of 90minutes.

The Manager decided to answer all questions in tomorrow night press conference with clichés, just to see what happened, an idea that could surely only come to you at 4. a.m. and fairly bladdered, but funnily enough, no one picked upon it!

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2nd Round matches:

China 0 Czech Republic 2!

In a major shock, joint favourites China were eliminated from their home tournament by the unfancied Czechs, who were inspired once again by frontman Petr Postulka, one of the tournaments outstanding players to date. Postulka headed home a Milan Baros cross after 15 minutes, exposing a major deficiency in the Chinese game, an inability to deal with high balls into the area. A tight game was brought alight on 55 minutes as Jian Jung pushed Postulka on the six yard line as he tried to turn him inside out – the ref awarding a penalty, much to the dismay of most of the 102,356 fans at the Peoples Stadium, venue for the final in two and a half weeks time. Baros duly smashed home the penalty. China never really threatened after that, rattled by the creativity of the young Czech side. Angry scenes followed the game, with clashed between Chinese fans and their own security forces resulting in injuries and arrests. Bunting all around the city was torn down by tetchy citizens overnight, and the ciy seemed to lose its World Cup sparkle. The Manager, for one, was please with the result. China would have been an almost unstoppable force had they progressed.

Spain 2 Ireland 1.

A disappointing end for the Irish, who can rightly feel unlucky to have lost a game that saw them shade their more expensive opponents. A golden goal won it for the Spanish, Shay Given making a mistake that will give him nightmares for the rest of his days. Vicente had opened the scoring in the first half, a superb 65m ball from Puyol catching out the Irish defence, Vicente taking the ball past Given and slotting the ball home comfortably. The Irish had their opponents on the back foot after that, and the relentless pressure finally told as Keane was brought down in the area, Richard Sadlier converting the penalty to raise the roof. Spain came back but could not break through resolute defence. 1-1 after 90 minutes. It all came to an end however, 5 minutes later thanks to a terrible clearance by Given that fell straight at the feet of Reyes on the left, who had nothing in front of him except the hapless keeper. Reyed took the ball to the by line, and pulled it back into the path of Boris, the defender making no mistake from six yards to send the Irish packing. One mistake could cost you it all, reflect the Manager from the stands as the Irish players trudged off the pitch, heads bowed except for the occasional glance into the stands to applaud their plucky fans.

USA 3 Holland 1.

A superb performance from the Americans, stunning the perennial underachievers Holland with a display of pace, direct passing and awesome finishing. Landon Donovan played the match of his life, his pace, control and superb running taking him into space time and again, three ferocious shots from distance measured to perfection, keeper Stekelenberg with no chance. Adu and Henning put in impressive displays, but Donovan was the talk of the Cup, a player who really could win the World Cup off his own boot. Van Der Vaart had capped of a fine individual campaign (perhaps that was the problem, thought the Manager – too many individuals, not enough teamwork) with a free kick to level the scores on 31 minutes, but the result was never in doubt. The odds for the Americans shortened dramatically.

Argentina 0 Brazil 1.

A golden goal from man of the match Adriano after 95 minutes won it for Brazil, who had played superbly in an entertaining but inevitably free kick ridden tussle. Walter Samual missed a pass to let in Adriano, who finished with the ruthlessness that has stamped him as one of the best players in the world. And he showed it tonight. Disappointment for Argentina, who had their chances but didn’t take them. Dede and Kaka shone for Brazil, who’s quest was back on track well and truly. They would be very hard to stop now, and were clearly the most talented squad left in contention fot the grand prize, as always, so it seemed.

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It was wet & hot at Tiahne Stadium. This was the stuff dreams were made of. England, the current European Champions, up against World Cup holders Australia. Scores to settle still from embarrassing defeats many years ago for England at the hands of their Antipodean challengers.

The Manager stuck to his guns on selection night. Scott Parker was ready to play as was Goma Lambu, but both would join Welsh on the bench.

England: Steele, Cole, Ferdinand, Woodgate, Dawson, Mullins, Croft, Webb, Gerrard, Owen, Samba. Subs Kirkland, Welsh, Parker, Kay, Lambu, Rooney, Brandy.

Australia: Schwartzer, Moore, Foxe, Cooney, McClenahan, Kewell, Tracey, Emerton, Bresciano, Lucas, Viduka.

The Manager delivered a typically fire and brimstone speech before the game, the players realising the challenge ahead and responding with a stirring huddle and chant be4 sprinting out onto the pitch to a deafening roar. The Manager and his players were nervous, but trying not to show it. The Manager nipped into the loo, took a generous slug from his hip flask, then followed his players onto the pitch.

The game started at breakneck pace, both sides trying to assert their Authority. Danny Webb found himself in space within the first minute, but attempted to pick out Owen rather than shooting, Cooney easily clearing the danger. The Manager yelled at Webb to shoot on sight, forget the fancy stuff! Croft floated a good ball into the area for Samba to challenge the keeper seconds later, but Schwartzer was a match and rose above Samba (no mean feat) to clutch the ball to his chest. Samba was already worrying the Aussie defence with his pace, and it was a bright start by England.

Australia looked in better shape in the middle, and had the majority of possession, frustrating England, but Woodgate was on top of Viduka and Cole was all over Bresciano.

Samba created the first real chance after 23 minutes, his run and cut back to Owen cleared by the impressive Sean Cooney. Danny Webb missed a sitter from 5 yards soon after, the Manager leaping out of his seat and then stopping mid air as the ball flashed past the post. Samba was again the creator. After 34 minutes Lee Croft had a close range shot parried by Schwartzer after a goalmouth scramble, and England were well on top.

Ferdinand swung a corner in after 42 minutes, and Gerrard, fending off veteran Craig Moore, dived full length at the near post and powered a low header past the keeper. Gooooooal! 1-0 to England, the noise was deafening! The Manager leapt around like a lunatic, grabbing assistant manager Platt and tumbling over, feeling a bit like the buffoon he surely must have looked. It was a great goal, the talismatic Gerrard giving it everything for his country, and making up for the disappointment of missing the last 2 campaigns well and truly. In truth, questions would be asked of Schwartzer, but for now it didn’t matter.

Half time, and it was still all to do. Danny Webb had been awful, and the Manager replaced him with Lambu, Gerrard moving to MC and Croft to the right.

Straight after the break, Emerton forced a good save from Steele after a superb cross from Foxe. It could all change in an instant. Soon after, Gerrard & Samba combined to play in Owen, the striker shooting wide when it would have been easier to hit the target.

On 49 minutes, Lambu wheeled away from Foxe on the edge of the area, found space, and pulled a sharp ball back across the box where Gerrard found a touch amongst a swarm of defenders to plant the ball past the keeper and make it 2-0! Magic play from Lambu, great finish Gerrard. Heads in hands for the Aussie defenders, Schwartzer flat on his back looking to the heavens. No help there, mate, thought the Manager. This time the Manager stayed in his seat, not sure if the whiskey was to blame for his tumble earlier on or not. Best to be safe.

Lambu threatened again twice before Lucas put a looping header over from a Kewell cross, the Aussies reminding England that they would not go down without a fight.

The Manager brought on Brandy for Samba and Parker for Gerrard after 65 minutes, the England captain receiving a standing ovation as he left the pitch.

England dominated the closing stages, and the Manager though he saw the makings of a good ‘team’, so difficult to achieve at this level.

In the end the shots on target told the story. 7 to 1 in favour of England, the Australians bowing out gallantly but lacking the class to test England. It was a really satisfying performance, the Manager particularly impressed with Gerrard, Samba, Dawson, Lambu & Parker.

England fans were singing long into the night …

Ratings: Steele 7, Cole 8, Ferdinand 8, Woodgate 8, Dawson 9, Mullins 8, Croft 8, Webb 6 (Sub Lambu 8), Gerrard (Sub Parker 8), Owen 7, Samba 8 (Sub Brandy 7).

The Manager had a selection headache for the Quarter Finals, but it was a pleasant one, with everyone except McEveley fit, and a midfield brimming with confidence and options.

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Belgium 2 Uruguay 0

The young Belgium team continue to surprise, brushing aside the imposing Uruguayans with ease. Captain Timmy Simons opened the scoring with a 26th minute penalty after Mpenza had been crudely held back. Cedric Roussel made it 2-0 after just 32 minutes with a rasping low shot that deflected off a defender from 12 yards, giving the keeper no chance. As Uruguay became more desperate, the tackles flew thick and fast. It all went too far just after the break, Varlea scything down Simons with a crude and late tackled that earned him a straight red. Belgium were content to sit back after that, Uruguay never really mounting a serious challenge against the stylish Belgians. Blondel, Simons and De Roover were all superb in the middle of the park, Mpenza a constant menace. Belgium would be no pushover for their next opponents.

Nigeria 0 France 1

Nigeria were very, very unlucky, having outplayed France for most of the game, Agahowa and Ojigwe providing the drive. A tight game was broken by a miatke from keeper Mohammed, spilling a Bellion cross at the feet of Aliadiere, the Arsenal man making no mistake from 4 yards. Traore was man of the match, adding another milestone to his distinguished career. The French captain had been looking to move on from Liverpool for the last 2 seasons, but the Manager was having none of it. His contract would be up at the end of next season however, so it was time to start looking for a replacement. Overall the French team was unimpressive, lacking the spark that had seen them sit at the top of world football for almost a decade, but they had the experience and skill to turn it on come the day, and were a serious threat to England’s chances.

Mexico 2 Germany 1.

In another major upset, a Cacho brace before Kuronji pilled one back late on was enough to see Mexico through. It was a game Germany should have one, their structure and technique far superior to the Mexicans livewire brand of football. The villain of the piece was German keeper Butt, who twice failed to hold rasping Cacho drives from distance, the ball slipping through his grasp and trickling into the net. The headline next day said it all: “Oh no, Butt cant Cachoâ€!

The draw for the quarter finals had been kind to England, and the Manager fancied his chances against upstarts Mexico.

The other match ups were:

Czech Republic v USA

Spain v Brazil

Belgium v France

USA, Brazil & France loomed as the major dangers now, and the Manager headed out to his favourite bar at 1 a.m. feeling confident for the first time that his team could realise the dream of English football and go all the way.

Zheng shivered and pulled his jacket tighter around him. He had been in what he called ‘his temple’ for five hours now, making the final preparations for the big day, and waiting for the change of shifts that would allow his to make his exit without being noticed. All there was to do now was take the final action on the day, and he would be covered in glory for eternity. It was the moment his whole life had led towards, and now it was so close Zheng felt a sense of destiny. Everything had gone according to plan, and nothing would stop him now. It wasn’t actually necessary for Zheng to be at the ground on the day, but he had volunteered because he felt that he wanted to be at the centre of things when it all kicked off, so to speak …

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In another part of the city, the Manager sat cradling his laptop and reflecting on who was really doing the business for his England team. Things had gone exceptionally well, so much so that the press back in the UK were out of control, printing stories with titles such as “ENGLAND EXPECTSâ€, “BEST EVER†and other cringe worthy headings.

The Manager didn’t want to mess with the team structure or his choices too much, but now was the time to freshen up the team and remind some players that they could not expect a walk up start. It could be just the tonic they needed to bring out their best once again.

The Manager was worried about Michael Owens form. In 7 games under his tenure Owen had scored only twice, those goals against lowly Algeria, and had averaged only 7.0. Hardly the sort of form he was being picked for. Did the Manager risk him for 1 more game & hope he delivered – the Manager wasn’t sure.

Fabian Brandy, on the other hand, had been more consistently finding the net, scoring three from 6 (a couple of the games coming on late) and was averaging a respectable 7.33. There was always Rooney to try there as well, but it might be unfair on the others at this late stage.

Samba was clearly the leading light, netting 5 from 6 and leading the attach at an average rating of 7.66.

The MC/AMC role was still a question mark. Danny Webb’s form had trailed off alarmingly since his spectacular “rebirthâ€. Webb had in fact not scored again in 9 appearances, although he had performed reasonably well at 7.22. He was no D’Allessandro, that was for sure, and that was what the Manager was really looking for. Mullins, Gerrard and Croft were the other options for that role, but there were no stand outs the Manager could see. Croft himself was borderline, averaging only 7.25 and failing to score. Changes were needed alright ….

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World Cup Quarter Finals. China, 2010.

Spain 2 Brazil 1.

A boilover of monumental proportions saw the gritty Spanish outplay but not outclass the silky skills of the Brazilians. Guayre scored in the 20 th & 58 th minutes to seal the victory and cancel out Dede spectacular equaliser. The Villa man played his best game of the Finals.

The superbly organised Spaniards were led by Garces at the back and Etxeberria in midfield. The Brazilians were again led by Adriano, who again played the complete strikers game, but tellingly, failed to get a shot away, closed down time and again.

Reyes again played a key role, his great run to the byline and cross met emphatically by Guayre. Dede’s curling shot from 35 yards levelled things before Guayne put the icing on the cake, collecting Pavon’s 60m lofted pass, beating 3 defenders with a jinking run, and then lobbing Marcos superbly. 3 great goals in a riveting tussle. Brazil threw everything at Spain in the dying moments, but to no avail. Spain were through to the World Cup Semi Finals after sneaking through the group stage and round of 16 – an example of how anything could happen if luck was on your side. The Manager hoped some of Spain’s luck brushed off on England, as the draw was now wide open!

Czech Republic 2 USA 1.

Another huge shock, the unfancied Czechs toppling the up and coming super power of world football. Tellingly, Donovan missed the game with a knee strain, and the Americans sorely missed his inspirational running and sure finishing.

The match was a tight tussle for 78 minutes, before a Wood cross was met first time by Gaven, steering the ball home from 10 yards and putting the Americans one up ans seemingly booking them a ticked to the next round. The Czechs were not to be denied, however, and raised their tempo to stunning effect. 2 minutes later, great work from Posulka left Wood no option but to hold him back in the area, Baros nailing the resulting penalty, in off the post, to level the scores.

Full time and still 1-1, the Americans clearly rattled. Adu was hardly sighted, and Hubschman and Ujfalusi were supreme at the back for the Czechs, letting nothing through. After 94 minutes, another great piece of forward play by Postulka, now undoubtedly one of the players of the tournament, the Czech star running and crossing an inch perfect ball for Baros, who slid in and connected well, the ball cannoning off the post and spinning across the line to net a golden goal winner and send the Czechs wild, the majority of the young team reduced to tears. It had been a great display, and, the Manager realised, one in which luck had again played a huge part, the difference between winning & losing a few millimetres.

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It was all over the papers the next day, the journo’s just catching their editors in time to grab the back page for the afternoon print editions:

The Telegraph: “BEST IN DISGRACE – England Manager Pete best was last night arrested after a drunken brawl and spent the night in jail, before being release on bail …â€

Other headlines were less complimentary. As usual, the media didn’t have their facts straight, but the Manager had indeed gotten himself involved in a drunken brawl, trying to come to the rescue of some old friends whom he had bumped into earlier in the night, and he had indeed been arrested at the scene at 3.30 a.m. on the night before England’s World Cup Quarter Final. He had spent a few hours at the local military police station and had been roughed up fro his trouble, before being released without charge.

Things did not look good, however, and the damage was already done, the Manager realised as he sat quietly in the team hotel, waiting on a visit from FA chairman Dougie Mack – a man not known for his patience.

Neighbouring guests complained at the racket coming from the Managers room, as the Chairman tore strips from the shame faced Manager. Pete was to face a hastily arrange press conference in half an hour, and Dougie had made it clear that he needed to save face or he was out of a job, World Cup or no World Cup.

The press conference:

John McCain (The Times), shouted over the top of the screaming pack of newshounds: “Mr. Best, is there any truth in the rumour that you were arrested after a drunken brawl and thrown in jail last night? What sort of example does this set for your team?â€

Pete Best: “Look John, all of you. I would certainly expect my players to know better. In fact any of them out past curfew will be dropped from the squad. I am quite prepared to come under the same rules, and I’ll let the players decide what is appropriate ….â€

Jack Stringer (The Sun), interrupting : “Don’t you realise the damage you have done to England’s chances in the Finals?â€

Pete Best: “Yes, of course Jack, we could all do without this type of distraction, but in five minutes time, after I have addressed my players, we can move on and concentrate on the job in hand. Let me set you straight, I was not thrown un jail, nor am I on bail. I was amongst a group set upon last night and defended myself and my friends accordingly. I realise that to be out at that time of night looks bad, but that is when I do my best thinking, the FA knew that when they approached me for the job and nothing has changed.

Jack Stringer (The Sun): “But Pete, surely you can see that being out in a bar at 3 a.m. looks bad no matter what the excuses – where is your discipline man?â€

Pete Best: “Calm down Jack, all of you …. Look, I know very well how it looks. I suppose I didn’t realise the situation I put myself in, and I’ll face the consequences of my actions. I can assure you that I wont make the same mistake again, that is one thing I have learnt in my Managerial career, and it’ll hold me in good stead now …â€

And so it went on for a further 20 minutes, Dougie Mack drawing proceeding to a close. At the end of it, the Manager was pretty sure he had dug himself out of a big hole. His personal credibility had taken a bit of a beating, but he was about to find out if he still had the respect of the players or not, and that would decide his fate.

Secretly, the Manager knew he had been a fool, he had been out drinking again, and got himself in trouble. Christ, he was not 18 anymore – when would he ever learn? The only thing for it was to kick to booze once and for all and keep himself to himself.

The meeting with the players was brief, and went better than could have been expected. The players made it clear they thought the Manager had done the right thing on the night. Most of them knew how he operated, so the fact he was out on the sauce did not change their opinion of him. In fact, some of the players were proud of the way he had defended his friends. All in all disaster had been averted, the Manager still had his job, and aside from being the butt of a few wry comments in the afternoons tactical briefing, the Manager knew his players were still 100% behind him.

The Manager closed the meeting by saying:

“Look lads, we are at the pointy end of every footballers dream. I’ll support you 100%, all the way, in achieving that dream. If anyone feels less than 100% behind me and the way I manage this team, step forward and I’ll hand my duties over to David Platt, who will make more than a fine replacement. I have every confidence in David, as I know you do.â€


Hayden Mullins “come off it gaffer, you’ve got to be kidding us, we’re not deserting you over a couple of scotch and cokes and a bit of fisticuffs – from all accounts it seems you’ve got a pretty handy right hook!â€â€¦ a few chuckles, and normality was restored.

The Manager, grabbing the opportunity, gave the players a quick 30 minute boxercise workout in the gym to sharpen them up for the evenings game, the biggest of his career,no doubt.

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England v Mexico

The England side that ran out against Mexico to face their destiny was dramatically reshaped. The biggest shock was that Michael Owen, so often England’s inspiration, had been dropped to the bench, replaced by young Manchester United star Fabian Brandy. Samba & Brandy made for a youthful pairing up front, and the Manager hoped their enthusiasm and strength would tell against the plucky Mexicans.

Lambu, as expected, came in for Croft, but Danny Webb, one time hero, had finally wore the Managers patience too thin, and was dropped from the match day squad after one disappointing performance too many. In his place cams Scott Parker, claiming the DMC anchor role while Mullins was tried at MC. Webb was visibly crushed, and the Manger took him aside and offered a few words of encouragement, telling him to stay positive on the track, and who knows, he may well get his chance after all.

The Manager had assigned Woodgate to mind Cacho, Parker also instructed to close him down at every opportunity, and Torrado, to be minded by Gerrard. England would play the Managers favourite attacking 4-1-3-2 formation.

The whistle blew at the Peoples stadium, and the crowd erupted, the Mexican fans giving their English counterparts plenty of competition.

Samba started brightly, shotting from distance after just 2 minutes after creating space for himself, but his powerful shot was swallowed by keeper Sanchez. Gerrard the creator.

Goma Lambu blasted the ball over after just 10 minutes, showing again the silky skills that had him rated as one of the up and coming world stars of the beautiful game. It was a sharp chance but the Manager thought he should have hit the target.

Cacho outpaced Ferdinand soon after, no mean feat, only to drag his shot wide, Steele well positioned in any case.

Mexico settled after that, and looked very comfortable, England made to chase the ball with little success.

Against the run of play. Lambu and Samba exchanged passes in the centre of the pitch, Lambu’s touch again drawing gasps from the crowd. Samba wheeled around, surging forward into space in the blink of an eye, and unleashed a piledriver from 35 yards that billowed the back of the net, the keeper barely moving. Gooooooooal!! 1-0 to England, the Manager leaping with joy and the noise from the crowd deafening.

Just 2 minutes later, Gerrard takes the ball at AMC and feeds Brandy, who’s run takes him past 2 defenders, only for his shot to be parried by the keeper, but into the path of Samba, who looks odds on to score, but Lopez is there at the last second and the danger is cleared. Mexico rattled. England well on top.

Samba was close again after 43 minutes, his shot from a tight angle swerving into the side netting.

Three minutes into stoppage time, Brandy is put clear by Samba, and sweeps the ball clinically past Sanchez to make it 2-0!! The Manager is again leaping around the pitch, but a second later has his head in his hands, then start releasing a stream of expletives at the linesman, who stands with his flag raised – the goal disallowed. So its 1-0 at the break and the half has gone very well for England, the team picking itself up following the Managers indiscretion. The Manager himself feeling better after the foul mood he had been in all day.

The second half is much tighter, Mexico man marking and closing down Lambu & Gerrard with some tough tackling. After 64 minutes the Manager send on Rooney in preference to Owen – off comes Brandy. Owen sits and stares blankly ahead, wondering if his campaign is over. Croft also comes on for Lambu, who is tiring badly after another sublime display, his lack of match fitness catching up with him.

Rooney immediately looks lively, and snaps a shot over from 12 yards. Four minutes later, Samba crosses from out wide, and Rooney shrugs off his opponent Lopes and slides the ball home from close range. The Manager cant believe it 2-0 and no mistake this time. Surely a spot in the semis is now England’s. The Manager yells at his team to get behind the ball and close the game up.

Mexico, however, have other ideas, and their pressure pays off when after 72 minutes a Castro corner is headed home by Torrado, soaring over Woodgate at the near post, Steele with no chance. 2-1 now and plenty of time. Mexico have a sniff and suddenly England look shaky, missing passes and making mistakes.

Welsh comes on for Woodgate after 78 minutes, the Manager worried about Cacho’s pace and drive. A minute later Samba’s header from a Welsh cross is held again by keeper Sanches.

87 minutes, Torrado puts Cacho into space again, England looking ragged at the back. Cacho’s run takes him past Steele with pure pace, and he slots the ball home from a tight angle. 2-2! The Manager is furious with his players, who look like a beaten side. The Mexicans are understandably ecstatic, it has been a great comeback.

Extra time, and England go out to attack once more, backing themselves in rather than holding off for the dreaded penalty shootout (England have a terrible record in penalty shootouts, and the Manager is not confident the current crop will fare any better). Just a minute into extra time, the fresh legs of Croft take him down the line, leaving defenders in his wake. Croft centres the ball only for it to sail over the head of Samba, but Dawson, making a superb late run, meets it solidly, his header crashing home to make it 3-2 and win it for England!!!!

The Manager feels his heart stop for a second, then pandemonium breaks out and he is mobbed by his staff and players alike. England have made it to the Semi Finals, where only the Czech Republic stand in their way of a historic appearance in the Final.

Ratings: Steele 7, Cole 7, Ferdinand 7, Woodgate 7 (Sub Welsh 8), Dawson 8; Parker 8; Lambu 8 (Sub Croft 7), Mullins 8, Gerrard 8; Samba 9, Brandy 7 (Sub Rooney 8).

The England fans sing on at the ground for a good hour after the game “Eng-er-land, Eng-er-land, Eng-er-land etcâ€. The Manager heads for the team Hotel, once again a hero in the eyes of the media, and settles into his suite, nothing but a half empty bottle of Bowmore to keep him company. The team had played well, despite a couple of defensive lapses, Parker commanding at DMC, Lambu brilliant, Mullins doing a great job in the middle and Samba outstanding once again, now the joint top scorer in the competition. The Manager holds the bottle over the sink, but then grabs a glass and pours himself a generous measure. What the hell, I’ve earned it, he tells himself ….

… Zheng switches out the light in his cold and drab flat, pleased with the result of the game he has watched that night on his old black and white television, and covers the electrical components he has been working on before settling down. He will sleep well tonight.

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Belgium v France

The plucky Belgians, surprise packets of the finals, verses the imposing French line up. The French dominated the opening stages, Aliadiere driving home a rising shot after a penalty box scramble after 33 minutes to give France a deserved lead. Traore was keeping the dangerous Mpenza very quiet, and the French central midfield pairing of Bernard and veteran Viera were cutting off any supply. Ex Liverpool striker Djibril Cisse put in another powerful forward display, coming close on 3 occasions to lead his team attack. In the end, it was academic, France comfortably through, the Belgians never really threatening, seeming to have exhausted themselves in getting to the quarters. France 1 Belgium 0.

The semi final showdowns were England V Czech Republic and France v Spain, all European final four, much to the surprise of football pundits the world over, but there was no denying that the 4 remaining teams had played the best football of the tournament, and deserved their spots.

France were declared favourites to win the competition, followed by England, Spain and then the still unfancied Czechs. The Czech odds had been extended following the one match ban Petr Postulka had picked up in the quarter finals, making England’s path a little easier. The Czechs would still be tough opposition, and the Manager was not going to under estimate them.

The Manager had a couple f headaches at the selection table – Cole & Welsh suspended, and Lambu twisting a knee in training and out for 3 days. Another reshuffle was called for, and with McEveley still a few days away from full fitness, options at left back were reduced to jack of all trades Mullins or Blackburn teenager Stuart Giddings.

Mullins would be needed in midfield with Lambu’s untimely injury, so Giddings it was who would get his chance on the biggest stage of his short career. The midfield ‘T’ would comprise Mullins, the recalled Croft, Gerrard and Parker, Webb earning a recall to the bench.

Up front things would be unchanged, Rooney unlucky not to edge out Brandy for a starting spot, Owen again on the bench – but things were far from settled.

The press conference the day before the big game was full of optimism, the English journo’s staying largely away from the managers extra curricular activities, and concentrating on the hype surrounding England’s best chance for many years to claim the greatest prize in Football.

Wayne Cooper (Guardian): “Mr Best, what has been the most pleasing thing about England’s progress so farâ€.

Pete Best: “Well, Wayne, I’d have to say the way the team has developed. We still have a way to go, as Mexico showed us last week, but we will learn and tighten up at the back – we’ll have top watch ourselves against the Czechs, as they are excellent at exploiting teams on the break.â€

John Stephens (Mirror): “What are your chances of going all the way?â€.

Pete Best: “The same as the other three teams I’d say. None of the teams is in the semi finals of the world cup by accidentâ€.

Robin Norris (News of The World): “Is there anything to the rumours circulating that you have a serious drinking problemâ€.

Pete Best: “Get stuffedâ€.

General chaos ensues as the Manager storms out of the press conference, giving the hacks plenty to write about. Robin had hit a nerve, and the Manager knew he had made himself look the fool once again. He would have to face up to his problems one day soon, but now was not the time, he realised. He hadn’t had a drink all day, and consequently his mood had been even more grumpy and short tempered than usual, leading to him snapping at the slightest provocation. The Manager headed for his hotel suite and cracked open the last of the mini bar.

Dougie Mack was left to pick up the pieces, but privately he was seething: “Look, I’m sure you can all appreciate the pressure Pete is under at the moment, and those sort of questions do not help. Can we please keep the questions away from the England Managers personal life in future?â€.

After the dust had settled, the Manager penned his match day squad:

Steele; Giddings; Ferdinand, Woodgate, Dawson; Mullins; Parker, Gerrard, Croft; Samba, Brandy Subs Kirkland, Terry, Schumacher, Kay, Rooney, Owen.

The Manager hardly slept that night, and in the morning he looked and felt terrible. He could have sworn that he had aged at least 10 years in the last 9 months. Anyway, it was time for a quick shower and shave, then off to meet the press again before a tactical meeting and then it was off to the Workers stadium for the most important game of his career.

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The Manager kept it simple before the game. “OK lads, you know what you have to do. Keep focussed, be patient and look for your opportunity. Close down the Czech lads whenever you get the chance, now get out there and show the fans what you are made ofâ€.

The Manager knew that his players were more keyed up than he had ever seen them, the loos in the change rooms getting a real workout over the last half hour, so it was best not to say too much – it was unlikely they’d remember a word anyway.

Spain had surprised France earlier in the day, Etxeberria scoring the only goal from the spot in the 69th minute, Spain holding on desperately in a match they had dominated up to that point. Spain were inspired again by Aston Villa front man Guayre, with Iniesta controlling things in the middle. Spain were certainly not the opponent the Manager was expecting if his side did the job tonight, but they had shown in their last 2 games that they were indeed a force to be reckoned with, playing some lovely team football. Not always pretty to watch, but good, tough football – just the sort of style the Manager wanted to see more of from his England charges, even though he had built his career on playing open, attacking style tactics.

The Manager felt a chill run down his spine as the national anthem played, and shed a tear. He was sure that the team could outplay the Czechs, but it could all come down to luck, or worse still, penalties. The Manager had organised extra training sessions in preparation for a potential penalty shoot out, but he really hoped it wouldn’t be needed.

Both teams made a nervous start, sitting back and trying to keep possession. The Manager cringed as Ferdinand underhit a backpass, Baros and Steele crashing into one another, but Steele holding on as if his life depended on it.

Croft got the first real shot away after 9 minutes, revelling in his new role on the right of midfield, but Kouril saved easily and clutched the ball to his chest.

A croft free kick after 22 minutes deflected off the wall and tricked tamely to the keeper. Disappointing. England’s lack of a true set piece specialist was still a problem, hopefully one that would not cost England a shot at glory.

The Czech’s were doing well, and after 30 minutes a high ball in from Vlad Postulka (no relation) tested Steele, but the keeper flew high over the top of Baros and held on. Steele had been superb all tournament, and was now repaying the Managers faith in spades.

Brandy burst into space and shot from the right hand edge of the area after 32 minutes, the shot curving wide. Kouril had it covered.

Things stayed tight into injury time, when Gerrard played a short ball to Croft, and suddenly the defence opened up in front of Croft, allowing the City man to burst forward past 4 defenders with only the keeper to beat. The Manager was out of the dugout. Croft shaped to shoot, but was suddenly swamped by Trojan, who thumped the ball away from danger. Croft’s hesitation in front of goal was critical.

At half time the Manager threw on Owen for Brandy, who had been hardly sighted, giving the England veteran one last chance to prove his worth. Samba had again been busy, although Ujfausi seemed to have the better of his to date. Honours were even so far, and the Manager made a few subtle tactical changes to try and open things up a bit, Gerrard moving forward.

The tactical moves paid off almost instantly. From the kick off, Gerrard played a nice ball out in front of Owen, the Liverpool man sprinting clear and cutting back inside his defender before playing a good ball into the path of Samba, who had got free of his man for the first time that evening. Samba took the ball in his stride and blasted an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net! Gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool!!!

1-0 to England, the stadium erupting. The Manager urged his players on – he wasn’t going to risk sitting back again & letting the Czech’s back in after the near debacle with Mexico.

Five minutes later, Samba flew to challenge Pospisill for a high ball played forward from the industrious captain, Gerrard, only to leave his opponent clutching his head on the ground. Everyone seemed to hesitate, the ball, lobbing forward towards the edge of the area. Samba moved after the ball, the crowd was silent a second. He hesitated again, but there was still no whistle, so he took off after the ball, taking the Czech defence by surprise and lashing a first time shot past the keeper from the edge of the area. The Czech’s were furious, but the goal stood. 2-0 to England, surely the World CupFinal beckoned. Cherno Samba had been the ‘find’ of the tournament, and was now the leading goal scorer. Samba now has 8 goals from his last 8 England starts, giving him 6 for the tournament and England career stats of 26 appearances for 18 goals – up there with the best, and with his best yet to come. The Manager knew he was good when he pinched him from Millwall last season, but not that good! The lad had really developed and come on in leaps and bounds during the tournament and would now be getting the nod ahead of Owen at Anfield, if he could hang on to him, as he was surely the hottest property around, and big offers were sure to comefrom the European heavyweights.

The Czechs lost heart after that, and the match quickly deteriorated into an ill tempered affair. Slavic got himself sent off after 61 minutes, and it was really all over from then on. Rooney came on for Samba, the young star receiving a generous ovation as he left the pitch, and James Kay came on to ensure Parker didn’t add a second yellow and miss the final. Rooney failed to impress, and Owen, although his link up play and crossing were good, failed to get a shot away again, leaving the Manager scratching his head on the line up for the Final.

Croft played the game of his life to claim man of the match honours, and Steele, Mullins, Gerrard and Parker were once again excellent, as England cruised into the World Cup Final for the first time since 1966. Giddings had also impressed, looking composed and skilful coming forward, but fate would dictate whether he got a start in the Final.

Ratings: Steele 8; Giddings 8; Ferdinand 7, Woodgate 8, Dawson 8; Mullins 8; Parker 8 (Sub Kay 7), Gerrard 8, Croft 9; Samba 8 (Sub Rooney 7), Brandy 7 (Sub Owen 7).

The Manager ushered his players off the park quickly after the game, asking them not to get carried away. Spain were still to be conquered, and it would be one hell of a fight. The Manager had to make sure that if England were to unlock the much vaunted Spanish defence, then they had to take their chances, even if they only got the one, they would have to make it count. In short, they would all have to play the game of their lives. The Manager was sure that the Spanish would be feeling the same way.

As the Manager came down the tunnel, David Platt greeted him, ashen faced. The Manager knew there was a problem ….

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… Pete Best: “What’s up Dave?â€.

David Platt: “Its Goma, Guv, the injury is worse than we thought and he’ll have to go home for treatment, he wont be playing in the Finalâ€.

The Manager stood stunned, this was a real body blow, Lambu had been the creative spark for most of the campaign.

Pete Best: “Where is the lad, I’ve got to talk to himâ€.

The Manager tried his best to console Millwall’s midfield genius, but to no avail. Lambu headed home the next morning in tears, his World Cup over.

That night, the Manager thought back to the day when the wheels of fate turned inexorably in his favour, setting in motion a chain of events that saw him on the brink of the ultimate prize …..

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<cue small cloud appearing over the Managers head, filled with images from a game at the end of the 2003 season>

...It had been a long season. But it had been a great season. Liverpool, without a championship for 13 years had taken the plunge and appointed a new manager. Some astute moves in the transfer market had seen Cisse, Farnerud, Kallstrom, Lescott, Diego, Adu & Wehrman arrive during the season. Their impact was palpable. Liverpool were starting to play again with the flair and creativity of the great sides of the 80’s. It had been a long time coming.

The Manager had a hard time winning over the fans. In 15 short years he had come from a career cruelly cut short in its prime, to managing lowly Hastings Utd, Wigan, then a spell in Portugal with Lisbon in which he earned a reputation as a calculating tactician and great motivator. Success in the league and Europe attracted attention, and after a brief spell with Lyon he was plucked from (relative) obscurity and into the hot seat.

Early problems with a moody and tempestuous Cisse had led to a dressing room confrontation in which the manager had called the Frenchman “a lazy overpaid prima donnaâ€. Cisse had since responded in style, being the hero on a number of occasions, but the manager always had the feeling that Cisse’s time at the club would be brief.

Success over Man Utd in the league cup final, and Liverpool topping the epl 2/3 through the season had turned the fans attitude around, with some media reports even going so far as to suggest that the manager was Liverpools saviour. “oh please … give me a break†he thought – knowing the hard work lay ahead.

Further success in the league and a monumental Champions League Qtr Final win over the luckless Man Utd (1-0 away, 2-1 at home aet, Owen catching a tiring Utd defence twice on the break in the dying minutes – a classic encounter) and 3 points clear with 3 games to play in the epl had the fans in a frenzy of anticipation. The Manager was not so confident, his young squad tiring and injuries mounting

Newcastle were chasing hard, and looking good – the rest (surprisingly) were nowhere. Liverpool had broken Utds spirit earlier in the season, and the expected challenge from the holders Arsenal never happened, amid murmurs of discontent from Viera et al.

So the scene was set, Liverpool held their destiny in their own hands. A magnificent w4-2 victory away to Bolton surprised all, with Baros netting a second half hat-trick when things had seemed doomed at 1-2, jay jay –o a constant menace. Unfortunately, Newcastle had scraped home 1-0 at Man City, Cheyrou (earlier offloaded by Liverpool) scoring a blinding goal and making the Manager rue the day he had lost patience with the young Frenchman. So 3 points ahead and 2 games left. A looming Champions League Semi meant that Diouf, Heskey, Owen & Gerrard (who had been the heart of the club all year) all badly needed a rest. Compounding the problem were injuries to Dudek & Kirkland (who joined Kallstrom & Henchoz on the sidelines) which meant a call up for the untried Luzi in goal. The manager had a long talk with Patrice before the game at home to Charlton on Saturday, and tried to instill in him a sense of Liverpool pride and spirit – but he was very, very nervous.

The team started nervously, with Bartlett coming close in the early minutes, and then slowly began to take control. Diao was controlling things in the centre, with Farnerud superb on the left, and a solid if unusual back four of Riise, Traore, Lescott & Babbel playing well. Chances went begging. 0-0 at half time. News from Newcastle – the unbelievable had happened, two goals in two minutes by Sunderland had them 0-2 down – surely the title was within reach!

The Manager told his players not to get carried away, they had achieved nothing yet – but he could see they thought they had done it, and tried hard to conceal his growing anticipation. 64 minutes, still 0-0, but bad news from Newcastle. Lua Lua had pulled one back (1-2). Plenty of time for another, and things were far from settled at Anfield. Time to make some changes. Heskey, Wehrman & Hyypia came on and spread the word “we had got to go out and win this – its not going to come to us".

Time ticked by, more chances, with Baros going close 3 times from distance - each time the crown and Manager rising as one, only to hear the deafening “oooooh†that followed. There must be easier jobs than this – the Manager thought to himself. Charlton had put up the shutters and 0-0 was looking the likely outcome. 88 minutes – things were still the same at Newcastle. The Manager sat back, there being nothing more he could do. 0-0, he thought, not exactly the way to win the championship, but who cares. A buzz went through the crown and the Managers heart sank – had Newcastle drawn level?

The Manager looked to his assistant, who shrugged his shoulders, then a sudden roar came from the crowd - a cross from Farnerud following a cleared corner was flicked on from Cisse to Baros, who slotted it home from 3 metres!! The Crowd had erupted, the stadium a cauldron of excitement, and the manager was on his feet, punching the air with joy – and finally letting himself believe it could be true. The team he had supported his whole life, and had been so close to securing a move to in his playing days, again kings of football in England – it was a dream come true!! The Buzz round the ground was now irrelevant – surely it was all over? A quick break by Bartlett and a piledriver from 20 yards saw Luzi, who had been solid all game, save superbly – and the managers heart - which had briefly stopped - started beating once again.

On 91 minutes a corner from Farnerud found Diao on the 6 yard line, and he smashed the ball home. 2-0!!!! The stadium erupted again, the roar deafening. The Manager sat stunned for the last minute, and was later to reflect it was only fitting that Diao sealed the championship, having taken his chance in the side with both hands, putting in a run of 15 commanding performances in the centre of the park. It turned out that the buzz around the ground had been news of the final whistle at Newcastle - they had gone down 1-2, unable to maintain the pressure on the mighty reds.

The final whistle blew, 13 years of agony was finally over. The Players fell over each over in celebration, and after a few seconds, sitting motionless while all around him went berserk, the Manager could no longer keep it all in, he ran on to the pitch, leaping and yelling “champions …CHAMPIONS!!†– when he saw Patrice Luzi with tears streaming down his face, the Manager lost it totally, and burst into tears as he hugged the keeper. The Manager had brought back the glory days to Anfield, and would be hailed as the saviour after all. The dream had come true ......

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That night the Manager had a dream that as he stood at the final whistle, the stadium seemed to erupt, quite literally, all around him. He awoke with a start, reached for his half empty glass of scotch, and drained it in one go. The Manager stumbled over to the ensuite and spashed hid face over the sink. He felt quite shaken up, was it a premonition of a disasterous final day, or a great day - he wasn't quite sure.

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[Thanks! Feedback greatly appreciated - I must admit I was almost hoping that England would fail in the semi's to uphold their proud tradition of breaking fans hearts - it might have made the story more interesting, but alas, fate has played her hand so we'll just have to see if they can go all the way after all]

The Manager snapped out of his reverie and focussed on the task at hand, selecting his match day squad for the World Cup Final.

For the first time all tournament, all players were available. It was temping to recall McEveley, but it would be just too unfair to Blackburn youngster Giddings. Danny Webb had worked hard on the track all week, and deserved a spot on the bench, at the expense of Millwall’s Moses Ashikodi, who was yet to feature, and would return home disappointed.

Steele had done enough in the last game to rule out a return for Kirkland. Welsh and Cole returned from suspension, Cole walking back into his attacking left back role at the expense of Giddings. It was a tough call, but the Manager could not justify leaving the experience of Cole on the bench. Dawson had been superb since taking over from fellow Red Welsh, and would hold his place.

The midfield picked itself, a T of Mullins, Parker, Gerrard and Croft unbreakable. Gerrard was given license to attack from MC, Mullins back to the anchor role he had done so well in. Croft and Parker were both at the top of their game’s. Mullins would have the job of watching Mendieta, while Ferdinand and Woodgate, exemplary at the abck all tournament, would be assigned to double team the dangerous Guayre.

Up front was still wide open. Samba was a walk up start of course, but you could roll the dice for his strike partner. Brandy and Rooney, although both showing glimpses of what they could do, had failed to gel with Samba, whereas Owen always seemed to link well with his Liverpool team mate. Owen got the nod only because of his ability to read Samba’s play, the Manager hoping he could recapture his touch in front of goal. Owen’s selection raised eyebrows in the media, his international career having looked all but over a week ago – but he would probably only be given a half to show what he could do.

By 5 a.m. and a half bottle of Laphroig it was settled then, this was the side that would try and recapture the glory days of English football against the imposing Spanish outfit, who would be just as determined to bring glory to their homeland.

Name (Team) Age, Caps (Goals):

Luke Steele (Man Utd) 25, 18 (0);

Ashley Cole (Arsenal) 29, 44 (3);

Les Ferdinand (Man Utd) 32, 65 (1);

Jonathon Woodgate (AC Milan) 29, 43 (0);

Michael Dawson (Liverpool) 26, 40 (4);

Hayden Mullins (WBA) 27, 16 (4);

Scott Parker (Inter Milan) 30, 37 (2);

Stephen Gerrard © (Liverpool) 29, 55 (5);

Lee Croft (Man City) 26, 33 (2);

Michael Owen (Liverpool), 30, 92 (50);

Cherno Samba (Liverpool) 24, 26 (19);


Chris Kirkland (Liverpool) 26, 43 (0);

Stuart Giddings (Blackburn) 19, 6 (0);

John Welsh (Liverpool) 27, 29 (2);

James Kay (Blackburn) 20, 5 (0);

Danny Webb (Newcastle) 27, 20 (8);

Fabian Brandy (Man Utd) 26, 18 (6);

Wayne Rooney (Everton) 25, 44 (17).

The side looked much the same as the one the Manager had selected all along, the Managers faith in his starting XI being a key to seeing England through to the final.

The Manager grabbed a couple of hours sleep before heading into the day before the World Cup Final. There was a training session, press conference and tactical meeting before an early dinner function and then the 3rd place play off between France & the Czech Republic to attend, and then it was the big day.

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3rd place play off – France v Czech Republic.

Usually a nice open game, the pressure of the tournament gone. This time was the exception, the French still smarting at bowing out and the Czech’s looking to knock them further off their pedestal.

It was a tight and niggly match, no side really dominating, Postulka providing the highlight of the first half, drawing a great save from Landrau in the French goal. As the half came to a close, the Czech’s started to get on top, a series of corners having the French team scrambling for their lives, but they were good enough to hold on.

Cisse had a go from distance after 52 minutes, but his shot was comfortably saved.

Things remained tight, both sides careful, with plenty of niggle and free kicks.

Then suddenly, the French keeper was faced with Posulka on the break, Kopecky putting the start striker clear. Landrau rushed out, but Posulka was one step ahead, and played the ball past him. Landrau had come too far, and his only choice was to bring the Czech down, outside the area, a straight Red rom the Ref and a major blow to Frances hopes. France were rattled from then on, and looked in disarray.

After 68 minutes, Kopecky chested down a long ball to Jarosik, who lashed a shot home from the edge of the area to put the Czech’s ahead. Their lead was never threatened, and they swarmed all over the tired looking French after that. 1-0 at the finish, and the Czechs, inspired by Postulka, had shown themselves to be the up and coming team of World Football, able to turn on the style or match it physically with more experienced sides.

Now there was only the Final to come.

Zheng completed his last shift at the stadium, and slipped unnoticed again into his secret place, checking things one last time, and took the small device and put it in his pocket where it would be safe until needed.

The Manager was cordial at the pre match press conference, sparring with old adversaries and joking light heartedly about his performance at the last one.

The journo’s for their part, behaved, far too excited about England’s chances of recreating 1966 all over again than worrying about the Managers personal problems.

Jack Naysmith: Soccer World: “Mr Best, do you believe your side has what it takes to win the big match.â€

Pete Best: “We wouldn’t be in the final if we didn’t deserve to be there. Lets face it, anything could happen on the day, but if you have a look at the way we have gone about it, you’d have to think that we are a good chanceâ€.

Arthur Guthrie: The Standard: “Who will be the key player out there?â€

Pete Best: “To be honest, I think it will be Guayre, his form has been magic, and he’ll take a hell of a lot of stopping.â€

Guthrie again: “What about Samba?â€.

Best: “Cherno has been a revelation. I don’t think anyone expected him to have the impact he has had, that’s for sure, so he’ll take some watching as well.â€

And so it went on, the Manager humouring the gathered press for another hour of largely pointless questions until every facet of the game had been explored.

The Manager headed off to the stadium with the team, and spirits were high, in fact unusually so – the Manager put it down to a mix of nerves and bravado.

The stadium was starting to fill up ready for the pre match entertainment, but Zheng needed to appear to be just one of the crowd, and had an hour to kill before heading into the thick of things, slipping in quietly when things were in full swing. He headed for the change rooms, put on his casual gear, making sure no one noticed him transferring the device into his brightly coloured ‘Espana’ jacket, and headed to the pre match function for all the stadiums staff where he could pretend to be interested in the game, and make useless small talk before talking his place in the stands, and his place in history.

The Manager kept his pre match address simple. “Go out and give it everything. Keep your composure, snap at their heels and don’t give an inch. You know what you have to do, so go out there and make your country proud.â€

That was enough, thought the Manager – best not to get carried away with the gravity of the situation, just let them go out there and enjoy it.

The players formed an impromptu scrum circle, exchanged words of encouragement, and headed down the tunnel towards their destiny, some crossing themselves as they headed off, others looking keyed up, a couple looking scared to death …

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