Another football competition is about to begin, Euro 16, and many of you will be totally uninterested and annoyed at it taking over the media. But I am not one of those, I love them and three games a day seems like heaven, sitting inside watching Albania v Switzerland on a sunny afternoon what more can one ask of life.
Football has always been a major part of my life, some of you probably think that is sad; when I was married my wife said that the only time she saw me really emotional and enthusiastic was when I was watching Port Vale. True. I was a useless player, a heavy tackling left back, but it was always watching I loved and getting to know the minutiae about clubs.
Somewhere along the line I am related to one of the greatest footballers ever, Stanley Matthews (who people forget was a Vale fan in his youth), he was my grandfather’s second cousin or something like that, it’s where my middle name comes from, Matthew, my mother’s maiden name was Matthews. My grandfather was one of five brothers who were brought up on a farm outside Stoke-on-Trent and Stanley used to visit from his home in the terraces of Hanley. Later he used to get tickets for big games for the brothers. I don’t remember the occasion but he visited my home after my grandfather died, I’d have been about 4, I hope he kicked a ball around with my brother and I, but maybe that is just fantasy thinking!
My father had very little interest in football, though used to take us to games at the Vale, I first went in 1960. He was the church organist and once forgot about a wedding to take us, some unhappy parishoners! The games were magical to me, even though they were third and fourth division games played on heavy muddy pitches, I loved the atmosphere, the intensity of people’s emotions, the smell of those hot dogs, and from there it developed. My brother lost interest in going but I followed the Vale through the 60’s and early 70’s eventually travelling all over the country to see them. When I returned to the Potteries in 1988 I moved to a house where Vale Park could be seen from my house and I could walk to the games, the best way to go. This was a ‘golden age’ for them, actually reaching the Second Division and being a much better team than the hated rivals Stoke City for a few years. My favourite game ever was the play off final against Bristol Rovers when Robbie Earle scored a header at the Bycars End, they didn’t take place at Wembley but were two-legged, Vale won and went to the Second Division (now The Championship) for the first time in 30 years. People around me were crying and standing in disbelief that after seasons of often misery and annoyance we were going to play teams like West Ham, Leeds and of course Stoke.
So where does this leave Euro 16 (when did it change its name from the European Championships), well I’m not a great sporting patriot, I like seeing England win of course but good football matches matter more. I like the make up of this England team with its emphasis on young players, Dele Alli will become one of the best England’s produced, if he can keep his temper. The defense is the problem, there just aren’t many English centre halfs of any quality around, and the inexperience of many players will be a problem against some of the other teams who have almost all the squad playing Champions League football.
I was really pleased to see Wales there, but their problem I feel is that Bale will be heavily marked, which may leave space for others to fill, but are those players good enough to exploit that. I hope they are.
Northern Ireland have a tough group, despite the recent friendly losses Germany always come through when it matters and Poland have some excellent players, but as Greece showed in 2000 teamwork can get you through and Northern Ireland have that.
My prediction; it’s hard to look beyond France, Germany, Belgium and Spain being the semi-finalists. As an outsider Italy have a great defence and most of these competitions are won by teams with the best defence and an average age of around 28. I think for England its best to look towards the next World Cup in Russia and Euro 20 where the final will be at Wembley when those young players will have gained a great deal of experience. Wales, hopefully will get through to the next round, they will of course want to beat England and very likely will. Northern Ireland, just enjoy it as I think they will go out early.
Watching football and following the In/Out debate will fill my next few weeks and most of you will be glad to see the back of both I am sure.