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An Impossible Man

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Chapter 1 - The Poisoned Chalice

 

When it came to international football, the England manager's job was the archetypal poisoned chalice. By the summer of 2016, half a century had passed since the mother nation of association football had won their only major international trophy.

 

For the benefit of those of you who slept through their history lessons at school, or who know next-to-nothing about sport, England were crowned FIFA World Cup champions on home soil on 30 July 1966, with a 4-2 extra-time win over West Germany. Geoff Hurst may have stolen the headlines with his hat-trick (a feat unmatched in the biggest game in world football), but this victory had been masterminded by arguably the greatest coach England had ever produced - Alfred Ernest Ramsey.

 

Since Sir Alf Ramsey's finest hour at the original Wembley Stadium, many men had tried to replicate that success for the Three Lions at subsequent World Cups or UEFA European Championships. Ramsey's successors as England manager included the good and the great, and Glenn Hoddle. All of them failed, either in a heroic blaze of glory or - more typically - after a moment of national embarrassment.

 

The role of England manager has often been described as "the impossible job", and with good reason. No British individual, other than perhaps the Prime Minister, comes under such intense public scrutiny whilst in the role. Many men have crumbled under the enormous weight of national expectation, none more so than Steve McClaren.

 

McClaren was never the first choice to succeed Sven-Göran Eriksson when the ice-cool Swede stepped down in 2006, after leading England to three successive major Quarter Finals. The Football Association had already offered the manager's job out to Luiz Felipe Scolari, who'd coached his native Brazil to the 2002 FIFA World Cup and then reached the UEFA Euro 2004 Final with Portugal, defeating Eriksson's side in the process.

 

Scolari rejected the FA's offer, and so the England job was offered out to McClaren, who had just led Middlesbrough into the UEFA Cup Final (just don't ask about the result). McClaren's first major decision as manager was to drop the popular former captain David Beckham from his squad. The vast majority of England supporters turned against him almost before the first ball had been kicked in anger in the Euro 2008 qualifiers.

 

McClaren recalled Beckham when the Three Lions hit a poor run of form early in the qualification campaign, but the damage had already been done. A shock 3-2 defeat at home to Croatia in their final qualifying match ensured that England failed to reach a major tournament for the first time since 1994.

 

McClaren was unceremoniously sacked, but not before the Yorkshireman was photographed standing forlornly under an umbrella as his team floundered at a rainy Wembley. That picture defined his reign, and he would forever be known as the 'Wally with a Brolly'. Even after rebuilding his reputation by guiding FC Twente to the Dutch Eredivisie title in 2010, he remained a laughing stock in the minds of many English football fans.

 

On 27 June 2016, McClaren oversaw the downfall of his successor-but-one as England manager - Roy Hodgson - while working as a television pundit for Sky Sports. The Three Lions were playing against Iceland in the Last 16 of the UEFA Euro 2016 finals, which were being held in France. McClaren was watching the live match footage from Sky Sports' news studio in London when disaster struck.

 

The 54-year-old, who'd most recently been sacked by Newcastle United after playing a key role in their relegation from the Premier League, had been in a confident mood. With a little over 15 minutes played, the scores were level at 1-1. England had taken the lead through an early penalty by captain Wayne Rooney, and although Ragnar Sigurðsson quickly levelled for Iceland, the Three Lions were still strong favourites to progress to the Quarter Finals.

 

Whilst on air, McClaren claimed that Iceland's only real attacking threat was Kolbeinn Sigþórsson. Almost as soon as he had uttered Sigþórsson's name, the Nantes striker stroked the underdogs into a 2-1 lead. McClaren froze and then let out a reluctant sigh, summing up the feelings of many an Englishman who was watching live in Nice that night.

 

England battled to try and get back level, but it was to no avail. A hesitant Hodgson was reluctant to throw on 18-year-old Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford - the most exciting young footballer this country had produced since Rooney or perhaps even Dixie Dean - until three minutes before full-time. Rashford didn't have enough time to make an impact, and the biggest underachievers in international football had once again flattered to deceive.

 

Hodgson was immediately the subject of fierce criticism from punters and pundits alike. Going out of the 2014 World Cup at the Group Stage was one thing. Exiting the European Championship with a defeat to a bunch of unheralded Nordic journeymen, whose head coach worked part-time as a dentist in his local village, was quite another.

 

The full-time whistle had barely blown when Hodgson hurriedly scribbled out a resignation speech, which he read out to the press just minutes later.

 

"I'm extremely disappointed of course about tonight's result and ultimately our exit from the competition," he began. "We haven't progressed as far as I thought we were capable of, and that's obviously not acceptable.

 

"My contract was always going to be up after this tournament. I would have loved to have stayed on another two years, but now it is time for someone else to take over this group of players.

 

"It has been a fantastic journey and one that I will look back on the four years with pride. I want to thank the media for the support you have given me. I am sorry it will have to end this way but these things happen. I hope you will still be able to see an England team in a final of a major tournament soon."

 

The inquest into England's latest failure at a major football tournament would continue for some time. Such an occurrence had become all too regular for supporters, who now felt that a massive change of approach had to be taken if the Three Lions were to succeed on the big stage again.

 

***

 

Less than 24 hours after crashing out of the 2016 UEFA European Championship, England's underachieving squad flew back home from France to little fanfare. The search for Roy Hodgson's successor as manager would begin a couple of days later.

 

The Football Association's board of directors convened at their headquarters at Wembley Stadium to discuss potential candidates for the top job. They had a big decision to make, and they needed to get it right to appease their restless supporters, whose wait for a major international title would shortly surpass the 50-year mark.

 

Heading the FA's board was their newly-elected chairman. Clark Gregory was a gruff, no-nonsense East Midlander who had been working in football administration for over three decades, Gregory was aiming to modernise an organisation that had become increasingly outdated and out-of-touch during the reigns of his most recent predecessors.

 

Gregory's right-hand man was the FA's long-serving chief executive David Whiteman. An affable septuagenarian gentleman from the Home Counties, Whiteman was quintessentially upper-middle-class, and his mind remained sharp as a tack despite his advancing years.

 

Alongside them was FA vice-chairwoman Constance Millstone, otherwise known as Connie. Millstone was the only woman on the FA's board, and she was also its youngest member, at the tender age of 44. She combined her role at the national Football Association with being the chair of the Oxfordshire County FA.

 

The remaining board of directors were all nondescript middle-aged men, none of whom had played a single professional football match in their lives.

 

Gregory had a firm idea of the type of coach he had in mind to be the next England manager. The man in question would ideally be an authoritative figure who would command respect, and a tactician who could get his team to play football in an attractive manner and get consistently strong results.

 

Gregory stated strongly that the new manager also needed to be English. The FA had experimented with foreign managers before, but neither Sven-Göran Eriksson (2001-2006) nor Fabio Capello (2008-2012) had delivered the performances expected of them. When one FA director suggested the former Spain head coach José Antonio Camacho as a candidate, Gregory dismissed them from the board on the spot.

 

Right from the start of discussions, one manager emerged as a popular choice. Sam Allardyce, who'd recently saved Sunderland from relegation out of the Premier League, had been considered one of England's leading manager for well over a decade.

 

Although his so-called 'long-ball' tactics had been dismissed as 'old-school' by many football fans, the man popularly known as 'Big Sam' was actually more forward-thinking than that. Allardyce embraced the use of statistics when approaching tactics and training long before it was considered the norm, and throughout the first half of the 2000s, he established Bolton Wanderers as a top-flight club who could punch well above their weight.

 

However, there were major doubts over Allardyce's integrity. He and his agent son Craig were both accused of taking bribes in a BBC Panorama documentary that was broadcast in 2006. The allegations later formed part of a major inquiry by Lord John Stevens into corruption within English football. Though the elder Allardyce denied all claims and was never explicitly found to have broken the law, his reputation had been somewhat damaged.

 

Millstone was particularly sceptic about Allardyce, saying, "Big Sam seems like the type of man who would do anything for some meat pies or a few hundred grand, though he wouldn't do that. I'd guess you'd have to ask him what that means."

 

Gregory retorted, "Connie, you are taking about Sam Allardyce, aren't you, and not Meat Loaf?" He then turned to Whiteman and explained, "Meat Loaf is a rock music singer, David. A bit after your time."

 

Allardyce's candidacy was put on the back-burner as the board discussed the credentials of other English managers with Premier League experience. Millstone put forward Eddie Howe, who'd done a tremendous job of not only taking AFC Bournemouth into the top flight, but keeping them there.

 

Whiteman doubted whether the 38-year-old would be up to the task, saying, "I do like Eddie Howe. He is an amiable and intelligent young gentleman, but I do not think he is ready to take on such a high-pressure managerial role."

 

To be fair, Whiteman said precisely the same thing when asked about Burnley boss Sean Dyche, and then about Alan Pardew, who'd just been sacked as Crystal Palace manager for dad-dancing at the FA Cup Final.

 

The FA then discussed appointing former Manchester United defender Gary Neville, who was part of Hodgson's coaching set-up. Gregory dismissed his candidacy out of hand, saying, "One word. Valencia."

 

"If we wish to promote a coach from within the existing England set-up, Gareth Southgate seems to be the most logical option," Whiteman pointed out.

 

Southgate had a mixed record as manager of England's Under-21s team, who'd crashed out of the 2015 European Championship at the Group Stage. However, he had more recently led the Young Lions to victory at the Toulon Tournament - a prestigious Under-20s competition staged annually in south-eastern France.

 

"Yeah, I'd definitely consider Gareth," Millstone nodded. "He's young, he's fresh, he's a former England player, and most importantly, he's such an all-round nice guy. He'd be a great fit for the England brand."

 

Gregory was unconvinced. "But that's the thing, Connie. He's too nice, too much of a 'yes man'. We need someone with a bit of grit, with an air of arrogance, someone who won't compromise. We need someone like Sam Allardyce."

 

Gregory was now ready to finish the shortlisting process and call a vote on whether Allardyce should be offered the role of England manager. Then Whiteman interrupted him with one more name.

 

"Mr Gregory, if I may, there is one candidate whose credentials we seem to have overlooked thus far," he stated.

 

"Mark Catterall has enjoyed tremendous success as manager of the England Under-17s team over recent years, and of course, he has experience of competing at major tournaments for England during his playing career. Perhaps the board should seriously consider promoting him to the senior set-up."

Edited by CFuller

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To celebrate England's victory at the FIFA U-20 World Cup last week (and that's in REAL LIFE, not Football Manager!), I am bringing to you a brand new FM story about the Three Lions.

There have been a fair few England stories on these forums in the past, about half of which seem to have come from one man (nudge nudge wink wink, Mr Wilson :D). This one will be somewhat different. All will become clear in the first three chapters.

I am running a slightly-edited FM17 save game with the 17.3 winter update database. All England leagues up to the National League North/South are loaded. I have also loaded leagues from 19 other countries, including the other British & Irish nations, the major European countries, and some big leagues from outside Europe.

This is the first time I have published a third-person narrative story with a fictional manager as the protagonist. This story will feature a mixture of characters - those based on real people (e.g. players from the start of the game) and fictional characters (e.g. the FA directors). For the purposes of the narrative, the details of some historic events have been changed. Also, as you could probably tell from the first chapter, the tone may not always be serious! :lol:

Updates will usually come every 2-3 days, at least to begin with. Do not fret if updates slow down, especially if another new CFuller story comes around (but that's for another time).

Finally, a warning - from hereon in, this story WILL contain strong language and cover topics that some readers may find disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

Christopher Fuller (CFuller)
18 June 2017

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Dont know what your on about 😜 Anyway good  luck with the job from alittle experience I have you'll need it

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On 6/19/2017 at 03:39, mark wilson27 said:

Dont know what your on about 😜 Anyway good  luck with the job from alittle experience I have you'll need it

Cheers, Mark. It's about time someone gave you a run for your money! :D

Now please allow me to introduce myself, erm I mean my manager...

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Chapter 2 - Catts & Burke

 

Mark Brian Catterall was born on 18 March 1972, in the popular seaside resort of Blackpool in Lancashire. Mark was the first of four children born to professional footballer Brian Catterall, who played as a central defender for Blackpool Football Club, and his wife Barbara (née Waterworth) - a primary school teacher.

 

Mark Catterall spent the first few years of his life being brought up in a modest council house in Blackpool. He would later be joined in the young Catterall family by Gemma and Joanne - twin sisters born in 1974 - and brother Andrew, who arrived in 1977.

 

Brian had played for his hometown club Blackpool since making his senior debut as a 17-year-old in 1966, when the Seasiders were playing in the old Division 1. Renowned for his no-nonsense tackling and his determination, Catterall senior would go on to make nearly 400 league appearances for Blackpool until their relegation to Division 3 in 1978.

 

The Catteralls' lives would change dramatically that same year, as Brian was transferred to top-flight Manchester City after impressing the Citizens' manager Tony Book. The family subsequently moved from the idyllic seaside setting of Blackpool, and to the hustle and bustle of Manchester.

 

As his father settled into his new club, Mark started attending a primary school in nearby Salford. He would quickly become friends with a short, ginger lad in his class by the name of Michael Burke.

 

Although Salford was predominantly red when it came to football allegiances, Michael was a huge fan of Manchester City, rather than Manchester United. When Mark told him that his dad was City's new centre-half, his budding friendship with Michael was sealed.

 

Michael was about four months older than his new friend, but his diminutive stature and his hair colour made him an obvious target for bullies. Mark, who was much taller and had been brought up by a hardman footballer, would often come to Michael's assistance and ward off any would-be tormentors.

 

Catterall's strength and protective skills would soon come to the fore on the football pitch. He started playing for the school team as a defender, much like his dad, and by most accounts did reasonably well in that position.

 

By the age of 10, though, Mark had caught his PE teacher's attention with his ball-playing skills. Impressed by his pupil's passing and creativity, the teacher suggested that Catterall play further up the pitch in a midfield role.

 

It was as a midfield playmaker that Mark truly excelled on the pitch. He would frequently break up opposition attacks and then play forward a defence-splitting pass for his team's striker to run onto and tap in a simple goal. More often than not, the recipient of Mark's incisive through-balls was his best mate - Michael Burke, who'd recently discovered his own footballing talents as a poacher.

 

A year later, while leading their team to victory in a local school competition, Mark and Michael attracted the eye of a youth scout from Manchester City, and they were swiftly signed up to City's youth set-up.

 

Mark's move was given the blessing of his father Brian, whose career at Maine Road had been unfortunately cut short a year earlier - at the age of 33 - when he sustained a serious knee injury in a League Cup match. Brian was now working as a curtain salesman at the Arndale shopping centre in Manchester.

 

Mark vowed that he would follow in his dad's footsteps - and by that, he did not mean selling blinds and drapes to the good folk of Greater Manchester. He also aspired to achieve something that Catterall senior never did - play international football for England.

 

Catterall and Burke began their Manchester City careers in the summer of 1983, playing for City's Under-12s whilst continuing their education at a secondary school based about a mile from Maine Road.

 

Catterall quickly became known to his team-mates, rather predictably, as 'Catts' - a moniker that would stick with him throughout his career. He didn't particularly like that nickname at first, but it was arguably better than an alternative option based on his hairstyle at the time - 'Mophead'.

 

Burke's nicknames were a touch more imaginative. For the first two or three years, he was dubbed 'BBC News', as his name was very similar to that of the BBC journalist Michael Buerk. By his teens, though, Mancunian soul band Simply Red had become widely popular, and Burke's remarkable resemblance to the lead singer led to him being called 'Mick Hucknall', or simply 'Mick'.

 

Of course, this was all harmless fun; today's youth would call it 'banter'. The well-intended humour would occasionally get out of hand, but Catterall was always ready to step in for Burke. Michael was an only child, and he saw Mark not just as his best mate, but also as the big - albeit younger - brother he never had.

 

As time went by, Burke became more confident and outgoing. Indeed, he would carve out a reputation as the 'comedian' of the City youth team, with a sharp wit and an eye for a practical joke. Catterall was more serious and professional, though he wasn't afraid to express his opinions about tactics, even if it did annoy his coaches somewhat.

 

The pair would progress through the age groups at Manchester City before being promoted to the reserve team in 1990, when they were both 18 years old. However, predictions of their futures could not have been much more different. While Catterall was not expected to be much more than a decent first- or second-tier midfielder, Burke was hailed as one of the best young English strikers of his generation. Indeed, he had already played - and scored - for England at Under-18s level.

 

Burke was the first of the pair to break into City's first-team. Player-manager Peter Reid handed him his senior debut during a Division 1 match at home to Luton Town on 15 February 1992. He would score his first goal exactly a week later, at Selhurst Park against Wimbledon's so-called 'Crazy Gang'.

 

This Manchester City team had some fine players - and not just up front, where Niall Quinn and Clive Allen would often lead the line. Paul Lake had established himself as a cult hero amongst the Citizens' supporters, while his midfield colleague Steve McMahon had played for England, as would defender Keith Curle in the not-too-distant future.

 

City finished 5th in what would be the final season of the old Division 1 before it was usurped by the brand-new, big-money Premier League. Over the summer of 1992, Reid trimmed what had been a large squad at Maine Road, so there would be more opportunities for youngsters like Burke and Catterall to make an impact at senior level.

 

Having waited patiently for his senior breakthrough, the now 20-year-old Catterall finally got to make his debut for Manchester City on 26 August 1992, when the Sky Blues comfortably beat Norwich City 3-1. Burke scored twice in that match, kicking off a purple patch that would see him find the net six times over the course of four Premier League matches.

 

Burke's form earned him a first call-up to the England Under-21s squad in October 1992, ahead of a European Championship preliminary match at home to Norway. Accompanied by his club-mate and fellow striker Mike Sheron, Burke joined head coach Lawrie McMenemy's squad full of optimism that his big break would soon come.

 

Burke's big break with England Under-21s did indeed come later that month - literally. An accidental collision with Aston Villa defender Ugo Ehiogu during a training session on the eve of the Norway match sent Burke crashing to the turf with a crunch. Scans later confirmed his worst fears; he had suffered a double leg fracture.

 

In the space of around eight months, Michael Burke had gone from being one of English football's hottest young properties to one of its most tragic cases. Burke would take well over a year to fully recover from his leg breaks, but he was never the same player again. New City manager Brian Horton quietly released him from his contract in the summer of 1994, and his fledgling career was already over.

 

As Burke came to terms with the fact that he would never play professionally again, he could only watch on as his friend Catterall's own career went from strength to strength.

 

***

 

The 1992/1993 season wasn't a bad one for Manchester City. Peter Reid led the Citizens to 9th place in the Premier League, and into the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup, where they would ultimately fall short against Tottenham Hotspur.

 

Young midfielder Mark Catterall would make steady progress in his first season with the senior team. Although he had to battle with the likes of Garry Flitcroft, Paul Lake and Steve McMahon - not to mention his player-manager Reid - for a first-team place, he still made 13 league appearances. He also scored his maiden senior goal on 12 April 1993 in a home draw against Liverpool.

 

With his piercing green eyes, and a dark brown mullet similar to that sported by Chris Waddle in the 1980s, Catterall was quite the sex symbol as far as many of City's female fans were concerned. Just a few years before David Beckham burst onto the scene at Old Trafford, 'Catts' was briefly heralded as the new pin-up boy of Manchester football.

 

However, things started to spiral out of control for Manchester City in the opening stages of the 1993/1994 campaign. Reid was sacked after picking up just one point from four games, and Brian Horton was brought in from Oxford United as his replacement.

 

Though Catterall was now an England Under-21s international and firmly established as a first-team regular at Maine Road, his admirable performances could not prevent City from being dragged into a relegation battle. It arguably hadn't helped matters that key striker Niall Quinn had damaged his cruciate ligaments in November, thus bringing the Irishman's season to an early halt.

 

Then, in December 1993, high-flying Blackburn Rovers came in with an offer to sign Catterall for £750,000. Blackburn submitted their offer just a few days after City had sold one of their other star performers - winger David White - to Leeds United in exchange for former Arsenal midfielder David Rocastle.

 

Catterall was now deeply concerned that City were hurtling backwards under Horton - a little-known coach who had never previously managed at the top level, and whose ultra-attacking tactics were very much to the detriment of the defence. He tearfully asked Horton for permission to leave his boyhood club and join Blackburn. The manager reluctantly accepted his young midfielder's request, and the deal taking Catterall from Maine Road to Ewood Park was completed shortly afterwards.

 

Blackburn were a club with bold ambitions. With the financial backing of local businessman Jack Walker and the managerial skills of the great Kenny Dalglish, Rovers had surprised many people by finishing 4th in the inaugural Premier League season. They now had aspirations of winning the title, although champions Manchester United would take some stopping.

 

Catterall's first few months at Blackburn was a real learning experience, as he picked up some invaluable pointers from the likes of captain Tim Sherwood and fellow tough-tackler David Batty. Rovers' excellent form between December and February, during which they went 12 matches unbeaten, meant that Catterall wouldn't make his PL debut for his new club until 20 March, when he came on as a substitute at Sheffield Wednesday.

 

Catterall would appear on a semi-regular basis until the end of the season, by which point Blackburn had finished as Premier League runners-up - eight points adrift of United.

 

In a bid to take that final step up the ladder, Walker brought out his chequebook to sign Norwich City striker Chris Sutton for £5million. Sutton would go on to build a formidable 'SAS' strike partnership with England international frontman Alan Shearer at Ewood Park.

 

Meanwhile, Catterall's development continued apace. The now 22-year-old would dislodge Mark Atkins from Blackburn's starting XI in October 1994 and become captain Sherwood's regular midfield partner as Rovers chased championship glory in 1994/1995.

 

With Sutton and especially Shearer in lethal scoring form, and Catterall also chipping in plenty of goals, Blackburn remained top of the Premier League for most of the season. Dalglish's side lost just six times en route to the final day of the season, at which point they were two points clear of United and had their fate in their hands.

 

One more win - at King Kenny's former club Liverpool - would earn Blackburn their first league title in 81 years. When Shearer gave the Lancastrians the lead at Anfield after 20 minutes, it looked like their wildest dream would come true.

 

However, Liverpool were determined to spoil the party, even though they would give United a chance of lifting their third successive championship in doing so. Experienced winger John Barnes equalised for the Reds after 64 minutes, and when Jamie Redknapp completed the comeback in the closing stages, Blackburn appeared to have blown it.

 

Rovers fans anxiously awaited news from the Boleyn Ground, where Manchester United needed to win at West Ham United to retain the Premier League trophy. The Red Devils had chances to take victory late on through Andy Cole, but the final whistle blew with the scores level at 1-1.

 

Manchester United had lost their title, and Blackburn were the champions of England for the first time since 1914.

 

At the age of 23, Catterall already had a league winner's medal around his neck. He would soon have an England cap on his head, as Terry Venables gave him his first international call-up for the four-team Umbro Cup challenge tournament, which was held at Wembley during the off-season.

 

Catterall made his England debut in a 2-1 victory over Japan on 3 June 1995. Before the match, he and his team-mates were presented to a very special guest, and a true legend of English football - former Blackpool winger Sir Stanley Matthews. Catterall later said that meeting Matthews - his father's boyhood hero - was one of the most unforgettable occasions of his life.

 

Catterall was ever-present at the Umbro Cup, in which England finished in second place behind reigning world champions Brazil. He would remain a regular presence in the Three Lions squad throughout the next three years.

 

Blackburn faltered in the 1995/1996 season under new manager Ray Harford, who'd taken over from Dalglish following the Scot's promotion to 'Director of Football'. Rovers spectacularly failed to retain their title, and their first tilt at the UEFA Champions League ended in a disastrous elimination at the Group Stage, with one match in Russia standing out for all the wrong reasons.

 

Blackburn went into their away game against Spartak Moscow needing a win to keep alive their hopes of qualification for the knockout rounds. Two of their players put up a fight early on, but not for the right reasons. An accidental and seemingly innocuous collision between Catterall and left-back Graeme Le Saux ended with the pair exchanging words before coming to blows.

 

Some newspaper reports suggested that Le Saux had thrown a punch at Catterall after the latter made derogatory homophobic comments towards him. Le Saux was often the victim of such abuse throughout his career, even though he was heterosexual. Catterall denied taunting his team-mate in such a manner, but he openly admitted that the confrontation was not his finest hour.

 

Neither Le Saux nor Catterall were booked for their roles in the altercation, but the self-inflicted damage had already been done. Blackburn lost 3-0 and whimpered out of the Champions League, never to return.

 

As far as the Premier League went, Rovers fell to 7th place in 1996, and very alarmingly to 13th in 1997. The much-travelled Roy Hodgson took over as manager before the 1997/1998 season, during which the Lancashire side would enjoy a revival and return to the top six.

 

Catterall had been a first-team regular at Blackburn for the best part of four seasons and was now eager for a fresh challenge. He would leave Ewood Park for pastures new in the summer of 1998, but not before one of the most significant moments of his career.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

Mark Catterall's first taste of playing in a major tournament for England came in 1996, when 'football came home' for the UEFA European Championship. The Blackburn Rovers midfielder was brought on for a couple of cameo appearances in the Three Lions' first two group matches against Switzerland and Scotland. The latter game was particularly memorable for that half-volley from Paul Gascoigne - and that 'dental chair' celebration.

 

Catterall made his third and final appearance of the tournament, also as a substitute, in the Quarter Final against Spain, where England recorded their first ever victory in a penalty shoot-out. Thanks to the goalkeeping heroics of David Seaman, and the sharp shooting of his outfield team-mates, the newcomer would not need to step up and take a spot-kick.

 

England would also be taken to penalties in their Semi Final against Germany, which finished 1-1 after extra-time. However, this match was to end in agony for the hosts - and for Catterall, who could only watch the disaster unfold as an unused substitute.

 

As the shoot-out rolled into sudden death at 5-5, Aston Villa defender Gareth Southgate saw his spot-kick saved by German goalkeeper Andreas Köpke. That was followed by an emphatic penalty from Borussia Dortmund's Andreas Möller, and the collective breakings of millions of English hearts. The Mannschaft went through to the Final, where they would beat the Czech Republic 2-1 in extra-time, courtesy of Oliver Bierhoff's golden goal.

 

Terry Venables stepped down as England coach after Euro 1996, with legendary former midfielder Glenn Hoddle succeeding him.

 

Catterall was very much part of Hoddle's plans, and he would find starting appearances much easier to come by. Catterall quickly became an important member of the team, and there were few complaints when he was named in the squad for the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France.

 

There was plenty of competition in central midfield in this England squad. As well as Catterall, Hoddle had the likes of Darren Anderton, David Beckham, Paul Ince and Paul Scholes at his disposal, not to mention David Batty - a former team-mate of Catterall's at Blackburn. Former talisman Gascoigne had been controversially left out of the squad, perhaps because of his off-the-field antics rather than any problems on it.

 

England cruised to a 2-0 victory over Tunisia in their first group game before falling to a 2-1 defeat against Romania. Catterall did not feature in either of those games, although he did make his first World Cup appearance when the Three Lions played Colombia. He came on in the 79th minute as a replacement for Anderton, whose 20th-minute opener was followed up nine minutes later by an exceptional free-kick from Manchester United's 23-year-old rising star Beckham. England won 2-0 and were safely into the next round.

 

England's opponents in Round 2 - or the Last 16, if you prefer - were old rivals Argentina. It was 16 years on from the Falklands War, during which one of Catterall's uncles had served for the Royal Navy, and the British media were keen to stoke up tensions before kick-off.

 

Both teams scored penalties early on, with England captain Alan Shearer cancelling out Gabriel Batistuta's opener for Argentina. The match really caught fire in the 16th minute, as a superb solo goal from Liverpool wonderkid Michael Owen fired the Three Lions into a 2-1 lead. The 19-year-old's joy wouldn't last until half-time, as Javier Zanetti drew Argentina level just before the break.

 

Then, barely a minute into the second half, disaster struck for England. Argentine hardman Diego Simeone barged into the back of Beckham, who retaliated by kicking out at the midfielder - right in full view of referee Kim Milton Nielsen. Beckham was red-carded, and England had to play out the rest of the match with just 10 men.

 

The Three Lions somehow held firm, despite their disadvantage, and remained level after 90 minutes. Catterall had been left on the bench in reserve, but he would get his opportunity to shine seven minutes into extra-time, when he took over from Anderton in midfield. That was Hoddle's final substitution, and it would prove fateful.

 

With neither team able to break through again before the two hours were up, a penalty shoot-out would be required to decide who would play against the Netherlands in the World Cup Quarter Finals.

 

Argentina and England each converted three of their first four penalties, effectively sending the shoot-out into 'sudden death' mode. When Roberto Ayala gave the South Americans a 4-3 advantage, the pressure was firmly on whoever took England's fifth penalty kick. Up stepped 26-year-old Mark Catterall of Blackburn Rovers.

 

Catterall was a surprising choice to take this penalty, considering that he had scored only twice previously for England, and never in a competitive match. Commentating for ITV, Brian Moore asked former England skipper Kevin Keegan, "Do you back him to score, yes or no?" Keegan confidently replied, "Yes."

 

Catterall blasted the penalty to Carlos Roa's right-hand side, but the eccentric Argentine goalkeeper pushed it away, prompting Keegan - and millions of his compatriots - to groan in horror. A disconsolate Catterall trudged glumly back towards the centre circle, struggling to come to terms with the fact that he'd knocked his country out of the World Cup.

 

Catterall never played at another major tournament, though that penalty miss would not be his final act in an England shirt. He would play in three more matches for the Three Lions later in 1998, scoring against the Czech Republic in what would prove to be his last international.

 

Hoddle was sacked as England boss in February 1999, following an infamous interview with The Times, in which he said, "You and I have been physically given two hands and two legs and half-decent brains. Some people have not been born like that for a reason. The karma is working from another lifetime. I have nothing to hide about that. It is not only people with disabilities. What you sow, you have to reap."

 

Keegan succeeded Hoddle later that year, but Catterall was unavailable for selection for his first few England squads.

 

Catterall had been transferred from Blackburn to Derby County for £3million in July 1998. Just eight months later, however, he suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury that would eventually curtail his career at Pride Park. By the time he returned to full fitness in 2000, he found that the much younger Seth Johnson had taken his spot in the team.

 

Catterall moved on again in March 2000, joining Sunderland for £2.5million. The Mackems were now managed by his former Manchester City boss Peter Reid, while veteran striker Niall Quinn was another familiar face from Maine Road.

 

This was Sunderland's first season back up in the Premier League, but they did tremendously well to finish 7th. They would repeat the feat in 2000/2001 - Catterall's first full season at the Stadium of Light. The combative midfielder had become a popular figure on Wearside, but his consistently impressive performances weren't enough to earn an England recall.

 

After being repeatedly overlooked by Keegan, and also by his successor Sven-Göran Eriksson, Catterall was destined never to pull on an England jersey again. He had represented the national team at the highest level on 29 occasions between 1995 and 1998, scoring three goals.

 

Now approaching his 30s, Catterall's club career went into a steady decline from the 2001/2002 season onwards. Sunderland narrowly avoided relegation that season, but they wouldn't be so fortunate 12 months later. Reid was sacked very early on in a campaign that would see the Mackems go through three managers and win just four Premier League games before pitifully limping home in last place.

 

Catterall didn't drop down to Division 1 with Sunderland, instead linking up with Reid once more after joining Leeds United on a free transfer in the summer of 2003. Just a few years earlier, Leeds were UEFA Champions League Semi Finalists and spending extravagant sums to try and keep themselves amongst the elite. Now, the Whites were in the midst of a full-blown financial crisis - a crisis that would engulf this once-proud Yorkshire club.

 

In a virtual repeat of the previous season at Sunderland, Reid paid the price for a dreadful start, and his managerial successor - bona-fide United legend Eddie Gray - could not save Leeds from relegation.

 

Catterall could never be accused of slacking whilst at Elland Road, but it was clear that his best days as a footballer were behind him. His footballing CV now contained one Premier League victory from nine years previous, and two relegations that were much fresher in people's minds. At the age of 32, his top-flight career was coming to an end.

 

Catterall's next destination was indeed Division 1 (now rebranded the Championship), but not with Leeds. He moved from West Yorkshire to South Yorkshire, joining Sheffield United for the 2004/2005 season. He would spend just one year at Bramall Lane, and a reunion with Hoddle at Wolverhampton Wanderers the following season proved to be similarly brief.

 

Then, in the summer of 2006, Catterall decided to go back to his roots. Blackpool, now playing in League One, had come calling. Catterall could not turn down the opportunity to play for his hometown club - the club where his dad Brian was held in such high esteem.

 

The 2006/2007 season would end in glory for Blackpool, who finished 3rd in League One before defeating Yeovil Town 2-0 in the Play-Off Final. It was only fitting that the now 35-year-old Mark Catterall captained the Seasiders to promotion at the newly-rebuilt Wembley Stadium, in front of his now terminally ill father.

 

Brian Catterall would succumb to pancreatic cancer in October 2007, aged 58. His final words to Mark were, "Even if it's the last thing you do as a footballer, please keep Blackpool in the Championship."

 

Mark Catterall would indeed fulfil his father's dying wish, keeping Blackpool in the Championship in their first season up, albeit by only two points. Catterall junior only played in 12 matches that season due to a string of injuries - a sign that, at the age of 36, his body was starting to fail him physically. Few at Bloomfield Road were surprised when he subsequently announced his retirement from football, ending an eventful 16-year career that had spanned eight clubs and over 500 league matches.

 

***

 

While his old friend Mark Catterall was establishing himself as one of England's top midfielders, Michael Burke spent much of the mid-1990s in the footballing wilderness. After his career came to a premature end in 1994, Burke - still aged only 22 - sank into a deep depression and was unemployed for 18 months.

 

Burke started to get back on his feet in 1996, when he enrolled on a teacher-training course at the University of Manchester. After two years of studying, he acquired his qualifications and began teaching History to first-year students at a secondary school in Moss Side.

 

Then, in the summer of 2000, Burke had an epiphany. England's early exit from the UEFA European Championship had convinced him that he could've done better, had he been able to fulfil his once huge potential on the pitch. He now wanted to stamp his mark on the future of English football - and that meant going into coaching.

 

Burke began studying for his first Football Association coaching badge later that year. Within 12 months, he had swapped the classroom for the sports field, becoming a full-time Physical Education teacher at his old school in Salford.

 

With his previous experience of playing at the highest level (albeit very briefly), Burke inspired those students who played under him for the school football team. A few of them went on to emulate their teacher by signing for Manchester City's youth team, and then ultimately turning professional, playing for various Football League clubs.

 

Burke acquired a full set of FA coaching licences within four years, and his eye for developing young talent did not go unnoticed. In 2005, he left his PE job to join the youth-team set-up at Bury. Whilst at Gigg Lane, he helped to kick-start the careers of winger David Worrall, who went on to join West Bromwich Albion before becoming a Football League regular, and future Brighton & Hove Albion midfielder Dale Stephens.

 

He spent two years with Bury, and then 18 rather less happy months at Oldham Athletic, before moving to Merseyside and becoming a reserve-team coach for Tranmere Rovers in July 2009. It was at Prenton Park where Burke would be reunited with his former schoolmate and team-mate Catterall.

 

Catterall had spent the 2008/2009 season - his first since his retirement from playing - working for Sky Sports as a Football League pundit. By now, he was almost unrecognisable from when he was at the peak of his powers with Blackburn Rovers and England. That mid-1990s mullet had now been consigned to history, as he had - rather symbolically - shaved off his balding locks just days after playing his final professional match.

 

Though his enthusiasm for the sport and his tactical knowledge shone through in his Sky commentary, Catterall knew that this was just a stop-gap, and that he had no desire to work in television for the rest of his professional life. He didn't want to be just another former England international who opted for a cushy punditry job instead of moving into the cut-and-thrust of coaching.

 

Catterall had already taken his first step on the management ladder in 2006, obtaining his first coaching badge whilst still playing in League One for Blackpool. By 2009, he had obtained his UEFA B Licence and was ready to kick-start his new career.

 

Ahead of the 2009/2010 season, Tranmere manager Les Parry decided to give Catterall his first job in coaching. The now 37-year-old was appointed as head coach of Rovers' reserve team, and he brought Burke along with him.

 

'Catts & Burke' would be at Tranmere for three seasons, during which time they played significant roles in the emergence of left-back Aaron Cresswell and midfielder Max Power onto the professional stage. As the pair entered their 40s, their coaching careers were going from strength to strength.

 

In March 2012, John Peacock resigned as head coach of England Under-17s after working for the FA for the best part of a decade. A new coach would need to be appointed to work with some of the country's rawest and most talented young footballers, all of whom were either still at school or in the first year of academy scholarships.

 

Catterall and Burke seemed like the 'dream team' for the FA. The former was an ex-England international who had competed at major tournaments and knew the ins-and-outs of team-building; the latter was an erstwhile PE teacher whose man-management skills would help instil belief in budding 15- to 16-year-old footballers.

 

Catterall was named as the new England Under-17s head coach in May 2012, with Burke joining him as his assistant. They relocated from Merseyside and based themselves in Burton-upon-Trent in Staffordshire, where the FA's new national football centre at St George's Park would be opened later that year.

 

Former FA technical director Howard Wilkinson had based St George's Park on the French Football Federation's training centre at Clairefontaine, which had produced many of the France players who won the 1998 FIFA World Cup as well as UEFA Euro 2000. This would be the base for all of the FA's coaching and developmental work, as well as the main training ground for all England national teams - men and women, from seniors to Under-16s.

 

At Under-17s level, the main focus for Catterall and Burke was more on their players' technical and physical development than success at major tournaments. That said, their results at the UEFA European Under-17s Championship over the next four years were mightily impressive.

 

Though England failed to qualify for the 2013 finals, they more than made amends at the 2014 tournament in Malta. They won four of their five matches, avenging that solitary defeat in the Group Stage to the Netherlands by beating the same opponents in the Final. A 4-1 shoot-out win after a 1-1 draw earned the Young Lions just their second European title at that age level.

 

England also reached the knockout phase of the Under-17s Euros in 2015 and 2016, though they ultimately fell short in the Quarter Finals on each occasion. That said, if the Young Lions could translate those results into successes at higher age groups, and then at the very top level, it would surely bode well for the future of English football.

 

Catterall was clearly a coach who was going places within the Football Association. However, when Roy Hodgson stepped down as England manager after the debacle of UEFA Euro 2016, very few would've tipped this young and studious Lancastrian to succeed the wily and much-travelled Londoner.

Edited by CFuller

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CAUTION: This story contains strong language from this point onwards, though some profanity may still be censored. Once again, reader discretion is advised.

***

 

10 June 2016. Wembley Stadium.

 

Mark Catterall found himself sat in front of three of the most powerful people within the Football Association. Chairman Clark Gregory, chief executive David Whiteman and vice-chairwoman Connie Millstone were interviewing the 44-year-old England Under-17s coach with a view to him becoming manager of the senior national team.

 

"I'm sure you are aware of the recent failure of the England team at the European Championship," Gregory said, before posing his first question. "I'd like to ask you this - where do you think that team went wrong?"

 

"I think the answer is simple," Catterall replied. "Team-bonding is as important in international football as it is at club level, but recent England managers seem to have forgotten that. With them, they simply cobble together the 23 best players in the country and hope they can play together.

 

"When I'm working with the Under-17s, I like to put a greater emphasis on team unity. It's important that every player has each other's back, even if they play for rival teams.

 

"I also like my players to spend as much time together as possible - that includes playing, training, socialising, you name it. When it comes to succeeding in international football, that is arguably as important as picking the right tactics and the best players."

 

Whiteman laughed. "Mr Catterall, you appear to have already answered the question that we were about to put forward to you next!"

 

"That's me to a tee. I'm always thinking ahead, but not too far."

 

Whiteman quickly moved on to his following question, "You have enjoyed tremendous success with the Under-17s, specifically at recent European Championships. Do you believe that you can translate that success over to the senior team if your application is successful?"

 

"Yes, I do," Catterall nodded confidently. "This country has loads of footballing talent; it's just that a lot of players are overprivileged and think they've made it once they've signed their first big professional contract. They don't have the determination to succeed and make the most of their talents.

 

"With the Under-17s, Michael Burke and I have instilled a sense of discipline. All the players know that they cannot slack off, else they'll be dropped."

 

Gregory then asked, "What's your tactical approach to football?"

 

"I know we at the FA all have to subscribe to the 'England DNA' philosophy. Personally, I think it's a load of bollocks."

 

Millstone interrupted, "Does a future England manager really have to use such language?"

 

"Leave him be, Connie," Gregory said, half-laughing. "The man's just saying what we're all thinking! Carry on, Mr Catterall."

 

Catterall then provided examples of what he called the "business talk" within the 'England DNA' blueprint set out by the FA in 2014. In terms of possession, England teams would "aim to dominate possession intelligently, selecting the right moments to progress the play and penetrate the opposition". They would also "play with tactical flexibility, based on the profile of the players available and the requirements of the match or competition".

 

"What the hell does that even mean?" Catterall asked.

 

"I'll tell you what I would do if I was England manager. I'd play a 4-3-3 - or a 4-2-3-1 if you'd like - with your two centre-halves, your wing-backs, three midfielders, a couple of inside-forwards, and one striker. We'd press high up the pitch, play at a steady pace, work the ball into the 18-yard box, and look to open up the opposition defence as often as we can.

 

"I might switch to a different system every now and then, but by and large, we'll pretty much be playing in a similar manner to how we'd normally do."

 

Gregory acknowledged, "That sounds like a plan to me, Mr Catterall."

 

"How would you pick the team?" Millstone asked. "Would you always select the best players, no matter what, or will in-form players take priority?"

 

"As I see it, you can't simply pick players on reputation alone. If Harry Kane was struggling to hit a barn door at Tottenham Hotspur, would I pick him? No, I wouldn't. What about if Joe Hart was sitting on Manchester City's bench doing nothing? Again, no, I'd drop him.

 

"I will only select players for the England team if I feel that they deserve to be there."

 

The interview was coming towards an end when Gregory asked, "Are there any other plans you'd like to have in place if you were selected as the next England manager?"

 

"Yes, Mr Gregory. I want to have control of not just the senior England team, but all England men's teams - from the Under-19s upwards."

 

The three interviewees appeared taken aback by Catterall's demand. "That's... a lot of responsibility," a somewhat surprised Millstone said.

 

"It would indeed, as my colleague says, be a large burden on your shoulders," Whiteman agreed. "However, I would be intrigued to hear your reasoning behind this request."

 

Catterall began, "With most successful national teams - Germany, for example - there's an obvious pathway from the youth teams to the senior level. In their systems, you get a lot of players going up from the Under-16s to the Under-17s, Under-19s, Under-21s, and then eventually the main team.

 

"I'm not seeing that with England. There aren't enough players who've worked their way up through most if not all the age groups before breaking into the senior team. What's more, a lot of them seem to just stall once they get to the Under-21s - far too many for my liking.

 

"There's also a massive discrepancy between the England managers. With the seniors, Roy Hodgson liked a rigid old-school 4-4-2. With the Under-21s, Gareth Southgate keeps mixing it up and has no set system. Even more worryingly, you've got Adrian Boothroyd - a long-ball merchant - managing our Under-19s. There's no consistency!

 

"I know how I like my teams to play football, and I want to impose that philosophy throughout the England set-up, from the Under-19s upwards. That way, once the best youngsters come into the senior team from the Under-21s, they'll know exactly where they fit in."

 

Gregory looked to each of his colleagues, and then said, "I guess that concludes this interview. We'll have to discuss your candidacy at greater length, Mr Catterall, but you've certainly given us a lot to consider."

 

"Thank you for the opportunity," Catterall said as he shook the hands of his three interviewees. "I hope to hear back from you soon."

 

"We'll be in touch," Millstone smiled.

 

***

 

The Football Association's top brass had finished the interview process for the role of the next England football manager. They had now narrowed their shortlist down to a final three - Sam Allardyce, Mark Catterall, and Gareth Southgate.

 

Allardyce was the bookmakers' favourite, having recently left Sunderland after guiding them away from the Premier League relegation zone. The 61-year-old coach was a master of making the most out of limited resources, but now he was ready to test himself on the biggest stage. Indeed, he had postponed contract talks with Crystal Palace in the hope that he would get the England job.

 

FA chairman Clark Gregory was a self-confessed fan of Allardyce's work, and he was his preferred choice to take over from Roy Hodgson. A productive interview with 'Big Sam' had further strengthened the chairman's stance when the board convened at Wembley Stadium to make a final decision on the new manager on 16 June 2016.

 

"I'm telling you, this is Allardyce's time," Gregory told his fellow executives. "He's the perfect man to add some backbone and guts to the England team."

 

Vice-chair Connie Millstone - an early sceptic of Allardyce's - added, "I wasn't sure about Sam before last week, but his hour-long PowerPoint presentation really won me over."

 

"Indeed, Connie. He was so thorough with every minute detail. He never left anything to chance."

 

"I never knew how important it was for players to put their kit on in a specific order. You put the left sock on before the right! Now it all makes sense!"

 

Chief executive David Whiteman was unconvinced, though, saying, "Mr Allardyce's record when it comes to his professional integrity fills me with a sense of trepidation. One cannot help but feel that he might one day say something untoward to an undercover journalist from The Daily Telegraph, in which case we would be - to quote the London layman - 'up the junction'."

 

"That was my fear at first, David," Millstone said. "But then I saw his presentation. He's just so passionate about managing England, and you can't help but like him."

 

"On the subject of managers that you can't help but like, Connie," Gregory interjected. "What did you make of Gareth Southgate?"

 

Southgate was the manager of the England Under-21s team. During his interview, he had stressed how important it was to bring players through from the age-group teams and into the senior set-up as soon as they were ready. Less encouragingly, he'd wilted under pressure when questioned about his disciplinary methods.

 

Millstone said, "I love Gareth... but he's just not tough enough."

 

"Agreed," nodded a typically blunt Gregory.

 

"You can make that three nays," Whiteman said. "But as far as young Mr Catterall is concerned, I think we have found the ideal candidate."

 

Mark Catterall was the outside bet of the three candidates. Though he was a former England international midfielder and an active member of the FA's coaching team, his only prior management experience had been at youth level. That said, Catterall's record during his four-year reign as head coach of England's Under-17s had greatly impressed Whiteman.

 

"You would do very well to find another manager who is as consistently successful with an England team as Mr Catterall," Whiteman said. "If he can turn the Under-17s team into a force to be reckoned with, one could only imagine the potential for success at higher age groups under his stewardship."

 

Gregory was uncertain. "But there lies the problem, David. Catterall wants so much power, and he is totally unproven at the highest level. He wants to be Alex Ferguson when he's still more like Darren Ferguson - young, brash, and simply not ready."

 

"Oh come on, Clark, why won't you take a risk on him?" Millstone asked. "We've had so many great managers in the past, yet they haven't been able to make a success of the England job. In fact, most of them have been complete and utter failures!"

 

"Sven-Göran Eriksson took England to three consecutive Quarter Finals."

 

"Yeah, but he also did a Bill Clinton on any woman that moved! I was a secretary at Soho Square when Sven was starting out, and I could've sworn that he once touched my..."

 

"Connie, why are we discussing Sven-Göran Eriksson's sex life? Get back on topic, please."

 

"Sorry," Millstone whispered, before asking, "My point is that appointing a big name hasn't worked, so why don't we go completely leftfield - and appoint the guy who's actually won a European Championship?"

 

"With the Under-17s?"

 

"Yeah."

 

Another board member then interjected, with a broad Lancashire accent, "Hold your horses! We haven't discussed Sir Sean Dyche yet!"

 

"Oh Lord, our resident Burnley idiot," Gregory muttered. He then raised his voice to say, "We're not even considering Sean Dyche, you wazzock! And as far as I know, Her Majesty hasn't yet knighted him for services to baldness and throat lozenges!"

 

The FA board then took a vote on whether to approach Allardyce or Catterall. The vote was split down the middle, with one abstainer - Connie Millstone.

 

"Erm, gents... let me sleep on it?" she asked uncertainly.

 

"Ms Millstone, it is of the utmost importance that we determine the new England manager as urgently as possible," Whiteman stated.

 

Gregory concurred, "Yes, we really should be deciding it today. And 'let me sleep on it'? That's not another 'Sam Allardyce looks like Meat Loaf' reference, is it?"

 

Millstone shook her head and replied unconvincingly, "No? And if it was, I'd have said 'baby, baby' instead of 'gents'."

 

Gregory groaned, "Connie, I cannot stress this enough. You have to make a decision now, otherwise I get the casting vote as chairman. Who do you want as England manager - Sam or Mark?"

 

"I quite like Sam & Mark, actually. My kids used to watch their programmes on CBBC when they were little..."

 

"No, Connie, let me rephrase that. Do you want ALLARDYCE or CATTERALL?"

 

Millstone put her hands on the desk and declared, "CATTERALL."

 

Gregory sighed, "Thank f*** for that. Any longer, and we might've been considering Dele Alli for the job!"

 

The chairman later phoned Catterall to deliver the good news. "Hello, is that Mark Catterall? It is? Smashing. This is Clark Gregory from the FA, and I'm delighted to inform you that you're our preferred candidate for the England manager's job. Congratulations."

Edited by CFuller

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Me before reading: I'll give it a quick read, got my own save to play!

Now...

*sigh*

Damn you, CFuller! Why must your stories be so frickin good? Consider me hooked. I'll be following this.

 

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Thank you, Mark, for providing further clarity regarding the use of strong language. I have decided to go ahead with using it in this story (and my next one for that matter), though the strongest words will still be censored by the forum software.

4 hours ago, ChileanRanger said:

Me before reading: I'll give it a quick read, got my own save to play!

Now...

*sigh*

Damn you, CFuller! Why must your stories be so frickin good? Consider me hooked. I'll be following this.

Thank you. :D I've played through a few years in this save and can tell you that Chile will have a significant presence at some point, though it may not be for a while.

I'd be interested to read any further feedback on this story. This is the first story I've published (though not the first I've written) in this format, so the odd pointer here and there wouldn't go amiss.

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Chapter 3 - Meet The New Boss

 

Mark Catterall had a reputation as a bit of a ladies' man during his teenage years and early 20s. With his flowing brown hair and boyish good looks, he could easily have been mistaken for a wannabe pop star during the late 1980s, and his athleticism only made him even more attractive to the opposite gender.

 

Whilst in his final two years at school, Mark had on-and-off relationships with several female pupils. His first sexual liaison was with Hannah Richardson - a bookish raven-haired girl in his class who bore more than a striking resemblance to a young Sheena Easton.

 

Hannah was a couple of months Mark's elder, and their relationship went into overdrive on her 16th birthday in January 1988. Mark attended a party at Hannah's house, where the still-underage budding footballer drank his first units of alcohol. As the party came towards an end, an intoxicated Mark took his girlfriend up into her bedroom. You could probably guess what happened next.

 

The following day, rumours spread at school that Mark and Hannah had indeed got particularly close to one another. After being interrogated by the headmaster, Hannah confessed all, though a hungover Mark couldn't recall such an incident taking place. Both were suspended from school for the following week.

 

Upon hearing about Mark's activities with his girlfriend, Brian Catterall hit the roof. He grounded his son for a fortnight, ordered him to put an immediate end to the relationship, and even threatened to have Hannah arrested for statutory rape.

 

As far as his parents were concerned, Mark was on his final warning. Were he to let his primitive desires get the better of him again whilst living under their roof, he would be kicked out and forced to seek alternate living arrangements.

 

Mark broke up with Hannah immediately, and he also decided that he would never touch alcohol again. He stayed true to that pledge... but when it came the promise he'd made to his parents to stay celibate, that was a whole different matter.

 

In August 1988, shortly after leaving school, Mark entered a relationship with another of his former classmates. They dated for around 18 months and managed to keep the sexual aspect of their relationship a secret - until the girl's mother discovered that she was pregnant.

 

After being informed of this news, Mark's parents packed their son's bags and threw him out of the family home. At barely 18 years of age, he was now having to make his own way in life.

 

Catterall's girlfriend had an abortion and halted their relationship soon afterwards. The girl in question passed away in tragic circumstances several years later. Her identity has never been revealed in public.

 

Now forced into living independently for the first time, Catterall shacked up with his best friend Michael Burke, who had himself just moved into a new council home in Salford with his then-girlfriend Julia. The couple would later marry and have two children - Charlotte, born in 1997, and Joshua, who arrived three years later.

 

While Burke was in a happy and stable relationship, Catterall remained unlucky in love until spring 1994. That was when Mark was introduced by his younger sister Joanne to one of her best friends from university.

 

Katherine Allen - known to her friends as 'Kat' - was an enthusiastic and bright student who was taking a course in business management at the University of Manchester. Born of mixed race, Kat was brought up in Liverpool by her Scouse single mother after her Jamaican father left the family when his daughter was only four years old.

 

Mark was immediately drawn to Kat's good looks and her light brown skin, for which he would give her the affectionate - if not exactly politically correct - nickname of 'Chocolate'. Unsurprisingly, that moniker soon fell by the wayside, and Kat was eventually given the literal pet name 'Kitty', which occasionally morphed into 'Kitty Kat' or even 'Kit Kat'. (And you thought 'Chocolate' was embarrassing!)

 

While 'Kit Kat' did not care much for football, she shared many other hobbies with this young midfielder from Blackburn Rovers, specifically their love of independent rock music and cinema.

 

The pair were in a relationship for barely two years when they moved in with one another in a Blackburn property situated about a 15-minute walk from Ewood Park. Kat had since graduated from university and was now working as a sales representative for a company that supplied beauty products.

 

Mark and Kat moved away from Lancashire and to the Peak District after the former was sold to Derby County in 1998. It was during the first few months of Catterall's time with the Rams that they got engaged, with Mark successfully proposing to Kat after they'd attended a concert by indie band The Charlatans.

 

The couple were married on 23 February 2000 - the wedding having been postponed by several months whilst Mark was recovering from a serious knee injury. In a break with tradition, the bride opted to retain her maiden name after marriage, perhaps to avoid the mild discomfiture of becoming Kat Catterall!

 

The newly-weds moved on again a couple of months later, when Mark signed for Sunderland. He and his wife would soon relocate to a new home in the nearby town of Washington, where they would start their family. Their daughter, Ashley Louise Catterall, arrived on 1 March 2001 - exactly a week after their first wedding anniversary.

 

The young family stayed in Sunderland for two years before they were on the move once more, going wherever Mark's footballing career took him. A couple of years in Yorkshire were followed by a very brief and unhappy stint in Wolverhampton.

 

The Catteralls were only a few weeks into their stay in the West Midlands when their marriage came under severe strain. Kat, who had put her career on hold to raise Ashley, was upset that her husband was rarely at home. Mark was a perfectionist who would often do an extra hour's work of training compared to his team-mates at Wolverhampton Wanderers, and long away days would draw him further apart from his wife and daughter.

 

Though Mark tried to make amends by cutting down his work hours to spend more time at home, his marriage continued to falter. Many an evening was spent rowing with Kat about his commitment to the family, with an innocent Ashley often caught in the crossfire.

 

The final straw for Kat came one night in March 2006, when Mark left for work at 7:30am and didn't return home until 11:00pm. After training, he stayed behind to "discuss tactics" with his manager Glenn Hoddle and then "help out a friend". Kat would later discover that her husband had instead been having an affair behind her back with one of the Wolves secretaries.

 

The Catteralls separated in April. Kat went back to her native Liverpool, taking Ashley with her, and Mark was left on his own in the West Midlands. Though he returned to the north-west later that year after signing with his hometown club Blackpool, there would be no reconciliation.

 

Mark Catterall and Katherine Allen were formally divorced in February 2007 after seven years of marriage. After that news was leaked to the press, Catterall - dubbed a "love rat" by some tabloid papers - spoke to the Daily Mail about his regrets.

 

"I am ashamed of my action and cannot apologise enough to Kat or Ashley for all the pain I have caused them," he said at the time. "If I could turn back time, I wish that I could change a lot of things about my lifestyle. My family should have come first, not myself.

 

"I will have to live with my mistakes for the rest of my life."

 

***

 

July 2007 marked the start of what would be Mark Catterall's final season as a professional footballer. Though he'd recently experienced the euphoria of captaining his beloved Blackpool to promotion from League One, his personal life was in total turmoil.

 

Catterall's acrimonious divorce from his first wife Kat earlier in the year coincided with the devastating news that his father Brian had been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the pancreas. Though Mark had been kicked out of the family home when he was 18 years old, he remained close to his parents, crediting their "tough love" for "turning [him] into a man".

 

Brian would spend the last few months of his life being transported back-and-forth between hospital and his home in Salford. Barbara Catterall had postponed her retirement and continued to work as a teacher to help fund her husband's treatment, so Mark and his siblings Gemma, Joanne and Andrew would take turns to provide support for their father.

 

Brian's condition worsened over the summer, and further still in the first few weeks of autumn. Sadly, but inevitably, his body was soon unable to cope with his illness. He passed away peacefully at home on 19 October 2007, with Barbara and their four children by his bedside.

 

Barely a fortnight before Brian's passing, Mark had introduced his dying father to his new girlfriend. Jennifer Pilkington was a good decade younger than Mark, but their blossoming love for one another was genuine.

 

Jennifer - or Jenny, as she preferred to be called - was born in 1983 in the Surrey town of Guildford, though her father originally came from Lancashire. As was the case with many youngsters growing up in the Home Counties, Jenny was a big supporter of Manchester United, and she idolised the Red Devils' captain Bryan Robson. Other interests of hers included pop music, technology, and literature (specifically crime fiction).

 

After obtaining her GCSEs and A-Levels, Jenny enrolled at the University of Chester, studying computer science. She graduated with a degree in 2004 and then relocated to Blackpool, where she got her first job as a trainee IT technician.

 

Jenny and Mark would first cross paths at a PC World branch in Blackpool on the second day of 2007. Mark handed in a laptop for repair, and the smiling young brunette assistant at the desk was only too happy to help. He had expected the repair to take weeks, so he was surprised to receive a phone call the next day telling him that his laptop was fixed and ready to collect.

 

The assistant explained to Mark that his computer's hard disk drive had failed, and that she had to put in a replacement. She'd also managed to extract most of the data from the failed drive onto a USB flash drive, and thus he didn't lose any important files, such as financial records or training schedules.

 

Mark was impressed by this young woman's expertise, but he was even more intrigued by the Manchester United badge lapel on her shirt. This started a conversation about football, during which Mark pointed out rather awkwardly that he used to play for Manchester City. Despite their clubs' rivalries, the pair quickly struck up a rapport. He would leave PC World that afternoon with his fixed laptop, as well as his new friend's name - and her phone number.

 

Mark and Jenny went on several dates over the next few months as their romance quickly gathered pace before turning into a full-blown whirlwind. When Jenny met Mark's father for the first and only time that October, she was one month pregnant with the grandson that Brian Catterall - who'd already had four granddaughters - would never get to see.

 

"She's a good lass, son," Brian told Mark in one of their final conversations. "Don't throw her away like you threw away Katherine."

 

Jenny accompanied a grieving Mark at his dad's funeral the following month, and then moved in with him at the start of 2008. They had hoped to welcome their first child that June, but their plans were thrown into turmoil on the morning of 17 May, when Jenny's waters broke suddenly at home. She was quickly rushed into Blackpool Victoria Hospital, and a difficult eight-hour-long labour ensued until approximately 7:15pm, when Luke Pilkington Catterall was born three weeks premature.

 

Joy for the new parents turned to terror just seconds after the birth, when Luke suddenly stopped breathing. The newborn was rushed to the local neonatal unit and placed into an incubator, where he could receive emergency oxygen and ventilation. It would be three weeks before Luke was healthy enough for Mark and Jenny to hold their son for the first time.

 

As he was born prematurely, Luke would have to be examined regularly by doctors to diagnose any possible medical problems caused by his stunted development. When Luke was two months old, Mark and Jenny were given the news that their son had been diagnosed with 'Retinopathy of prematurity', or 'ROP' for short.

 

Otherwise known as 'Terry syndrome', ROP was a disease of the retina that could potentially cause short-sightedness or even blindness. Famous people with the disease included singer Stevie Wonder and entertainer Tom Sullivan.

 

Jenny was devastated to hear that her son was potentially going blind. Mark held his emotions together a bit more convincingly, reassuring his wife, "Loads of blind children go on to have good lives and careers. Just look at David Blunkett - he was a blind boy brought up in poverty in Sheffield, yet he went on to become Home Secretary."

 

As feared, Luke's eyesight deteriorated further over the coming months, and he was almost completely blind by his first birthday. Luke's disability required Jenny to give up work and look after him virtually 24/7, at least until he was old enough to attend school.

 

Mark would spend the 2008/2009 season working as a Football League television pundit for Sky Sports before starting his coaching career. He kept his son's condition private until June 2011, when he revealed all in a moving interview with a Sky News reporter.

 

"Luke has been the best thing that's happened to me and to Jenny," he said at the time.

 

"I thought I had it tough when I was playing football against some of the best attackers in the country, if not the world. That's nothing compared to raising a child with a visual impairment. That provides you with whole new challenges - challenges that you never really expect to take on - but the rewards are even greater. I feel more pride as a dad than I ever did as a footballer.

 

"Luke has taught me to become more mature, more focused, more empathetic, and also to look at life from a different perspective. I'm 39 years old now, but I hadn't really grown up until he came along."

 

Mark and Jenny lived in Blackpool, and later Liverpool, for the first four years of their son's life before moving to Burton-upon-Trent in 2012. Their new home was situated just a 20-minute drive away from Mark's new workplace at St George's Park, and also in close proximity to a primary school where Luke could receive a specialised education. Meanwhile, Jenny returned to work as a full-time computer repair engineer - one of very few women in that particular field.

 

After a five-year relationship, Mark eventually proposed marriage to Jenny on Christmas Day 2012. Much to his delight, not to mention relief, she accepted.

 

The couple spent the next 18 months planning for their wedding, which took place at The Lowry arts centre on Salford Quays on 7 June 2014 - just a fortnight after Catterall had coached England to victory at the UEFA European Under-17s Championship. Many of their friends and family were present at the ceremony, though Mark's first wife Kat and their daughter Ashley were not.

 

Jennifer Pilkington was walked down the aisle by her father Stephen, with her 'page boy' helping to carry the train of her wedding dress. That was no mean feat for a six-year-old boy with severely-impaired vision, and Mark Catterall was visibly brought to tears upon seeing his son Luke carry out his duties impeccably.

 

Luke was also tasked with carrying the wedding rings, which Mark and Jenny exchanged before also exchanging their vows and becoming husband and wife. Their marriage really could not have got off to a more beautiful start.

 

His wedding to Jenny would be Mark's final public outing without spectacles. His own eyesight had worsened gradually over recent years, and he would soon make the decision to don glasses at all times.

 

This former football heart-throb was now bespectacled as well as bald, thus leading to the first of many somewhat unflattering comparisons with the MasterChef judge and television personality Gregg Wallace. Upon becoming the new manager of the England national team two years later, he would find that football "doesn't get tougher than this"!

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

The role of England football team manager was created in 1946, after several decades of the Football Association using a cricket-style selection committee to pick players for the national side. In the 70 years since then, 13 men had held the job on a permanent basis: Walter Winterbottom, Alf Ramsey, Don Revie, Ron Greenwood, Bobby Robson, Graham Taylor, Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello, and Roy Hodgson.

 

On Sunday 17 July 2016, Mark Catterall - previously in charge of the Under-17s team - was officially appointed as the 14th full-time England manager.

 

In modern football, several leading coaches had their agents handle contract negotiations. Catterall preferred to negotiate his own terms. He agreed a contract worth £69,000 per week that would span at least four years, taking in the 2018 FIFA World Cup as well as UEFA Euro 2020. In case England failed to qualify for the World Cup or simply performed dismally in Russia, a 'get-out clause' had been inserted into the contract, which either Catterall or the FA could invoke.

 

After taking on the biggest role of his coaching career, the 44-year-old spent Sunday evening with his wife Jenny and young son Luke at their home in Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire. He was then expected to drive down to London early on Monday morning, ahead of his official unveiling at Wembley Stadium as the new occupier of the so-called 'impossible job'.

 

Mark Catterall was a man of habit, especially when it came to his morning routine, which he adhered to like clockwork. He would always wake up at around 7:30am, at which point he would get showered and changed before coming downstairs for breakfast at 8:00am.

 

Mark loved to start the day with toast - specifically, two pieces of heavily-burnt toast, with butter spread over them. However, his breakfast plans for this particular morning would soon be thrown up in the air. Upon putting his two slices of bread in the toaster, he found that the side lever wouldn't stay down when pressed down.

 

"Jenny?" Mark asked. "Has the toaster packed up or summat?"

 

Jenny sighed, "Oh, I didn't tell you. I was having all sorts of problems with it when my parents came round yesterday afternoon. Remember that?"

 

"Jen, I spent yesterday afternoon discussing my contract with the FA, in case you've forgotten! Today is meant to be the biggest day of my career, but now my breakfast is ruined!"

 

"It'll be okay, Mark. You could always have something different for breakfast today - cereal, perhaps?"

 

Mark raised his voice in disgust. "CEREAL? Are you mad, woman? I'm not having CEREAL for breakfast!"

 

"Well, then you have to think of something else, 'cos I don't think you'll be able to have toast today."

 

"I'm not going to have something else! I've had toast for breakfast every day for goodness knows how many years, and I'm not breaking my routine - on today of all days!"

 

Jenny had now walked off to get Luke ready for school. She shouted at her husband from the main hallway, "For God's sake, Mark! You're 44 years old, but you're behaving like a child! It's like you have OCD or something!"

 

"I don't f***ing have OCD; I just like doing things in a certain way every day!"

 

Mark then walked over to give Luke a hug and a kiss before calmly asking Jenny, "Once you've dropped this little 'un off, could you do us a favour - pop over to Currys and buy us a new toaster?"

 

"No!" replied Jenny, almost in disgust. "In case you haven't realised, I've got work in an hour! I'm can't drive Luke to school, pick you up a toaster, and then be at work for 9! Who do you think I am - Doctor Who?"

 

Mark apologised, "Sorry. Wasn't thinking straight."

 

Jenny sighed, "Apology accepted. Like you said, today's a big day - and it's gonna be a long day too. But if you want a new toaster, you'll have to get it yourself. Just don't leave it too late before you drive down to London, or the traffic will be murder."

 

"I won't, love," Mark said, as he kissed his wife.

 

8-year-old Luke then said, "I hope you have a good day today, Dad."

 

"Cheers, little man," Mark smiled before affectionately ruffling his son's hair. "Now you two be safe, alright? I should be back home for 8 tonight."

 

Mark then waved his wife and son off before getting ready to go out and buy his new toaster. It was a short drive to the local Currys branch, but what could've been a simple in-and-out job took about half an hour.

 

Mark was a real stickler for detail, and he wanted every appliance in his house to meet exactly the right specifications. He couldn't just pick up the first toaster he laid eyes on - it needed various extras, such as reheat and cancel settings, and he didn't want one with overly fiddly cords.

 

As he was spending longer than most deliberating over which toaster he should buy, some bemused customers wondered why the new England manager was spending his first morning on the job browsing kitchen appliances. A couple of onlookers even took photographs of Catterall and uploaded them onto social media.

 

By midday, The Sun's website had published an article sporting the headline, "HE'S TOAST! New England boss Catts buys toaster on first day". The earth-shattering news that a middle-aged man was investing in a new oven was gripping enough to distract many Sun readers from far more important stories, such as new Prime Minister Theresa May's choice of footwear, or the search for a new judge to replace Len Goodman on 'Strictly Come Dancing'.

 

Mark eventually decided on a new toaster and returned home to have his breakfast, even if it was much later than planned. His long journey to Wembley had also been delayed; he didn't start driving south until just gone 10:00am.

 

As Jenny had warned Mark, the A38 road was chock-full of traffic, following a large collision southbound towards the A5127 near Lichfield. What would've probably been a three-hour journey down clear roads and motorways took nearly double the time.

 

Of course, no sane person could spend six consecutive hours on the road, especially not on a hot July afternoon such as this. Mark stopped off at 1:30pm at a Welcome Break service station in Oxford, roughly halfway between home and Wembley.

 

Mark would almost always have his phone on silent mode while driving, so as to avoid any unnecessary distractions. Upon arriving in Oxford, he spotted that he'd had a missed call from Jenny. He quickly phoned his wife to ask, "Hey, love, what did you want me for?"

 

"I'm not the one who wanted you, Mark," Jenny said. "I've just had Clark Gregory on the phone. He expected you to be at Wembley by 1 o'clock and wanted to know why you weren't there yet! Speaking of that, where are you?"

 

"Oxford services! The traffic's been a bloody nightmare! Big crash near Lichfield, apparently."

 

"I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so."

 

Mark chuckled at that retort from Jenny, but Mrs Catterall was far from amused. "I hope for your sake that the traffic's subsided, else you'll probably be late!"

 

"Fancy that - I'd be the first England manager to be late for his inaugural press conference!"

 

"Yeah, or you could be the first England manager to miss their first press conference because they had to buy a F***ING TOASTER!"

 

"Alright, Jen, I won't bother you any longer," Mark said. "I'll phone you again once I'm at Wembley, and then once more when I'm on my way back home."

 

"Okay, Mark. Take care."

 

Mark quickly hung up, though he was never one to finish a phone call with a goodbye. After a quick lunch, he now had about two hours to get from Oxford to London, else his hopes for a hitch-free first press conference as England manager would be... well, toast.

 

***

 

Mark Catterall's first press conference as England manager had been scheduled for 4:00pm. He didn't arrive at the Football Association's headquarters at Wembley Stadium until half an hour before he was due to be unveiled.

 

"Jesus Christ, Mark - you bloody well took your time!" chairman Clark Gregory exclaimed as his new manager strode confidently across the corridor. Catterall was looking unflustered and sharply-dressed, although Gregory took umbrage with the absence of one piece of his suit.

 

"Why the f*** aren't you wearing a tie?"

 

"I've never worn a tie in my life, and you won't see me dead in one, either," came the reply.

 

"Suit yourself," Gregory shrugged, barely noticing the unintentional pun. "Ahem... I'd like to introduce you to a couple of people before the press conference. I'm sure you'll remember David Whiteman, our chief executive."

 

"It is a marvellous honour to have you on board, Mr Catterall," Whiteman said as he shook Catterall's hand. "May the coming years bring plenty of success for the England team under your stewardship."

 

Gregory then turned to his left and presented Catterall with a tall, slender woman in her early 30s. Sporting a blonde pixie haircut, her blue eyes and flawless smile were respectively bright and broad enough to light up Wembley.

 

"And this is Ava Leggett - she's the Director of Communications at the FA."

 

"Pleasure to meet you, Miss Leggett," Catterall said as he shook his new colleague's hand.

 

"Please, call me Ava," Leggett smiled.

 

"Well, I guess we should leave you two for a few minutes to get yourselves acquainted with one another," Whiteman said, as he and Gregory walked away, leaving Catterall and Leggett free to speak privately.

 

Leggett beamed, "I'm so honoured to be working with you, Mr Catterall..."

 

"Mark. Mark's fine. Or Catts."

 

"Okay then... Mark," Leggett laughed. "Yeah, I was gonna say that I grew up watching you on the telly. My dad's a massive Blackburn Rovers fan, and you and Chris Sutton were two of his favourite players."

 

"You don't sound like you're from Blackburn, though."

 

"Nah, I'm from Bury originally."

 

"Ah, so not far from Blackburn, then?"

 

"No, sorry, that's Bury St Edmunds - in Suffolk."

 

"I see," Catterall nodded. "Do you have any advice I could use before I go in front of the press?"

 

"The first piece of advice I can give you - and I'm sure this has been said thousands of times - is to be yourself."

 

"That's nice and simple," Catterall said, as he noticed his assistant manager Michael Burke walk over. "Hey there, Mick! How's it going?"

 

"I'm great, thanks, Catts!" Burke beamed as he hugged his best mate. "And that's some helpful advice you're getting there - 'be yourself'. That's easy, ain't it? It would be weally twicky to be wike Woy Hodgson, wouldn't it?"

 

Catterall raised a wry smile as Burke introduced himself to Leggett, "Michael Burke - I'm Mark's assistant."

 

"Good to meet you, Michael," Leggett said nervously before turning back towards Catterall. "But here's some more advice for you, Mark - don't make fun of your predecessors. It probably won't go down too well."

 

"Don't you worry about that, Ava," Catterall reassured her. "It'd be rich of me to make Postman Pat jokes about Fabio Capello when I basically look like Postman Pat's dad! Nah, but seriously, could I have some tips on how to handle the journos?"

 

Leggett obliged, giving the new manager a quick synopsis on some of the journalists who would be asking him questions.

 

"Mark Owens from the Daily Mirror is a passionate character who'll always push the tough questions on you. Adrian Pike from The Guardian likes to really drill into the detail and get as much information out of you as possible. Then you've got The Sun's chief football reporter. Russell Whiteman is always after the big headline..."

 

"Hold on," Burke interrupted. "Whiteman? He ain't related to the chief executive, is he?"

 

"Yeah, he's David's nephew, but he's not like him at all - he's very devious, and he can be quite vicious as well. I wouldn't ask David about him if I were you."

 

"Point taken," Catterall nodded. "Don't trust Russell Whiteman."

 

Leggett continued, "Oh yeah, and one more thing. If anyone asks you which of your players has the fittest girlfriend, don't be alarmed - they're from the BBC."

 

Gregory and Whiteman had now returned, with Gregory asking Catterall, "You almost ready, Mark?"

 

"I'm readier than ever, thanks to the wonderful Miss Leggett here."

 

Burke then patted Catterall on the back, saying, "Good luck, mate. You're gonna kill it."

Edited by CFuller

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On 7/2/2017 at 17:54, STFCDP1990 said:

I want more of this story, this is amazing so far!

Ask, and it shall be given you. :D

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***

 

At 4:00pm on 17 June 2016, Mark Catterall walked into a packed press room at Wembley Stadium for his formal unveiling as the new England manager. He was accompanied by the Football Association chairman Clark Gregory and Director of Communications Ava Leggett, both of whom would give short speeches before inviting the gathered journalists to pose their questions to the new manager.

 

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," Leggett began. "We've invited you all here to Wembley today to formally announce the appointment of Mark Catterall as the new England football team manager.

 

"Mark has signed an initial four-year contract with the Football Association, which will run until the conclusion of the 2020 UEFA European Championship. Mark will not only be in charge of the senior men's national team, but he will also have control over all men's age-group teams from the Under-19s upwards.

 

"I will now hand you over to the chairman of the FA - Clark Gregory. He will give a short speech explaining the FA board's decision to appoint Mark as manager, after which we will open the floor for questions. Thank you."

 

Gregory then put his reading glasses on as he reeled through a pre-planned speech, which began, "I'm not one for long-winded speeches, but I will say this. I am very pleased to be welcoming Mark Catterall as the first England manager I have appointed as FA chairman. We as the FA board interviewed a number of strong candidates for the job following Roy Hodgson's departure, but Mark stood out as the number 1 choice.

 

"As some of you may remember, Mark enjoyed a fruitful professional career in which he won 29 international caps for England and competed at two major tournaments. For the last four years, he has been contracted to the FA as head coach of the national Under-17s team, who have enjoyed consistent and steady success. We believe that this experience will stand us in good stead as we move forward into this new era for the national team.

 

"During the interview process, Mark specified that he wanted to oversee the management of all national teams from the Under-19s to the seniors. His reasoning behind this was that he felt it would bring the national team set-up closer together and give more talented England footballers the chance to fully progress through the age groups. We have agreed to this request and look forward to seeing the fruit of his labours over the coming years.

 

"While I fully understand why some England fans may be disappointed with this appointment, I would like to ask them to be patient. This is a long-term project where the aim is for long-term success. This is not a short-term fix.

 

"That's all I've got to say right now, so... Ava?"

 

"Thank you, Clark," Leggett nodded. "Mark will now be fielding questions from the press. For Mark's benefit, before you ask your first question, could you please state your name as well as the association you work for?"

 

Dozens of journalists from many leading newspapers, radio stations, websites - based in the United Kingdom as well as abroad - had descended upon Wembley for Catterall's unveiling. A select few of them were given permission to ask questions of the new manager, starting with Olivia Connolly - an online reporter for ESPN.

 

"Olivia Connolly, ESPN. Can you sum up your feelings today upon being announced as the new England manager?"

 

"Well, I'm of course very proud to be sitting here today in that role. I've had the honour of representing my country 29 times as a player, so to manage my country as well is just a dream come true. I'm aware that it's a huge responsibility too, so I'll have to show as much passion and determination off the pitch as I did on it."

 

"Managing a national football team comes with plenty of pressure to hit the ground running. Are you confident that you can get off to a strong start in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers and settle in quickly?"

 

"Put it this way - I wouldn't be sitting here if I didn't think I could get results immediately. We've got ourselves what looks like an easy qualifying group on paper, but we've got to be professional and get the results on the board. There've been times in the past where we've got complacent and ended up being caught out."

 

"Mark Owens, The Daily Mirror. Many England supporters will be shocked and surprised that a man with such limited management experience at club level has been promoted to the biggest job in English football. What can you say to reassure those who feel that you're not ready for this job?"

 

"I can understand why they would want a more experienced England manager, but the truth of the matter is that there weren't many candidates with that so-called experience. At the same time, I don't think managing in the Premier League is a pre-requisite for managing England, and certainly not if you've been part of the FA's coaching set-up for a while, like I have.

 

"International football is very different to club football. I know what it takes to get the best out of the best young footballers in this country, and I'm sure I can do the same at the higher levels."

 

"You've been placed in charge of all England teams from the Under-19s upwards. How exactly are you going to manage such a vast workload?"

 

"I'm a self-confessed workaholic. [Laughs] I always like to have something to do, so as long as my body can cope with the workload, then I won't have any problems.

 

"I'd rather not go into too much detail about how exactly I'll be managing the various England teams, as there are still a few details that need to be fine-tuned behind closed doors. Needless to say, I will - at the very least - be selecting all the squads for the seniors, the Under-21s and the Under-19s."

 

"Adrian Pike, The Guardian. Considering your track record with the England Under-17s team, can we safely assume that you'll be looking to integrate plenty of young talent into the senior England set-up going forward?"

 

"When it comes to football, I've always gone by the motif, 'If you're good enough, you're old enough'. If there are any good young English players who are playing well week-in week-out in the Premier League, then of course I'll give them chances."

 

"And have you decided who you want to be part of the coaching set-up for your England teams?"

 

"I've already decided that Michael Burke will be my assistant manager as far as the senior team is concerned. I've known Michael for a very long time, since we were schoolboys in Salford, and we've also worked together for a good few years. We make a pretty effective 'good cop, bad cop' partnership, but I'll leave it to you to guess which one's which!

 

"As for the rest of my set-up, I will discuss that with the FA over the coming days. I'll be speaking to a number of former England internationals about joining my team, and I'm hoping for some positive responses."

 

"Graham Wilson, FourFourTwo Magazine. There's been a lot of talk of players 'burning out' when on international duty. Will you be looking to develop a positive relationship with Premier League managers to try and prevent this from happening?"

 

"To be quite honest with you, I think this 'burn-out' talk is a load of rubbish. Today's players earn more money in a week than what most honest people earn in a year, so I don't want to hear any of them complaining about 'burn-out'. We wouldn't be hearing any of this if they kept themselves in the best physical shape at all times.

 

"In terms of my relationship with club managers... I'm here to pick the strongest England team possible for every game, and I don't care if I get up a few managers' backs. Your country should always come before your club."

 

"Ollie Benjamin, Sky Sports News. Wayne Rooney has been a key part of the England team for 13 years now, but his recent performances for club and country have been criticised by many. Do you intend to keep him in the squad, or will you be looking at other options?"

 

"I'd be lying if I said that I'd be building my team around Wayne Rooney, because there's a lot more talent in this team besides him. That said, you can't ignore the vast experience he brings to the table."

 

"And can you confirm whether or not Wayne Rooney will still be the England captain for the World Cup qualifiers?"

 

"Yes, he'll probably be staying around for one more tournament cycle, before the England leadership moves on to the next generation."

 

"Scott Davidson, BBC Radio 5 Live. Sam Cooke, Kate Goodland, Coleen Rooney - shag, marry, kill?"

 

"Next question!"

 

The final journalist invited to ask Catterall questions was Russell Whiteman - The Sun's chief football reporter, who had over three decades of experience in his field. Leggett had warned Catterall beforehand that Whiteman was potentially a conniving headline-seeker.

 

"Russell Whiteman, The Sun. When you pick your squad, will you be selecting players based on club form or on previous experience at international level?

 

"I will never pick a player simply on reputation. If they're playing regularly in a top division and their performances are strong enough, then of course I'll pick them. But if they're sitting on the bench all the time or they're slacking, then nobody's exempt from being dropped. Not even Wayne Rooney."

 

"There's no job like the England job when it comes to international football, with such high expectations from the media and the public in general. Indeed, some say that there's so much pressure to succeed that it's an 'impossible job' to succeed in. Can you buck the trend?"

 

"You might call it an impossible job, Russell, but I'd like to think that I'm an impossible man."

 

The answer to that final question provided the headline moment for Whiteman. The Sun's front page for the following day dubbed Catterall as "THE IMPOSSIBLE MAN" - a moniker that would be sure to stick with the new England boss throughout his tenure.

 

Writing an opinion piece in The Sun, a sceptical Whiteman wrote, "Catterall is a crackpot coach who buys toasters on his first day at work and calls himself the 'Impossible Man'. You must fear that the chances of England winning any major trophies under his management are just as remote.

 

"To be fair, it's doubtful that England will ever become good at football again until we build the technology to bring Sir Alf Ramsey back from the dead. I live in hope for that day."

 

***

 

Following his public unveiling as the new England manager, Mark Catterall put in motion his plans to assemble a crack team of coaches for the Three Lions' senior, Under-21s and Under-19s squads.

 

Catterall's main focus was - of course - the senior England side, so he was determined that the coaches who would assist him with that team were among the most accomplished this country had to offer. That meant he'd throw out much of the dead wood from Roy Hodgson's reign, and then use his vast array of contacts to bring in as many former internationals as possible.

 

Assistant boss Ray Lewington left his role as soon as Hodgson resigned, while coach Gary Neville also quit to focus on his punditry role with Sky Sports. Following them through the exit door were goalkeeping coach David Watson and physiotherapist Gary Lewin, who were both dismissed from their posts.

 

Other casualties included - for obvious reasons - Under-21s manager Gareth Southgate and Under-19s boss Adrian Boothroyd. Southgate's departure midway through a European Championship qualification campaign was regrettable, but Catterall was not a fan of Boothroyd's long-ball tactics and did not think he was the right man to coach the next generation of prospective England footballers.

 

The new assistant manager of the main England team was Catterall's best friend and long-time sidekick Michael Burke, who had a grand total of zero caps for his country. However, the other senior coaches that were brought in all had plenty of international experience on their CVs.

 

The big headline appointment was that of Glenn Hoddle - a former England manager, no less - as tactical coach. He had been infamously fired from the top job in 1999 after suggesting that disabled people were paying retribution for sins in past lives. 17 years later, while witnessing England's sorry European Championship capitulation as a pundit for ITV, Hoddle suggested that he was open to rejoining the England set-up in some capacity if asked to.

 

Catterall had played under Hoddle for both England and Wolverhampton Wanderers and regarded him not just as a mentor, but also as a close friend. Although the Football Association had serious concerns about rehiring the now 58-year-old Hoddle, Catterall reassured them that a man with his expertise would make him an invaluable addition to the England coaching staff.

 

Hoddle won 53 England caps during his playing career. David Platt had won 62, so it was no surprise that Catterall offered a job to his fellow Lancastrian ex-midfielder. 50-year-old Platt - who had most recently managed Pune City in India - would primarily be in charge of attacking and technical coaching.

 

The most experienced man on the new-look England coaching team, though, was Ray Wilkins - a former captain, and a veteran of 84 international games. 'Butch' wasn't intended to work with the senior squad at first, as Catterall had initially offered the 59-year-old a different role. The conversation went like this:

 

"How would you feel about assisting me with the Under-19s squad, Ray?"

 

"I really don't know, Catts. I haven't been too great health-wise of late, so I'd like to take on a role that would be rather less stressful and not so hands-on."

 

"Okay... would you like to coach the senior team defenders instead, and turn them into something closely resembling a cohesive unit?"

 

"Sure, why not?"

 

Former striker Teddy Sheringham was offered the opportunity to join the England staff as well. However, he respectfully turned the offer down to spend more time with his latest 20-something mistress, who would dump him a few months later for Jamie O'Hara - the ex-Tottenham midfielder and future star of 'Celebrity Big Brother'.

 

England's new goalkeeping coach would be Tim Flowers, who represented his country 11 times during the 1990s. The 49-year-old would combine his national team role with his full-time job as the goalkeeping coach at Championship club Fulham.

 

Fitness coach Chris Neville remained in place from the previous regime, so all that was left to do - with regards to the senior team - was appoint a couple of physiotherapists. David Fevre, who'd previously worked at Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers, and current Arsenal physio James Haycock were both hired by the FA at Catterall's request.

 

Although the Under-21s team's coaching set-up - which included one-time England defender Colin Cooper - was already in place, the Under-19s needed particular attention, so that was where Catterall looked to make his next appointments.

 

Having recently announced his retirement from playing at the age of 38, Chelsea and England legend Frank Lampard had been sounded out for a coaching role within the FA. Lampard accepted Catterall's offer to join his Under-19s set-up, where he would work alongside Mark Beeney - the goalkeeping coach at Chelsea's youth academy - and former Three Lions and Tottenham defender Ledley King.

 

Although Catterall was officially the manager of three England national teams, he wouldn't be able to personally attend all of the Under-21s' and Under-19s' matches, especially not if he was on duty with the senior side. He therefore needed a couple of assistant managers who would act as his 'eyes and ears' for the two age-group squads.

 

After days of negotiations with several candidates, Catterall eventually agreed on a new head coach for England's Under-21s. The man in question was David Byrne - that's the erstwhile caretaker manager at Swindon Town, not the former lead singer of Talking Heads.

 

The appointment of the new England Under-19s head coach was arguably even more surprising. At just 27 years of age, Matthew Wells would oversee the development of the country's best young teenage talents. Wells had been recommended to the FA by King, who was working alongside him with Tottenham's development squad.

 

Catterall planned to watch most of the Under-21s' and Under-19s' matches online, with live footage being streamed to a top-of-the-range custom-built laptop. While matches were taking place, he would be in constant dialogue with Byrne or Wells, giving them any relevant tactical advice via instant messaging.

 

This plan was particularly controversial, but Catterall sought - and received - clarification from FIFA and UEFA that it didn't contravene any of their rules. Indeed, the new England manager's plan was described by FIFA President Gianni Infantino as "very original", and added, "The year is 2016, so why should you not take a new approach with technology?"

 

On occasion, the Under-21s and the Under-19s would play their matches not only on the same day, but also at the same time. Not even Catterall could watch two matches at once, but he'd already planned for this eventuality. In such a scenario, if Catterall couldn't attend either match, he would oversee the Under-21s on one laptop, and his assistant Burke would do likewise for the Under-19s on another laptop.

 

As far as anyone was aware, no manager in the history of international football had gone to such lengths - logistically or technologically - to control every aspect of their national team (or teams, in this case).

 

Some in the media had expressed concern that Catterall was perhaps going to burn himself out by doing so much work. Indeed, when he first heard of his new manager's grand plan, FA chairman Clark Gregory responded, "You must be absolutely crackers! I don't doubt your ambition, lad, but this could easily get you into an early grave!"

 

Chief executive David Whiteman was more supportive of the idea, saying, "I find it commendable that a young England manager is willing to embrace this new technology and use it as much as possible in an effort to produce better results.

 

"Even though I am from the same generation as his predecessor, I found Roy Hodgson's approach to management be a bit too... what's that phrase the youngsters use nowadays? Old-school, that's the one!"

 

Gregory eventually came round to Catterall's way of thinking and formally approved his 'remote management' plan. He would later tell one of his advisers, "This is the most audacious thing an England manager has ever attempted - and Graham Taylor once tried to turn Carlton Palmer into an international footballer!"

Edited by CFuller

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EDITOR'S NOTES: Just to further clarify, I will indeed be managing the England senior, Under-21s and Under-19s teams (plus any other England teams on occasion) throughout this save. I will oversee the selection of all squads and will manage all matches. The 'head coaches' of the Under-21s and Under-19s teams are essentially just assistant managers with fancier titles.

Admittedly, this does sound like a similar premise to neilhoskins77's excellent Kyrgyzstan story "The Impossible Dream", but I'd actually been planning to do something like this for some time before Neil's story saw the light of day. My last long-term England save was way back in CM99/00, when I managed the B team and Under-21s as well as the main side. I wanted to replicate that on a rather grander scale.

If you have any feedback on how I've formatted the story so far, please feel free to share it. I've tried to condense the first three chapters into as few replies as possible, but if you feel that they should be spaced out a bit more (i.e. one story section per reply instead of the current two sections per reply), then I'll take that on board.

I promise that the match action will begin in Chapter 4, which should be coming around over the next week or so.

Edited by CFuller

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45 minutes ago, CFuller said:

Gregory eventually came round to Catterall's way of thinking and formally approved his 'remote management' plan. He would later tell one of his advisers, "This is the most audacious thing an England manager has ever attempted - and Graham Taylor once tried to turn Carlton Palmer into an international footballer!"

You owe me a new keyboard.

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Sounds like Mark will have his work cut out winning over the press before he even gets started Chris.

Thanks for the kind words about my story, I hope you find managing several levels of England teams as interesting and rewarding as I have with Kyrgyzstan. I will, of course, be following this one. Best of luck.

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On 7/4/2017 at 22:56, ChileanRanger said:

You owe me a new keyboard.

Only if you pay postage & packaging. Or sit through this television masterpiece:D

On 7/5/2017 at 00:36, neilhoskins77 said:

Sounds like Mark will have his work cut out winning over the press before he even gets started Chris.

Thanks for the kind words about my story, I hope you find managing several levels of England teams as interesting and rewarding as I have with Kyrgyzstan. I will, of course, be following this one. Best of luck.

That's why they call it the impossible job, Neil. There will always be a lot of scepticism amongst the tabloid press when it comes to England, even if we get to the World Cup Final (yeah, that's bloomin' likely).

Regarding your story, you're very welcome, and I'll once again say how sad I am that it's ended so prematurely.

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Chapter 4 - A New Hope

 

Mark Catterall was a very busy man in August 2016. As the new Premier League season got underway, the new England manager took in several live games, and watched hours of television footage, as he ran the rule over scores of potential national team players.

 

Any international manager would find it hard enough to name one squad of 23 players, especially in a country with as large a talent pool as England. Catterall's task was triply difficult, as he had to name three squads containing a grand total of 69 players - 23 each for the senior team, the Under-21s, and the Under-19s.

 

The main England team would play their first match of this new era on 31 August, with a home friendly against the Netherlands at Wembley. Four days later, they would open their FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign with what was likely to be their easiest fixture, at home to Malta.

 

England were the top seeds in Group 6, which also included Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta... and a bonnie wee team from north of the border. Scotland, along with the Slovaks, were likely to provide the strongest threats to the Three Lions' qualification hopes. That said, only the group winners going through automatically to Russia 2018, there wouldn't be much provision for mistakes.

 

The Under-21s had even less room for manoeuvre. They were midway through their qualifiers for the 2017 European Championship and, despite being unbeaten, were a couple of points adrift of group leaders Italy. The group winners would advance automatically to the finals in Poland, but only the four best runners-up across the nine groups would get a second chance to qualify via the play-offs.

 

As for the Under-19s, the qualifying groups for their annual European Championship wouldn't yet been drawn until September, and the first matches would be played in October. England needed to get through two group stages in order to reach this season's finals, where only seven nations would earn the right to compete alongside host nation Georgia.

 

Catterall's deadline to name his first England squads was on 24 August. It was originally intended that the squads would be announced one by one - the Under-19s at 12:00pm, the Under-21s at 1:00pm, and then the main team at 2:00pm.

 

However, Catterall took longer than anticipated to finalise his squads, which he would eventually release on 6:00pm - and all at the same time.

 

ENGLAND squad - for matches vs Netherlands (H) and Malta (H)

NAME                      POSITIONS           D.O.B. (AGE)     CLUB            CAPS  GOALS HEIGHT WEIGHT     VALUE
Fraser Forster            GK                  17/03/1988 (28)  Southampton     6     0     6'7"   15st 8lbs  £13.25M 
Joe Hart                  GK                  19/04/1987 (29)  Torino          63    0     6'5"   12st 10lbs £20.5M  
Tom Heaton                GK                  15/04/1986 (30)  Burnley         1     0     6'2"   13st 7lbs  £10M    
Phil Jones                D (RC)              21/02/1992 (24)  Man Utd         20    0     6'1"   11st 4lbs  £18.25M 
John Stones               D (RC)              28/05/1994 (22)  Man City        10    0     6'2"   12st 1lb   £28.5M  
Eric Dier                 D (RC), DM, M (C)   15/01/1994 (22)  Tottenham       11    2     6'2"   13st 7lbs  £31M    
Gary Cahill               D (C)               19/12/1985 (30)  Chelsea         47    3     6'4"   13st 7lbs  £5.75M  
Chris Smalling            D (C)               22/11/1989 (26)  Man Utd         29    1     6'4"   14st 2lbs  £27.5M  
Nathaniel Clyne           D/WB (R)            05/04/1991 (25)  Liverpool       13    0     5'9"   10st 7lbs  £19.25M 
Kyle Walker               D/WB (R)            28/05/1990 (26)  Tottenham       19    0     6'0"   11st 9lbs  £22.5M  
Luke Shaw                 D/WB (L)            12/07/1995 (21)  Man Utd         6     0     6'1"   11st 11lbs £12.5M  
Danny Rose                D/WB/M (L)          02/07/1990 (26)  Tottenham       7     0     5'8"   11st 6lbs  £20M    
Jordan Henderson          DM, M (C)           17/06/1990 (26)  Liverpool       27    0     6'0"   10st 7lbs  £29.5M  
Jesse Lingard             M (RL), AM (RLC)    15/12/1992 (23)  Man Utd         0     0     5'6"   10st 3lbs  £32.5M  
Raheem Sterling           M (L), AM (RLC)     08/12/1994 (21)  Man City        26    2     5'7"   10st 12lbs £30.5M  
Michail Antonio           M/AM (RL)           28/03/1990 (26)  West Ham        0     0     5'11"  12st 12lbs £22M    
Demarai Gray              M/AM (RL)           28/06/1996 (20)  Leicester       0     0     5'10"  12st 3lbs  £13M    
Adam Lallana              M/AM (RLC)          10/05/1988 (28)  Liverpool       26    0     5'8"   11st 6lbs  £28M    
Dele Alli                 M/AM (C)            11/04/1996 (20)  Tottenham       12    1     6'1"   12st 1lb   £31.5M  
Wayne Rooney              M/AM (C), ST (C)    24/10/1985 (30)  Man Utd         115   53    5'10"  12st 3lbs  £13.25M 
Troy Deeney               ST (C)              29/06/1988 (28)  Watford         0     0     5'11"  14st 2lbs  £22.5M  
Harry Kane                ST (C)              28/07/1993 (23)  Tottenham       16    5     6'3"   13st 0lbs  £34.5M  
Daniel Sturridge          ST (C)              01/09/1989 (26)  Liverpool       21    6     6'0"   12st 6lbs  £35M    

 

Catterall had few major injury concerns when he came to pick his first senior England squad. Stoke City goalkeeper Jack Butland and Arsenal forward Danny Welbeck - both out with long-term injuries - were the only two enforced absentees who could've realistically expected to get into the squad had they been fit.

 

Liverpool's versatile veteran James Milner, who'd won 61 caps for the Three Lions, had ruled himself out of contention after announcing his retirement from international football aged 30. Five other members of Roy Hodgson's squad for UEFA Euro 2016 - Ryan Bertrand, Ross Barkley, Marcus Rashford, Jamie Vardy and Jack Wilshere - were dropped by Catterall.

 

There was a slight doubt over the fitness of Eric Dier, who dislocated his jaw whilst playing for Tottenham Hotspur in pre-season. The ball-winning midfielder and sometime centre-half had missed both of Spurs' opening two Premier League fixtures but was still given the go-ahead to play for England.

 

Meanwhile, eyebrows were raised at the inclusion of no fewer than four uncapped outfield players. The biggest shock was that Leicester City winger Demarai Gray - aged 20, and with only one England Under-21s caps to his name - had been fast-tracked into the senior set-up. Birmingham-born Gray had enjoyed a promising start to the season, scoring one goal and creating another in the PL champions' first two games under new head coach Şenol Güneş.

 

Another interesting selection was that of another Brummie - Troy Deeney, who'd already scored five goals for Watford this term and fired the Hornets straight to the top of the table. Deeney had been seen as a potential wildcard pick for Euro 2016, but he would now get the chance to show his international credentials under Catterall.

 

Michail Antonio and Jesse Lingard were the other two squad members who had yet to play for England at the highest levels. The wingers were beneficiaries of Arsenal's awful start to the season, which had prompted Catterall to leave both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott out of his original team.

 

ENGLAND UNDER-21s squad - for matches vs Italy (A) and Kazakhstan (A)

NAME                      POSITIONS           D.O.B. (AGE)     CLUB            CAPS  GOALS HEIGHT WEIGHT     VALUE
Jordan Pickford           GK                  07/03/1994 (22)  Sunderland      9     0     6'2"   12st 1lb   £7.5M   
Joe Wildsmith             GK                  28/12/1995 (20)  Sheff Wed       1     0     6'0"   10st 3lbs  £1.1M   
Freddie Woodman           GK                  04/03/1997 (19)  Kilmarnock      0     0     6'1"   10st 12lbs £425K   
Kyle Walker-Peters        D (RL)              13/04/1997 (19)  Preston         0     0     5'6"   9st 12lbs  £2M     
Joe Gomez                 D (RLC)             23/05/1997 (19)  Liverpool       3     0     6'2"   13st 9lbs  £6.75M  
Calum Chambers            D (RC)              20/01/1995 (21)  Middlesbrough   14    0     6'0"   11st 6lbs  £9M     
Mason Holgate             D (RC)              22/10/1996 (19)  Everton         0     0     5'11"  11st 13lbs £9.5M   
Ben Chilwell              D (LC), WB (L)      21/12/1996 (19)  Leicester       2     0     5'10"  11st 13lbs £5M     
Brendan Galloway          D (LC), DM          17/03/1996 (20)  West Brom       0     0     6'2"   13st 9lbs  £6.5M   
Rob Holding               D (C)               20/09/1995 (20)  Arsenal         2     0     6'2"   13st 0lbs  £6.5M   
Isaac Hayden              D (C), DM, M (C)    22/03/1995 (21)  Newcastle       0     0     6'2"   12st 6lbs  £7.25M  
Matthew Targett           D/WB (L)            18/09/1995 (20)  Southampton     11    0     6'0"   12st 10lbs £6M     
Will Hughes               DM, M/AM (C)        17/04/1995 (21)  Derby           17    1     6'1"   11st 9lbs  £10.5M  
Ruben Loftus-Cheek        DM, M/AM (C)        23/01/1996 (20)  Chelsea         13    4     6'3"   13st 7lbs  £6M     
Jacob Murphy              M (R), AM (RL)      24/02/1995 (21)  Norwich         1     0     5'9"   11st 2lbs  £9.75M  
Jack Grealish             M (RL), AM (RLC)    10/09/1995 (20)  Aston Villa     4     2     5'10"  10st 1lb   £7.5M   
Patrick Roberts           M (RL), AM (RLC)    05/02/1997 (19)  Celtic          0     0     5'6"   9st 1lb    £5.5M   
Nathan Redmond            M/AM (RL), ST (C)   06/03/1994 (22)  Southampton     29    10    5'8"   11st 11lbs £14M    
James Ward-Prowse         M/AM (RC)           01/11/1994 (21)  Southampton     23    6     5'8"   10st 5lbs  £12M    
Joshua Onomah             M/AM (C)            27/04/1997 (19)  Tottenham       0     0     6'0"   12st 10lbs £7.25M  
Tammy Abraham             AM (R), ST (C)      02/10/1997 (18)  Bristol City    0     0     6'4"   12st 10lbs £7.25M  
Dominic Solanke           AM (RL), ST (C)     14/09/1997 (18)  Burnley         3     0     6'2"   12st 10lbs £2.4M   
Marcus Rashford           AM (L), ST (C)      31/10/1997 (18)  Man Utd         0     0     5'11"  11st 6lbs  £32.5M  

 

Some in the media had expressed surprise that Marcus Rashford had been dropped to the Under-21s, despite a very promising start to his senior England career. Catterall explained that he wanted to take things slow with the Manchester United wonderkid, and that he would be best served honing his skills with the 'development squad' before rejoining the big boys.

 

Rashford's rise to prominence earlier in 2016 had been so sudden that he hadn't even made his debut for England Under-21s before Hodgson took him to France for the Euros. He was one of nine players picked in this Under-21s squad who hadn't yet played international football at that level.

 

Another Under-21s rookie was Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham, who was spending the season on loan with Championship side Bristol City. A lot was expected of Everton centre-half Brendan Galloway and Manchester City inside-forward Patrick Roberts - two more players who'd been loaned out for additional first-team experience.

 

Like Rashford, defender Calum Chambers - on loan at Middlesbrough from Arsenal - had earned full international honours before dropping back down. Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was strongly tipped to break into the senior team in the near-future, as were Southampton duo Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse.

 

ENGLAND UNDER-19s squad - for matches vs Netherlands (H) and France (A)

GOALKEEPERS: Daniel Grimshaw (Man City), Mathew Hudson (Preston), Will Mannion (Hull)

DEFENDERS: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Ben Godfrey (Norwich), Cameron Humphreys (Man City), Reece Oxford (Reading), Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham), Josh Tymon (Hull), Jack Vann (Leeds), Ro-Shaun Williams (Man Utd)

MIDFIELDERS: Tom Davies (Everton), Andre Dozzell (Ipswich), Marcus Edwards (Tottenham), Sam Field (Cardiff), Andre Green (Aston Villa), Nathan Holland (West Ham), Jonathan Leko (West Brom), Reiss Nelson (Arsenal), Ben Sheaf (Inverness CT)

FORWARDS: Niall Ennis (Wolves), Bright Enobakhare (Oxford), Stephy Mavididi (Charlton)

 

As previously mentioned, the Under-19s wouldn't play any competitive fixtures until later in the year. In the meantime, they would start off the season with a couple of friendly matches - against the Netherlands in Crewe, and then away to defending European champions France.

 

Three of the players selected in this squad had already played in the Premier League - Jonathan Leko for West Bromwich Albion, Reece Oxford for West Ham United, and most recently Tom Davies for Everton. Another noteworthy name in the side was Fulham's 16-year-old left-back Ryan Sessegnon - the first player born during the 2000s to receive an England Under-19s call-up.

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***

 

Generally, elite international footballers start their careers at top clubs and come to prominence at a young age. You couldn't say that about two of the newest faces in Mark Catterall's maiden England squad. Michail Antonio and Troy Deeney had both needed to work their way up the footballing pyramid before finally being called up to the national team midway through their careers.

 

Antonio's international career began at Tooting & Mitcham United - a non-league club near his hometown in Wandsworth, south-west London. The budding winger was picked up by Reading in 2008, when he was aged 18. After a couple of loan spells at lower-league teams, he eventually found his feet with the Royals at Championship level.

 

Successful stints at a couple more second-tier clubs - Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest - followed before West Ham United brought Antonio into the Premier League in August 2015. With his explosive pace, it wasn't long before he became a regular at West Ham and attracted interest from the Jamaica national team. However, he turned down the Reggae Boyz and waited for a first England call-up, which Catterall granted him just 12 months after his PL debut.

 

Another late-bloomer who'd broken into the England set-up was Watford striker Deeney. He'd also started out in the non-league system, playing for Chelmsley Town in the West Midlands until the age of 18, when he signed professional forms with Walsall.

 

Deeney spent four years at Walsall, emerging as a first-team regular in 2009. He was the Saddlers' top scorer in the 2009/2010 season, after which the then 22-year-old was bought by Championship outfit Watford. After two steady if unspectacular seasons at Vicarage Road, his career threatened to fall apart.

 

One day in February 2012, Deeney found out that his father - who'd walked out on his mother when he was 11 - had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The following evening, Troy went out with his brother Ellis and two friends to Birmingham city centre, where they assaulted a group of students. One of the victims received repeated blows to the head while they were lying injured on the ground.

 

Deeney was sentenced to 10 months' imprisonment for affray in June 2012. He was released after serving less than three. Though Watford would not condone Deeney's actions, they would stand by him throughout his sentence.

 

To Deeney's credit, he immediately showed remorse and completely turned his professional and personal life around upon his release from prison. He got back into the Watford team, eventually becoming the captain, and was in free-scoring form as the Hornets won promotion to the Premier League in 2015. He then scored 13 goals during Watford's first season back in the top flight, helping them on their way to battling off relegation.

 

Deeney opened the 2016/2017 campaign with five goals in Watford's first two matches, thus attracting Catterall's attention. He then celebrated his first England call-up by scoring another goal in the Hornets' next game at Chelsea.

 

International stardom was beckoning for Deeney... until, in the 78th minute, he was the victim of an absolutely appalling tackle from Blues wing-back Marcos Alonso. The Spaniard went through the back of Deeney with both feet, leaving him in crippling pain. Alonso was sent off and would receive a lengthy suspension from the FA, but Deeney came off far worse - he'd fractured a couple of bones in his back.

 

Having been on the cusp of playing his first game for England, 28-year-old Deeney was now fearing that he might never play again. He was heartbroken to withdraw from Catterall's squad, and his place was given to another uncapped West Midlander who'd recently emerged as a leading Premier League striker.

 

Callum Wilson had himself recovered from a serious injury, missing most of AFC Bournemouth's first top-flight season in 2015/2016 after damaging his cruciate ligaments in September. The now 24-year-old bounced back early on in this campaign, notching up four goals in three games for the Cherries. That wasn't bad going for someone who'd been bought for just £2.5million from his hometown club Coventry City two years earlier.

 

Wilson was now in the senior England team, and one of his Bournemouth colleagues would also benefit from an injury in the England Under-21s set-up. 20-year-old right-winger Jordon Ibe had been called up to replace Nathan Redmond in that squad after the Southampton wideman sprained his ankle against West Ham United.

 

Thankfully, Deeney's and Redmond's injuries were the only ones Catterall would have to worry about before his England reign began in earnest.

 

***

 

Mark Catterall's first day of training as England manager had arrived. He was at St George's Park in Burton-upon-Trent, which was the training base for all England national teams from the Under-16s upwards.

 

Catterall's main concern was, of course, the main England team. Among those who would work alongside him on the senior coaching staff were Tim Flowers, Glenn Hoddle, David Platt, Ray Wilkins, and his trusty assistant Michael Burke.

 

As he looked over the impeccable green pitches before the imminent arrival of his players, Catterall said, "It's a beautiful sight, ain't it? Just like the first day at Wimbledon."

 

"Give it a week with these long-ball merchants and it'll look more like a Cliff Richard concert at Wimbledon," Burke cheekily replied, bringing a smile to Catterall's face.

 

Catterall then turned to attacking coach Platt, who appeared weary-eyed. He asked, "You alright, David? You look a bit tired already."

 

"Nah, that's just how he usually looks!" Burke attempted another witty riposte, though this one fell rather flat.

 

"Sorry, Mark," Platt said drearily. "I was up all night going over my training routine plans. I wasn't sure whether our players should be practicing free-kicks for 22 minutes a day or 24 minutes. I then decided to meet myself halfway and go with 23 minutes."

 

"Fascinating," Catterall responded, in a deadpan manner.

 

"And while I was at it, I was doing some research into the sandwiches they serve at the canteen. Apparently, when it comes to ham sandwiches and cheese sandwiches..."

 

"David, can that wait until a bit later? The players are heading over now."

 

Hoddle then asked, "Mark, can I have a quick word? About faith..."

 

"No, Glenn, with all due respect, I won't have any of this faith-healing nonsense - and I don't care how good a reference you have on Eileen Drewery!"

 

Catterall and his coaches then looked on - with everyone except the manager himself smiling - as the senior players, headed by captain Wayne Rooney, regimentally walked towards them before standing to attention.

 

Catterall then addressed his team, "Good morning, gentlemen. Before we get started... I'm sure you'll know about these fine blokes to my left. They're all renowned coaches, and England legends to boot."

 

"And me - a Man City has-been who snapped his leg in half before he was 21," Burke pointed out.

 

"That's Michael Burke - my assistant manager, and a great friend of mine for nearly 40 years. Michael's always ready with a one-liner or two when he's in a good mood, but you won't want to make him angry. You certainly won't want to make ME angry either."

 

As some players said their hellos to Burke, Catterall continued, "David, Tim, Butch, Glenn... none of them really need an introduction, but what about me? Do any of you know who I am?"

 

"You're Mark Catterall - a Blackburn Rovers legend," came the enthused response from Manchester United defender Phil Jones, who had started his career at Blackburn before moving to Old Trafford in 2011.

 

"You coached the England Under-17s, didn't you?" asked Leicester City winger Demarai Gray - the youngest and least experienced member of this England squad at 20 years old.

 

"Oh yeah, and some of us older ones will remember... ahem... France '98," first-choice goalkeeper Joe Hart - on loan at Serie A side Torino from Manchester City - said sheepishly. An awkward silence followed.

 

"Yes, of course," Catterall replied. "But I want you lot to forget that. Forget about everything I've done in the past - playing-wise, coaching-wise, the lot. Also, forget about everything you've done with England up to this point.

 

"We're here now to begin a new era for England football. We are going to turn you into a proper team that always stays together, always sticks to its guns, and never gives up, not even under pressure. We will make you winners."

 

Captain Rooney nodded before replying in his typical Liverpudlian twang, "Sounds boss, gaffer."

 

"Boss is fine, but you can call me what you like," Catterall said. "So long as it's not MasterChef!"

 

Catterall and his coaches would put the England players through their paces for the best part of the next three hours. Meanwhile, the manager was weighing up whether Rooney should retain the captaincy, and also who should be vice-skipper. Defensive coach Wilkins, who had himself captained the Three Lions on 10 occasions in the 1980s, popped over to the sidelines to give Catterall a few pointers.

 

"You want a new vice-captain? I reckon young Gary [Cahill] there would be a great choice. He's been part of the team longer than most players, and he'll always give you 100% commitment."

 

Catterall was unconvinced about the 30-year-old defender's captaincy credentials. He asked Wilkins, "Who are the two Chelsea captains right now?"

 

"John Terry and David Luiz, obviously," came the assertive reply from Wilkins, who'd enjoyed a long association with Chelsea as a player and later as a coach.

 

"So Cahill's not even the vice-captain of the team who finished 10th last season, yet you think he should lead the England team if anything happens to Rooney. Can you see what the problem is here?"

 

"Well, he was Roy's vice-captain at the Euros."

 

"I'm not Roy Hodgson, though, and I don't want to be like him either. I need to stamp my own mark on this England team. I need to pick my own captains on merit."

 

Wilkins had another option. "What about young Hart? He's got just what you need - a good head, a good attitude, and he can lead from the back. Joe could be our number 1 keeper for a good few tournaments yet, so... why not make him our number 2 captain?"

 

Catterall smirked before replying, "Butch, Hart's got the same problem! He doesn't have enough experience of captaining a side at club level.

 

"You know what? I challenge you, Ray, to name Torino's captain and their vice-captain. You've got five seconds."

 

Wilkins hesitated on this question before shrugging his shoulders, as if to say he had no clue whatsoever. That was when Platt answered affirmatively, "Emiliano Moretti and Mirko Valdifiori."

 

As Wilkins and Catterall turned towards Platt with looks of astonishment etched on their faces, the former Sampdoria midfielder and manager told them, "I know a bit about Italian football. After all, I did win the Coppa Italia in 1994."

 

Catterall nodded approvingly before saying, "You know, I think I've found the right man for this job."

 

The new England manager informed the team about his captaincy plans once training had finished for the day.

 

"I've been watching all of you keenly, looking for the right men to lead this England team into the World Cup qualifiers, and hopefully into the World Cup itself," he began. "I've been impressed by the leadership qualities some of the more senior members in this squad have shown, and I won't hesitate to give you the captaincy if and when I have to.

 

"However, what I will say right now is this. Wayne, you will still be the main captain."

 

Rooney pumped his fist in delight to a round of somewhat muted applause. The 30-year-old Manchester United forward had not enjoyed the best of form since replacing Steven Gerrard as England skipper in 2014. Nevertheless, he was the Three Lions' record international goalscorer, and he was also 10 appearances away from matching Peter Shilton's record of 125 England caps. He still had plenty more to give to this team.

 

Catterall then said, "I also want a younger vice-captain who can step into Wayne's shoes when the time is right. That's why I've decided that Jordan Henderson will be our new vice-captain."

 

Liverpool midfielder Henderson was shocked but delighted to hear this news, which was greeted by cheers from his Anfield team-mates Nathaniel Clyne, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge. The 26-year-old from Sunderland had skippered Liverpool with aplomb since Gerrard left the club in 2015, though he had never previously led his country out as captain. This would be quite a big step up for a young man who was now coming into his sporting prime.

 

The first day of England training was now complete, and Catterall had won over some of his more sceptical players. He would soon discover just how much they believed in him and his grand plans.

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***

 

After overseeing the first three days of training with the senior team, Mark Catterall made the short trip to Crewe in Cheshire. It was at the Alexandra Stadium where he would take charge of an England side for the first time since being placed in charge of all national teams from the Under-19s upwards.

 

Of course, this wouldn't be the first time that Catterall had managed England at any level. He'd enjoyed reasonable success with the Under-17s between 2012 and 2016, but the challenges facing the 44-year-old Lancastrian would arguably be even greater than those he'd encountered before.

 

It was the Under-19s who kicked off Catterall's revolution with a friendly against the best teenage talents from the Netherlands. The Dutch had a reputation for punching well above their weight when it came to developing top-quality footballers, so this was sure to be a major test for England.

 

To be fair, the Young Lions looked unfazed early on. After just three minutes, midfielder Ben Sheaf struck an excellent half-volley that was clawed behind by Dutch goalkeeper Mike van de Meulenhof.

 

England had several more opportunities to take the lead later in the first period, but they largely went to waste. Aston Villa's inside-forward Andre Green was particularly wasteful, as was lone striker Niall Ennis, who played for the Villans' Midlands rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers.

 

After another England attack fizzled out in the 41st minute, they were opened up by an incisive Dutch counter-attack. Midfielder Ferdi Kadioglu fired a long ball over their defence and to his NEC Nijmegen team-mate Jay-Roy Grot, who went clean through on goal. Though Grot's shot was stopped by Will Mannion, the England goalkeeper was unable to prevent Mitchell van Bergen from drilling in the rebound.

 

Grot would also be heavily involved in the Netherlands' second goal, which was scored seven minutes into the second half. After tackling the ball off England defender Jack Vann, Grot threaded it through to PSV midfielder Kenneth Paal, who thrashed an unstoppable strike into the top corner.

 

The Young Lions were now at real risk of getting swamped, and Steven Bergwijn - another PSV prospect - had chances to send them 3-0 behind later on. Mannion did well to push away one particularly threatening effort in the 74th minute.

 

With 15 minutes to go, and Ennis still no closer to getting on the scoresheet, Catterall replaced him with his Wolves team-mate Bright Enobakhare, who was on loan at Oxford United. Just three minutes after his introduction, the Nigerian-born frontman latched onto a flick-on from Stephy Mavididi and drove it home. At 2-1, the game was alive again.

 

England pushed for a late equaliser, and they went agonisingly close to getting it in the 80th minute. Right-winger Nathan Holland managed to drill a shot past Jurrian Jouvenaar, but not past the Netherlands substitute keeper's right-hand post, which deflected it away from goal. Dutch captain Hidde ter Avest then cleared the ball into touch, and England wouldn't go close again.

 

Catterall's first match had ended in an admirable defeat to what he admitted was very strong opposition. After commiserating his unfortunate players, and their head coach Matthew Wells, the new manager returned home to get some much-needed rest before his next match. In less than 24 hours' time, he would get his first opportunity to lead the senior team out onto the hallowed turf at Wembley Stadium.

 

30 August 2016: Under-19s International - at Alexandra Stadium, Crewe

England U19s - 1 (Bright Enobakhare 78)

Netherlands U19s - 2 (Mitchell van Bergen 41, Kenneth Paal 52)

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Will Mannion (Mathew Hudson); Ben Godfrey (Trent Alexander-Arnold), Reece Oxford (Ro-Shaun Williams), Jack Vann (Cameron Humphreys), Ryan Sessegnon (Josh Tymon); Ben Sheaf (Reiss Nelson), Tom Davies (Sam Field); Marcus Edwards (Nathan Holland), Andre Dozzell (Stephy Mavididi), Andre Green (Jonathan Leko); Niall Ennis (Bright Enobakhare).

 

***

 

Just one day after their Under-19s lost to the Netherlands, England hosted the Dutch again - this time at senior level. Close to 70,000 fans gathered at Wembley Stadium to witness the Three Lions' first match since their shock exit from the UEFA European Championship.

 

65 days had passed since that tumultuous evening in Nice, where England had been humbled by plucky underdogs Iceland. Supporters were now nervously awaiting the dawning of a new era under the management of Mark Catterall, whom they hoped would prove significantly more successful than his recent predecessors.

 

The Oranje had also gone through a period of soul-searching, having fared even worse than England at Euro 2016... because they weren't even there! Following the Netherlands' failure to qualify for those finals, the pressure was now firmly on head coach Danny Blind to rebuild his nation's footballing reputation at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

 

Although the Netherlands' world ranking of 26th was 13 places lower than England's, Catterall was expecting a baptism of fire at Wembley. The Dutch team that had missed out on Euro 2016 was full of young and/or inexperienced players, but those players were now approaching their peak years.

 

While Catterall's main formation of choice for the start of his England reign would be the 4-2-3-1, he also wanted to experiment with a number of tactical systems in his first few matches. For this opener, he opted to line his team up in a narrow 4-4-2 diamond.

 

As expected, Joe Hart went in goal for the Three Lions. His back four consisted of Manchester-based trio Luke Shaw, John Stones and Chris Smalling, with Liverpool's Nathaniel Clyne at right-back.

 

Eric Dier sat just in front of the defence, while Adam Lallana and newly-installed vice-captain Jordan Henderson made up the centre of the diamond, which was headed by England's experienced captain. Wayne Rooney would play a supporting role to the front two of Harry Kane and Daniel Sturridge.

 

England conceded several corners to their visitors in the opening stages, though they did well to survive. However, the Netherlands wouldn't let them off the hook when Sturridge hit a hard first touch in the 16th minute. Dutch right-back Joël Veltman swept up the ball before playmaker Wesley Sneijder picked out the run of Memphis Depay, who powered in the opening goal.

 

More Dutch delight could've followed in the 22nd minute, when Hart made heavy weather of a chance from Bas Dost. Six minutes later, the Three Lions had their first opportunity to draw level through captain Rooney, whose half-volley was deflected behind off Netherlands defender Virgil van Dijk.

 

That attack galvanised England, and after banging on the away team's door for some time, they finally broke through in the last minute of normal time. After Walker's corner was intercepted by Oranje midfielder Kevin Strootman, Kane latched onto the clearance and squared it to his strike partner Sturridge. The Liverpool frontman's shot whistled beyond goalie Jasper Cillessen, and the Three Lions were level... but now they wanted more.

 

As the first half went into injury time, Sturridge repaid Kane for his assist by setting up a powerful strike from the 23-year-old Tottenham Hotspur striker. In a matter of minutes, England's new deadly duo had fired them from a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead!

 

Though the front two had impressed Catterall, his captain had not, and Rooney was replaced with Dele Alli before the second period. 20-year-old Alli had scored just once in his previous 12 England appearances, and a poor header in the 54th minute wouldn't go close to adding to the young midfielder's tally.

 

The hosts continued to put the Oranje under plenty of attacking pressure in the second half, even after Kane came off on 66 minutes to be replaced by Callum Wilson. The AFC Bournemouth striker had been an England international for barely a minute when Lallana presented him with a chance to score a debut goal. Wilson weaved past the slide tackle of van Dijk to leave him with only Cillessen to beat... but he pulled the ball inches wide.

 

There would be more agony for Wilson in the 76th minute, when the rookie's next strike was tipped behind by the Netherlands' substitute goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet. Five minutes later, Wilson teed up a scoring opportunity for his fellow sub Raheem Sterling, but the Manchester City winger miscued it horribly.

 

Meanwhile, the Netherlands edged closer to restoring parity. Vincent Janssen - still awaiting his competitive debut for Tottenham following a £19million transfer from AZ this summer - powered a shot just over the bar in the 80th minute. Four minutes later, he drove a fantastic shot towards the top corner, only to see Hart pluck it out of the air just in time.

 

England's resolve would not crumble, despite the pressure that their visitors were piling on late in the game. Thanks in no small part to an assured central defensive display from 22-year-old Stones, the Three Lions ensured that they would emerge as 2-1 winners. Funnily enough, England had last played the Netherlands at Wembley just five months earlier, and on that occasion, it was the Dutch who won by that same scoreline!

 

Catterall wasn't only pleased with his players' performances; he was also impressed with their temperament. Stones and left-back Shaw had both looked very assured defensively, while debutants Wilson and Michail Antonio had shown glimpses of their talent after coming on as substitutes. All in all, it had been a very productive evening's work.

 

31 August 2016: International Friendly - at Wembley, London

England - 2 (Daniel Sturridge 45, Harry Kane 45+2)

Netherlands - 1 (Memphis Depay 16)

ENGLAND LINE-UP (4-4-2 Diamond): Joe Hart; Kyle Walker (Nathaniel Clyne), Chris Smalling (Gary Cahill), John Stones, Luke Shaw; Eric Dier (Michail Antonio); Adam Lallana (Raheem Sterling), Jordan Henderson; Wayne Rooney (Dele Alli); Harry Kane (Callum Wilson), Daniel Sturridge.

 

While Catterall's first match with the senior team had ended in victory, not everyone was convinced by his side's display. Former England internationals Lee Dixon and Ian Wright expressed their concerns while on punditry duties for ITV.

 

"It's obvious that this England team is still adapting to how Mark Catterall wants them to play, and I don't think Mark himself knows exactly what that means yet," former left-back Dixon said. "The chemistry wasn't quite there tonight. I'm sure that things will improve from that point of view over the coming months, but it could take a while.

 

"As far as tonight's performance was concerned, the midfielders looked a bit careless on the ball for my liking. They'd just give it away far too often when there was simply no need to. A more savvy team than Holland would've pounced on that and punished them time and time again."

 

"Yeah, I agree, Dicko," nodded ex-striker Wright. "I must say that the defence done great tonight, they really did - John Stones was rock-solid. Here's the thing, though - the midfield diamond just wasn't working for me.

 

"There weren't no connection between the defence and the attack; you'd often have Wayne, Harry and Danny out on their own, struggling to get into the game until just before half-time. You cannot leave your strikers isolated. That's just criminal."

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***

 

September 2016 began with England's Under-21s resuming their attempts to qualify for the upcoming European Championship finals in Poland. Former manager Gareth Southgate had left them sitting 2nd in their qualifying group - behind Italy, and just ahead of the Republic of Ireland - with four matches left to play.

 

England's start to the qualifiers had been mixed. While they'd beaten Kosovo twice and comfortably seen off Kazakhstan at home, the Young Lions also went through a trio of uninspiring goalless draws against Italy, Ireland and Montenegro.

 

Nevertheless, they still hadn't conceded any goals in the qualifiers. Then again, neither had Italy nor the Irish.

 

2017 UEFA European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Group 9 (After 6 rounds)

                                   P     W     D     L     F     A     GD    PTS
1.        Italy U21s               6     4     2     0     12    0     12    14
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2.        England U21s             6     3     3     0     9     0     9     12
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
3.        Rep of Ireland U21s      6     2     4     0     7     0     7     10
4.        Montenegro U21s          6     1     4     1     1     2     -1    7
5.        Kazakhstan U21s          6     0     2     4     0     15    -15   2
6.        Kosovo U21s              6     0     1     5     0     12    -12   1

 

England's next qualifier was set to be their trickiest, as they flew to the southern Italian city of Foggia to take on the Azzurri. Defeat to Italy would leave them five points adrift of the leaders and would seriously damage their hopes of reaching the finals.

 

Mark Catterall wouldn't be joining his England stars in Foggia. Instead, he would watch the match online from his office in Burton-upon-Trent and regularly relay tactical advice to head coach David Byrne. This was to be the first real test of Caterrall's 'remote management' approach.

 

After just three minutes, things were looking really good for the Young Lions. Marcus Rashford - making his first appearance for England Under-21s - ran onto a through-ball from centre-half Brendan Galloway and entered the Italian penalty area, only to be crowded out by Azzurri players. Not to worry, though, as Rashford squared the ball to his fellow debutant striker Tammy Abraham, who bulleted the visitors into a 1-0 lead.

 

England would be going top of their qualifying group as things stood, but Italy were now very much determined to wrestle back first place. Atalanta striker Andrea Petagna almost drew them level when he latched onto a deflected cross from Fiorentina winger Federico Chiesa in the 7th minute, but Jordan Pickford produced a fantastic catch for the Young Lions.

 

England would miss a couple more chances over the next few minutes through Rashford and captain James Ward-Prowse. Italy then started to come on strong after the quarter-hour mark, with Chiesa's 16th-minute through-ball being pulled into the side netting by the energetic midfielder Luca Mazzitelli. That was followed by a couple of headers from left-back Giuseppe Pezzella, both of which went over Pickford's bar.

 

England would eventually be unravelled in the 35th minute, by a devastating cross from Italian right-back Andrea Conti. His English counterpart Kyle Walker-Peters was unable to intercept the delivery before Chiesa - the 18-year-old son of former Azzurri striker Enrico Chiesa - headed it home to equalise.

 

The momentum was now firmly with Italy, and they would strike again within less than two minutes. Winger Leonardo Morosini chested a cross from midfielder Lorenzo Pellegrini and then took the ball past England left-back Matthew Targett before firing it beyond Pickford's reach. Targett's claims that Morosini was offside were ignored by the officials, and it was 2-1 to the home team.

 

The second period would be similarly frustrating for England, but this time, that was mainly down to them wasting their opportunities rather than the Azzurri converting theirs. Italy goalkeeper Simone Scuffet came to the fore after the interval, producing a host of top-class saves from the likes of Rashford and Abraham.

 

Scuffet's best save arguably came after 79 minutes, when he pushed behind a strike from Ward-Prowse after Abraham had played the Southampton midfielder through. Ward-Prowse was the most-capped player in this England team, but he couldn't make his experience count, volleying wide one final chance five minutes later.

 

Despite having more possession and shots than their hosts, England had suffered their first defeat of the European Championship qualifying campaign. Worse news was to come, as the Republic of Ireland leapfrogged them into 2nd place with a comfortable 4-0 win in Kosovo.

 

With three games remaining, there was now a very real fear that England would fail to qualify for the European Under-21s Championship for the first time since 2006.

 

1 September 2016: UEFA European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Group 9 - at Pino Zaccheria, Foggia

Italy U21s - 2 (Federico Chiesa 35, Leonardo Morosini 37)

England U21s - 1 (Tammy Abraham 3)

ENGLAND U21s LINE-UP (4-4-2 Diamond): Jordan Pickford; Kyle Walker-Peters (Calum Chambers), Brendan Galloway, Joe Gomez, Matthew Targett; Ruben Loftus-Cheek; James Ward-Prowse, Isaac Hayden (Jacob Murphy); Joshua Onomah (Will Hughes); Marcus Rashford, Tammy Abraham.

 

***

 

Now it was time for Mark Catterall to oversee his first competitive match as manager of England's senior team. Wembley was the setting for a home meeting with a Malta side ranked 180th in the world. Barring one of the greatest shocks in international football history, the Three Lions were surely going to get their FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign off to a winning start.

 

Mind you, the Knights of Malta were determined not to give England an easy ride. They'd put up a real fight in a warm-up match against Sweden earlier in the week, taking a surprise 2-1 lead before eventually losing 3-2, thanks only to a 92nd-minute winner from Celtic defender Mikael Lustig.

 

Catterall made a host of changes from the England side that had battled to a narrow victory over the Netherlands four days earlier. John Stones and Daniel Sturridge were both surprisingly left out of the starting XI, despite their excellent performances against the Dutch. Meanwhile, the new manager handed a senior international debut to Manchester United's 23-year-old attacking midfielder Jesse Lingard.

 

Malta put up plenty of resistance early on, as goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saved a couple of promising efforts from Tottenham Hotspur duo Dele Alli and Harry Kane. The game was still goalless by the 15-minute mark, and there were some murmurs of discontent amongst the home fans at Wembley.

 

Then, on 17 minutes, England right-back Nathaniel Clyne pounced on an errant square ball from Maltese midfielder Mark Scerri. Clyne then darted past Joseph Zerafa to leave himself in acres of space down the flank. Once he spotted Kane making a run into the penalty box, Clyne drilled the ball towards the forward, whose poacher's finish finally broke the visitors.

 

Kane went close to heading in a second goal after 24 minutes, though he would also be involved in the move that did increase England's lead to 2-0. Kane's free-kick in the 35th minute was flicked goalwards by Chris Smalling, and Hogg could only parry it on to left-back Danny Rose, who smashed in his first goal in a Three Lions jersey.

 

England were now all over Malta like a rash. Hogg continued to come under severe pressure in the away team's goal, though he prevented Kane and then Smalling from making it 3-0 before half-time.

 

Though his team had a comfortable lead, Catterall felt that they hadn't been incisive enough with their attacks. England had played in a narrow 4-4-2 diamond at the start of proceedings, but they would return for the second half lined up in a more ambitious 4-2-3-1 formation.

 

Alli and Jordan Henderson remained in midfield, but Dier was taken off to be replaced by a right-winger in Leicester City's Demarai Gray - a senior international debutant at just 20 years of age. Lingard was shifted to the left wing, while captain Wayne Rooney dropped just behind Kane, who was now out on his own up front.

 

Malta's second-half resolve would last just six minutes before England's goalscoring Tottenham duo linked up to devastating effect. Rose's cross from the left was powered home by Kane, and the Three Lions had a three-goal cushion.

 

England could not add any further goals until midway through the period, when Catterall tweaked his tactics again. Gray was switched to the left flank as an inside-forward, while Lingard was substituted to be replaced by West Ham United's right-winger Michail Antonio. It was Antonio who would provide the ammunition for goal number 4.

 

After clearing a Maltese corner in the 67th minute, the Three Lions hit the minnows with a devastating counter-attack. Kane found Antonio in space, and the speedster took the ball forward before crossing it from the byline and into the six-yard box. Once Kane got his head to it, there was little doubt that he would secure his first England hat-trick.

 

With England 4-0 ahead, Kane's evening was done. He came off to a standing ovation from the Wembley crowd, with AFC Bournemouth's Callum Wilson replacing him as the third and final substitute.

 

Wilson narrowly missed out on his first England goal in the 75th minute, when he volleyed a Clyne centre against the post. The West Midlander's moment of Wembley glory would come just a minute later. Antonio notched up his second assist with a fantastic delivery that Wilson comfortably dispatched from close range, and it was now 5-0.

 

Wilson would have another moment to remember seven minutes from the end. He could've sensed an opportunity for a second goal when he intercepted a poor pass from Malta centre-half Steve Borg that had ricocheted off his colleague Rowen Muscat's back. However, Wilson opted not to be greedy, instead spreading the ball to the right, where much-maligned skipper Rooney drilled in his 54th England goal.

 

Even at 6-0 up, there was a sense that England weren't quite finished. Antonio could've made it a hat-trick of first-time goalscorers on 85 minutes, but Hogg fumbled the Hammer's shot against his left-hand post before gathering the ball at the second attempt.

 

Malta had been thoroughly mullered, though they would have the final say in the last minute of normal time. A momentary lapse from the England defence allowed the Knights' captain André Schembri to break free and set up a first international goal for 21-year-old attacking midfielder Llywelyn Carmona.

 

Carmona's goal took some of the gloss off a convincing performance from England, but a 6-1 victory was still more than enough to send them straight to the top of Group 6. Slovakia and Slovenia had also got off to expected winning starts, defeating Lithuania 2-0 and Scotland 1-0 respectively.

 

4 September 2016: FIFA World Cup UEFA Qualifying Group 6 - at Wembley, London

England - 6 (Harry Kane 17,51,67, Danny Rose 35, Callum Wilson 76, Wayne Rooney 83)

Malta - 1 (Llywelyn Carmona 90)

ENGLAND LINE-UP (4-4-2 Diamond): Joe Hart; Nathaniel Clyne, Chris Smalling, Gary Cahill, Danny Rose; Jordan Henderson; Dele Alli, Eric Dier (Demarai Gray); Jesse Lingard (Michail Antonio); Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane (Callum Wilson).

 

"A 6-1 win on your competitive debut - is it fair to say that you're pleased with that?" ITV reporter Gabriel Clarke asked Catterall at the final whistle.

 

"Yes, it's a good start," Catterall replied calmly. "I was a little disappointed that it took us so long to get our game going, but a big win like that is just what we need to get our confidence up. We'll be playing some much tougher teams than Malta in this qualifying campaign, and we've got to be ready to take them on when they come around."

 

"All the headlines will be dominated by Harry Kane's hat-trick, but Callum Wilson also got on the scoresheet after replacing Harry late on." Clarke said. "What were your thoughts on their performances up front?"

 

"Of course, you want your best striker to be on top form, and Harry Kane really was on top form tonight. I hope to see a bit more of that when it really, really counts. As far as Wilson goes, he deserved this opportunity after a strong start to the season with Bournemouth. If that first goal is a sign of things to come, then he could be part of my England squad for a while yet."

 

"And what did you make of Danny Rose scoring his first England goal?"

 

"Good for him, but at the end of the day, I don't care who scores for my team as long as somebody does!"

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

As the England senior squad broke up until October and the players returned to their clubs, Mark Catterall readied himself for a very busy day with his younger charges. The Under-21s and the Under-19s were both in action overseas, and Catterall would once again be taking charge remotely from St George's Park.

 

Shortly before 2:00pm, Catterall geared himself for the Under-21s' European Championship qualifier in Kazakhstan. David Byrne and his Young Lions had travelled over 3,500 miles to Astana - the capital city of a Central Asian republic that was better known for its exaggerated and outrageous portrayal by the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen than for its sport. Indeed, very few English football fans - the odd Grimbarian excepted - could confidently say that they knew anything about Kazakhstan's star players.

 

When these two teams had previously met in Newcastle on October 2015, England ran out comfortable 4-0 winners. The rematch wouldn't be so one-sided, as the favourites appeared to be suffering from jet lag in the opening exchanges of this match.

 

Although England quickly took control in the possession stakes, a tame header from Jordon Ibe in the fifth minute was the first of multiple missed opportunities. Kazakhstan goalkeeper Mikhail Golubnichii, who played for the capital's local football team, made light work of the Bournemouth left-winger's attempt.

 

More early misses came from Patrick Roberts on the opposite flank. The left-footed inside-forward, who was on loan at Celtic from Manchester City, was off target twice before eventually forcing Golubnichii into a save on 25 minutes.

 

A minute after Roberts' latter attempt, disaster struck for the Young Lions. A well-crafted attack from the Hawks resulted in anchor man Ular Zhaksybaev powering a shot home, and England improbably found themselves trailing 1-0 against Kazakhstan!

 

Defeat for England in Astana would surely deal a fateful blow to their hopes of qualifying for the European Under-21s Championship. As time wore on, a shock result was starting to become a genuine possibility rather than a fantastical vision of the most optimistic Kazakh supporters. AFC Bournemouth forward Ibe continued to misfire, while even Manchester United wonderkid Marcus Rashford was failing to hit the mark.

 

England would eventually redeem themselves three minutes before half-time. Playmaker Joshua Onomah weighted a ball to Roberts, who floated past Kazakh full-back Rafkat Aslan and curled an exquisite shot into the far end of the net. The visitors were back on level terms, but they still had a lot of work to do.

 

England resumed proceedings with renewed purpose, but a disappointing night for Rashford continued. The youngest of the Young Lions had two more unsuccessful attempts at goal, one of which was spectacularly cleared behind by a diving header from the hosts' 16-year-old substitute Madi Zhakypbaev. Rashford then picked up a calf strain, ending his game after 72 minutes.

 

With Rashford off, England's biggest scoring threat was now Tammy Abraham. The Chelsea striker had been in fine scoring form whilst on loan at Championship side Bristol City, and he'd marked his England Under-21s debut with a goal, so it seemed apt that he should score again here. Abraham showed his predatory instinct in the 77th minute to stab in a centre from left-back Ben Chilwell and complete the comeback.

 

All in all, England had 28 shots at goal, only nine of which were on target. They hadn't been at their most prolific, that was for certain, but a narrow 2-1 victory a long way from home was a victory all the same.

 

Despite making heavy weather of Kazakhstan, the Young Lions snatched 2nd place back from the Republic of Ireland, who had led briefly against Italy before succumbing to a 2-1 defeat. Italy were now almost certain to automatically qualify for the finals, but the race was firmly on between England and Ireland for a prospective play-off place. Their meeting at St James' Park on 10 October was now set to be the decisive one.

 

5 September 2016: UEFA European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Group 9 - at Astana Arena, Astana

Kazakhstan U21s - 1 (Ular Zhaksybaev 26)

England U21s - 2 (Patrick Roberts 42, Tammy Abraham 77)

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Jordan Pickford; Calum Chambers, Rob Holding, Mason Holgate, Ben Chilwell; Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Isaac Hayden; Patrick Roberts, Joshua Onomah (Tammy Abraham), Jordon Ibe (James Ward-Prowse); Marcus Rashford (Jack Grealish). BOOKED: Holgate 78.

 

2017 UEFA European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Group 9 (After 8 rounds)

                                   P     W     D     L     F     A     GD    PTS
1.        Italy U21s               8     6     2     0     16    2     14    20
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2.        England U21s             8     4     3     1     12    3     9     15
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
3.        Rep of Ireland U21s      8     3     4     1     12    2     10    13
4.        Montenegro U21s          8     1     4     3     3     6     -3    7
5.        Kazakhstan U21s          8     1     2     5     3     18    -15   5
6.        Kosovo U21s              8     1     1     6     2     17    -15   4

 

"You'd better not cut it so f***ing fine next time," Catterall barked at Byrne on the phone before he clocked off and went home. His duties weren't quite done for the day, though, as England's Under-19s were still to play their match.

 

***

 

Mark Catterall's work day resumed, to some extent, at 7:45pm BST. He watched on from the comfort of his home as England faced France in an Under-19s friendly that was being held at Sochaux's stadium in the eastern city of Montbéliard. The Young Lions were likely to have their work cut out against Les Bleus, who were the reigning European champions at that age group.

 

The match was a mere five minutes old when England delivered their hosts an almighty shock. Defender Ro-Shaun Williams cleared away a header from French winger Ludovic Blas to start off a devastating counter-attack that ended with Bright Enobakhare drilling Reiss Nelson's centre into the net.

 

Arsenal's right-wing prospect Nelson would be at the heart of another incisive England breakaway in the 16th minute. The French defence again proved unable to keep up with the Young Lions' pace when Enobakhare sprayed the ball out left to Andre Green, who cut the ball across for Nelson to finish at the back post.

 

England's two-goal cushion was briefly threatened in the 17th minute, as Les Bleus midfielder Vincent Marchetti fired a pot-shot that ended up safely in keeper Will Mannion's grasp. Ten minutes later, however, an incredible scoreline from the visitors' perspective became even more extraordinary.

 

Ball-winning midfielder Ben Godfrey dispossessed France's Sevilla winger Bilal Boutobba deep in England territory and then marauded up the pitch as Enobakhare took the ball forward. Godfrey was advancing towards the penalty area when Enobakhare turned past defender Joris Gnagnon and played in his compatriot, who powered the Young Lions into a 3-0 lead!

 

France's youngsters looked completely stunned as they went into the half-time break with a heavy deficit. Worse was to come for them three minutes into the second half, when centre-half Jérôme Onguéné tripped England substitute Andre Dozzell on the edge of their area. The Ipswich Town midfielder then punished Les Bleus by firing a stunning free-kick into the top corner.

 

It was hard to put a finger on how England had got themselves into a 4-0 lead away from home against the continent's best. Was this really the start of a new golden generation of English footballers, or had France just suddenly stopped producing top-class players?

 

The home fans at Stade Auguste Bonal could hardly believe what they were seeing. England were completely playing France off the park, and Dozzell would beat goalkeeper Anthony Maisonnial again in the 55th minute, only for the post to deny his team an incomprehensible five-goal advantage!

 

That miss from Dozzell appeared to shake the Young Lions out of their rhythm. Their shots became more speculative, and their passes more wayward, as they lost concentration and gave France hope of salvaging at least some pride.

 

English hopes of a clean sheet were dashed after 74 minutes, as Odsonne Edouard tapped in a drilled cross from Yann Karamoh. Those two French attackers were at it again barely a minute later, with Edouard again making the most of a right-wing delivery from Karamoh and leaving England's substitute goalie Daniel Grimshaw grim-faced.

 

France were halfway towards what would've been an incredible comeback... but 4-2 to England was how the scoreline remained at full-time. Despite their late lapses, the Young Lions would cross back over the Channel with an impressive scalp to their name, and a vital confidence boost ahead of the European Under-19s Championship qualifiers.

 

By then, the draw for the Qualifying Round had already taken place. England would begin their quest for continental glory in mid-October, as the top seeds in a group that included Iceland, Cyprus, and host nation Luxembourg. The top two teams per group were guaranteed progression to the Elite Round, so it would surely take something extraordinary for them not to qualify.

 

5 September 2016: Under-19s International - at Stade Auguste Bonal, Montbéliard

France U19s - 2 (Odsonne Edouard 74,75)

England U19s - 4 (Bright Enobakhare 5, Reiss Nelson 16, Ben Godfrey 27, Andre Dozzell 48)

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Will Mannion (Daniel Grimshaw); Trent Alexander-Arnold (Ben Sheaf), Ro-Shaun Williams (Cameron Humphreys), Reece Oxford (Jack Vann), Josh Tymon (Ryan Sessegnon); Ben Godfrey (Stephy Mavididi), Tom Davies (Sam Field); Reiss Nelson (Nathan Holland), Marcus Edwards (Andre Dozzell), Andre Green (Jonathan Leko); Bright Enobakhare (Niall Ennis).

 

After back-to-back wins for his youth teams, a delighted but relieved Mark Catterall turned in for the night. His wife Jenny was sitting upright in bed, reading a crime novel.

 

When Mark asked Jenny what she was reading, she replied sarcastically, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar. No, it's 'Out of Bounds' by Val McDermid, in case you can't read."

 

"Alright, love, no need to snap at me," Mark replied bluntly.

 

Jenny put her book down and sighed, "Sorry. I'm just... I'm just a little annoyed that you chose to spend tonight working instead of being with Luke and me."

 

"Look, Jen - tonight was an exception. I'll have loads of spare time with you and our son between international breaks. You won't have to put up with anything like that again for at least another month."

 

"Thank you. But I don't get why you're putting yourself through all this extra work. You're 44 years old now; you're not the young, fit athlete you used to be."

 

"You sure know how to make a man feel special."

 

"What I'm saying is that I want you to look after yourself. I care for you, and I fear that one day... things might get on top of you."

 

Mark put his left arm around Jenny and reassured her, "Jenny, you don't need to think about things like that. I will always be here for you, and for Luke. The moment this job starts affecting my health is the moment I quit."

 

"You promise?" Jenny asked.

 

"Promise," Mark nodded, before the couple exchanged a kiss. He then suggested, "Both my teams won today, so how about we celebrate with..."

 

"Not tonight, if that's what you're asking," Jenny replied sternly, rebuffing Mark's advances. She then picked up her book again and continued, "Karen Pirie might be onto something here."

 

"Who the hell is Karen Pirie?"

 

"If you read McDermid's books, you'd know."

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Two good wins with the youth sides. Looking good so far CFuller. Must be hard work looking after all three sides.

 

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There will be no story updates next week, as I'll be on holiday, and taking a break from FMS. This story should return the following week.

4 hours ago, mark wilson27 said:

Two good wins with the youth sides. Looking good so far CFuller. Must be hard work looking after all three sides.

It's taking up a large chunk of my weekends (weekdays are mainly for my FM13 story), but I'm really enjoying it. I'm also having great fun developing my characters, as you could probably sense.

You may or may not be aware that England Under-19s won the Euros in real life yesterday. After thrashing France on their own turf, there's no reason why my team can't do the same.

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Chapter 5 - Seven Days

 

Some of you might remember the song "7 Days", which was released by Craig David in 2000. In the lyrics to that song, the protagonist encounters a stranger and takes her out on one date before starting a four-night copulation marathon with said stranger. Of course, the Southampton-born R&B crooner didn't exactly put it in such scholarly language.

 

Had David written a song about Mark Catterall's schedule between 5 and 11 October 2016, it might have gone something like this: "I was managing England on Wednesday, and on Thursday, and Friday, and Saturday... I didn't chill on Sunday, as I had to manage another game... and then another on Monday... then one more on Tuesday... and now I'm walking away."

 

That's right. Catterall would be seeing one of his England teams in action on seven consecutive days!

 

Those matches weren't just meaningless ones, either. For starters, the Under-19s were beginning their bid for European Championship qualification with three group matches in Luxembourg. Even though they weren't likely to face any serious opposition (apart from possibly Iceland), they still had to make sure that they finished in the top two and qualified for the next stage.

 

Meanwhile, the Under-21s would be concluding the group phase of their European Championship qualifiers. It was critical that they got strong results against Montenegro and the Republic of Ireland if they were to snatch 2nd place, and a spot in the play-offs.

 

The senior team also had two crunch games as their FIFA World Cup qualifying bid began in earnest. National pride, and a lot more besides, would be at stake when they faced fierce rivals Scotland at Hampden Park on 8 October.

 

Three days after that, the Three Lions would return to Wembley for a meeting with Slovakia - the team that most pundits saw as the biggest threat in their qualifying group. Overcoming Malta's minnows was one thing, but defeating a Slovakian side with players of the calibre of Marek Hamsik and Martin Skrtel would be quite another.

 

5 October: England U19s vs Cyprus U19s * (European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Round)

6 October: Montenegro U21s vs England U21s (European Under-21s Championship Qualifying)

7 October: Iceland U19s vs England U19s * (European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Round)

8 October: Scotland vs England (World Cup Qualifying)

9 October: England U19s vs Luxembourg U19s * (European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Round)

10 October: England U21s vs Rep of Ireland U21s (European Under-21s Championship Qualifying)

11 October: England vs Slovakia (World Cup Qualifying)

* in Luxembourg

 

So, who'd made the England squads for what was sure to be one of the busiest periods in the international calendar?

 

ENGLAND squad - for matches vs Scotland (A) and Slovakia (H)

NAME                      POSITIONS           D.O.B. (AGE)     CLUB            CAPS  GOALS HEIGHT WEIGHT     VALUE
Fraser Forster            GK                  17/03/1988 (28)  Southampton     6     0     6'7"   15st 8lbs  £13.5M  
Joe Hart                  GK                  19/04/1987 (29)  Torino          65    0     6'5"   12st 10lbs £20M    
Tom Heaton                GK                  15/04/1986 (30)  Burnley         1     0     6'2"   13st 7lbs  £8M     
Phil Jones                D (RC)              21/02/1992 (24)  Man Utd         20    0     6'1"   11st 4lbs  £18.25M 
John Stones               D (RC)              28/05/1994 (22)  Man City        11    0     6'2"   12st 1lb   £29M    
Eric Dier                 D (RC), DM, M (C)   15/01/1994 (22)  Tottenham       13    2     6'2"   13st 7lbs  £31M    
Gary Cahill               D (C)               19/12/1985 (30)  Chelsea         49    3     6'4"   13st 7lbs  £5.25M  
Chris Smalling            D (C)               22/11/1989 (26)  Man Utd         31    1     6'4"   14st 2lbs  £27.5M  
Nathaniel Clyne           D/WB (R)            05/04/1991 (25)  Liverpool       15    0     5'9"   10st 7lbs  £20M    
Kyle Walker               D/WB (R)            28/05/1990 (26)  Tottenham       20    0     6'0"   11st 9lbs  £23M    
Luke Shaw                 D/WB (L)            12/07/1995 (21)  Man Utd         7     0     6'1"   11st 11lbs £12M    
Danny Rose                D/WB/M (L)          02/07/1990 (26)  Tottenham       8     1     5'8"   11st 6lbs  £22M    
Jordan Henderson          DM, M (C)           17/06/1990 (26)  Liverpool       29    0     6'0"   10st 7lbs  £29.5M  
Danny Drinkwater          M (C)               05/03/1990 (26)  Leicester       3     0     5'10"  11st 0lbs  £20.5M  
Michail Antonio           M/AM (RL)           28/03/1990 (26)  West Ham        2     0     5'11"  12st 12lbs £21.5M  
Demarai Gray              M/AM (RL)           28/06/1996 (20)  Leicester       1     0     5'10"  12st 3lbs  £13M    
Adam Lallana              M/AM (RLC)          10/05/1988 (28)  Liverpool       27    0     5'8"   11st 6lbs  £28M    
Dele Alli                 M/AM (C)            11/04/1996 (20)  Tottenham       14    1     6'1"   12st 1lb   £31.5M  
Jack Wilshere             M/AM (C)            01/01/1992 (24)  Bournemouth     34    2     5'9"   10st 3lbs  £24.5M  
Wayne Rooney              M/AM (C), ST (C)    24/10/1985 (30)  Man Utd         117   54    5'10"  12st 3lbs  £12.25M 
Harry Kane                ST (C)              28/07/1993 (23)  Tottenham       18    9     6'3"   13st 0lbs  £34M    
Daniel Sturridge          ST (C)              01/09/1989 (27)  Liverpool       22    7     6'0"   12st 6lbs  £35M    
Callum Wilson             ST (C)              27/02/1992 (24)  Bournemouth     2     1     5'11"  10st 7lbs  £23.5M  

 

The big news from the England squad announcement was that Raheem Sterling - capped 27 times at senior level - had been dropped to the Under-21s. The flamboyant but often frustrating winger had seen very little first-team action for Manchester City since the appointment of Pep Guardiola as manager, playing in only two of their first six Premier League matches.

 

Sterling had also left Catterall unimpressed during his cameo appearance in England's friendly win over the Netherlands at the end of August. As was the case for Calum Chambers and Marcus Rashford, it was decided that he should drop down a level and fight for his place back in the senior team.

 

Jesse Lingard also missed out on a place in the England team this time around. Though Catterall had shown enough faith in him to grant him a maiden cap against Malta, Lingard hadn't played in the league for Manchester United since the opening day of the season. The 23-year-old would need to break back into José Mourinho's plans to earn another international call-up.

 

Two players who had worked their way back into the England side were midfielders Danny Drinkwater and Jack Wilshere. Though Leicester City's defence of their league championship had started disappointingly, Drinkwater's understated but consistent performances had earned him a recall alongside club-mate Demarai Gray.

 

As for Wilshere, the on-loan Arsenal playmaker - and physiotherapist's nightmare - joined his AFC Bournemouth colleague Callum Wilson in the squad. Wilson had continued his excellent start to the season with the Cherries, scoring six goals in as many games to send Eddie Howe's charges up to 5th position.

 

With only two league goals for Tottenham Hotspur, striker Harry Kane wasn't in quite as hot form domestically as Wilson, even if he had found the net four times during the previous international break. Nevertheless, Tottenham were top of the league and still unbeaten, so there was plenty of optimism that Kane and four of his compatriot colleagues would carry their solid club form into October's FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

 

ENGLAND UNDER-21s squad - for matches vs Montenegro (A) and Rep of Ireland (H)

NAME                      POSITIONS           D.O.B. (AGE)     CLUB            CAPS  GOALS HEIGHT WEIGHT     VALUE
Luke McGee                GK                  02/09/1995 (21)  Peterborough    0     0     6'4"   12st 8lbs  £625K   
Jordan Pickford           GK                  07/03/1994 (22)  Sunderland      11    0     6'2"   12st 1lb   £7M     
Freddie Woodman           GK                  04/03/1997 (19)  Kilmarnock      0     0     6'1"   10st 12lbs £500K   
Kyle Walker-Peters        D (RL)              13/04/1997 (19)  Preston         1     0     5'6"   9st 12lbs  £1.9M   
Joe Gomez                 D (RLC)             23/05/1997 (19)  Liverpool       4     0     6'2"   13st 7lbs  £6.75M  
Calum Chambers            D (RC)              20/01/1995 (21)  Middlesbrough   16    0     6'0"   11st 6lbs  £9.5M   
Mason Holgate             D (RC)              22/10/1996 (19)  Everton         1     0     5'11"  11st 13lbs £9M     
Ben Chilwell              D (LC), WB (L)      21/12/1996 (19)  Leicester       3     0     5'10"  11st 13lbs £5.25M  
Brendan Galloway          D (LC), DM          17/03/1996 (20)  West Brom       1     0     6'2"   13st 9lbs  £3.6M   
Rob Holding               D (C)               20/09/1995 (21)  Arsenal         3     0     6'2"   13st 0lbs  £6.5M   
Nathaniel Chalobah        D (C), DM, M (C)    12/12/1994 (21)  Chelsea         30    0     6'1"   11st 6lbs  £6.5M   
Matthew Targett           D/WB (L)            18/09/1995 (21)  Southampton     12    0     6'0"   12st 10lbs £6.5M   
Ben Pearson               DM, M (C)           04/01/1995 (21)  Preston         0     0     5'5"   11st 2lbs  £6M     
Will Hughes               DM, M/AM (C)        17/04/1995 (21)  Derby           18    1     6'1"   11st 9lbs  £10.5M  
Ruben Loftus-Cheek        DM, M/AM (C)        23/01/1996 (20)  Chelsea         15    4     6'3"   13st 7lbs  £5.75M  
Patrick Roberts           M (RL), AM (RLC)    05/02/1997 (19)  Celtic          1     1     5'6"   9st 1lb    £6M     
Raheem Sterling           M (L), AM (RLC)     08/12/1994 (21)  Man City        8     3     5'7"   10st 12lbs £30M    
Kasey Palmer              M (C), AM (RLC)     09/11/1996 (19)  Huddersfield    4     0     5'11"  12st 6lbs  £8.25M  
Nathan Redmond            M/AM (RL), ST (C)   06/03/1994 (22)  Southampton     29    10    5'8"   11st 9lbs  £14.25M 
James Ward-Prowse         M/AM (RC)           01/11/1994 (21)  Southampton     25    6     5'8"   10st 5lbs  £12M    
Tammy Abraham             AM (R), ST (C)      02/10/1997 (18)  Bristol City    2     2     6'4"   12st 10lbs £7.25M  
Dominic Solanke           AM (RL), ST (C)     14/09/1997 (19)  Burnley         3     0     6'2"   12st 10lbs £2.2M   
Marcus Rashford           AM (L), ST (C)      31/10/1997 (18)  Man Utd         2     0     5'11"  11st 6lbs  £32.5M  

 

Sterling was joined in the Under-21s by four other players who hadn't been named in the previous squad. Preston North End's ball-winning midfielder Ben Pearson was in line to win his first cap, as was Peterborough United goalkeeper Luke McGee, who was enjoying a productive loan spell away from Tottenham.

 

Defender-cum-midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah rejoined the team and was set to add to a 30-cap England Under-21s haul surpassed only by James Milner, Tom Huddlestone and Fabrice Muamba. Chalobah was still only 21 years old, yet it felt like he'd been tipped as a future Chelsea first-teamer ever since Ken Bates was calling the shots at Stamford Bridge. Incredibly, Chalobah's substitute appearance at Swansea City in mid-September was his first in the Premier League for the Blues.

 

Another recalled player with strong Chelsea connections was Kasey Palmer. The attacking midfielder had - like about 85 other prospects at Stamford Bridge - been sent out on loan to gain first-team experience, though he was noticeably thriving at high-flying Championship club Huddersfield Town.

 

Nathan Redmond was back from injury and back in the Southampton team, so it was no surprise that he regained his England Under-21s place instantly. That meant there was no room for fellow Brummie winger Jack Grealish - a clean-cut and respectable gentleman from Aston Villa who was one of six players to be dropped by the Young Lions.

 

ENGLAND UNDER-19s squad - for European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Round

GOALKEEPERS: Daniel Grimshaw (Man City), Mathew Hudson (Preston)

DEFENDERS: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Oxford), Ben Godfrey (Crawley), Reece Oxford (Reading), Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham), Josh Tymon (Hull), Jack Vann (Leeds)

MIDFIELDERS: Tom Davies (Everton), Andre Dozzell (Ipswich), Marcus Edwards (Tottenham), Sam Field (Cardiff), Jonathan Leko (West Brom), Reiss Nelson (Arsenal), Ben Sheaf (Inverness CT)

FORWARDS: Niall Ennis (Wolves), Bright Enobakhare (Oxford), Stephy Mavididi (Charlton)

 

Catterall had to trim his England Under-19s squad from 23 players to 18 before the European Championship qualifiers. Only two goalkeepers would make the cut, but that decision was made for Catterall when first-choice Will Mannion suffered a serious hip injury whilst playing for Hull City's youth team. Mannion's understudies Daniel Grimshaw and Mathew Hudson would have to battle for the number 1 jersey in his absence.

 

Four other players who'd been given try-outs against the Netherlands and/or France were dropped. The unlucky quartet were Manchester-based defenders Cameron Humphreys and Ro-Shaun Williams, and wingers Andre Green and Nathan Holland. There were no new call-ups.

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***

 

"Why have you dropped me, boss? C'mon, man, tell me why you dropped me!"

 

That rather angry phone call to England manager Mark Catterall had come from Raheem Sterling, who'd been demoted from the senior team to the Under-21s side. It was the first time in nearly three years that the Manchester City winger had been knocked back down to that level.

 

"I haven't dropped you, Raheem," Catterall tried to reassure the 21-year-old. "You've just been moved to the Under-21s."

 

"But I'm too good to play with the babies! I'm earning 150 grand a week!"

 

"I don't f***ing care how much you earn! If you're not playing enough football or you're not playing well enough, then I won't pick you for the senior team. That applies to everyone - that includes you, Wayne Rooney, David Nugent, EVERYONE."

 

An exasperated Sterling screamed, "BUT I HAVE BEEN PLAYING!"

 

"Yes you have, Raheem - two Premier League matches, and I didn't hear Pep Guardiola singing your praises afterwards."

 

"I don't believe this! I should be in the England team, man!"

 

"Well, mate, you've got three options now. You can knuckle down and win back your place at City. You can ask for a transfer to a club where you'll get first-team football. Or you can continue acting like a stroppy teenager and throw your career away."

 

The line went dead about a second later.

 

Catterall was not a happy bunny. When asked by a journalist about Sterling later that week, he revealed, "I tried to explain my decision to Raheem on the phone, but I think he just hung up on me."

 

Sterling responded to Catterall's claims on Twitter, simply posting, "MY PHONE DIED."

 

Sterling was photographed at a Carphone Warehouse branch in Manchester later that day. Interestingly, though, he'd already been spotted in three other phone shops within the past week.

 

Intrigued by the England winger's shopping habits, The Sun published photographs of all four Sterling sightings on their front page the next day under the headline: "FOOTBALL'S COMING PHONE: England ace Sterling spends £80k on FOUR mobiles - in ONE WEEK".

 

Sterling's agent Aidy Ward later laughed off The Sun's story, claiming, "Raheem only has three phones - one for work, one for his friends, his mum and his girlfriend, and one for his other girlfriend. Erm... y'know what? Forget I said that last bit."

 

Sterling's senior England career appeared to be on hold, but there was still loads of time for the youngster to break back into the team. Just ask Calum Chambers - a fellow senior international of a similar age to Sterling.

 

The Arsenal right-back had produced some solid performances whilst on loan at newly-promoted Middlesbrough, who were 8th in the Premier League. Catterall had clearly taken notice, because when Liverpool's Nathaniel Clyne was forced to withdraw from the main England squad with an ankle sprain, Chambers was first in line to take his spot.

 

Chambers' promotion to the senior team meant that there was a vacancy in the England Under-21s team. That space would be taken up by Dominic Iorfa - a hard-working right-back at Wolverhampton Wanderers who'd already been capped nine times at that level.

 

Two more players would have to withdraw from the England team in the build-up to their tussle with Scotland. A twisted ankle prevented West Ham United winger Michail Antonio from adding to the caps he had won in September, while a twisted knee accounted for Manchester United centre-half Phil Jones.

 

Their replacements couldn't have been much more diverse. Taking Jones' spot was a former Old Trafford colleague in 23-year-old defender Michael Keane, who had excelled at Burnley and was now on the cusp of his first senior cap.

 

Meanwhile, Antonio's spot went to another London-based winger in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was far more experienced internationally with 24 England appearances. Oxlade-Chamberlain was a regular starter in an error-prone Arsenal team who'd won just one of their opening seven Premier League fixtures, losing their first four. In truth, his England recall was largely down to a lack of viable alternatives out wide.

 

***

 

The first week of October saw England's Under-19s squad arrive in Luxembourg for the first phase of a European Championship campaign that they hoped would last well into the summer. Led by their young coach Matthew Wells and his assistants Frank Lampard and Ledley King, and with Mark Catterall watching on from back home, this team had plenty to live up to.

 

Qualification for the Elite Round wasn't simply expected; it was a must. With the top two teams in each Qualifying Round group staying in the competition, along with the best 3rd-placed team across the groups, it would be a complete shock if England could not emerge intact from a pool that featured Cyprus, Iceland and Luxembourg.

 

Cyprus represented the Young Lions' first opponents, and the Mediterranean island nation would not pose much of a threat. That became apparent as early as the fourth minute, when Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Marcus Edwards hit a shot that - unfortunately for him - bounced back off the Cypriot upright.

 

England would only need nine minutes to open the scoring. Inside-forward Reiss Nelson drove the ball home with some assistance from a deflection off Cyprus defender Kostas Pileas - one of his Arsenal Under-18s team-mates.

 

A second goal would follow just three minutes later. Ben Godfrey fed an excellent pass through to Jonathan Leko, who cut inside Cypriot left-back Kyriakos Rousias before slotting a simple finish into the far end of the net. So far, so comfortable for the Young Lions.

 

England continued to batter their opponents throughout the first half, and it seemed inevitable that they would score again. After 24 minutes, Leko's swerving delivery into the box was squared by Niall Ennis to the feet of Edwards, who nonchalantly tapped it home for 3-0.

 

It seemed that there was very little that could derail a confident English team - the Cypriots certainly couldn't do that with their footballing abilities alone. However, the atrocious conditions would soon start to tire both teams, and injuries quickly mounted up.

 

A collision between England striker Ennis and Cyprus midfielder Sofoklis Orthodoxou ended with both players twisting their ankles, and Ennis departing the field five minutes before half-time. One of Ennis' colleagues - midfield playmaker Tom Davies - would also pick up an ankle injury that led to his substitution during the interval.

 

With England comfortably ahead, Catterall instructed Wells to tell his players to lower the tempo and coast through the second half without overexerting themselves. What followed was 25 minutes of embarrassingly one-sided football, during which the Young Lions bossed possession but incredibly failed to add to their lead.

 

The action didn't really get going again until the 70th minute. A stunning strike by Adamos Chatziloukas from the edge of England's penalty area sailed past goalkeeper Mathew Hudson and sent out the message that Cyprus weren't quite dead and buried.

 

England responded by restoring their three-goal cushion two minutes later. The youngest of the Young Lions - Fulham full-back Ryan Sessegnon - laid on a left-wing cross that was comfortably finished by substitute striker Stephy Mavididi.

 

Eight minutes before the end, more serious questions were asked of the Lions' defending. Cyprus striker Marios Giasoumi struck the post with a delicate header, but Chatziloukas drove in the rebound to secure his second goal and make it 4-2.

 

The contest was finished once and for all in the 87th minute, as England made sure that they had the last word. Though Mavididi was denied a second goal by a tackle from Cypriot captain Panagiotis Artymatas, Edwards thundered the loose ball into the net to secure his brace and complete an excellent midfield display. The Young Lions had run out 5-2 winners... but at a cost.

 

Come full-time, most of England's players were out on their feet. They had worked very hard - perhaps too much so, in Catterall's opinion - and taken a giant step towards qualification for the Elite Round. England were level on points at the top of their group with Iceland, who'd already beaten Luxembourg 2-0 without having to get out of second gear.

 

England's next game was against Iceland, and they would have to go into it without either Davies or Ennis, who both pulled out of the squad with twisted ankles. Sheffield Wednesday striker George Hirst - the son of former senior international David - and Manchester City midfielder Sadou Diallo were called up to take their places for the remainder of the Qualifying Round.

 

5 October 2016: UEFA European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Group 7 - at Terrain Route de Luxembourg, Junglinster

England U19s - 5 (Reiss Nelson 9, Jonathan Leko 12, Marcus Edwards 24,87, Stephy Mavididi 72)

Cyprus U19s - 2 (Adamos Chatziloukas 70,82)

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Mathew Hudson; Ben Sheaf, Reiss Oxford, Jack Vann, Ryan Sessegnon; Ben Godfrey (Andre Dozzell), Tom Davies (Sam Field); Jonathan Leko, Marcus Edwards, Reiss Nelson; Niall Ennis (Stephy Mavididi).

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1 hour ago, CFuller said:

 

Sterling's agent Aidy Ward later laughed off The Sun's story, claiming, "Raheem only has three phones - one for work, one for his friends, his mum and his girlfriend, and one for his other girlfriend. Erm... y'know what? Forget I said that last bit."

 

 

Made me chuckle that last bit, never trust a bloody agent

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On 7/25/2017 at 10:57, mark wilson27 said:

Made me chuckle that last bit, never trust a bloody agent

Glad you enjoyed it. You might well be reading a bit more about Raheem and his Mr 55% as this story rolls on... :D

22 hours ago, oche balboa said:

Enjoying this 

Good to have you following another of my stories, Oche.

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***

 

As England Under-19s were beginning their European Championship pursuit, the Under-21s were approaching the end of their own attempts to qualify for a continental tournament. Only two group matches remained, and the Young Lions needed to do as well as possible to not only secure 2nd place, but also accrue enough points to earn a play-off place.

 

England's last away game was against Montenegro, who'd held them to a goalless draw in Stoke-on-Trent earlier in the campaign. Things were unlikely to be much easier for them in Podgorica.

 

The match was barely 15 seconds old when central midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek fired a warning shot at Montenegro, sending it inches over their crossbar. Another decent early attempt from the visitors came after five minutes, when Patrick Roberts' half-volley was tipped wide by keeper Matija Gligorovic.

 

Still smarting over being dropped from the senior team, Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling was determined to impress Mark Catterall on a rare outing for the Under-21s. He looked set to do that after turning past a couple of Montenegrin defenders in the 16th minute, but a skyward shot left plenty to be desired.

 

Four minutes after that miss from Sterling, three of England's Chelsea quartet linked up to crack Montenegro open again. Loftus-Cheek moved the ball forward to striker Tammy Abraham, who sidefooted a pass into the penalty area and then watched attacking midfielder Kasey Palmer fire it in off the underside of the bar.

 

The Montenegro bar took another hit after exactly half an hour. This time, Sterling was unfortunate not to double the Young Lions' lead with a strike that rebounded back into play before being cleared into touch by Falcons defender Boris Kopitovic.

 

Sterling had another forgettable moment in the 36th minute, as he ran into Montenegro right-back Momcilo Raspopovic. Luckily for him, Loftus-Cheek quickly won the ball off Raspopovic and fed it to Palmer, whose searching ball sliced open the home defence and found Abraham. The prolific Bristol City loanee subsequently burst through and slotted in his third goal in three Under-21s caps!

 

England carried a solid 2-0 lead into the second half, where they took a more conservative approach. They did have chances to strengthen their position every now and again, and although they wasted all of them, those misses would not prove costly. Montenegro would register just three shots against them throughout the whole 90 minutes... and not a single one of them would trouble Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

 

The Falcons' last hope of taking anything from this match dissipated four minutes before full-time. Anchor man Dusan Lagator was already on a yellow card when a careless trip on Abraham resulted in him being booked again, and so Montenegro were forced to finish the match with only 10 men.

 

England came out of this match 2-0 winners - and that was just as well, as the Republic of Ireland had beaten Kazakhstan by the same scoreline in Dublin. That meant the Young Lions would remain two points ahead of their Irish counterparts going into their decisive meeting at St James' Park four days later.

 

England now knew that a draw would be enough to secure 2nd place in Group 9 behind Italy, though they needed a win to give themselves the best possible chance of making the play-offs. Notably, Ireland could not now rack up enough points to qualify for those play-offs, but an away victory would still see the Boys in Green finish 2nd and end England's hopes of progression.

 

6 October 2016: UEFA European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Group 9 - at Pod Goricom, Podgorica

Montenegro U21s - 0

England U21s - 2 (Kasey Palmer 20, Tammy Abraham 36)

ENGLAND U21s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Jordan Pickford; Kyle Walker-Peters, Rob Holding (Mason Holgate), Joe Gomez, Matthew Targett; Nathaniel Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek; Patrick Roberts, Kasey Palmer (Will Hughes), Raheem Sterling (Nathan Redmond); Tammy Abraham.

 

***

 

After just one day's rest, England Under-19s played their second European Championship qualifying match. Victory over Iceland would effectively secure them a spot in the Elite Round, but head coach Matthew Wells didn't have much reason for optimism.

 

Iceland's earlier group victory over host nation Luxembourg had been executed with the minimum of fuss. In contrast, England had laboured to a 5-2 win against Cyprus that was - in truth - more gruelling on them physically than the scoreline had suggested.

 

Wells, in conjunction with Mark Catterall, struggled to name a fit starting XI for this match. Sadou Diallo and George Hirst, who'd been called up following injuries to Tom Davies and Niall Ennis, were obvious starters, but few of the players who'd taken on Cyprus had recovered from their exploits.

 

"I'm not sure how we can win this match, to be honest with you, Mark," Wells said pessimistically in a phone call with Catterall prior to kick-off. "Iceland are a lot fitter and fresher than we are. This could be an embarrassment. We could lose heavily."

 

Catterall - who was in Glasgow on the eve of the senior England team's FIFA World Cup qualifier against Scotland - was trying to stay positive. Despite that, he admitted, "The schedule is a nightmare for everyone. It was like this when I was managing the Under-17s.

 

"You've got five days to play three matches with 18 players, most of whom aren't even adults yet. It's a disgrace that UEFA have done nowt about this. At best, it's a headache; at worst, it's legalised child labour!"

 

Wells asked, "You're the England manager. Can't you speak up publicly and get UEFA to address this?"

 

"It'd be no use, Matt," Catterall conceded. "You know the football hierarchy don't care what the Brits think anymore. Also, UEFA are very much set in their ways. Their new President's no different from the old one, as far as I can see.

 

"For now, we've just got to put up with it and concentrate on beating Iceland. We'll find a way - trust me."

 

Memories of the senior England team's humiliating loss to Iceland earlier in 2016 seemed to be on Wells' mind. Fortunately for his Young Lions, their Icelandic counterparts seemed more determined to bully them than play them off the park.

 

Tackles flew in from both ends during a torrid first period that saw the referee hand out four yellow cards - two to each side. Iceland were the more aggressive side in that sense; they were very much trying to make their physical presence felt on England's already fatigued players.

 

Crucially, the Nordics' tactics came at the expense of their technical game. The Young Lions were able to control possession, dictate the tempo, and create more scoring opportunities than their opponents. Strikers Hirst and Stephy Mavididi had their best chances in the first half, with Iceland goalkeeper Sölvi Björnsson having to make a particularly impressive save to thwart the latter after 36 minutes.

 

Iceland didn't seriously threaten their opponents until the 50th minute. Right-back Ástbjörn Þórðarson's close-range free-kick rebounded off the England wall, and centre-half Aron Kári Aðalsteinsson's follow-up was caught by Young Lions goalie Daniel Grimshaw.

 

England were otherwise untroubled, and in the 77th minute of a low-calibre match, they struck the decisive blow. A couple of West Bromwich Albion prospects did the damage, with midfielder Sam Field playing a slide-rule pass to substitute forward Jonathan Leko, who drove in a shot that just evaded Björnsson.

 

Leko's second goal in as many games effectively earned the Young Lions back-to-back victories. After Grimshaw caught a late attempt from Iceland winger Guðmundur Andri Tryggvason, England effortlessly closed the game out.

 

With one group game still to play, the Young Lions were safely through to the Elite Round. It was now almost a given that they would finish top of Group 7, as their final opponents were a Luxembourg outfit who'd followed up their two-goal defeat to Iceland by shipping five against Cyprus.

 

That match would take place in just two days' time. In the meantime, Catterall would have the small matter of an Anglo-Scottish derby at Hampden Park to contend with. No rest for the wicked, eh?

 

7 October 2016: UEFA European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Group 7 - at Terrain Route de Luxembourg, Junglinster

Iceland U19s - 0

England U19s - 1 (Jonathan Leko 77)

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-4-2 Diamond): Daniel Grimshaw; Ben Godfrey (Trent Alexander-Arnold), Jack Vann, Reece Oxford, Ryan Sessegnon; Sam Field; Sadou Diallo, Ben Sheaf; Andre Dozzell (Bright Enobakhare); George Hirst, Stephy Mavididi (Jonathan Leko). BOOKED: Godfrey 16, Field 32.

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And I thought I had it tough with 3 matches in 7 days...

Edited by ChileanRanger

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On 7/26/2017 at 14:31, ChileanRanger said:

And I thought I had it tough with 3 matches in 7 days...

That's how it is when you're managing three national squads at once. It's not that a hard-worker like Catterall is complaining, mind.

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***

 

Scotland vs England was, without any doubt, one of the definitive rivalries in international football. These two great adversaries played out the first ever official international match on 30 November 1872 - a 0-0 draw at the Hamilton Crescent cricket ground in the Partick area of Glasgow. Needless to say, subsequent encounters would provide rather more in the way of entertainment.

 

Since that first meeting, there had been 112 contests between England and Scotland. The English had triumphed 47 times, the Scots had beaten the 'Auld Enemy' on 41 occasions, and there had been 24 draws.

 

Round 113 of the Anglo-Scottish football rivalry took place on 8 October 2016, when Glasgow's Hampden Park staged a FIFA World Cup qualifier - the first competitive fixture between these two teams since 1999. Back then, Don Hutchison had earned Scotland a famous 1-0 win at Wembley in the second leg of their UEFA Euro 2000 qualifying play-off. However, England had already defeated them 2-0 at Hampden Park in the first leg, and so it was the Three Lions who progressed to the finals.

 

In contrast to their 1999 meetings, this clash took place early in the World Cup preliminaries. The teams had played out just one match apiece beforehand - England trounced Malta 6-1, while Scotland were narrowly beaten by Slovenia. Following their slip-up in Ljubljana, the Tartan Army could ill afford another early defeat - and certainly not one at home to their greatest rivals.

 

Scotland's fiery coach Gordon Strachan had already managed his country in this fixture on two occasions, suffering narrow friendly defeats at Wembley in 2013 and at Celtic Park a year later. Back then, Roy Hodgson was managing the English. Now it was Mark Catterall who was leading his countrymen out in front of thousands of baying Scots.

 

For six of England's starting line-up, this was their first experience of facing the Tartan Army. It was likely to be a particularly memorable experience for 20-year-old Demarai Gray of Leicester City, who made his first start for the Three Lions on the right wing.

 

If Gray was feeling any nerves, especially after a rousing rendition of "Flower of Scotland" from the home support (sadly not led by Ronnie Browne), then he didn't show it early on. Barely 20 seconds had passed when his cross from the byline was headed behind by Scotland defender Grant Hanley for an early corner.

 

England captain Wayne Rooney's corner delivery was headed away by his opposite number Darren Fletcher. However, Gray quickly nodded Fletcher's clearance towards the feet of left-back Danny Rose, who powered in his second goal in as many games! With just 47 seconds gone, it was already 1-0 to England!

 

Scotland's first shot on target came in the seventh minute. Sheffield Wednesday striker Jordan Rhodes - one of four English-born players in their starting line-up - ran onto a weighted lob from Robert Snodgrass and fired a hopeful shot that Joe Hart awkwardly pushed behind. However, the subsequent corner from teenage Celtic left-back Kieran Tierney was a poor one, and Gary Cahill - winning his 50th cap for England - made an easy interception.

 

More chances came and went for both teams over the course of the first half. Despite adding four goals to his international tally a month earlier, England's Harry Kane was left frustrated in his attempts to score another. A couple of impressive stops from Scotland goalkeeper Craig Gordon denied Kane what would have been his 10th goal for the Three Lions, in just his 19th cap.

 

Rhodes' international record was also quite short, but nowhere near as impressive as Kane's. In 13 previous appearances for Scotland, he'd only found the net three times, most recently when he struck twice against Luxembourg four years earlier. Rhodes had another fine opportunity to score his fourth Tartan Army goal in the 34th minute, but his drive whistled just over Hart's crossbar.

 

Another Scottish attack broke down in the 40th minute, when Kane - of all people - tackled the ball off their attacking midfielder James Morrison. The ball fell to England speedster Gray, who raced up the right flank, evaded a clumsy tackle from Liam Cooper, and centred the ball into the penalty area. On the other end of his cross was fellow youngster Dele Alli, who rifled in a half-volley for just his second goal in a senior England jersey.

 

England looked very comfortable at half-time, with a 2-0 lead in tow. The second half would be rather more stressful, largely because of their own lack of discipline. Gary Cahill and Jordan Henderson - two of the most experienced outfielders in this team - each received bookings early on for tripping up Scotland's substitute forward Chris Martin.

 

In the 53rd minute, shortly after Henderson's booking, his midfield colleague Alli carelessly lost possession to Tierney. Moments later, Scottish captain Fletcher played a sumptuous ball over the England defence and to Rhodes, whose strike stung Hart's palms on its way into the net. A huge roar went up across Hampden Park, as Scotland were now only one goal behind, and well and truly back in contention.

 

Following Rhodes' morale-boosting strike, the Tartan Army threatened to equalise within two minutes. Tierney's inswinging corner to Snodgress was headed goalwards by the West Ham United forward, but Hart made a composed catch to keep the Three Lions' noses in front.

 

Another corner at the other end in the 58th minute almost resulted in England pulling 3-1 ahead. Cahill beat Fletcher to Rooney's delivery to the far post, which he nodded towards Alli. A stunning volley from Alli crashed against the crossbar, and Cooper had to knock the rebound behind for another Rooney corner, albeit a less effective one.

 

Kane pulled another England shot wide in the 63rd minute, while Adam Lallana came within inches of finding the target seven minutes later. At that point, Catterall decided to sub Kane off and throw Callum Wilson on. The AFC Bournemouth striker had an angled shot tipped behind by Gordon in the 80th minute, but he would soon make an even bigger impact on proceedings.

 

With nine minutes left, Wilson went down under a trip from Hanley just inside Scotland's penalty area. German referee Marco Fritz pointed to the spot, much to the dismay of many at Hampden Park. The Scots' anger would intensify when Rooney drove a clinical penalty underneath the dive of Gordon to clinch his 55th England goal and make it 3-1.

 

The match had effectively been decided, so Catterall could now afford to take a chance on the untested Burnley defender Michael Keane. The 23-year-old came on for his international debut, as a replacement for Cahill, with five minutes to go.

 

Scotland pushed further up the pitch to try and launch a late comeback, but their hopes were dashed in the last minute of normal time. Rooney exploited a large gap between the centre-backs by threading the ball through to Wilson, who blasted home his second England goal in three caps. 4-1 to the visitors - game over.

 

England remained top of Group 6, though their next opponents Slovakia kept up the pace by recording their second win on the bounce. That said, they had only managed to break through a stubborn Malta defence once, courtesy of Michal Duris in the 3rd minute. The other group game ended in a goalless stalemate between Lithuania and Slovenia.

 

8 October 2016: FIFA World Cup UEFA Qualifying Group 6 - at Hampden Park, Glasgow

Scotland - 1 (Jordan Rhodes 53)

England - 4 (Danny Rose 1, Dele Alli 40, Wayne Rooney pen81, Callum Wilson 90)

ENGLAND LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Joe Hart; Kyle Walker, Gary Cahill (Michael Keane), John Stones, Danny Rose; Dele Alli, Jordan Henderson (Eric Dier); Demarai Gray, Wayne Rooney, Adam Lallana; Harry Kane (Callum Wilson). BOOKED: Cahill 46, Henderson 52.

 

Catterall expressed his delight when speaking to ITV's Gabriel Clarke after the final whistle. "It's always a great feeling to beat the Scottish, especially in their own back garden," he beamed. "I thought we were excellent throughout the whole game from an attacking point of view, and that goal from Wilson at the end capped it off. I couldn't be much prouder at this moment."

 

Even though England had now made it back-to-back wins at the start of the qualifiers, Catterall wasn't getting complacent.

 

"Two wins from two is obviously a great start, but I don't want anyone thinking that it'll be an easy ride from hereon in," he told Clarke. "All our hard work could be undone if we lose focus, especially against the likes of Slovakia or Slovenia. We have to keep going for as long as possible until it [qualification] is secured, because you never know what will happen in international football."

 

Clarke finished the interview with a question about Gray, who'd won the 'man of the match' award in just his second cap. Catterall said, "The lad did well, I'll give him that, but I'd be wary of bigging him up so much at such a young age. He's not the finished article yet, and he won't be for a long time. All I'll say right now is that if Demarai Gray can play like he did tonight on a consistent basis, he'll be doing alright."

 

That was scant praise from the 'Impossible Man', who was proving very difficult to impress.

 

***

 

After that thrilling victory over old rivals Scotland, Mark Catterall's next fixture was a rather less stressful encounter involving England's Under-19s. The Young Lions went into their final European Championship Qualifying Round match against group hosts Luxembourg already assured of a place in the next round. Indeed, they only needed a draw to guarantee that they would finish top of their group.

 

Although there was very little riding on this match, the Young Lions were determined to finish this phase in style. George Hirst almost fired them into the lead less than a minute after kick-off, when he ran onto an incisive long ball from strike partner Stephy Mavididi. Unfortunately, Luxembourg goalkeeper Joël Hahm managed to turn the Sheffield Wednesday forward's shot behind. That said, Hirst would make the most of the resulting corner delivery from Josh Tymon, heading it over Hahm to break the deadlock after a mere 75 seconds.

 

Hirst was chasing a second goal in the fifth minute, after he latched onto another exquisite direct ball from Mavididi. A fine fingertip save from Hahm kept him at bay, but England were already firmly in control of proceedings.

 

The Young Lions would double their lead courtesy of another corner on 18 minutes. Reiss Nelson's delivery was headed against the crossbar by Leeds United centre-half Jack Vann, but Mavididi pounced on the rebound and stuck in a simple finish.

 

England were looking good to pull even further ahead in the 32nd minute, when they attacked from yet another corner. Vann's central defensive colleague Ben Sheaf got his head to a floated delivery from Marcus Edwards, but his effort was nodded off the line by right-back Jacques Hahm (no relation to the goalkeeper). The scoreline therefore remained 2-0 to the visitors at half-time.

 

The second half was ten minutes old when Mavididi spurned a great chance for 3-0, firing Hirst's centre against the bar. England had their first setback of note shortly afterwards, as left-back Tymon came off with a thigh injury.

 

Although these Young Lions were starting to tire significantly, they were still more than a match for Luxembourg. In the 66th minute, Hirst moved the ball out left to Nelson, who took it up the left flank and then provided Mavididi with the centre that resulted in his second goal.

 

Having assisted his Arsenal colleague for England's third goal, Nelson was now looking to wrap up a dominant win by getting the fourth for himself. The winger's opportunity came when Hirst found him in space after 72 minutes. Nelson coasted past the home right-back and entered the area, where he effortlessly slotted the ball home.

 

Luxembourg had a chance to save some face between those last two England goals, but Tom Saibene's 69th-minute strike was stopped by Mathew Hudson. The Preston North End keeper also denied Joé Selimovic a consolation goal in the 81st minute of an otherwise straightforward victory for the Young Lions.

 

England concluded the Qualifying Round with three wins from three games in Group 7, and a 10-goal haul that was better than any other team's in this phase. They would be joined in the Elite Round by Iceland, who made heavy work of Cyprus before beating them 2-1 to finish as group runners-up.

 

9 October 2016: UEFA European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Group 7 - at Terrain Route de Luxembourg, Junglinster

England U19s - 4 (George Hirst 2, Stephy Mavididi 18,66, Reiss Nelson 72)

Luxembourg U19s - 0

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-4-2): Mathew Hudson; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ben Sheaf, Jack Vann (Ben Godfrey), Josh Tymon (Ryan Sessegnon); Marcus Edwards, Andre Dozzell (Sam Field), Sadou Diallo, Reiss Nelson; Stephy Mavididi, George Hirst.

 

2017 UEFA European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Group 7 (Final Standings)

                                   P     W     D     L     F     A     GD    PTS
1.    Q     England U19s           3     3     0     0     10    2     8     9
2.    Q     Iceland U19s           3     2     0     1     4     2     2     6
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
3.          Cyprus U19s            3     1     0     2     8     7     1     3
4.          Luxembourg U19s        3     0     0     3     0     11    -11   0

 

The Elite Round draw took place later that month, and it became clear that England would face much sterner tests than they had done in the Qualifying Round. They would play Iceland for a second time in Group 6, where they were also joined by the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Serbia.

 

Unlike the Qualifying Round, the Elite Round would be played out at multiple venues over the course of nine days in late March, with each team hosting at least one group game. England's only home fixture would be against Iceland at Blackburn on 24 March, and it would be sandwiched between away visits to Croatia and Serbia.

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***

 

England Under-19s were still going strong in their European Championship qualifiers, and now Mark Catterall was charged with saving the Under-21s' hopes of reaching their continental finals over the summer.

 

St James' Park in Newcastle staged England Under-21s' final group game, at home to the Republic of Ireland. The equation was straightforward; they had to get at least a draw to finish 2nd in their group, though it was likely that a victory would be required to sneak into the play-offs. A defeat, on the other hand, would end their hopes of European Championship glory until 2019.

 

Ireland's chances of qualification had now disappeared, but they were still determined to knock England off 2nd and finish on a high. The Boys in Green made a very positive start, with winger Olamide Shodipo heading a Shane Griffin cross against the corner of the English goal frame after just four minutes.

 

Young Lions goalkeeper Jordan Pickford faced another major test in the sixth minute. The Sunderland custodian didn't look too flustered, though, in catching an attempt from Irish striker Liam Kelly, who'd won his first senior cap for the Republic against Georgia in August.

 

Keeping goal for Ireland was the Polish-born Everton reserve gloveman Mateusz Hewelt. He made light work of a tame header from England right-back Dominic Iorfa in the 10th minute and later waved wide several increasingly wayward shots by home captain James Ward-Prowse.

 

Arguably England's best scoring chance of the first period came from Tammy Abraham in the 31st minute. Bristol City's on-loan Chelsea striker tried to curl in his fourth goal in four Under-21s games from 20 yards out, though he narrowly missed the target.

 

Abraham wouldn't get another chance to continue his fantastic scoring run, as Manchester United's Marcus Rashford replaced him up front at half-time. Another mid-interval change in the England ranks came at right-wing, where Patrick Roberts was brought on to replace a very out-of-sorts Manchester City team-mate.

 

Truth be told, Raheem Sterling had not acquitted himself well in either of the Under-21s' last two fixtures, being subbed off at the break in Montenegro and once again here. Catterall had expected much better from a top-quality winger who'd won 27 senior caps, but a couple of lazy displays indicated that the former wonderkid was perhaps lacking a bit of determination - not to mention desire - to get his career back on track.

 

Five minutes into the second half, another young sensation began their attempts to score a maiden England Under-21s goal. Rashford's effort was plucked out of the air by Hewelt, who rescued Ireland again another five minutes later, following a mistake by Griffin. Roberts dispossessed the hesitant left-back deep in the Irish box and squared the ball to Rashford, who would surely have made it 1-0 but for Hewelt's lightning-quick reactions.

 

The Republic of Ireland could not hold on for much longer. A weak clearance by centre-back Lee Desmond proved costly when Nathan Redmond exchanged passes with Rashford and then slipped a shot just beyond Hewelt's reach. Would that goal from the Southampton winger be the decisive one for England?

 

The Young Lions piled more pressure on the Boys in Green later in the second period, with Hewelt having to make another save from Rashford in the 73rd minute. There were also a couple of narrow misses from Roberts and Ward-Prowse.

 

The final 10 minutes saw Ireland push on in search of a late equaliser. Shodipo couldn't trouble Pickford with a half-volley in the 81st minute, but the Wearsider would be tested to his limits a couple of minutes later. Republic midfielder Connor Ronan set up a strike from substitute striker Eamonn Brophy that Pickford just about diverted away from his goal. Callum O'Dowda pulled the rebound shot into the side netting, and England were let off the hook again.

 

Two minutes after England's close shave, Ward-Prowse appeared to have killed the game off for them. It looked like the midfielder had joined his Southampton colleague Redmond on the scoreboard when he powered Rashford's through-ball into the top corner... but the offside flag went up, and the final score stayed at 1-0.

 

England had done their bit, securing 2nd place in Group 9, but they now faced an anxious wait to discover if they would qualify for the play-offs as one of the four best runners-up. Once the dust settled, the results were in... and England were 3rd in the runners-up standings, just ahead of Wales and the unfortunate Finland on goal difference. Had Redmond not scored that winning goal against Ireland, the Young Lions would have missed out altogether.

 

10 October 2016: UEFA European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Group 9 - at St James' Park, Newcastle

England U21s - 1 (Nathan Redmond 57)

Republic of Ireland U21s - 0

ENGLAND U21s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Jordan Pickford; Dominic Iorfa, Joe Gomez, Brendan Galloway, Ben Chilwell; James Ward-Prowse, Nathaniel Chalobah; Raheem Sterling (Patrick Roberts), Kasey Palmer (Ben Pearson), Nathan Redmond; Tammy Abraham (Marcus Rashford).

 

2017 UEFA European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Group 9 (Final Standings)

                                   P     W     D     L     F     A     GD    PTS
1.    Q     Italy U21s             10    8     2     0     22    4     18    26
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2.    Pl    England U21s           10    6     3     1     15    3     12    21
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
3.          Rep of Ireland U21s    10    4     4     2     14    3     11    16
4.          Kazakhstan U21s        10    2     2     6     6     21    -15   8
5.          Montenegro U21s        10    1     4     5     4     11    -7    7
6.          Kosovo U21s            10    1     1     8     4     23    -19   4

 

England now faced a two-legged play-off against either Serbia, Bulgaria or Wales, for the right to compete in the 2017 European Championship finals in Poland. The Young Lions would be strongly fancied to win their tie, regardless of who they were drawn against.

 

When that draw was made, though, England were pitted against arguably the toughest of their three prospective opponents. They were up against a Serbia side who'd won their last six fixtures and finished just behind Belgium in their group.

 

Serbia would host the first leg in Jagodina on 11 November. Three days after that, the decisive second leg would be staged at the Bet365 Stadium in Stoke-on-Trent.

 

***

 

This had been a productive if gruelling week of matches for England manager Mark Catterall, and it would end with the Three Lions hosting Slovakia in their third FIFA World Cup qualifier. Both teams had won their opening couple of matches, and another victory for either side would put them firmly on top of Group 6.

 

It had been close to four months since these teams last met in competition. Back on 20 June, they played out the most yawn-inducing of goalless draws in Saint-Étienne. Rather mercifully, as far as their fans and most neutrals were concerned, England and Slovakia would each be eliminated from the competition within the next week.

 

Catterall was determined that his England team would put on more of a show this time around than Roy Hodgson's charges had done in France. That said, the Three Lions' exploits in Scotland had left most of their players struggling for fitness, so Catterall had to make major changes before his team hosted Slovakia.

 

Of those who had left the Tartan Army in tatters, only three players remained in the starting line-up. Midfielder Jordan Henderson captained England for the first time in place of the benched Wayne Rooney, while goalkeeper Joe Hart and left-sided forward Adam Lallana were also able to start back-to-back games.

 

Among those who came into the line-up were the Arsenal duo of Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Both in their mid-20s, these two had long been tipped to become elite players but arguably hadn't fulfilled their true potential - Wilshere because of injuries, and Oxlade-Chamberlain because of his inconsistent form at club level.

 

In the 13th minute against Slovakia, the much-maligned Gooners showed glimpses of their brilliance on the international stage. Attacking midfielder Wilshere - now on loan at AFC Bournemouth - squared an excellent pass out right to winger Oxlade-Chamberlain, who took the ball forward and centred it into the penalty area. On the other end was Daniel Sturridge, whose half-volley put the Three Lions 1-0 up.

 

Slovakia launched their first equalising attempt eight minutes after falling behind. Left-back Patrik Mraz's cross was headed away by full England debutant Michael Keane, but only as far as winger Vladimir Weiss, who slid it across the penalty area. The Repre's Argentine-born striker David Depetris then attempted a shot that was, in the end, superbly caught by Hart.

 

Hart would be called upon again in the 25th minute. A coming together between Depetris and Chris Smalling led to Slovakia being awarded a free-kick, which Napoli playmaker Marek Hamsik could only curl safely into the England goalkeeper's hands.

 

The Three Lions went back to their attacking ways in the 33rd minute, when a sublime cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain was nodded narrowly over the bar by Sturridge. A minute after that, Sturridge's Liverpool team-mate Henderson was booked for a trip on Hamsik. As Henderson had already been booked in England's previous qualifier, the vice-captain would now be suspended from their next match against Slovenia in November.

 

Eric Dier had a couple of late attempts at goal for the hosts before they went into the break. Though England were narrowly ahead, there was a sense that they hadn't yet caught fire. Catterall sought to address with by replacing the anonymous Lallana with the dynamic Demarai Gray, who'd played so well on his full debut three days earlier.

 

That substitution would pay dividends after just 54 minutes. Oxlade-Chamberlain once again used his explosive pace out on the right flank before swinging a deep cross into the box. 20-year-old Gray then rushed forward and leapt above Slovakia's right-back Peter Pekarik to nod it past goalkeeper Matus Kozacik. It was now 2-0 to England, thanks to a first international goal from their latest young sensation.

 

Shortly after Gray's goal came a sign that the Leicester City winger was still nothing like the finished product. He was naïvely muscled off the ball by Weiss - a former Manchester City forward now curiously based in Qatar - and looked visibly flustered. Thankfully for him, that mistake went unpunished by Slovakia.

 

Slovakia manager Jan Kozak looked to make a game-changing substitution of his own in the 65th minute, replacing Depetris with Jakub Sylvestr. The AaB striker had his first pop at goal within two minutes of coming on, but Hart beat it away. England's number 1 would only need to make one more save before full-time, from a volley by AC Milan midfielder Juraj Kucka in the 86th minute.

 

The hosts had a host of opportunities to rubber-stamp victory in the last half-hour. Wilshere had a couple of attempts saved by Kozacik, who also denied Gray a dream second goal on 77 minutes.

 

England would eventually grab a third goal in injury time, thanks to a couple of midfield substitutes. Dele Alli played the ball to Danny Drinkwater, who sliced it through the Slovak defence with a first-time pass to Wilshere. The flamboyant if fragile playmaker then buried it home, and a 3-0 win was in the bag.

 

Three victories on the trot represented a great start to the World Cup qualifiers for England, even if they were always expected to coast through to the finals in Russia. The only other unbeaten team in their group were their next opponents - Slovenia, who'd beaten Malta 3-0 to stay within two points of the leaders. Scotland had got themselves back in contention as well, with Chris Martin securing the only goal as they squeaked past Lithuania.

 

11 October 2016: FIFA World Cup UEFA Qualifying Group 6 - at Wembley, London

England - 3 (Daniel Sturridge 13, Demarai Gray 54, Jack Wilshere 90+2)

Slovakia - 0

ENGLAND LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Joe Hart; Calum Chambers, Michael Keane, Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw; Eric Dier (Danny Drinkwater), Jordan Henderson (Dele Alli); Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Adam Lallana (Demarai Gray); Daniel Sturridge. BOOKED: Henderson 34.

 

2018 FIFA World Cup UEFA Qualifying Group 6 (After 3 rounds)

                                   P     W     D     L     F     A     GD    PTS
1.          England                3     3     0     0     13    2     11    9
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2.          Slovenia               3     2     1     0     4     0     4     7
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
3.          Slovakia               3     2     0     1     3     3     0     6
4.          Scotland               3     1     0     2     2     5     -3    3
5.          Lithuania              3     0     1     2     0     3     -3    1
6.          Malta                  3     0     0     3     1     10    -9    0

 

With another victory in the bag, Catterall was ready for another interview with Gabriel Clarke from ITV. When asked about England's chances of World Cup qualification, he insisted, "Gabriel, you should know by now that I won't be getting ahead of myself. Yes, we've won our first three games, but there's still seven to go, and we need to remain focused for all of them. All those teams below us will want to knock us off our perch, and we'll have to keep fending them off."

 

Although rising star Gray had just scored his first England goal, all the post-match hype surrounded another wing wizard in Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Arsenal winger created assists for each of the Three Lions' opening two goals, including Gray's, and the manager was quietly impressed.

 

"Chamberlain's not had the greatest of starts at Arsenal, but his performance tonight showed what he's really like," Catterall said. "He's got incredible pace out wide, and the Slovakian full-backs just couldn't handle him. That just goes to show that it was the right call to play him tonight."

 

The first impressions of Catterall's reign as England manager had been very encouraging. The Under-21s and Under-19s were each making progress in their respective European Championship qualifying campaigns, while the senior team were undefeated and scoring for fun. However, Catterall knew that this was no time to rest on his laurels, as greater challenges were sure to come his way in November.

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On 27/7/2017 at 09:51, CFuller said:

Gary Cahill and Jordan Henderson - two of the most experienced outfielders in this team - each received bookings early on for tripping up Scotland's substitute forward Chris Martin.

I've heard about not liking Coldplay, but this is ridiculous!

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5 minutes ago, ChileanRanger said:

I've heard about not liking Coldplay, but this is ridiculous!

Maybe I have a head full of dreams, but I think went something just like this...

After watching Cahill cause some trouble, Henderson had a rush of blood to the head and hurtled at Chris Martin at the speed of sound to put him in his place. It just sends a shiver down my spine to think about it; those tackles must've hurt like heaven for Martin, who was feeling all yellow afterwards.

Then, as if by magic, God appeared out of the blue to say, "Don't panic, Chris. I will try to fix you." And so God put a smile upon his face. It didn't last, mind - instead of going up & up, Scotland simply went up in flames and lost!

And thus ended Chris Martin's adventure of a lifetime. Now, if you didn't enjoy that, I'm moving to Mars!

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Chapter 6 - Under The Spotlight

 

"Mark Catterall: Is he English football's saviour?" That was the question being asked on the BBC Sport website in October, after the new England manager's reign had started off with four successive victories, including three in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

 

Only two previous managers of the Three Lions had enjoyed such auspicious starts - Walter Winterbottom in 1946, and Sven-Göran Eriksson in 2001. The much-maligned Swede won his first five matches in charge, before succumbing to the Netherlands in his sixth.

 

England had already accounted for the Dutch before registering comfortable victories over Malta, Scotland and Slovakia. Catterall's charges hadn't yet been thoroughly tested, but that was sure to change in November. These next two fixtures would perhaps give a clearer indication of whether 'Catts' could indeed - to paraphrase one particular New Yorker who enjoyed his greatest victory yet this month - make English football great again.

 

At the forefront of Catterall's mind was a World Cup qualifying trip to Slovenia - the only other unbeaten side in Group 6. Victory for the Three Lions would see them potentially go five points clear at the top of the table, though defeat would result in them ceding first place - and the initiative - to the Slovenes.

 

Three days after that would be a home friendly against Belgium - ranked 3rd in the world, and 1st in Europe, despite only reaching the Quarter Finals of the last UEFA European Championship. Although many had argued about whether there was any point in playing an international friendly after a qualifying match, Catterall was insistent that his squad needed as much match practice against the continent's best teams as possible.

 

Meanwhile, the Under-21s would be facing Serbia over two legs in a European Championship play-off, with the victors going through to next summer's finals in Poland, and the losers staying at home. England had been present at each of the last five finals tournaments, and failure to make it six in a row would be a real cause for concern.

 

There wasn't any pressure on the Under-19s this time around, though. In preparation for the Elite Round of their European Championship qualifiers in March, they would be playing a couple of warm-up friendlies - one in Denmark, and another at home to Wales.

 

ENGLAND squad - for matches vs Slovenia (A) and Belgium (H)

NAME                      POSITIONS           D.O.B. (AGE)     CLUB            CAPS  GOALS HEIGHT WEIGHT     VALUE
Fraser Forster            GK                  17/03/1988 (28)  Southampton     6     0     6'7"   15st 8lbs  £13.75M 
Joe Hart                  GK                  19/04/1987 (29)  Torino          67    0     6'5"   12st 10lbs £20M    
Tom Heaton                GK                  15/04/1986 (30)  Burnley         1     0     6'2"   13st 7lbs  £8M     
Michael Keane             D (RC)              11/01/1993 (23)  Burnley         2     0     6'1"   13st 0lbs  £17.5M  
John Stones               D (RC)              28/05/1994 (22)  Man City        12    0     6'2"   12st 1lb   £29M    
Eric Dier                 D (RC), DM, M (C)   15/01/1994 (22)  Tottenham       15    2     6'2"   13st 7lbs  £31M    
Gary Cahill               D (C)               19/12/1985 (30)  Chelsea         50    3     6'4"   13st 7lbs  £5M     
Chris Smalling            D (C)               22/11/1989 (26)  Man Utd         32    1     6'4"   14st 2lbs  £27M    
Nathaniel Clyne           D/WB (R)            05/04/1991 (25)  Liverpool       15    0     5'9"   10st 7lbs  £22M    
Kyle Walker               D/WB (R)            28/05/1990 (26)  Tottenham       21    0     6'0"   11st 9lbs  £23M    
Luke Shaw                 D/WB (L)            12/07/1995 (21)  Man Utd         8     0     6'1"   11st 11lbs £12.5M  
Danny Rose                D/WB/M (L)          02/07/1990 (26)  Tottenham       9     2     5'8"   11st 6lbs  £21.5M  
Jordan Henderson          DM, M (C)           17/06/1990 (26)  Liverpool       31    0     6'0"   10st 7lbs  £29M    
Danny Drinkwater          M (C)               05/03/1990 (26)  Leicester       4     0     5'10"  11st 0lbs  £22.5M  
Demarai Gray              M/AM (RL)           28/06/1996 (20)  Leicester       3     1     5'10"  12st 3lbs  £13.5M  
Adam Lallana              M/AM (RLC)          10/05/1988 (28)  Liverpool       29    0     5'8"   11st 6lbs  £27.5M  
Dele Alli                 M/AM (C)            11/04/1996 (20)  Tottenham       16    2     6'1"   12st 1lb   £32M    
Jack Wilshere             M/AM (C)            01/01/1992 (24)  Bournemouth     35    3     5'9"   10st 3lbs  £24M    
Wayne Rooney              M/AM (C), ST (C)    24/10/1985 (31)  Man Utd         118   55    5'10"  12st 3lbs  £10.75M 
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain   AM (RL)             15/08/1993 (23)  Arsenal         25    5     5'11"  11st 4lbs  £13.75M 
Harry Kane                ST (C)              28/07/1993 (23)  Tottenham       19    9     6'3"   13st 0lbs  £35.5M  
Daniel Sturridge          ST (C)              01/09/1989 (27)  Liverpool       23    8     6'0"   12st 6lbs  £34.5M  
Callum Wilson             ST (C)              27/02/1992 (24)  Bournemouth     3     2     5'11"  10st 7lbs  £30M    

 

With England on a four-match winning streak, Mark Catterall saw no need to make major changes to his main squad.

 

Manchester United centre-back Phil Jones was back from injury, but he found himself unable to displace the newly-capped Michael Keane. The 23-year-old's brave defensive performances for Burnley were attracting strong interest from the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool, and a big-money January transfer looked to be on the cards. There were even a few whispers that a certain Pep Guardiola was looking to recruit Keane - a former United trainee, no less - for Manchester City.

 

There was a recall for the fit-again Nathaniel Clyne, as the Liverpool right-back reclaimed his place from Calum Chambers, who dropped back into the Under-21s.

 

Clyne's Anfield team-mate Jordan Henderson remained in the squad, even though England's vice-captain would miss the trip to Slovenia through suspension. There were no other alterations to the squad, and so Arsenal winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain retained his place at the expense of West Ham United's Michail Antonio.

 

Harry Kane was once again amongst the in-form players in the England squad, having helped to preserve Premier League leaders Tottenham Hotspur's unbeaten start. Left-back Luke Shaw had also recently put in some excellent shifts for Manchester United, who were hot on Spurs' and Liverpool's heels in 3rd place.

 

ENGLAND UNDER-21s squad - for matches vs Serbia (A and H)

NAME                      POSITIONS           D.O.B. (AGE)     CLUB            CAPS  GOALS HEIGHT WEIGHT     VALUE
Luke McGee                GK                  02/09/1995 (21)  Peterborough    0     0     6'4"   12st 8lbs  £650K   
Jordan Pickford           GK                  07/03/1994 (22)  Sunderland      13    0     6'2"   12st 1lb   £6.25M  
Freddie Woodman           GK                  04/03/1997 (19)  Kilmarnock      0     0     6'1"   10st 12lbs £500K   
Joe Gomez                 D (RLC)             23/05/1997 (19)  Liverpool       6     0     6'2"   13st 7lbs  £6.75M  
Calum Chambers            D (RC)              20/01/1995 (21)  Middlesbrough   16    0     6'0"   11st 6lbs  £9.25M  
Mason Holgate             D (RC)              22/10/1996 (20)  Everton         2     0     5'11"  11st 13lbs £9M     
Dominic Iorfa             D (RC)              24/06/1995 (21)  Wolves          10    0     6'4"   12st 3lbs  £5.75M  
Ben Chilwell              D (LC), WB (L)      21/12/1996 (19)  Leicester       4     0     5'10"  11st 13lbs £5M     
Brendan Galloway          D (LC), DM          17/03/1996 (20)  West Brom       2     0     6'2"   13st 9lbs  £2.5M   
Rob Holding               D (C)               20/09/1995 (21)  Arsenal         4     0     6'2"   13st 0lbs  £6.5M   
Nathaniel Chalobah        D (C), DM, M (C)    12/12/1994 (21)  Chelsea         32    0     6'1"   11st 6lbs  £6.75M  
Matthew Targett           D/WB (L)            18/09/1995 (21)  Southampton     13    0     6'0"   12st 10lbs £7M     
Harrison Reed             DM, M (C)           27/01/1995 (21)  Southampton     0     0     5'6"   10st 3lbs  £3.3M   
Will Hughes               DM, M/AM (C)        17/04/1995 (21)  Derby           19    1     6'1"   11st 9lbs  £10.5M  
Ruben Loftus-Cheek        DM, M/AM (C)        23/01/1996 (20)  Chelsea         16    4     6'3"   13st 7lbs  £5.75M  
Patrick Roberts           M (RL), AM (RLC)    05/02/1997 (19)  Celtic          3     1     5'6"   9st 1lb    £6.25M  
Raheem Sterling           M (L), AM (RLC)     08/12/1994 (21)  Man City        10    3     5'7"   10st 12lbs £30M    
Kasey Palmer              M (C), AM (RLC)     09/11/1996 (19)  Huddersfield    6     1     5'11"  12st 6lbs  £8.75M  
Nathan Redmond            M/AM (RL), ST (C)   06/03/1994 (22)  Southampton     31    11    5'8"   11st 9lbs  £15.25M 
James Ward-Prowse         M/AM (RC)           01/11/1994 (22)  Southampton     26    6     5'8"   10st 5lbs  £11.75M 
Tammy Abraham             AM (R), ST (C)      02/10/1997 (19)  Bristol City    4     3     6'4"   12st 10lbs £7.75M  
Zach Clough               AM (RLC), ST (C)    08/03/1995 (21)  Nottm Forest    0     0     5'7"   10st 7lbs  £3M     
Marcus Rashford           AM (L), ST (C)      31/10/1997 (19)  Man Utd         3     0     5'11"  11st 6lbs  £32M    

 

Catterall played a few more risks when it came to picking the Under-21s squad for their do-or-die play-off matches against Serbia. Two uncapped outfielders were called up, including midfielder Harrison Reed, who joined three of his Southampton colleagues in the squad. Nathan Redmond, Matthew Targett and James Ward-Prowse had accrued 70 caps between them at this level.

 

The other international rookie at this age group was Nottingham Forest striker Zach Clough. The 21-year-old, who'd joined Forest from Bolton Wanderers earlier this summer, had missed the first few months of the season with a torn hamstring but was now getting back up to speed. However, the fact that Clough had yet to score in a Forest jersey suggested that his England Under-21s selection was a real gamble.

 

Teenage Chelsea striker Dominic Solanke - who'd been named in the last couple of squads despite barely playing for his loan club Burnley - was axed to make room for Clough.

 

Catterall opted to keep Wolverhampton Wanderers right-back Dominic Iorfa in the squad and drop Kyle Walker-Peters, whose Preston North End team-mate Ben Pearson also missed out this time around.

 

ENGLAND UNDER-19s squad - for matches vs Denmark (A) and Wales (H)

GOALKEEPERS: Daniel Grimshaw (Man City), Mathew Hudson (Preston), Aaron Ramsdale (Bournemouth)

DEFENDERS: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Oxford), Ben Godfrey (Crawley), Reece Oxford (Reading), Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham), Josh Tymon (Hull), Jack Vann (Leeds), Tyrell Warren (Man Utd), Ro-Shaun Williams (Man Utd)

MIDFIELDERS: Tom Davies (Everton), Andre Dozzell (Ipswich), Marcus Edwards (Tottenham), Sam Field (Cardiff), Andre Green (Aston Villa), Angel Gomes (Man Utd), Jonathan Leko (West Brom), Reiss Nelson (Arsenal), Ben Sheaf (Inverness CT)

FORWARDS: Niall Ennis (Wolves), Bright Enobakhare (Oxford), George Hirst (Sheff Wed)

 

The Under-19s had a couple of warm-up matches before their European Championship qualifiers resumed in March, so Catterall chose to experience a bit more with this squad. The big surprise was that Charlton Athletic striker Stephy Mavididi - on loan from Arsenal - had been dropped, despite scoring three goals in the previous international break.

 

Defender Ro-Shaun Williams and winger Andre Green, both of whom had been left out of the previous squad, were recalled. Williams was joined by a couple of his Manchester United colleagues in 16-year-old advanced playmaker Angel Gomes - tipped to be Old Trafford's next wonderkid - and right-back Tyrell Warren. Those two were in contention for England Under-19s debuts, as was AFC Bournemouth goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale.

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@neilhoskins77 I thought you might appreciate this. Get well soon, mate.

***

 

The Catterall family were at their kitchen table eating breakfast on the morning on 10 November. After three days of training with the England senior team, Mark Catterall would shortly be flying out to Slovenia's capital city Ljubljana ahead of a big FIFA World Cup qualifier.

 

"It could be a tough game for you on Saturday, couldn't it?" his wife Jenny asked.

 

Mark concurred, "Indeed, it could, love. They're a strong defensive side, so it might take us a while to break them down. But it's just a matter of how long we take, really. If we can cut through them early, we should be alright."

 

"They've got that defender who used to play for Liverpool, haven't they? What's his name?"

 

As Jenny struggled to think of the defender's name, her son Luke suggested, "Martin Skrtel?"

 

"That's the one."

 

"No, Jen, you're thinking of Slovakia," Mark explained. "Slovenia is another country in another area of Eastern Europe."

 

"Sorry. I'm rubbish with geography. But why do those two countries have such similar names?"

 

Mark shrugged, "Don't ask me. Anyway, there's probably some bloke on YouTube who can answer that."

 

"I know you will beat Slovenia, dad," Luke said. "And Belgium as well."

 

"I'm not sure about that one, son. They've got some great players, haven't they? Hazard? Kompany?"

 

"And Fellaini as well."

 

"Ah, I see what you mean now!" Mark laughed. "And we've got the Wembley crowd for that game, so... yeah, we might have a good chance."

 

"I'd like to go to a game at Wembley one day."

 

"Are you sure about that, Luke? There will be lots of people at Wembley, and there's gonna be a very loud atmosphere as well. Are you sure you'll be alright with that?"

 

"Yes, I'll be fine. I've been to Old Trafford."

 

"Yeah, Luke, like I said, there's going to be a very loud atmosphere at Wemb..." Mark then hesitated before asking, "Hang on. You've been to Old Trafford? For a game?"

 

"Yes. Mummy took me there last year."

 

Jenny confirmed, "I took him to Old Trafford last September, when Manchester United played Sunderland. You were in Portugal with the Under-17s team back then, weren't you?"

 

Mark exclaimed, "You never told me about this!"

 

"I kept it a secret, because didn't know what you'd think about Luke going to a United game. But that doesn't matter, really, because you enjoyed it, didn't you, Luke?"

 

"Yeah, I did," Luke smiled. "But I'd love to go to an England game one day. That'd be awesome."

 

"We'll see what we can do about that, son. It mustn't clash with your school work, so it'll probably be a weekend game if anything."

 

"Speaking of school, somebody's got to get himself ready, hasn't he?" Jenny said as she helped Luke from his seat.

 

Mark also got off his seat, saying, "And somebody else has got a flight to catch!"

 

Jenny embraced her husband before whispering, "Have a safe flight, love."

 

"Of course I'll be safe, Jen," Mark said before pecking Jenny on the cheek. "Nothing bad's gonna happen. I promise."

 

A few hours later, Mark Catterall and his England team were aboard the plane that would take them to Ljubljana. The England manager was in first class, and sat beside his assistant Michael Burke. Across the aisle from them were FA chairman Clark Gregory and vice-chairwoman Connie Millstone.

 

Catterall was perusing his copy of the Daily Mirror when, about half an hour into the flight, he received a text message from his wife Jenny, "Hope you're safe. Love you. xx"

 

Catterall sighed, "I know Jenny loves me... but I think she might be getting a little bit paranoid."

 

"What d'you mean, Catts?" asked Burke.

 

"This is, like, the fourth time she's texted me since I left home. She seems to think I'll die in a plane crash for some reason. I tell you, she weren't this anxious before she started watching 'Air Crash Investigation' on Nat Geo of a night."

 

"I get you. Julia has this ridiculous fear that I'll get skin cancer from being sunburnt in Reykjavik."

 

Catterall asked, "That's a ginger joke, ain't it?" Burke nodded, smiling awkwardly, and then commented, "It's just as well we ain't got Iceland in our group, then!"

 

Catterall and Burke then heard their captain Wayne Rooney whisper behind them, "D'ya hear summat?"

 

Rooney's Manchester United team-mate Chris Smalling was then heard whispering, "Did he just mention... Iceland?"

 

Catterall raised his head and looked towards the pair, saying, "You didn't hear nothing! Now get back to watching 'Pimp Your Ride'… or whatever you lot do for entertainment."

 

The manager then turned back and continued reading his newspaper, only to be interrupted by Gregory, who said, "Y'know, Mark. This 'remote management' plan of yours might be catching on. I had a call from the Kyrgyzstan FA the other day, saying that they wanted to emulate what you're doing."

 

Millstone added, "They've just hired an ambitious, forward-thinking young manager from Wales - Bob Hoskins, I think his name is."

 

Gregory laughed, "Bob Hoskins was an actor, yer daft cow!"

 

"Sorry, I meant Neil Hoskins!"

 

Burke then asked, "Bob Hoskins - weren't he the guy who played the saxophone on 'Baker Street' by Gerry Rafferty?"

 

Catterall corrected him, "You're thinking of Bob Holness, who presented 'Blockbusters'. Besides, that was just an urban myth spread by Stuart Maconie in NME magazine..."

 

Gregory interrupted them, "Gents, we were talking about Kyrgyzstan adopting Mark's approach. Why the f*** have we suddenly changed topic to Bob Holness?"

 

"Oh, right, sorry," Burke apologised.

 

Gregory continued, "Yeah, Neil Hoskins - he's only about 40, yet he's been all over the place in his career. Darlington, Lurgan, Hong Kong, Iceland, Russia, you name it. Now he's working for the Kyrgyz FA, and he wants to look into this 'remote management' idea. He reckons it could help the development of all the Kyrgyzstan national teams, from the Under-19s and up."

 

"You've only been with us for a few months, Mark, yet you're already making a big impact," Millstone said. "The Guardian have even started calling your brand of management 'Catterall Thinking' - like 'lateral thinking', but with your name, get it? Sounds a bit snappier than 'remote management', doesn't it?"

 

Burke suggested, "I like 'Catterallism' as a name. What d'you reckon, Mark?"

 

Catterall growled, "Look, I don't care if you call it 'remote management' or 'Catterall Thinking'... or even 'How to make England half-decent'. As far as I'm concerned, it's just my way of having full control over how the England teams are run.

 

"That said, I do appreciate that other managers are taking inspiration from me. Clark, Connie... if you've got Neil's number, I'd be more than happy to speak to him when time allows. I'd be more than happy to pass on any advice."

 

"I'll get that sorted, Mark," Gregory nodded.

 

"By the way..." Millstone interjected. "Neil Hoskins. That's... not a very Welsh name, is it?"

 

"For Christ's sake, Connie, names are names!" Gregory exclaimed. "Were you expecting him to have a stereotypical Welsh name like Owain Williams or Tina Powell or... Lewin Nyatanga?"

 

"I'll shut up now," Millstone sighed sadly, as she picked up her phone. Just moments later, Catterall received another text message.

 

"Connie sent you a Snapchat pic, has she?" Burke asked Catterall saucily.

 

Catterall shook his head. "No, it's Jenny... again. Bless her. I'll Skype her and Luke this evening, to put their minds at ease."

 

***

 

The England senior team arrived in Ljubljana early in the afternoon of 10 November. Later that evening, manager Mark Catterall went online to follow the progress of his Under-19s, who were entertaining Denmark in a friendly match.

 

England looked by some distance the stronger team early on in the southern Danish town of Fredericia. Aston Villa forward Andre Green had several scoring opportunities in the opening stages, most notably when FC Midtjylland goalkeeper Oliver Ottesen saved his header in the fifth minute. Ottesen would also keep out a hopeful-looking attempt from Niall Ennis after 17 minutes.

 

England keeper Daniel Grimshaw faced his first test on 24 minutes. The Manchester City trainee comfortably caught a shot from Jonas Wind after the FC København forward had stormed through his defence. Grimshaw then kicked off a counter-attack, which collapsed after midfielder Ben Sheaf sent a tame long-distance drive safely into Ottesen's hands.

 

Two minutes later, Andre Dozzell split the Danish defence open with a wonderful pass to Ennis. The Wolverhampton Wanderers striker then moved outside to the right flank before cutting the ball across for fellow West Midlander Green to finish.

 

The Young Lions' newly-built lead would be put in jeopardy after half an hour. Left-back Ryan Sessegnon pulled up suddenly while in flight, having appeared to have injured his hamstring. There was no point in risking the 16-year-old Fulham prospect's fitness any further, and so Josh Tymon came off the bench to take his place.

 

Tymon had barely got into the game when Denmark stretched his colleagues out in the 33rd minute. Right-winger Mikael Anderson found the run of Nicklas Røjkjær on the left flank, and Røjkjær's first-time centre was slipped into the bottom corner by midfielder Victor Torp. The match was back level.

 

Denmark now had the wind in their sails, and they would blow England away again three minutes into the second half. Wind knocked the ball past Sheaf to Torp, who then laid on a delicate pass that Røjkjær powered accurately into the far end of Grimshaw's net. Boom went the Danish Dynamite - 2-1 to the hosts.

 

All was looking rosy for Denmark, until they lost midfielder Christian Tue to injury in the 51st minute. Tue dislocated his jaw in an accidental aerial collision with English counterpart Sam Field and had to be replaced.

 

Though England would be on top when it came to chance creation later in the second half, they found it hard to break open a stubborn Danish defence. Chances from the likes of George Hirst and Field came and went before, with 15 minutes to go, Ennis made way for his Wolves colleague Bright Enobakhare. That substitution would prove crucial.

 

With barely four minutes remaining, and with most of Denmark's players in England's half, Field bravely tackled Mathias Bonde and knocked the ball to Hirst, who played Enobakhare onside. There was no chance of the Danes keeping up with the pacey Nigerian-born striker, and a man who'd scored just two goals in 12 league games while on loan at Oxford United slotted in his third goal for England Under-19s.

 

Truth be told, the Young Lions were very lucky to take a 2-2 draw back home with them. This had been a sub-par performance against an inferior Danish side, so it was perhaps just as well that it was only a friendly.

 

10 November 2016: Under-19s International - at Monjasa Park, Fredericia

Denmark U19s - 2 (Victor Torp 33, Nicklas Røjkjær 48)

England U19s - 2 (Andre Green 26, Bright Enobakhare 87)

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Daniel Grimshaw (Aaron Ramsdale); Tyrell Warren (Trent Alexander-Arnold), Ro-Shaun Williams (Ben Godfrey), Reece Oxford (Jack Vann), Ryan Sessegnon (Josh Tymon); Ben Sheaf (Marcus Edwards), Tom Davies (Sam Field); Jonathan Leko (Reiss Nelson), Andre Dozzell (George Hirst), Andre Green (Angel Gomes); Niall Ennis (Bright Enobakhare).

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

England's Under-21s were now approaching the conclusion of their European Championship qualifying campaign. They'd arrived in Serbia for the first leg of a play-off tie, from which only the winners would advance to the main tournament itself in Poland next summer.

 

England's preparations for this tie was beset by an injury to their captain - and one of their most experienced players - James Ward-Prowse. The Southampton midfielder had damaged his foot in a clash with Wayne Routledge during the Saints' 6-1 Premier League win over struggling Swansea City.

 

Ward-Prowse was unable to return to full fitness in time for the Serbia matches, and so he was replaced in the squad by Newcastle United's tenacious midfielder Isaac Hayden. As for the captaincy, in-form striker Tammy Abraham would take the armband for at least the first game in Jagodina.

 

The Young Lions lined up in a standard 4-4-2 formation, hoping to soak up any early pressure from their Serbian hosts before hitting them with quick, direct counter-attacks. At least that was the plan for head coach David Byrne, and for manager Mark Catterall, who was watching on from across the Balkans.

 

Neither side were able to hit their stride early during a tense first period in which the Young Lions looked particularly nervous. The highly-rated Marcus Rashford - still looking for his first England Under-21s goal - took 19 minutes to register the first meaningful shot on target. His strike ricocheted off Serbia midfielder Uros Racic before being caught by goalkeeper Filip Manojlovic.

 

Racic would be involved in a strong Serbian attack two minutes later. Although he lost the ball in a tackle from Joe Gomez, he quickly retrieved the situation and passed to Sasa Lukic, who then played a through-ball towards Srdjan Plavsic. The Crvena Zvezda striker then got beyond England full-back Matthew Targett to lift the ball over goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and into the net.

 

With the home fans now in full voice, England's Young Lions appeared to be withering under the pressure. They were unable to seriously test Serbia again before half-time, and they returned to their dressing room still trailing 1-0.

 

The counter-attacking strategy had not worked. Catterall instructed Byrne to ditch the 4-4-2, revert to a 4-2-3-1, and make a couple of substitutions. Off went captain Abraham and Nathan Redmond, to be replaced with Will Hughes and Raheem Sterling.

 

The second half was barely half a minute old when England's plans were undone again. Right-back Calum Chambers calmly intercepted an attempted through-ball from Serbia captain Mijat Gacinovic, only for 16-year-old Partizan Belgrade striker Dusan Vlahovic to come in with a slide tackle and steal possession from his feet. Vlahovic followed that up with an unstoppable shot that flew beyond Pickford and made it 2-0.

 

This was turning into the stuff of nightmares for the Young Lions. Rashford attempted to pull a goal back just a minute later, but Manojlovic got his fingertips to the Manchester United man's shot and pushed it behind.

 

Even worse could have come for England in the 55th minute. Racic carved them open with another excellent through-ball, but Targett would not let Plavsic get past him for a second time. The Southampton left-back intervened with a superbly-executed slide tackle when Plavsic had only Pickford to beat.

 

Targett's tackle may have stopped England from falling 3-0 behind, but they really needed an away goal to improve their chances of qualifying. The luckless Rashford had two more chances kept out by Manojlovic before the Serbian goalie pulled off a majestic save in the 76th minute. Winger Patrick Roberts' cross almost crept in via a deflection off defender Srdjan Babic, but Manojlovic somehow diverted it away from goal just in time.

 

Roberts was also the architect of England's best scoring opportunity in the 81st minute. The on-loan Celtic starlet drilled the ball across Serbia's penalty box and to his Manchester City team-mate Sterling, who would have surely buried it into the net nine times out of 10. Instead, the out-of-sorts senior international fired it against the post.

 

Sterling's howler summed up a miserable evening for the Young Lions. While there was no repeat of the horrific racist abuse that had marred England Under-21s' last visit to Serbia four years previous, the home supporters clearly took great joy in their opponents' suffering.

 

When it came to the second leg in Stoke-on-Trent three days later, England would have to beat Serbia by two goals or more - and if the Orlići managed to grab an away goal, the Young Lions would need to win by at least three. Anything else, and England would be absent from the 2017 European Under-21s Championship.

 

11 November 2016: UEFA European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Play-Off Leg 1 - at Stadion pod Đurđevim Brdom, Jagodina

Serbia U21s - 2 (Srdjan Plavsic 21, Dusan Vlahovic 46)

England U21s - 0

ENGLAND U21s LINE-UP (4-4-2): Jordan Pickford; Calum Chambers, Joe Gomez, Brendan Galloway, Matthew Targett; Nathan Redmond (Raheem Sterling), Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathaniel Chalobah, Patrick Roberts; Tammy Abraham (Will Hughes), Marcus Rashford (Zach Clough). BOOKED: Galloway 33, Gomez 64.

 

***

 

After poor results for the age-group teams, the onus was now on England's seniors to register a victory and keep their excellent FIFA World Cup qualifying record going. If they could win in Slovenia, the Three Lions would make it four victories on the trot and go five points clear at the top of Group 6.

 

Mark Catterall only had one injury concern in the lead-up to this match. Tottenham Hotspur defender Eric Dier had stubbed his toe in a Premier League match against Everton and was just about able to make the bench, though it was extremely unlikely that he would be risked.

 

Dier's injury would leave Catterall with few options in midfield, as vice-captain Jordan Henderson was serving a suspension. That meant Leicester City's Danny Drinkwater would replace Henderson in the deep-lying playmaker role, with Dele Alli playing alongside him in midfield.

 

England were otherwise at full strength, and that was just as well, because Srecko Katanec's Slovenia side had some excellent players in their ranks. Playmaker Kevin Kampl was an assist machine at Bayer Leverkusen, while Atlético Madrid's Jan Oblak was already regarded as one of Europe's leading goalkeepers at the tender age of 23.

 

One player who hadn't quite hit the same heights was Rene Krhin. The 26-year-old midfielder had previously been touted as a potential superstar whilst still a teenager at Inter Milan, but he was now hardly getting any game-time for Granada in La Liga. Nevertheless, he was still a pivotal part of the national team as far as Katanec was concerned.

 

Slovenia couldn't be underestimated, and England needed to make a quick start. They did that after four minutes, when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain burst up the left flank to claim an incisive pass from Drinkwater. A resurgent Oxlade-Chamberlain then squared the ball into the Slovenia box, where it clipped defender Dominic Maroh's heel and deflected across the goal line.

 

That own goal was an unfortunate moment for German-born Maroh, who was playing for 1.FC Köln in the Bundesliga. His centre-back partner and captain Bostjan Cesar could've repaired the damage within a couple of minutes, but the 34-year-old headed Benjamin Verbic's corner over the bar.

 

Cesar then made a vital contribution at the other end in the 20th minute, when he diverted a fierce strike from Alli inches wide of the Slovenian goal. Alli went close again two minutes later, with Oblak's fingertips thwarting the Tottenham youngster on that occasion.

 

The game's real talking point would come after 25 minutes. Verbic cut the ball across goal from the left, and a shaky Joe Hart fumbled it against his near post before smothering the ball on the goal line. Many of the home players and fans thought that the ball had crossed the line, but the Israeli officials thought otherwise, and the scoreline remained 1-0 to the Three Lions.

 

Just before the half-hour mark, England centre-back John Stones was booked for upending Slovenia striker Robert Beric. He was lucky not to be cautioned again moments later, when he backed into Verbic on the edge of the visitors' penalty area. Josip Ilicic lifted the free-kick into the box, and Beric's header was spilled by Hart, who eventually secured the ball at the second attempt.

 

Doubts about Hart's performance were beginning to creep in. England fans breathed a sigh of relief, then, when the Torino shotstopper made a rather more assured diving catch from Ilicic's free-kick in the 42nd minute. Normal service had resumed, and as things stood at half-time, the Three Lions were on course to consolidate top spot in Group 6.

 

Hart faced another strong test from Ilicic six minutes into the second half, as he pushed behind a fierce shot by the Fiorentina midfielder. England's right-back then came to the fore, with Nathaniel Clyne making a couple of fantastic interceptions in the 58th minute to frustrate Slovenian left-winger Verbic.

 

One Englishman who wasn't playing particularly well was striker Harry Kane. The 23-year-old's inconsistent start to life under Catterall continued, as he had few scoring chances and was caught offside several times before being replaced with Daniel Sturridge.

 

Slovenia grew stronger as the half wore on, and an equaliser was looking increasingly likely. In the 72nd minute, Ilicic leapt above Danny Rose to flick a Kampl long ball into the path of substitute striker Andraz Sporar. The FC Basel youngster thought that he was about to mark his third international appearance with his first goal... but he volleyed the ball against the bar, and Stones' subsequent clearance gave England temporary respite.

 

The hosts returned to England's box a minute later. Ilicic's centre into the area was cheekily backheeled by Sporar to Krhin, who went for an audacious 20-yard drive. Hart got a glove to the ball, but not enough to divert it away from the target. Slovenia had equalised.

 

England responded in a positive fashion, with Drinkwater having a couple of chances to restore their lead on 75 minutes. Drinkwater's first attempted drive was inadvertently blocked by his compatriot Sturridge, while the second flew safely into Oblak's grasp.

 

Four minutes later, Drinkwater attempted to clear a deflected Kampl shot out of England's penalty area. However, the clearance only went as far as Kampl himself, and the Slovenian's follow-up volley looped inches over the bar.

 

With two minutes remaining, Slovenia had one last chance to clinch the victory that would send them top of Group 6. Sporar's cross to Jon Stankovic was struck on the half-volley by the Huddersfield Town defender, who blazed it over.

 

Slovenia's opportunity had come and gone. England's chance would arise in the final regulation minute. Substitute midfielder Jack Wilshere - who'd replaced captain Wayne Rooney in the 78th minute - spotted a large gap in the channel between Cesar and left-back Bojan Jokic. Wilshere knocked the ball through that gap, and Sturridge surged beyond centre-halves Cesar and Maroh to tap it in.

 

Even though he'd left it very late on this occasion, Catterall's perfect start as England manager had continued. His team were now four-from-four in the World Cup qualifiers - and even with six rounds still to play, it would surely take something incredible to keep the Three Lions away from the finals in Russia in 2018.

 

12 November 2016: FIFA World Cup UEFA Qualifying Group 6 - at Sportni park Stožice, Ljubljana

Slovenia - 1 (Rene Krhin 73)

England - 2 (Dominic Maroh og4, Daniel Sturridge 90)

ENGLAND LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Joe Hart; Nathaniel Clyne, John Stones, Gary Cahill, Danny Rose; Dele Alli, Danny Drinkwater; Demarai Gray (Adam Lallana), Wayne Rooney (Jack Wilshere), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; Harry Kane (Daniel Sturridge). BOOKED: Stones 30.

 

2018 FIFA World Cup UEFA Qualifying Group 6 (After 4 rounds)

                                   P     W     D     L     F     A     GD    PTS
1.          England                4     4     0     0     15    3     12    12
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2.          Slovenia               4     2     1     1     5     2     3     7
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
3.          Slovakia               4     2     0     2     4     5     -1    6
4.          Scotland               4     2     0     2     4     6     -2    6
5.          Lithuania              4     1     1     2     1     3     -2    4
6.          Malta                  4     0     0     4     1     11    -10   0

 

"Bloomin' hell, we took our time, didn't we?" A relieved Mark Catterall said to Gabriel Clarke at the final whistle.

 

"I'm a little frustrated that the goal was so long in coming, but I'll give the lads their due; they never stopped working for the win after Slovenia equalised. In the past, an England team in that position might've slumped their shoulders and given up. Not this team. They've got a backbone."

 

The ITV reporter pointed out to Catterall that the win now left England five points clear at the top of Group 6. The manager replied, "We'll carry on focussing on our job and not look too far ahead. If we keep winning, then nobody can catch us, but we've got to make sure that we do keep on winning."

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

After their narrow FIFA World Cup qualifying victory, England flew back home and returned to their main training camp at St George's Park in Burton-upon-Trent. The Three Lions' work wasn't quite done for the year, as they still had one more match to play - a friendly against Belgium at Wembley.

 

The Under-19s and Under-21s both had home matches on the evening before the seniors faced Belgium. Fortunately for Mark Catterall and his assistant manager Michael Burke, neither of them were too far away from Burton.

 

Catterall made the short 40-minute drive north-west to Stoke-on-Trent, where he would manage the Under-21s in the second leg of their European Championship play-off with Serbia. Meanwhile, Burke headed north to Chesterfield to oversee the Under-19s' friendly match against Wales.

 

With England's number 2 working alongside head coach Matthew Wells, the Young Lions had plenty of incentive to put on a good performance. They would deliver a goal within just three minutes of kick-off, as Niall Ennis picked out the run of Marcus Edwards, who slotted the ball past the onrushing Welsh goalkeeper Rhys Williams.

 

Just a minute later, however, a mistake from Edwards almost resulted in one of his namesakes equalising for Wales. The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder was muscled off the ball by Theo Llewellyn, whose long ball over the English defence was fired into the side netting by Swansea City striker Liam Edwards.

 

Liam Edwards would have another opportunity to draw Wales level in the 18th minute. He scampered after another sublime direct pass from Llewellyn and then saw his shot pushed away by England goalkeeper Mathew Hudson, who would then catch a volley from Liam Cullen a minute later.

 

England had another narrow escape when Wales attacked them again on 31 minutes. Cullen floated a cross to the far post, which right-winger Sam Phillips hit with a powerful shot from a tight angle. The ball was then hacked clear by Jack Vann as the Young Lions survived arguably their biggest scare yet.

 

Ben Sheaf threatened to stretch the hosts' lead in the 44th minute, when he attempted to volley midfield colleague Tom Davies' pass home from 30 yards out. He was denied by Williams, who also kept out a last-minute effort from George Hirst after the Sheffield Wednesday striker had been played in by an English centre-back who shared a surname with the Welsh keeper. Manchester United's Ro-Shaun Williams was proving as adept at playing through-balls as he was at preventing balls from cutting through England's backline.

 

England returned for the second half with an eagerness to finish the game off quickly. That said, their finishing was clearly lacking a cutting edge. Ennis' wait for his first international goal continued when his 51st-minute shot from Andre Green's weighted ball hit the side netting.

 

Although he was not particularly effective at converting his chances, Ennis did go close to notching up his second assist of the night after 60 minutes. He found Jonathan Leko in space, and the West Bromwich Albion winger broke free from Wales left-back Cole Dasilva before Williams turned his shot behind.

 

Leko would have better luck when another opening emerged in the 70th minute. He beat Wales striker Sean Hanbury to head home a free-kick from Reiss Nelson and put the Young Lions on track for a 2-0 victory.

 

England were now looking to round off a solid performance with a clean sheet. Substitute goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale played his part by tipping over a hopeful shot from midfielder Keiran Evans - another of the Swansea youth products who provided most of Wales' players. That would prove to be the Dragons' last shot on target.

 

In the end, it had been a comfortable - if relatively unconvincing - win for England Under-19s. They would finish the year on a six-match unbeaten run, having won all but one of those fixtures. It perhaps boded well for their prospects in the European Championship Elite Round in March.

 

14 November 2016: Under-19s International - at Proact Stadium, Chesterfield

England U19s - 2 (Marcus Edwards 3, Jonathan Leko 70)

Wales U19s - 0

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-4-2 Diamond): Mathew Hudson (Aaron Ramsdale); Tyrell Warren (Trent Alexander-Arnold), Ro-Shaun Williams (Ben Godfrey), Jack Vann (Reece Oxford), Ryan Sessegnon (Josh Tymon); Tom Davies (Angel Gomes); Ben Sheaf (Jonathan Leko), Sam Field (Andre Dozzell); Marcus Edwards (Reiss Nelson); Niall Ennis (Bright Enobakhare), George Hirst (Andre Green).

 

***

 

As his assistant manager was putting the Under-19s through their paces, Mark Catterall was getting England's Under-21s through the most important game they had played for some time.

 

England were 2-0 down to Serbia after the first leg of their European Championship play-off. They needed to win the return fixture at Stoke City's Bet365 Stadium - and win it well - in order to qualify for a sixth consecutive European finals tournament.

 

When it came to the Under-21s, team talks were usually left to head coach David Byrne. However, Catterall took it upon himself to rouse the Young Lions before kick-off.

 

"All of you know that the result on Friday was completely unacceptable. Tonight, you have an opportunity to set things straight. It's an opportunity that you have to take.

 

"Just because Serbia have got a 2-0 lead, that doesn't mean they're going to take you lightly. You will need to take the game to them - right from the very first whistle, and until the very last.

 

"You are supposed to represent the future of English football. I hope that most of you will go on to graduate into the senior national team at some point in your careers. For others, however, this might be your last chance to play for your country at an international tournament. Do you really want to throw it away on a cold Monday night in Stoke... or do you want to rise up to the challenge, and take this opportunity to compete with Europe's best?"

 

One player who'd appeared particularly motivated by Catterall's words was Marcus Rashford. The Manchester United striker still hadn't scored an international goal at this level, but he almost broke his duck in the third minute with a low drive that Serbia goalkeeper Filip Manojlovic made hard work of.

 

Attacking midfielder Kasey Palmer also enjoyed a bright start to the match from an England perspective. A first-time piledriver in the 10th minute flew inches over Manojlovic's crossbar, and Serbian defender Aleksandar Bjelica needed to close down Palmer's next attempt five minutes later. That chance had been set up by Southampton midfielder Harrison Reed, who was making his first - and possibly final - appearance for England Under-21s.

 

After 27 minutes, a clumsy foul from Serbian winger Dejan Drazic on England captain Nathaniel Chalobah gave the hosts a free-kick in a dangerous position. Palmer flighted the free-kick towards goal... and his effort clipped the keeper's left-hand post before bouncing across the goalmouth!

 

The chase was now on between Rashford and Bjelica for the long ball. It was Rashford who prevailed, tapping in a single finish to finally get his first England Under-21s goal - and put his team within one goal of parity!

 

The goalscorer looked to follow his opener up with another strike in the 31st minute. That time, Bjelica managed to divert Rashford's shot behind for an England corner. Raheem Sterling's delivery was easily cleared by Serbia left-back Miroslav Bogosavac, and the Young Lions remained only 1-0 up at the break. They would have to score at least once more in the next 45 minutes, else they would miss the European Championship.

 

England's utter dominance of this match had been helped by some very conservative defending from Serbia. The Orlići (or 'Young Eagles') had seemed more determined to preserve their fragile lead than push on for an away goal that would've left their hosts needing a three-goal winning margin. They would play it very safe again in the second period.

 

England continued to take the game to Serbia after the break, and they created their next major scoring opportunity in the 60th minute. Rashford had a dip at goal after being set up once again by the impressive Palmer, but Manojlovic managed to smother the ball.

 

The introduction of left-footed inside-forward Patrick Roberts at half-time had given England's attack even more impetus during the second period. The Manchester City teenager's crossing caused Serbia plenty of problems, but his set-pieces less so. When Roberts sent a free-kick harmlessly over the bar in the 75th minute, it seemed that time was running out for the Young Lions.

 

England's second substitute was Isaac Hayden, who replaced Reed in midfield midway through the second period and would soon be booked for a trip on Serbian playmaker Nemanja Glavcic. Catterall played his final card with six minutes to go. Off came Palmer, and on went big frontman Tammy Abraham, as England adopted a 'route one' approach in their search for a late leveller.

 

Sterling had his heart set on becoming the Young Lions' saviour in the 85th minute, when he blazed a shot over from just inside the Serbian penalty area. He hadn't pulled up any trees for the Under-21s since Catterall's reign began, and he wouldn't do so again here.

 

England's desperation increased further still when the second and final minute of injury time began. Mind you, their captain didn't appear to be feeling the strain. After intercepting a clearance from Manojlovic, Chalobah calmly played the ball back to centre-back Rob Holding, who sent a long ball up the left flank.

 

Roberts sprung the Serbian offside trap and broke free from the clutches of right-back Milan Gajic to latch onto Holding's direct ball. After spotting Rashford on the edge of the six-yard box, Roberts squared a short pass to his colleague and hoped for the best.

 

It was now all or nothing for Rashford. Though naturally right-footed, he swung at the ball with his left foot... and the low shot crept just underneath Manojlovic's right glove before rustling into the net. Having come less than a minute away from elimination, England had now gone level on aggregate with Serbia and taken the tie to extra-time!

 

After having a few minutes to catch their breaths, England's players rallied themselves for an additional half-hour. One more goal would be enough to book them their tickets to Poland - unless Serbia scored, in which case they'd need three.

 

The hero of the hour would almost light up the Bet365 Stadium again in the 98th minute. Rashford skilfully chested a Roberts pass beyond Gajic and then attempted to beat Manojlovic from 25 yards out. However, his supreme confidence was misguided on this occasion, as the ball flew harmlessly into the stands.

 

Then, in the 103rd minute, England left-back Ben Chilwell was booked following a trip on Serbia midfielder Uros Racic. Nemanja Mihajlovic lifted the free-kick into the area... and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford plucked it out of the air with ease. Pickford had hardly seen any action in this match, but he showed no signs of rustiness when he made another save from Orlići centre-back Nikola Milenkovic's header just before half-time.

 

A Serbian team who'd previously been too protective for their own good were suddenly showing a lot more attacking urgency. Four minutes into the second additional half, Gajic played a long ball to substitute forward Ognjen Ozegovic, who sprinted clear of Holding and eyed up the target. The home fans were on the edge of their seats as Ozegovic's shot swerved over the despairing Pickford... and then clipped the bar before bouncing behind!

 

Chalobah and Rashford each missed opportunities to win the game for England before they made one last bid for goal in the 120th and final minute. As Roberts drifted in a corner, England defender Joe Gomez found himself on the wrong end of a hefty collision with Milenkovic. The referee ruled that Gomez had been fouled, and pointed to the penalty spot!

 

The script was now written for Marcus Rashford to score another late goal and secure his hat-trick. The teenager from Wythenshawe in south Manchester had had an extraordinary 2016, going from Manchester United's youth team to the senior European Championships in a matter of months. Now, he was 12 yards away from firing England's Under-21s into the finals of another continental competition.

 

Were Rashford to miss, the tie would almost certainly have gone to a penalty shoot-out - and England's record when it came to those situations probably didn't bear repeating. As it transpired, this spot-kick would be the only one that the Young Lions required.

 

Rashford's strike was just too powerful and clinical for Manojlovic to keep out. His hat-trick, and one of the greatest comebacks by an England national team in living memory, was complete.

 

The Young Lions had diced with elimination so regularly over the last three months that they were like a cat who'd used up eight lives. When all had been said and done, though, they had done just about enough to qualify for the European Under-21s Championship. They would be going to Poland in the summer after all.

 

14 November 2016: UEFA European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Play-Off Leg 2 - at Bet365 Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent

England U21s - 3 (Marcus Rashford 28,90+2,pen120+1)

Serbia U21s - 0

[after extra time, England U21s win 3-2 on aggregate]

ENGLAND U21s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Jordan Pickford; Mason Holgate, Joe Gomez, Rob Holding, Ben Chilwell; Harrison Reed (Isaac Hayden), Nathaniel Chalobah; Raheem Sterling, Kasey Palmer (Tammy Abraham), Nathan Redmond (Patrick Roberts); Marcus Rashford. BOOKED: Hayden 73, Chilwell 103.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

The Marcus Rashford hype machine was on full blast when the newspapers came out on Tuesday morning. The back pages were plastered with photographs of a beaming Rashford celebrating the third and final goal of his hat-trick heroics for England's Under-21s against Serbia.

 

The BBC were usually understated and impartial with regards to their reporting... or at least they had been until recently. Not even they were immune to falling for all the hullabaloo surrounding Manchester United's teenage scoring sensation. An article published on BBC Sport's website later that day was fronted by the rather hyperbolic headline: "Could Marcus Rashford become the greatest England striker ever?"

 

Of course, it was far too early to predict the future of a 19-year-old who was still trying to establish himself as a Premier League striker. For all anyone knew, Rashford was just as likely to become another Michael Ricketts as he was the next Alan Shearer.

 

England's top striker in the present was arguably either Harry Kane or Daniel Sturridge, who'd each scored nine senior international goals. Sturridge would get an opportunity to reach double figures on Tuesday evening, when the Three Lions welcomed Belgium - the highest-ranked team in Europe - to Wembley.

 

England manager Mark Catterall - still on a high after witnessing his Under-21s' incredible comeback the previous night - picked an experimental line-up for this friendly. Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster replaced regular number 1 Joe Hart between the sticks, while the prodigious winger Demarai Gray got another start. Captain Wayne Rooney won his 120th cap and was now just five shy of the national record, which was held by Peter Shilton.

 

The England players were very familiar with their Belgian counterparts, as many of them were playing in - or had played in - the Premier League. The Red Devils were managed by Wigan Athletic's 2013 FA Cup-winning boss Roberto Martínez, and Arsenal's all-time record goalscorer Thierry Henry was on the coaching staff.

 

Wembley witnessed a finish that Henry would've been proud of in the third minute - but it wasn't scored by a Belgian. Instead, the home fans were given some early cheer when left-back Luke Shaw burst up the flank and cut the ball across for Sturridge to finish. That was the Liverpool striker's 10th goal in his 25th England cap, and it was followed by his now-trademarked dancing celebration.

 

A less positive side of England's game emerged just a minute later, when Eric Dier's trip on Marouane Fellaini earned the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder a yellow card. Another clumsy home foul shortly afterwards, from Jordan Henderson, gifted the fouled Yannick Carrasco a chance to equalise from the resulting free-kick. Carrasco's strike cannoned off the crossbar and was then cleared into touch by England defender Chris Smalling.

 

Belgium had another opportunity from a rather scrappier attack in the 8th minute, as Eden Hazard's shot deflected off Smalling before being caught by Forster. The Red Devils launched a few more assaults in subsequent minutes, but neither Carrasco, Hazard nor Fellaini would get much joy out of them.

 

Belgium's persistence eventually produced a reward in the 25th minute. Carrasco beat Shaw to an excellent pass from Fellaini and then centred it towards Charly Musonda in the middle of England's penalty area. This was Musonda's senior international debut, and the 20-year-old Chelsea midfielder would mark it with a lethal finish.

 

England were soon under the cosh again, as Belgium showed the attacking spirit that had taken to the top of the FIFA World Rankings, though they had since dropped down to a 'mere' 3rd. One Liverpool frontman had already given the home team the lead, and Divock Origi hoped to do likewise for the visitors on 28 minutes. It wasn't to be, though, as Forster made light work of Origi's ambitious attempt.

 

Two minutes after watching Origi go close, Sturridge pulled wide an opportunity to restore England's advantage. The first half would end with a couple of promising corners for the Three Lions, as well as bookings for a couple of Belgian players - midfield playmaker Kevin De Bruyne and left-back Jordan Lukaku. (Jordan's more famous brother Romelu was unavailable to the Red Devils because of a hernia he'd sustained while in training with Everton.)

 

Martínez brought on no fewer than three substitutes at half-time, including Mousa Dembélé, whose first-time volley was awkwardly parried by Forster on 47 minutes. Meanwhile, inside-forward Dries Mertens - another of the half-time introductions - was beginning to cause England's defence plenty of problems.

 

One of Catterall's chances before the second half had involved him replacing Rooney with Jack Wilshere. In the 51st minute, Wilshere ran onto an impressive through-ball from Sturridge, but he could only put it into the side netting.

 

Catterall had a major cause for concern out wide, where Gray was struggling to make his mark against Belgium's full-backs, who were supposedly their weak links. Gray would be taken out of the firing line in the 58th minute, with Callum Wilson brought on to provide some fresh impetus up front.

 

By the hour mark, it was Belgium who very much had the impetus. Dembélé and Musonda had each come within inches of firing the Red Devils into the lead, and Mertens would go on to do just that in the 67th minute. The Napoli attacker controlled a slide-rule pass from Michy Batshuayi, which he curled beautifully into the top corner of the English goal. There was no chance of Forster saving that one.

 

Belgium were now 2-1 up, so Catterall rethought his tactics. Out went the 4-2-3-1, and in went the narrow 4-3-2-1 'Christmas tree' formation, which had been made famous by one of his England predecessors - Terry Venables - in the mid-1990s.

 

Three minutes after falling behind, the Three Lions got an opportunity to draw level. England centre-back Michael Keane was shoved by Lukaku as both men looked to latch onto Danny Drinkwater's corner delivery. The referee looked to his assistant, and then pointed to the penalty spot, much to the home fans' delight.

 

Lukaku had already been booked and was lucky not to be sent off, but he would not get away scot-free. Dele Alli's penalty sent Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois the wrong way, and the match was level again at 2-2.

 

England's relief at having got back on terms would not last until full-time. Belgium were back to their sublime best in the 80th minute, as Dembélé took right-back Thomas Meunier's cross inside before unleashing a stunning strike that rendered his Tottenham team-mate Alli's equaliser moot.

 

England battled bravely to try and salvage a draw, but to no avail. Courtois quashed their hopes by saving a couple of late attempts from Alli and substitute Kane.

 

After five straight wins, Catterall's perfect start as England manager had ended with a 3-2 home loss, albeit to a very strong Belgium team. The home supporters demonstrated good grace in defeat as they applauded the victorious Belgians off the field.

 

15 November 2016: International Friendly - at Wembley, London

England - 2 (Daniel Sturridge 3, Dele Alli pen70)

Belgium - 3 (Charly Musonda 25, Dries Mertens 67, Mousa Dembélé 80)

ENGLAND LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Fraser Forster; Kyle Walker, John Stones (Michael Keane), Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw; Eric Dier (Dele Alli), Jordan Henderson; Demarai Gray (Callum Wilson), Wayne Rooney (Jack Wilshere), Adam Lallana (Harry Kane); Daniel Sturridge (Danny Drinkwater). BOOKED: Dier 4, Henderson 59.

 

***

 

"Well, Neil, I'm glad that I could be of assistance to you. I wish you the best of luck with what you're doing with Kazakhstan.

 

"Ah, right, Kyrgyzstan... sorry. Anyway, I look forward to seeing what you do with this 'remote management' approach. I hope you have as much success with it as I'm having at the moment. And who knows - maybe England will play Kyrgyzstan at a World Cup one day!

 

"Oh yes, and before I go, I've got a friend who's really into Central Asian football. He asks me to send his regards to one of your players... Ahletdin... Israilov? Is that right? Okay, great.

 

"Anyway, I'd better go now. Once again, I wish you all the best. Take care. Ta-ta."

 

England's manager Mark Catterall was sitting in his office in St George's Park on the afternoon following the defeat to Belgium. He had just been speaking on the phone to his Kyrgyzstan counterpart Neil Hoskins - an amiable Welshman who had taken inspiration from Catterall's 'remote' approach to managing multiple national team squads.

 

Unbeknownst to him, Catterall would soon be in another phone call - from the Football Association's chairman, Clark Gregory. After answering Gregory's call, Catterall began, "Afternoon, Clark. What do you want?"

 

"Have you got Sky Sports News on your telly right now?"

 

"I have, but I've muted it. I've just been on the phone to Neil Hoskins - the Kyrgyzstan manager, remember?"

 

"Yeah, that's great. Look, rewind the news and turn the sound up. That c*** from The Sun has been tearing you to pieces!"

 

Catterall rewound the Sky Sports News programme until he saw two familiar journalists - Adrian Pike from The Guardian, and Russell Whiteman from The Sun. They were analysing the England-Belgium match with Sky presenters David Garrido and Natalie Sawyer.

 

"Russell, you were very sceptical about Mark Catterall when he first got the England job," Garrido asked Whiteman. "Has last night's result against Belgium vindicated your concerns?"

 

"Yes, it has, Dave," replied Whiteman, whose accent - while noticeably that of a middle-class southerner - was nothing like as plummy as his uncle David's. "I knew all along that Belgium would tear England's defence apart.

 

"Catterall may be unorthodox in many ways, but in terms of his tactical philosophy, he's just naïve. He didn't take the game to Belgium; instead, he just allowed them to run the show. That's bad enough against world-class attackers like Yannick Carrasco, but the best player on the field was some average nobody called Dries Mertens! Has anyone in this country ever heard of him before?"

 

"You obviously don't watch a lot of Italian football, Russell," interjected Pike in his refined Liverpudlian accent. "Mertens is one of the most intelligent forwards in Serie A. He's a star player for a very strong Napoli team, and for you to dismiss him as an 'average nobody' is just typical of the 'little Englander' attitude you have at your tabloid rag."

 

Whiteman continued, "But it wasn't as if Belgium needed their best players to beat England. [Eden] Hazard did nothing, [Vincent] Kompany was awful, [Romelu] Lukaku was injured... and yet Belgium still beat England! At Wembley! That cannot be happening!"

 

"Last night's result says more about the strength in depth Belgium have compared to England. You cannot berate Mark Catterall simply for losing narrowly to a stronger team."

 

"Belgium aren't stronger than England; they're just very overrated!"

 

Pike laughed, "Believe me, Belgium are not overrated. In fact, I reckon they could surprise a few people at the 2018 World Cup. Granted, we've still got a year-and-a-half to go, but at this moment in time, they're my dark horses."

 

"Did you even watch the game, Adrian?" Whiteman exclaimed, his face growing redder. "Belgium were winning most of the 50-50 balls out there. They wanted it more, and they were making things happen when they were attacking. England just seemed happy to plod along and wait for their opportunities to arise. You can't do that if you want to win football matches!

 

"At the end of the day, Catterall was outsmarted and outfought by Roberto Martínez - the man who got Wigan Athletic relegated and then failed miserably at Everton. If that doesn't convince you that the FA's appointment of Mark Catterall was a mistake, then nothing will."

 

Pike rushed to Catterall's defence again, "For goodness sake, it's his first defeat in, what, six matches? It's far too early to say if Mark Catterall was the right man to take over from Roy Hodgson. At this moment in time, though, I'm feeling much more positive than you - a Tory Brexiteer man-baby who hates northerners, wants instant gratification, and then cries when he doesn't get it!"

 

Sensing that the two journalists' arguments were getting personal, Sawyer nervously intervened, "Okay, I think we'll leave it there, gentlemen. Adrian Pike and Russell Whiteman, thank you for joining us on Sky Sports News HQ."

 

Garrido then added, "And yes, we are legally obliged to say the 'HQ' after Sky Sports News, even though nobody else does."

 

Back in his office, Catterall returned to his phone conversation with Gregory, whom he asked, "So this is Russell Whiteman, then?"

 

"He's a right angry bastard, in't he?"

 

"Yeah, I can see he's not a fan of my style, but he's just one journalist. By and large, the journos have been very supportive of me since I took this job."

 

"Yes, Mark, but believe it or not, Russell Whiteman is a very talented journalist. He's been covering England football since the Terry Venables era and he usually writes a lot of sense. It's not as if he always types meaningless bulls*** for the lowest common denominator, like a scriptwriter for EastEnders."

 

Catterall insisted, "To be honest with you, Clark, I don't really give a crap about Russell Whiteman or his sensationalist journalism. But it's got me thinking - why doesn't David like to talk about him?"

 

"I dunno, he's never said," Gregory admitted.

 

"I saw where Ava Leggett was coming from when she said that Russell was nothing like his uncle. David's smart, witty, a true gentleman - like everyone's favourite grandad. Russell just seems like an angry cynic who thinks the whole world's against him."

 

"Yeah, like I said, David's never spoken about his nephew, and I don't think he ever will until he's six feet under. But, you know, we all things that we keep to ourselves. Connie Millstone won't watch Sky Sports because she can't stand Jamie Redknapp, but we don't know why."

 

"To be fair, I think anyone who likes informative punditry has an allergic reaction to Jamie Redknapp!"

 

"It's got nowt to do with that, I can tell you. Besides, it's not my problem to worry about."

 

"Okay, but have you got anything more important that we should discuss? It's not that I'm in a rush or anything."

 

"Nah, you're alright. I can't stay much longer anyway, Mark. I've got a golf match at Muswell Hill at 2:30pm. Those balls won't hit themselves, y'know."

Edited by CFuller

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Chapter 7 - How Do You Solve A Problem Like Rooney?

 

The draw for the finals of the 2017 UEFA European Under-21s Championship took place at the ICE Congress Centre in Kraków - Poland's second-largest city - on 1 December 2016. England manager Mark Catterall and Under-21s head coach David Byrne were both in attendance as representatives of the Young Lions.

 

England had qualified for their sixth successive finals tournament for this age group, but they had very nearly missed the boat. The Young Lions had needed a second-half goal from Nathan Redmond against the Republic of Ireland just to secure second place in their preliminary group and qualify for the play-offs.

 

England then went down to a 2-0 defeat in Serbia in the first leg of their Play-Off, before Marcus Rashford single-handedly turned the tie back in their favour. Rashford scored twice in normal time - with his second goal coming in the very last minute - and then secured his hat-trick from the penalty spot right at the end of extra-time. Having come back from the brink on more than one occasion, England were now through to the tournament itself.

 

The 2017 finals would be the biggest in the history of the European Under-21s Championship. For the first time, the main tournament had been expanded from eight teams to 12, giving more countries the opportunity to showcase their best young footballing talents over the summer.

 

The 12 finalists would be split into three groups of four. Only the top teams in each group, along with the best runners-up, would progress to the Semi Finals, so there wouldn't be much room for mistakes.

 

2015's surprise champions Sweden failed to get out of their group and would not be defending their title. Portugal - the beaten finalists from that last tournament, and the current continental champions at senior level - had managed to qualify. They were joined by Italy, Netherlands, Germany and Spain, all of whom had been crowned champions at some point within the past 13 years.

 

England were the only representatives from the British Isles in these finals. Wales could have joined them via the same play-off route, but they were agonisingly beaten by Bulgaria on away goals over two legs.

 

2017 UEFA European Under-21s Championship Group Stage draw

GROUP A: Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Spain

GROUP B: Poland (hosts), Portugal, Romania, Slovakia

GROUP C: Bulgaria, England, France, Italy

 

Although Group A was the clear 'Group of Death', England weren't looking particularly comfortable either. They would have to face off once again with Italy - the team who'd topped their qualifying group. With the likes of Juventus defender Daniele Rugani and Inter Milan midfielder Roberto Gagliardini at their disposal, the Azzurri would prove very difficult opponents again.

 

As if that wasn't bad up, England would have to try and get past France, whose Under-19s were the reigning European champions at their age level. When it came to Les Bleus, the Young Lions would have to be most concerned about Borussia Dortmund winger Ousmane Dembélé and the frightening Monaco triumvirate of Tiémoué Bakayoko, Kylian Mbappé and Adrien Rabiot.

 

In such a fiercely-contested group, Bulgaria were likely to be the whipping boys. Virtually their entire squad was based at home, and it would surely take an astonishing turn of events for them to make the Semi Finals.

 

England would start off their tournament on 15 June against Bulgaria in the south-eastern city of Rzeszów, where they would stay to face France four days later. After that, they would head slightly north-west to Starachowice for a potentially decisive reunion with Italy on 23 June.

 

The Young Lions would need plenty of match practice to sharpen their skills up for the challenges ahead. A couple of warm-up friendlies were arranged - against Belgium at The Den in south London on 4 June, and then against the host nation Poland in Kielce five days later. Because of his senior team commitments, Catterall would oversee those friendly matches remotely before joining up with the squad on the eve of their opening group fixtures.

 

The qualifying groups for the 2019 European Under-21s Championship were determined a month after the draw for the 2017 finals. These qualifiers would be staged between August 2017 and October 2018.

 

England were drawn into Group 5, and there would be a sense of déjà vu for them, as they were pitted against France again. As was the case in the previous qualifying campaign, only the group winners would automatically go through to the finals, which would be staged in Italy this time around.

 

Hoping to cause England and France at least a few problems in Group 5 were Albania, Azerbaijan, Latvia... and Scotland. The 'Battle of Britain' would be staged twice more at Under-21s level, with the first of those fixtures - at Carrow Road in October 2017 - taking place a month after the senior teams clashed at Wembley.

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***

 

It was a quiet midweek afternoon in the middle of March 2017. England manager Mark Catterall had travelled from his Staffordshire base to Wembley, where he was contemplating his upcoming squad selections.

 

Catterall's main concern was to pick a senior squad for England's next FIFA World Cup qualifier in Lithuania, which would be followed by a home friendly against world champions Germany. He was meeting Football Association chairman Clark Gregory and chief executive David Whiteman to pick their brains before making his final selection.

 

One player was the subject of particularly fierce debate. That man was Wayne Rooney - England's captain, record goalscorer, and most-capped outfielder of all-time.

 

Though he had represented his country on 120 occasions over the past 14 years, Rooney's impact on the national team was steadily diminishing. He may have scored in a couple of qualifying matches against Malta and Scotland, but he'd otherwise been barely noticed whenever he was in action for the Three Lions.

 

Catterall's biggest problem with Rooney was trying to find a suitable role for him in the side. At 31, he was not the energetic centre-forward he used to be, and was instead often used as an attacking midfielder behind a lead striker.

 

Catterall originally used Rooney as an 'enganche' - a stationary link between the midfield and the attack. Whilst playing in that role, the experienced Liverpudlian could use his teamwork and technical skills to try and dictate play, instead of having to rely so heavily on his dwindling physical abilities. However, he tended to get lost in games, with his midfield team-mates instead preferring to give service to the wing-backs and the inside-forwards.

 

Rooney had also played as a shadow striker behind the number nine, but he lacked the agility to be particularly effective there. Catterall was now seriously considering playing his captain in a deeper-lying midfield role, where he could make good use of his excellent long-range passing ability.

 

There were also major concerns about Rooney's club form. Although he was still playing in most of Manchester United's matches, he'd only started in two league games since José Mourinho was hired as manager in the summer. With most of Rooney's competitive action coming as a substitute, his attacking powers had waned; he'd only registered three goals and two assists in 26 matches for the Red Devils thus far this season.

 

Rooney was still generally admired at Old Trafford after a 13-year career that had seen him become United's all-time leading scorer in all competition. He'd won every major trophy that there was to win in Manchester, and with the Red Devils sitting clear at the top of the Premier League, he remained on course to claim a sixth league winner's medal.

 

Rooney was sensing that he'd achieved all he could at Old Trafford, and so he issued Mourinho with a transfer request in the New Year. A January transfer did not materialise, although with several Major League Soccer clubs in the United States declaring their interest, it looked very likely that Rooney would finally move to pastures new in the summer.

 

Moving to America a decade earlier had not necessarily marked the end of David Beckham's England career, but he would only make sporadic appearances in a national jersey following his high-profile transfer to Los Angeles Galaxy. If Rooney went in the same direction, would he be effectively ruling himself out of England duty?

 

Gregory was in no doubt that a move abroad to the USA or even China should render Rooney unselectable. "If he goes after one last big payday in a league of has-beens, then you should forget about him, Mark," he declared. "England moved on after Beckham buggered off to LA. We should be prepared to do the same if Rooney does likewise."

 

"As far as I am concerned, the domestic league in which the England captain participates is irrelevant," Whiteman chimed. Catterall agreed with his chief executive, and added that it was pointless to speculate on Rooney's club future while he was still a Manchester United player.

 

Gregory retorted, "But Rooney's a has-been! He's 31 years old - that's old age for an international footballer! He might as well have retired after that clusterf*** of a performance against Iceland at the Euros!"

 

Whiteman leaned back on his chair and pointed his finger at Gregory before saying, "Mr Gregory, with all due respect, I am inclined to disagree when you say that Wayne Rooney should be put out to pasture. When I was a young boy, I saw the great Stanley Matthews play for England at the age of 42. Indeed, he was still playing First Division football for Stoke City when he was 50.

 

"David," Gregory sighed. "When you were a young boy, King Edward VII was on the throne!"

 

Catterall then intervened. "Thanks for your input, gents, but my mind's made up. Rooney's staying in the squad."

 

"For goodness sake, Mark, I wish you'd show some common sense," Gregory barked. "Rooney's not playing regularly for United anymore. You vowed when you took on his job that you would pick players based on form and not reputation, but it seems to me that you're standing by Wayne Rooney because he's Wayne Rooney!"

 

"I'm afraid that Mr Gregory does make a good point, Mr Catterall," Whiteman conceded. Catterall had not been afraid to axe big-name players due to poor form or a lack of competitive action. He'd dropped the likes of Phil Jones and Theo Walcott from his squad, while Raheem Sterling had been cast off to the Under-21s. That raised serious questions as to why he was making an exception for Rooney.

 

Catterall shook his head. "No. Wayne stays. For one thing, he's still an incredible player. For another, he's played in six major tournaments and has another left in him. You cannot buy his international experience.

 

"This World Cup cycle is going to be a transitional period for the England team. Rooney will be gradually phased out of the team until he plays in his final World Cup in Russia - provided we get that far, of course. After that, either he'll retire or I'll just drop him completely, and then it'll be up to those younger players - I'm thinking Jordan Henderson, Chris Smalling, Harry Kane - to lead the way."

 

Gregory relented. "That's your call, Mark. I can't say I agree with it, but I have to respect your decision."

 

Catterall could now finalise his squad for those matches against Lithuania and Germany. He would also have to pick an Under-21s squad for a couple of European Championship warm-up friendlies on home soil - against Switzerland in Bristol, and then against the Netherlands in Sunderland.

 

Finally, he needed to pick 18 players who would represent England Under-19s in the Elite Round phase of their European Championship. The Young Lions would play three matches in Group 6 - against Croatia, Iceland and Serbia - over the space of nine days, with only the group winners progressing to the finals in Georgia later in the year.

 

ENGLAND squad - for matches vs Lithuania (A) and Germany (H)

NAME                      POSITIONS           D.O.B. (AGE)     CLUB            CAPS  GOALS HEIGHT WEIGHT     VALUE
Fraser Forster            GK                  17/03/1988 (28)  Southampton     7     0     6'7"   15st 8lbs  £14M    
Joe Hart                  GK                  19/04/1987 (29)  Torino          68    0     6'5"   12st 10lbs £18.25M 
Tom Heaton                GK                  15/04/1986 (30)  Burnley         1     0     6'2"   13st 7lbs  £6.5M   
Michael Keane             D (RC)              11/01/1993 (24)  Man City        3     0     6'1"   13st 0lbs  £26.5M  
John Stones               D (RC)              28/05/1994 (22)  Man City        14    0     6'2"   12st 1lb   £30M    
Eric Dier                 D (RC), DM, M (C)   15/01/1994 (23)  Tottenham       16    2     6'2"   13st 7lbs  £32M    
Gary Cahill               D (C)               19/12/1985 (31)  Chelsea         51    3     6'4"   13st 7lbs  £4M     
Chris Smalling            D (C)               22/11/1989 (27)  Man Utd         33    1     6'4"   14st 2lbs  £28M    
Nathaniel Clyne           D/WB (R)            05/04/1991 (25)  Liverpool       16    0     5'9"   10st 7lbs  £21M    
Kyle Walker               D/WB (R)            28/05/1990 (26)  Tottenham       22    0     6'0"   11st 9lbs  £24.5M  
Luke Shaw                 D/WB (L)            12/07/1995 (21)  Man Utd         9     0     6'1"   11st 11lbs £21M    
Danny Rose                D/WB/M (L)          02/07/1990 (26)  Tottenham       10    2     5'8"   11st 6lbs  £24M    
Jordan Henderson          DM, M (C)           17/06/1990 (26)  Liverpool       32    0     6'0"   10st 7lbs  £27M    
Mark Noble                DM, M (C)           08/05/1987 (29)  West Ham        0     0     5'11"  12st 1lb   £8.5M   
Nathan Redmond            M/AM (RL), ST (C)   06/03/1994 (23)  Southampton     0     0     5'8"   11st 9lbs  £17M    
Adam Lallana              M/AM (RLC)          10/05/1988 (28)  Liverpool       31    0     5'8"   11st 6lbs  £20.5M  
Dele Alli                 M/AM (C)            11/04/1996 (20)  Tottenham       18    3     6'1"   12st 1lb   £32.5M  
Jack Wilshere             M/AM (C)            01/01/1992 (25)  Bournemouth     37    3     5'9"   10st 3lbs  £22M    
Wayne Rooney              M/AM (C), ST (C)    24/10/1985 (31)  Man Utd         120   55    5'10"  12st 1lb   £8.75M  
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain   AM (RL)             15/08/1993 (23)  Arsenal         26    5     5'11"  11st 4lbs  £16.25M 
Benik Afobe               AM (C), ST (C)      12/02/1993 (24)  Bournemouth     0     0     6'0"   12st 6lbs  £22.5M  
Harry Kane                ST (C)              28/07/1993 (23)  Tottenham       21    9     6'3"   13st 0lbs  £34.5M  
Daniel Sturridge          ST (C)              01/09/1989 (27)  Liverpool       25    10    6'0"   12st 6lbs  £34.5M  

 

Catterall named three uncapped players in this England squad - Benik Afobe, Mark Noble and Nathan Redmond. Perhaps the most interesting of them was Afobe, who had formed a lethal strike partnership with Callum Wilson at Premier League mid-tablers AFC Bournemouth this season. The pair had scored 15 league goals apiece by mid-March, prompting Cherries boss Eddie Howe to say that he expected Afobe to join Wilson in the England squad sooner rather than later.

 

Unfortunately, Wilson then broke his toe his training and was subsequently ruled out of the next England squad. His misfortune resulted in a first call-up for his 24-year-old colleague Afobe, who was born in east London to Congolese parents and came through the Arsenal youth academy.

 

Another east London boy who'd broken into the Three Lions set-up was Noble - the captain of West Ham United. The tireless midfield playmaker had played in well over 300 league games for his beloved Hammers and was a former England Under-21s skipper. However, at the age of 29, it seemed that he would never get to take that next step and play for the national team.

 

Noble's England opportunity finally came after an excellent season at West Ham, who had risen to 4th in the Premier League and were seriously contending for a UEFA Champions League place. The skipper's consistent performances in the middle of the park had not been ignored by Catterall, and Noble was called up at the expense of Leicester City's Danny Drinkwater.

 

Also in line for a first cap was 23-year-old winger Nathan Redmond, who'd been a real creative force for 6th-placed Southampton. Redmond was also the third-most-capped player in England Under-21s history, winning 33 caps and scoring 11 goals. He effectively swapped places with Demarai Gray, who dropped from the seniors to the Under-21s after the Leicester wideman's form became more erratic.

 

Centre-back Michael Keane kept his place in the England squad following his £15.75million move from Burnley to Manchester City in January. Considering that Keane used to play for Manchester United, that transfer was quite a controversial one, but the 24-year-old was now steadily establishing himself as a City first-teamer.

 

ENGLAND UNDER-21s squad - for matches vs Switzerland (H) and Netherlands (H)

NAME                      POSITIONS           D.O.B. (AGE)     CLUB            CAPS  GOALS HEIGHT WEIGHT     VALUE
Luke McGee                GK                  02/09/1995 (21)  Peterborough    0     0     6'4"   12st 8lbs  £850K   
Jordan Pickford           GK                  07/03/1994 (23)  Sunderland      15    0     6'2"   12st 1lb   £1.7M   
Freddie Woodman           GK                  04/03/1997 (20)  Kilmarnock      0     0     6'1"   10st 12lbs £600K   
Ola Aina                  D (RLC)             08/10/1996 (20)  Chelsea         0     0     6'0"   12st 10lbs £2.4M   
Joe Gomez                 D (RLC)             23/05/1997 (19)  West Ham        8     0     6'2"   13st 7lbs  £13.25M 
Calum Chambers            D (RC)              20/01/1995 (22)  Middlesbrough   17    0     6'0"   11st 6lbs  £8.5M   
Dominic Iorfa             D (RC)              24/06/1995 (21)  Wolves          10    0     6'4"   12st 3lbs  £6.5M   
Cameron Borthwick-Jackson D (LC), DM          02/02/1997 (20)  Wolves          0     0     5'11"  11st 13lbs £4.5M   
Brendan Galloway          D (LC), DM          17/03/1996 (20)  West Brom       3     0     6'2"   13st 9lbs  £1.1M   
Rob Holding               D (C)               20/09/1995 (21)  Watford         5     0     6'2"   13st 0lbs  £6.25M  
Nathaniel Chalobah        D (C), DM, M (C)    12/12/1994 (22)  Chelsea         34    0     6'1"   11st 6lbs  £7.75M  
Matthew Targett           D/WB (L)            18/09/1995 (21)  Southampton     14    0     6'0"   12st 10lbs £8M     
Lewis Baker               DM, M (C), AM (RLC) 25/04/1995 (21)  Vitesse         8     4     6'0"   11st 11lbs £9M     
Will Hughes               DM, M/AM (C)        17/04/1995 (21)  Derby           20    1     6'1"   11st 9lbs  £10.5M  
Patrick Roberts           M (RL), AM (RLC)    05/02/1997 (20)  Celtic          5     1     5'6"   9st 1lb    £6.5M   
Raheem Sterling           M (L), AM (RLC)     08/12/1994 (22)  Man City        12    3     5'7"   10st 12lbs £28M    
Kasey Palmer              M (C), AM (RLC)     09/11/1996 (20)  Huddersfield    7     1     5'11"  12st 6lbs  £10M    
Demarai Gray              M/AM (RL)           28/06/1996 (20)  Leicester       1     0     5'10"  12st 3lbs  £12.5M  
James Ward-Prowse         M/AM (RC)           01/11/1994 (22)  Southampton     26    6     5'8"   10st 5lbs  £12M    
John Swift                M/AM (C)            23/06/1995 (21)  Reading         6     1     6'0"   11st 13lbs £8.5M   
Tammy Abraham             AM (R), ST (C)      02/10/1997 (19)  Bristol City    6     3     6'4"   12st 10lbs £7.75M  
Marcus Rashford           AM (L), ST (C)      31/10/1997 (19)  Man Utd         5     3     5'11"  11st 6lbs  £31.5M  
Adam Armstrong            ST (C)              10/02/1997 (20)  Barnsley        0     0     5'8"   10st 12lbs £4.7M   

 

The home friendlies against Switzerland and the Netherlands would be the last for England's Under-21s before Catterall named his squad for June's European Championship. He therefore took the opportunity to audition some players who hadn't yet played for the Under-21s under his management.

 

Chelsea midfielder Lewis Baker - on loan at their Dutch feeder club Vitesse - and Reading playmaker John Swift both returned to the England Under-21s after some time away. It was somewhat surprising that Baker had not played at this level for the best part of a year, considering that Vitesse were flying high in the Eredivisie.

 

There was a first Under-21s call-up for Chelsea right-back Ola Aina, as well as Manchester United left-back Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Newcastle United striker Adam Armstrong, both of whom had spent the season on loan in the Championship.

 

A wrist injury sidelined Everton defender Mason Holgate, who was given time off to recuperate. Ben Chilwell, Zach Clough, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Harrison Reed were also dropped - at least temporarily - to make space for those new players.

 

ENGLAND UNDER-19s squad - for European Under-19s Championship Elite Round

GOALKEEPERS: Mathew Hudson (Preston), Will Mannion (Hull)

DEFENDERS: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Oxford), Ben Godfrey (Crawley), Reece Oxford (Reading), Ryan Sessegnon (Man City), Josh Tymon (Hull), Jack Vann (Leeds)

MIDFIELDERS: Tom Davies (Everton), Andre Dozzell (Leicester), Marcus Edwards (Tottenham), Sam Field (Cardiff), Jonathan Leko (West Brom), Reiss Nelson (MK Dons), Ben Sheaf (Inverness CT)

FORWARDS: Ben Brereton (Nottm Forest), Bright Enobakhare (Oxford), Michael Folivi (Coventry)

 

Catterall cut his Under-19s squad to 18 players ahead of three tough qualifying matches. He went largely with tried-and-tested players, including the fit-again Hull City goalkeeper Will Mannion, although there were a couple of new faces up front.

 

Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Niall Ennis' season had sadly been curtailed after he damaged his Achilles tendon in December, so Catterall looked elsewhere in the Midlands for strikers. He gave first call-ups to Ben Brereton, who'd been in lethal scoring form for Nottingham Forest's Under-23s and Under-18s, and Michael Folivi, who was on loan at League One strugglers Coventry City from Watford.

 

Ever-present left-back Ryan Sessegnon made a big-money transfer in January, joining Manchester City from Fulham for £5million. The 16-year-old had since played in three FA Cup ties for the Citizens and was named 'man of the match' after their 3-0 win over League Two side Cambridge United in Round 6. Midfielder Andre Dozzell had also moved into the Premier League in the transfer window, leaving Ipswich Town to sign for Leicester City.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

Since the European Under-19s Championship began in 2002, England had qualified for the annual finals more often than they hadn't - eight times out of 15. The closest they had come to winning the championship was in 2005 and 2009, finishing as runners-up on each occasion.

 

If the Young Lions were to keep up an impressive finals attendance record that was bettered only by France, Germany and Spain, they would need to emerge victorious from a potentially difficult Elite Round group. If they could finish above Croatia, Iceland and Serbia, they would earn qualification for the 2017 tournament in Germany.

 

England's preparations for this nine-day group phase was beset by an injury to Hull City left-back Josh Tymon, who had to withdraw with a sports hernia. His place in the squad was given to Chelsea's Jay Dasilva - currently on loan at Charlton Atletic in League One. Interestingly, Jay's younger brother Cole had played for Wales in the Qualifying Round of this year's championship.

 

First up for England was a trip to the Adriatic coast - and more specifically, to Dugopolje in Croatia. Their hosts were renowned for consistently producing more exceptional footballing talents than you would tend to expect from a nation of their small size. Croatia's latest boy wonder appeared to be 19-year-old attacking midfielder Lovro Majer, who had been the subject of a £2.9million transfer from Lokomotiva Zagreb to Manchester United in January.

 

Croatia made a bright start to this match, taking the lead after just eight minutes. However, it wasn't Majer who took the plaudits, but one of his former team-mates at Lokomotiva.

 

A Vatreni counter-attack got underway when striker Ivan Skansi latched onto a clearance from defender Mario Suver. Skansi fed the ball out wide to captain Franko Kovacevic before advancing into the England penalty area, where he deftly converted a square return pass from the Rijeka forward. 1-0 to the hosts.

 

The Young Lions were shaken, and their early nerves showed as they missed a host of chances to equalise. Captain Reece Oxford wasted an opportunity, as did midfielder Tom Davies and debutant forward Ben Brereton. Another rookie attacker - Michael Folivi - had a pot shot comfortably saved by Croatia goalkeeper Ivan Nevistic in the 28th minute.

 

Then, six minutes before half-time, England were hit on the break again. Dinamo Zagreb midfielder Drvoje Ilic played an excellent direct pass to Kovacevic, who deftly weighted the ball towards his strike partner. Though England keeper Will Mannion did get a glove to Skansi's fierce strike, it wasn't enough to divert the ball away from goal. Skansi had doubled his and Croatia's goal tallies.

 

After a sorry first-half display, the Young Lions looked to attack the home side with a bit more purpose in the second period. Winger Jonathan Leko had a couple of early attempts saved by Nevistic before almost scoring from an England counter-attack in the 63rd minute. Leko got behind the Croatian defence to run onto Davies' long pass, but the West Bromwich Albion starlet lost his concentration when one-on-one with Nevistic, who easily snatched the ball from his feet.

 

England's next real opportunity came in the 67th minute. Unfortunately for them, ball-winning midfielder Ben Sheaf rattled the bar with a powerful free-kick after Brereton had been upended by Croatia's own midfield destroyer Neven Durasek.

 

There were ten minutes left on the clock when Sheaf played the ball up towards fellow substitute Bright Enobakhare in the centre circle. Enobakhare then spotted Brereton's run into space, and a young man who'd been scoring goals for fun in Nottingham Forest's development teams found the net once again. England had suddenly been given fresh hope.

 

Not for the first time, Enobakhare was turning out to be a bright spark in England's attack. The Nigerian-born forward went for goal himself in the 86th minute as he attempted to level the match. Enobakhare's effort hit Croatian defender Eugen Rozic in the back... and then deflected fortuitously past Nevistic and into the goal! The Young Lions had equalised, but in somewhat bizarre fashion!

 

England looked to deal Croatia another cruel blow in injury time by snatching a last-gasp winner. It wasn't to be, though, and they returned home with one point instead of all three. Mind you, that was better than the zero they had looked like winning before their luck turned in the closing stages.

 

England's next match would take place four days later in Blackburn against Iceland, who had suffered defeat in their opening group match at home to Serbia. With the Falcons having taken the early initiative in Group 6, whichever team suffered defeat at Ewood Park would almost certainly be ruled out of contention.

 

20 March 2017: UEFA European Under-19s Championship Elite Group 6 - at Hrvatski Vitezovi, Dugopolje

Croatia U19s - 2 (Ivan Skansi 8,39)

England U19s - 2 (Ben Brereton 80, Eugen Rozic og86)

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Will Mannion; Ben Godfrey, Reece Oxford, Jack Vann, Ryan Sessegnon; Tom Davies, Sam Field; Marcus Edwards (Ben Sheaf), Michael Folivi (Bright Enobakhare), Jonathan Leko (Andre Dozzell); Ben Brereton. BOOKED: Oxford 59.

 

***

 

While England's senior team flew out to Lithuania for their latest FIFA World Cup qualifier, the Under-21s stayed at home to continue their preparation for the upcoming European Championship. Their first warm-up friendly was at Bristol City's Ashton Gate ground against Switzerland, who - somewhat surprisingly - would not be playing in the finals after finishing 4th in their qualifying group.

 

Switzerland's most exciting young talent was Breel Embolo - a powerful striker who was making big waves in the Bundesliga for Schalke 04. Though Embolo had barely exited his teens, he had long outgrown the Under-21s and was now an established senior international. You could not yet say that about his closest English counterpart.

 

Marcus Rashford, still aged only 19, had once again been hailed as the saviour of English football after his dramatic hat-trick against Serbia in November secured the Young Lions' qualification for the Euros. Those were his first three goals for England Under-21s... and his fourth would come after just seven minutes at Ashton Gate.

 

After neatly controlling a pass from Reading midfielder John Swift, Rashford turned sharply past Swiss centre-back Sandro Lauper and hammered the ball home from outside the penalty area. It was such a tremendous goal that broadcaster Sky Sports would replay it - as Lauper's famous namesake Cyndi would probably say - time after time.

 

Some onlookers at Ashton Gate were perhaps expecting Rashford's rocket to blow the floodgates wide open, but that wasn't necessarily the case. Though England continued to pepper the Swiss defence with shots, a lot of them were from too far out to seriously test goalkeeper Dario Marzino. That said, Patrick Roberts was very unfortunate not to double England's lead, as he had no fewer than three attempts saved by Marzino before half-time.

 

At the other end, Switzerland's biggest attacking threat was struggling to make his mark. Dimitri Oberlin was a very similar player to Embolo, in that both were pacey, hard-working strikers who were born in Cameroon. Mind you, Oberlin was not even close to Embolo's skill level. The Red Bull Salzburg striker was flagged offside on numerous occasions, and when he did finally get a shot away in the 38th minute, the ball sailed well wide.

 

Oberlin's best chance to get on the scoresheet would come four minutes into the second half. He just about got enough of his head to a free-kick delivery from Bruno Morgado, but not enough to get it past debutant England goalkeeper Luke McGee.

 

Despite that positive start to the second period from Switzerland, the ball would rarely leave their half for the rest of the match. England threatened to double their lead in the 66th minute through Kasey Palmer, whose left-footed effort was caught by substitute goalkeeper Gregor Kobel. A minute later, Kobel was very fortunate to see an excellent strike from Demarai Gray whistle inches wide of his left-hand post.

 

Though England could not quite build on their lead, they remained on course to see out a victory that was more comfortable than the scoreline suggested. However, their game would end on a sour note in the 83rd minute.

 

Switzerland were in the middle of a rare counter-attacking move when striker Albian Ajeti, whose elder brother Arlind played for the Albania senior national team, was recklessly hacked down by James Ward-Prowse. England's captain had lunged in with both feet, leaving the referee with not much choice other than to send him off.

 

Despite playing the closing minutes a man light, England were just about able to cling onto their lead. A couple of excellent injury-time clearances from West Ham United defender Joe Gomez proved vital, as the Swiss were shut out and a narrow victory was secured.

 

23 March 2017: Under-21s International - at Ashton Gate, Bristol

England U21s - 1 (Marcus Rashford 7)

Switzerland U21s - 0

ENGLAND U21s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Freddie Woodman (Luke McGee); Calum Chambers (Ola Aina), Brendan Galloway (Dominic Iorfa), Rob Holding (Joe Gomez), Matthew Targett (Cameron Borthwick-Jackson); Lewis Baker (Will Hughes), Nathaniel Chalobah (James Ward-Prowse); Patrick Roberts (Adam Armstrong), John Swift (Kasey Palmer), Raheem Sterling (Demarai Gray); Marcus Rashford (Tammy Abraham). SENT OFF: Ward-Prowse 83.

 

Following the match, England's players showered and got changed before quickly boarding the team bus. However, head coach David Byrne decided to keep Ward-Prowse in the dressing room for a bit longer, so that he could hand the Southampton midfielder a dressing-down.

 

"What the hell were you thinking?" Byrne asked his skipper. "I admire your commitment, but you don't make careless two-footed tackles in friendly matches. A player with your experience in the Premier League should know better.

 

"I'm sure that Mr Catterall saw the incident, and I doubt he'll be too pleased. To be honest, mate, you'll be very lucky if you keep the captaincy after this. You've let a lot of people down tonight."

 

Ward-Prowse sat solemnly on the bench and nodded apologetically, "Sorry, coach. It won't happen again."

 

"I bloody hope you're right," Byrne snarled. "Now p*** off and get on the coach."

 

The coach drive towards England's hotel was a rather sombre one, in spite of the team's narrow victory. Almost as soon as they arrived at the hotel, Byrne received a phone call. It was from the big man himself - Mark Catterall.

 

"Evening, Mark," Byrne said. "I suppose you want to get a few things off your chest, don't you?"

 

Catterall replied, "Yeah, but it's gone midnight here in Lithuania, so I'll keep it short. I wasn't impressed with tonight's performance. Your lads kept shooting from too far out when they had better options. They need to be a lot more productive going forward, else we can forget about winning the Euros."

 

"Point taken. But what should we do with... JWP?"

 

"Send him home. I won't tolerate any ill discipline on England duty."

 

"Okay, but I take it that we can't call up someone to replace him, like we could if he was injured."

 

"You're right, but that isn't the point," Catterall responded, his voice growing sterner. "The point is that James Ward-Prowse got himself sent off when there was just no need to! That lunge on the poor Swiss fella could've got him a three-match ban in the Premier League. There's no way I'm letting him loose on the Netherlands - not after that!"

 

"Alright... I'll send JWP back to Southampton in the morning," Byrne agreed. "And I'll let him know that he'll have to curb his temper in future, otherwise he ain't coming to Poland with us. You alright with that?"

 

"Yeah, that's fine by me... but David, why'd you keep calling him JWP? I can understand why you'd shorten his name when writing it, but when you actually say it, James Ward-Prowse uses fewer syllables."

 

Byrne sighed, "Goodnight, Mark."

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***

 

While England Under-21s were having problems with their captain, Mark Catterall was trying to figure out how to get the best out of his senior team's skipper. Wayne Rooney's international future had come under question from the Football Association and the press since the UEFA Euro 2016 debacle, and Catterall now had to justify his continued selection of the Manchester United veteran.

 

Catterall decided to experiment with playing Rooney as a deep-lying midfield playmaker during the Three Lions' next FIFA World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania in Vilnius. The 31-year-old would be partnered in the middle of the park with Liverpool's Jordan Henderson - his strongest rival for the international captaincy.

 

Giving Rooney an unfamiliar role away from home against a stubborn Lithuania team was a very risky move on Catterall's part. Though they were only ranked 115th in the world, the men from the former Soviet republic had conceded only three goals in their first four qualifying matches. Mind you, they had only scored at the other end once.

 

Lithuania's lack of firepower was somewhat surprising, considering that their head coach Edgaras Jankauskas was himself an accomplished striker in his time, playing for the likes of Real Sociedad, Benfica and Porto. Heart of Midlothian fans would remember Jankauskas for a couple of spells he had at Tynecastle - first as a player, and then as a youth coach - during the tumultuous ownership of Vladimir Romanov.

 

England's forwards were likely to have a difficult time unlocking the home defence, and so it proved in the opening stages. Harry Kane was narrowly off target twice in the first 11 minutes, while Adam Lallana pulled wide another early opportunity after being set up by captain Rooney.

 

As light snow began to fall on the pitch in Vilnius, Lithuania threatened to take a shock early lead in the 16th minute. Midfielder Mantas Kuklys, who'd scored just once in 25 previous international appearances, struck a powerful effort that England defender John Stones tried to deflect away. The ricochet almost diverted the ball into the net, but goalkeeper Joe Hart reacted quickly to make an important catch.

 

The Three Lions launched a counter-attack within less than a minute. Lallana had a shot blocked by home right-back Deividas Cesnauskis before playing the ball on to Kane, who forced Zydrunas Karcemarskas into his first save of the evening.

 

A minute later, England winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was trying to dribble the ball into the opposing half when he was cut down by a two-footed lunge from Fedor Cernych. Italian referee Paolo Silvio Mazzoleni immediately brought out his red card, and Lithuania would have to play the rest of this match without Cernych, who'd scored their only goal of the qualifiers thus far against Malta. Mazzoleni also issued a yellow card to Kuklys, following his vehement protestations against his team-mate's dismissal.

 

Though Lithuania were down to 10 men, they still threatened to cause an upset in the 22nd minute. Experienced winger Saulius Mikoliunas - another of Hearts' old Baltic contingent from the Romanov era - unleashed a fierce first-time strike that Hart did well to catch.

 

The Three Lions came forward again in the 24th minute, when Oxlade-Chamberlain flicked a right-wing cross from Henderson just beyond the far post. England's vice-captain was creating some decent attacking opportunities, but the same couldn't be said of their skipper. While Rooney's passing was crisp and largely accurate, it wasn't exactly incisive.

 

The match was still deadlocked at 0-0 by the 35th minute, when Lithuania enjoyed arguably their best chance to silence the visiting supporters. A well-worked passing move ended with Kuklys unleashing another fierce strike from far out, narrowly missing the top of Hart's crossbar on that occasion.

 

Lithuania's competitive streak would then rear its head again on 41 minutes. A firm sliding challenge from Cesnauskis left Dele Alli clutching his knee, and England were forced to take their exciting young attacking midfielder off just before half-time. Jack Wilshere was brought on as a direct replacement.

 

This was turning into a real slog as far as the Three Lions were concerned. Hart had to face another long-range effort from Mikoliunas in the 53rd minute, but he once again withstood the advances of the 33-year-old Zalgiris Vilnius winger, who was playing on his home ground.

 

Another opportunity came Lithuania's way on 58 minutes after England left-back Danny Rose was booked for felling Mikoliunas. Cesnauskis launched free-kick into the visitors' box, but centre-back Eric Dier dispelled the danger and started off an England breakaway. That attack very nearly resulted in a goal for Wilshere, who agonisingly volleyed a deep Rose cross against Karcemarskas' right-hand post.

 

As the game entered its final half-hour, an increasingly concerned Catterall opted to put the Rooney playmaker experiment on the back-burner. The manager went back to basics and switched to a bog-standard 4-4-2, with Rooney now playing up front alongside Kane.

 

Rooney's growing frustration became evident in the 63rd minute, when he was booked for a shove on Lithuanian defender Vytautas Andriuskevicius. Henderson would join him and Rose in the referee's book a minute later, following an altercation with Kuklys.

 

England's foul count was steadily rising, and they could well have given away a penalty on 65 minutes. Rose was accused of barging Lithuania striker Lukas Spalvis to the floor as Kuklys whipped in a free-kick, but the referee waved play on.

 

Catterall made another change to his frontline in the 71st minute as he strived for that long-awaited opening goal. Kane's recent goal drought for the Three Lions had shown no sign of ending here, and so the Tottenham Hotspur striker gave way to the in-form Daniel Sturridge.

 

England's most recent World Cup qualifier had seen Sturridge come off the bench to score the match-winner in Slovenia. The Liverpool star sensed an opportunity to enhance his 'super-sub' reputation in the 83rd minute, when he beat Andriuskevicius to a cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain. Sadly for him, his header ended up safely in goalkeeper Karcemarskas' grasp.

 

Karcemarskas needed to be on red alert again a minute later. Substitute defender Vytas Gaspuitis - making his international debut - intercepted a delivery from Rose but could only head it as far as Henderson. In came a strike from the England midfielder that Karcemarskas had to claw away from his near post.

 

Another poor interception from a Lithuanian substitute - midfielder Ovidijus Verbickas in this case - in the 86th minute would see the ball end up at England right-back Kyle Walker's feet. The Tottenham Hotspur defender managed to cross the ball through a crowded penalty area and pick out Sturridge, whose half-volley deflected into the net off the gloves of Karcemarskas!

 

For the second qualifier in succession, Sturridge had earned England a late win in the closing stages. The Three Lions maintained their 100% record in Group 6 at the halfway point, and they remained five points clear of 2nd-placed Slovenia, whose 1-0 win in Slovakia wasn't enough to close the gap.

 

While England's fans were celebrating taking another step closer to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Scotland's supporters were rueing a sensational defeat that would surely prove terminal for their hopes of progressing. Gordon Strachan's Tartan Army had somehow lost 1-0 in Malta, with a 3rd-minute goal from centre-back Steve Borg condemning the Scots to arguably the most embarrassing result in their footballing history!

 

24 March 2017: FIFA World Cup UEFA Qualifying Group 6 - at LFF Stadionas, Vilnius

Lithuania - 0

England - 1 (Daniel Sturridge 86)

ENGLAND LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Joe Hart; Kyle Walker, John Stones, Eric Dier, Danny Rose (Luke Shaw); Jordan Henderson, Wayne Rooney; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Dele Alli (Jack Wilshere), Adam Lallana; Harry Kane (Daniel Sturridge). BOOKED: Rose 57, Rooney 63, Henderson 64.

 

2018 FIFA World Cup UEFA Qualifying Group 6 (After 5 rounds)

                                   P     W     D     L     F     A     GD    PTS
1.          England                5     5     0     0     16    3     13    15
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2.          Slovenia               5     3     1     1     6     2     4     10
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
3.          Slovakia               5     2     0     3     4     6     -2    6
4.          Scotland               5     2     0     3     4     7     -3    6
5.          Lithuania              5     1     1     3     1     4     -3    4
6.          Malta                  5     1     0     4     2     11    -9    3

 

Unfortunately for England, Alli's injury turned out to be worse than first suspected. The 20-year-old had damaged his kneecap, thus ruling him out for three weeks - and the Three Lions' next match, at home to Germany.

 

As the Germany game was only a friendly, Catterall decided that he did not need to call up a replacement for Alli. He would persist with the 22 players he already had when it came to picking a team that he felt was capable of toppling the reigning world champions.

 

***

 

After that dramatic late win over Lithuania, Mark Catterall returned to the England team hotel just in time to watch his Under-19s take on Iceland in Blackburn. This was the second of the Young Lions' three matches in the European Championship Elite Round, and they knew that they could not afford another slip-up following their draw with Croatia.

 

The other Group 6 match had taken place earlier in the day, with leaders Serbia winning 3-0 at home to Croatia. The Eagles now had two wins under their belt, which meant England had to beat Iceland to turn their final match against the Falcons into the group decider. Any other result, and the Young Lions would be unable to qualify for the finals.

 

Matthew Wells had already coached the Young Lions to victory over Iceland back in October, beating them 1-0 in the Qualifying Round in Luxembourg. Nearly six months on, the Icemen had cometh to Lancashire for revenge.

 

Iceland hadn't exactly been short on fighting spirit during the sides' previous meeting. They would show their dark side again early on at Ewood Park, as Heerenveen midfielder Júlíus Magnússon lunged aggressively at England captain Reece Oxford in the second minute. Magnússon was booked, and Oxford had to leave the game very early with a dead leg.

 

Ben Sheaf came off the bench to take Oxford's place in the middle of the English defence. His centre-back colleague Jack Vann would follow Magnússon in picking up an early yellow card after tripping Iceland striker Sveinn Aron Guðjohnsen in the 6th minute.

 

Seven minutes later, a missed tackle from Sheaf allowed Iceland winger Guðmundur Andri Tryggvason to take the ball up the left flank and towards the byline. Tryggvason then curled in a cross that was ruthlessly dispatched from point-blank range by Guðjohnsen, whose father Eiður and grandfather Arnór were both regarded as true legends of Icelandic football. 18-year-old Sveinn Aron already looked set to follow in his ancestors' footsteps.

 

England launched an emphatic response to Iceland's opening goal after 25 minutes. Marcus Edwards squared the ball to Sam Field about 25 yards from the Icelandic goal, and the Cardiff City midfielder - on loan from West Bromwich Albion - hammered it first-time into the top corner of Elías Rafn Ólafsson's net!

 

England had got themselves back on terms, but Guðjohnsen would cause their defence more issues just before half-time. 'Son of Eiður' almost found the net again in the 43rd minute after firing Denis Hoda's through-ball goalwards, but Will Mannion produced a fine save for the hosts. A minute after that, Guðjohnsen was upended by Andre Dozzell, who became the second Englishman to have his name taken by the referee.

 

With only a win enough to keep their qualification hopes alive, England pushed further forward after the interval. Reiss Nelson narrowly missed the target with a header from Ryan Sessegnon's cross in the 58th minute. Six minutes after that, Vann flicked an Edwards free-kick against the upright before Birkir Heimisson - another young Icelandic midfielder on Heerenveen's books - hacked it into touch.

 

The hosts' frustration threatened to spill over in the 67th minute, when they picked up another yellow card through Sessegnon. The Manchester City left-back had incurred the referee's wrath following a trip on Iceland right-back Kolbeinn Birgir Finnsson, but he would make a more positive contribution to this match after 75 minutes.

 

With just over a quarter of an hour left, Davies searched out Sessegnon with a crossfield pass. Sessegnon then weighted a cross that was just about perfect for Brereton, whose header bounced underneath Ólafsson's dive and into the net! Much to the relief of many at Ewood Park, England had edged themselves in front!

 

Iceland had already lost once before in the Elite Round, and Brereton's goal proved terminal for their hopes of qualification. The visitors would then be killed off in injury time by a third England goal. Edwards laid on his second assist of the night for Bright Enobakhare, who raced through Iceland's defence virtually unchallenged before almost apologetically tapping the ball past a shaky Ólafsson.

 

A 3-1 win moved England up to second place in Group 6, and kept alive their slim hopes of qualifying for the European Under-19s Championship. If they were to book their place in the finals, they would have to defeat leaders Serbia in Niš four days later.

 

England's Under-21s had already prevailed when faced with a must-win encounter against Serbia. Now it was up to the Under-19s to emulate them, by clipping the wings of a few more fledgling Falcons.

 

24 March 2017: UEFA European Under-19s Championship Elite Group 6 - at Ewood Park, Blackburn

England U19s - 3 (Sam Field 25, Ben Brereton 75, Bright Enobakhare 90+1)

Iceland U19s - 1 (Sveinn Aron Guðjohnsen 13)

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Will Mannion; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece Oxford (Ben Sheaf), Jack Vann, Ryan Sessegnon; Sam Field, Andre Dozzell; Jonathan Leko (Tom Davies), Marcus Edwards, Reiss Nelson (Bright Enobakhare); Ben Brereton. BOOKED: Vann 6, Dozzell 44, Sessegnon 67.

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***

 

Four days after narrowly defeating Switzerland in the south-western city of Bristol, England's Under-21s were all the way up in the north-east for their next friendly. Sunderland's Stadium of Light was the setting for what was set to be a colourful encounter with the Netherlands.

 

England and the Netherlands had already played each other twice before this season, meeting at both Under-19s and senior level in August. The Dutch teenagers won the first encounter before the English seniors got a slice of revenge. This third meeting, between the Under-21s, was likely to be very close.

 

The Young Lions went into this match without captain James Ward-Prowse, who had been sent home following his late dismissal against the Swiss. Mark Catterall had put in place a new policy stating that any player who received a red card on international duty would automatically miss their team's next match, even if the dismissal was in a friendly. Ward-Prowse's expulsion meant that the captaincy would fall to Tammy Abraham this time around.

 

Another England prospect would face disciplinary action just five minutes into their meeting with the Dutch. West Bromwich Albion defender Brendan Galloway was cautioned by the referee after tripping Oranje midfielder Bart Ramselaar.

 

Shortly after Galloway was booked, England were somewhat lucky not to fall behind. Netherlands captain Jorrit Hendrix made a fool of home centre-back Rob Holding with a superb backheeled pass into the penalty area, where attacking midfielder Abdelhak Nouri fired it high and wide.

 

The architects of 'Total Football' produced another delightful moment in the 10th minute, though they again failed to turn it into a goal. Ramselaar tried to catch England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford out with an audacious attempt at goal from 25 yards out. However, Pickford was not going to be easily fooled, and certainly not on home soil.

 

The first 10 minutes had promised much, but the next 35 delivered little in the way of entertainment. Though the Dutch were dominant in midfield, their performance took a hit when Ajax's Daley Sinkgraven limped off midway through the half, having stubbed his toe.

 

As far as England were concerned, their few attacks at goal were very ineffective. The burden of the captaincy weighed heavily on Abraham's shoulders as he pulled wide a couple of dreadful shots from inside the penalty area.

 

Abraham would not return after the interval, as Barnsley's Adam Armstrong replaced him up front for just his second cap. England switched to a diamond formation to try and get their midfield into the game a bit more. Middlesbrough defender Calum Chambers took over the captaincy from Abraham, but by the hour mark, the armband had passed onto a third leader - Chelsea's Nathaniel Chalobah.

 

The tactical switch appeared to have an effect, as Young Lions midfielder Will Hughes finally registered their first shot on target after 60 minutes. Hughes' strike was kept out by a strong catch from Dutch goalkeeper Nick Olij, whose replacement Justin Bijlow would make his first save in the 71st minute from Armstrong's header.

 

England's most promising attack arguably came in the 75th minute. Right-back Ola Aina sent the ball across to Hughes, and Derby County's blond bombshell unleashed an edge-of-the-area effort that prompted Bijlow into another save.

 

Barely a minute after that attack broke down, England would fall victim to an incisive Oranje breakaway. Ramselaar lifted the ball through to Sam Lammers, and defender Joe Gomez was unable to keep pace with the PSV striker, who skilfully chipped goalkeeper Freddie Woodman. At long last, the Netherlands had moved in front.

 

Catterall sent for his star player immediately after that goal, with Marcus Rashford entering the field as a second striker behind Rashford. That substitution would pay dividends within just three minutes.

 

Lammers had possession in the centre circle when he was muscled off the ball by England centre-half Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. The ball was knocked on to Kasey Palmer, who then found Armstrong advancing towards goal. Armstrong watched Rashford make a run into the penalty area before laying the ball low towards the Manchester United sensation, who tapped in his fifth goal in his last three caps for England Under-21s!

 

In truth, while this 1-1 draw had not been as thrilling an encounter as many people had anticipated, it had been a productive one. Both England and the Netherlands would be sure to take plenty of positives into the European Championship when that tournament rolled around in June.

 

27 March 2017: Under-21s International - at Stadium of Light, Sunderland

England U21s - 1 (Marcus Rashford 78)

Netherlands U21s - 1 (Sam Lammers 75)

ENGLAND U21s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Jordan Pickford (Freddie Woodman); Ola Aina (Dominic Iorfa), Rob Holding (Cameron Borthwick-Jackson), Calum Chambers (Joe Gomez), Brendan Galloway (Matthew Targett); Lewis Baker (Marcus Rashford), Nathaniel Chalobah; Raheem Sterling (Will Hughes), Kasey Palmer (Patrick Roberts), Demarai Gray (John Swift); Tammy Abraham (Adam Armstrong). BOOKED: Galloway 5, Rashford 89.

 

***

 

28 March 2017 was a big day for England manager Mark Catterall. His senior team were about to leave St George's Park for a two-hour coach drive to Wembley, where they would host Germany - one of their traditional rivals - in an international friendly.

 

Before then, though, the Under-19s would play out their final European Championship qualifying match in Serbia. While head coach Matthew Wells would personally oversee the Young Lions' must-win encounter, Catterall would watch the match online and relay advice to Wells during his journey to Wembley.

 

Catterall asked his assistant manager Michael Burke, "Is everything set up for the Under-19s game?"

 

"Yeah, absolutely," Burke responded. "Our techy's been hard at work making sure the laptop stays stable and connected while we're travelling."

 

"I'd better see for myself before we set off, though, hadn't I?"

 

As Catterall boarded the coach, though, he was surprised to see two very familiar faces.

 

"Bloomin' heck... what are you doing here?" he exclaimed upon seeing his wife Jenny and son Luke on board.

 

"Uncle Mick invited us," Luke smiled.

 

"Yes, this was all Michael's idea," Jenny said. "He asked me to set all this up for you, so that you can follow the Under-19s match when we're on the road."

 

After giving Luke a hug, Mark asked Jenny, "So, what've you done?"

 

"Your laptop's already 4G-ready, so the Internet should be sorted. The strength of the signal might vary along the route to Wembley, but you should have a decent enough connection wherever you are."

 

"And I see you've installed a desk for me here."

 

"Yes, I have. You need somewhere nice and sturdy to put your computer on, don't you? I'm guessing you don't want it to suddenly go flying if the driver has to turn sharply!"

 

"Gee, that's a great help. Anything else?"

 

"I've upgraded your headphones. Your old ones were a bit faulty, and the sound quality of the microphone was intermittent, so I thought I'd buy you a new top-range set."

 

"But I liked my old headphones," Mark replied sadly.

 

"These ones cost £1,000, so I'd suggest you make the most of them."

 

"Ta, love," Mark said before kissing his wife. He then asked Luke, "And what brings you here, Luke?"

 

"Uncle Mick bought me a ticket for the game. Thank you, Mick!"

 

"Yeah, Mick ain't here right now. I think he's gone to get the players... but that was awfully nice of him, weren't it?"

 

Jenny whispered in Mark's ear, "I told Michael about Luke wanting to go to an England game a while back. I thought that this game was a good one for him to go to, but it was Michael's idea to buy the tickets."

 

"Hang on... ain't he supposed to be at school tomorrow?"

 

Luke replied joyfully, "No school tomorrow."

 

"Teachers are going on strike," Jenny explained. "They're protesting about budget cuts, aren't they?"

 

"Ah, yes, of course," Mark nodded. "But what about the commentary?"

 

"Yeah, that's all sorted."

 

"So, who will he be listening to?"

 

"TalkSport," Jenny responded with some hesitancy. "I know you have your reservations about them..."

 

"No, you've done good. Besides, Radio 5 Live has become a joke nowadays. Did you hear that the BBC had replaced Alan Green and Jimmy Armfield with bloody Scott Mills and Chris Stark? They'll be bringing Dick and Dom in next season at this rate!"

 

Meanwhile, the rest of the England playing and coaching staff were beginning to board the coach.

 

"All aboard, kiddos," coach David Platt called in his typically lugubrious Mancunian twang. "Who wants to be regaled with a story about my four-minute cameo in the 1990 World Cup group match against Egypt?"

 

"Yer alright, Platt," Manchester City defender John Stones replied.

 

Platt continued, "And then I'll talk about the first knockout match against Belgium."

 

Another City player - Joe Hart - responded, "Okay, as long as you cut straight to the chase."

 

"And what, cut out my blow-by-blow account of the first 118 minutes before I scored the match-winner? Who do you think you are, some kind of philistine?"

 

Stones had an idea for some alternative entertainment. "Hey, Joe, how's about we tell t'others all t' gossip 'bout Raheem Sterling?"

 

"Sounds like a plan," Hart nodded.

 

"Yeah, I'd be well up for that," concurred Nathan Redmond - one of the newest members of the England senior squad.

 

A disappointed Platt sat in his seat next to Catterall and sighed, "They're a disrespectful lot, aren't they? I won 62 caps between 1989 and 1996, but nobody cares about me anymore now that I'm 50 years old and long retired."

 

"You're right, David," Catterall said as he put on his headphones. "Nobody cares."

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***

 

As the England team bus rolled from Burton-upon-Trent and towards Wembley, Mark Catterall sat back in his seat and watched the Under-19s' final European Championship qualifying match in Serbia.

 

The permutations were straightforward for the Young Lions - no need for an abacus here. Win, and England would top their Elite Round group and progress to the finals tournament in Georgia in July. Fail, and Serbia would be flying out to the former Soviet republic instead this summer.

 

Serbia were blessed with the exciting talent of Zlatan - 16-year-old left-back Zlatan Sehovic, that was. Sehovic hit a hopeful shot from long range in the second minute, but it lacked any of the accuracy that a certain Mr Ibrahimovic was renowned for.

 

England's first attempt on goal - in the 17th minute - also flattered to deceive. Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Marcus Edwards dispatched a free-kick goalwards after his compatriot Sam Field had been upended by Serbian captain Jovan Vlalukin, but the set-piece sailed wide.

 

The hosts would give Young Lions goalkeeper Will Mannion plenty to think about three minutes later. Mannion, who had been picked ahead of Mathew Hudson in all three Elite Round games, pushed behind a header from Vlalukin. The Hull City prospect then did likewise to a low drive from Sehovic.

 

England had another close shave on 29 minutes. Falcons midfielder Zeljko Gavric stroked a delightful through-ball ahead of striker Vanja Vucicevic, who got beyond visiting defender Jack Vann and looked odds-on to open the scoring. However, Vucicevic's finish was too tame to seriously worry Mannion.

 

The Young Lions continued to keep their opponents at bay until injury time. That was when Serbia midfielder Luka Ilic caught them completely unawares, lashing in a long-distance drive that was too quick for Mannion. The Falcons were 1-0 up and flying towards the finals... unless England could launch a stirring second-half fightback.

 

England sought some inspiration from captain Reece Oxford in the 49th minute. The West Ham United centre-back got his head to debutant Jay Dasilva's corner at the near post, but Serbian goalkeeper Aleksandar Popovic palmed it behind for another set-piece. When it came to that second corner, Tom Davies was left badly wanting.

 

More disappointment for Davies would come four minutes later. Dasilva's free-kick into Serbia's penalty area found the Everton midfielder, who flicked it inches wide. Popovic was a very relieved man, having charged well off his goal line in a vain attempt to reach Dasilva's delivery ahead of Davies.

 

A couple of minutes after that, the Falcons attempted to pull two goals clear. Sehovic's cross from the left flank was met by a header from Dejan Joveljic, but the centre-forward nodded it well off target. With a bit more accuracy, he would surely have condemned England to elimination.

 

Another 15 minutes went by without England getting close to an equaliser. Then, in the 70th minute, they received a massive lifeline. As Popovic stretched to reach a deep cross from Edwards, the Serbian keeper lost his balance and landed hard on his left shoulder. The Partizan Belgrade remained prone on the turf, and it quickly became clear that something was horribly wrong.

 

Popovic had to be stretchered off the pitch with a suspected dislocated shoulder. As Serbia had already used all three of their substitutes, one of their outfielders had to replace Popovic in goal. Captain Vlalukin elected to don the keeper's jersey and gloves, but England now had about 20 minutes to put two goals past someone who wasn't a natural shotstopper.

 

The Young Lions' next opportunity to equalise fell Jonathan Leko's way in the 79th minute. The West Bromwich Albion winger's strike was charged down by Serbia centre-back Strahinja Bosnjak, who played for Illichivets in the Ukrainian second tier.

 

Six minutes later, Leko sent an excellent centre towards Michael Folivi on the edge of Serbia's six-yard box. Folivi looked set to thrash in his first England Under-19s goal... but his shot ricocheted off the crossbar and bounced back into play. When Sava Radic cleared for Serbia, the Young Lions were back to square one.

 

England's final attacks failed to bear any fruit. After a couple of headers from Ben Brereton went harmlessly wide, the Young Lions were consigned to their fate. They had been beaten 1-0 in Serbia, and their dream of winning the European Under-19s Championship was over for another year.

 

28 March 2017: UEFA European Under-19s Championship Elite Group 6 - at Čair, Niš

Serbia U19s - 1 (Luka Ilic 45+1)

England U19s - 0

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-4-2 Diamond): Will Mannion; Ben Godfrey (Trent Alexander-Arnold), Reece Oxford, Jack Vann, Jay Dasilva; Tom Davies; Ben Sheaf (Jonathan Leko), Sam Field; Marcus Edwards; Bright Enobakhare (Ben Brereton), Michael Folivi.

 

2017 UEFA European Under-19s Championship Elite Group 6 (Final Standings)

                                   P     W     D     L     F     A     GD    PTS
1.    Q     Serbia U19s            3     3     0     0     6     1     5     9
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2.          England U19s           3     1     1     1     5     4     1     4
3.          Iceland U19s           3     1     0     2     4     5     -1    3
4.          Croatia U19s           3     0     1     2     2     7     -5    1

 

In what seemed like perfect timing, the Under-19s' match finished just as the senior team's coach was arriving at Wembley Stadium.

 

With the famous Wembley arch pulling closer into view, the final whistle blew in Niš. Mark Catterall slumped into his seat, staring at his laptop with a look of exasperation etched across his space.

 

Jenny ask, "Did they lose, Mark?" Mark did not speak in response, prompting Jenny to say, "What's the matter? It's only a game."

 

"Not to Mark, it ain't," Michael Burke replied. "That's the thing with him. Mark cares so passionately about his England teams, and about winning, that he takes any defeat very personally.

 

"That's just how he is when it comes to football. Believe me, Jen, he was like this when we were playing for City Under-16s."

 

Jenny then tried to cajole Mark into a smile. "Come on, lighten up... for Luke's sake, if anything. After all, this is his first England match."

 

"Why the hell does it matter?" Mark grumbled. "He can't see my face anyway."

 

Jenny fumed, "My God, Mark Catterall, you can be such a nob at times!"

 

This rebuking by his wife caused Mark to break out of his bad mood and into a mild chuckle.

 

"That's more like it," Jenny said sternly as the coach stopped outside Wembley.

 

"Here we are, Luke," she told her son. "Wembley Stadium."

 

While Luke was unable to see the splendour of the stadium itself, he could feel the atmosphere and hear thousands of fans steadily tricking into the ground. His response was succinct, but filled with typical youthful wonder.

 

"Awesome."

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***

 

A little under an hour to go until kick-off between England and Germany, Mark Catterall had plenty of time to show his young son Luke around Wembley Stadium. He then invited him into the dressing room to meet his senior players.

 

"Lads, I'd like to introduce you to someone very special," he told the players. "This is my son, Luke. He's eight years old and this is his first England game."

 

"I know how you're feeling, mate," West Ham United captain Mark Noble said. "This is my first time as well!"

 

"It's mine and all," Southampton winger Nathan Redmond added.

 

After most of the players introduced themselves to Luke, the youngster smiled, "I'm so excited. I know you will win."

 

Harry Kane agreed, "Yeah, y'know, mate, anything could happen. I'm sure we'll score the most goals, y'know, unless Germany score the most goals, 'cos, y'know, it's football, at the end of the day."

 

"Somebody tweet Gary Lineker, 'cos I think we've found his replacement for when he quits 'Match of the Day'," muttered assistant manager Michael Burke.

 

"Where's Wayne Rooney?" Luke asked, to which the England captain himself called, "I'm ri' here, la'."

 

"You're my favourite player," Luke beamed as he turned toward Rooney. "Can I get a video with you?"

 

Rooney looked uncertainly at Mark, who politely nodded. He then said, "How about we get one done after the game, mate? Y'know, after we beat them Krauts."

 

"Wicked."

 

"Now how about a high-five?" Rooney suggested, raising his right hand in the air.

 

"Erm, Wayne?" Mark politely intervened, before mouthing, "Luke can't see very well."

 

"Oh, right," Rooney remembered, before gently tapping Luke on the shoulder. "Sorry, mate. Didn't notice."

 

Luke said, "That's okay. A lot of people don't know at first. It happens all the time."

 

As an FA official entered the dressing room, Mark told Luke, "Okay, son, it's almost time to get into your seat. This very kind lady from the FA will help take you up to Mummy."

 

"Okay," Luke said as he was escorted out of the dressing room. "Goodbye, team! Good luck!"

 

Once Luke had left the room, Mark addressed the England team to confirm his starting XI. He had opted to give international debuts to Noble and Redmond - two players who'd enjoyed great seasons at club level.

 

The manager then said, "I'm sure all of you know how important this match is to the fans. I'm sure you know about the rivalry between us and Germany. But I want you to forget about the past, and instead concentrate on the present. I don't want you to coast through this game like it's just another friendly - but also, I don't want to see any of you get caught up in the emotion."

 

Burke interjected, "And most importantly, just relax and play your natural game. You've got nothing to lose. And anyway, this game can't go to penalties!"

 

"Did you hear what I said about forgetting the past?" Catterall growled.

 

"Alright, Catts, don't bite my head off! I just thought I'd break some of the tension."

 

The atmosphere at Wembley was at fever pitch moments later, when Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson led the England team out onto the turf. Once the national anthems had been played and pleasantries exchanged, the stadium briefly fell silent shortly before kick-off.

 

This was England's first home international since the death of their former head coach Graham Taylor, who'd suffered a fatal heart attack in January at the age of 72. While Taylor's reign in the 'impossible job' may have been brief and notoriously unsuccessful, he was still widely respected by many in English football, particularly those of a Watford or Aston Villa persuasion.

 

What was intended to be a moment's silence turned into widespread applause, with many supporters - English and German - giving a fitting farewell to one of the game's great characters. Following that emotional tribute to Taylor, it was time for a great international rivalry to be renewed.

 

This match pitted together two coaches with untraditional dress senses in football manager terms. While Catterall was wearing a suit, he'd consistently broken FA protocol by sporting an open-necked shirt and not wearing a neck tie. While some had speculated that his 'refusal' to don a tie was partly influenced by his left-wing political beliefs, he claimed that he found the neckwear to be "far too fiddly, and not worth the time or effort".

 

Germany's head coach - the long-serving Joachim Löw - was even more liberal when it came to his touchline attire. Löw and his assistant Thomas Schneider would often be seen wearing the same smart-casual suits, prompting them to be compared to a washed-up boy band, though Löw perhaps took that image a bit too far with his crotch-touching during UEFA Euro 2016.

 

Löw's shirts also had a tendency to show some rather embarrassing perspiration, particularly in the armpit area. The German coach would be sweating profusely again as early as the eighth minute at Wembley.

 

An early Mannschaft attack broke down when Marco Reus' centre was fired out of the England penalty area by Michael Keane. Redmond latched onto the ball and dribbled up the left flank before cutting inside and finding Daniel Sturridge. The Liverpool striker then knocked the ball beyond Germany defender Mats Hummels to send Noble through on goal.

 

Noble was wide open, and sensing a dream debut goal. The 29-year-old was about to fire the ball past goalkeeper Manuel Neuer before he was stopped by a last-ditch tackle from Jérôme Boateng. Fortunately for England, Boateng's intervention knocked the ball on towards Jack Wilshere, who rifled it home to send the home fans into raptures!

 

Incredibly, the game was still in its eighth minute when England went within inches of going two goals up! This time, it was Redmond's turn to narrowly miss out on marking his international bow with a goal. The 23-year-old Brummie got free of Benjamin Henrichs to head an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain cross goalwards, but the ball flew inches over.

 

Redmond would get another chance in the 12th minute. Henderson intercepted a Neuer goal kick and nodded it on to Sturridge, who then found Oxlade-Chamberlain in acres of room down the right flank. The Arsenal wideman was well ahead of Mannschaft left-back Jonas Hector, giving him plenty of licence to whip in a cross that Redmond finished at the back post! 2-0 to England!

 

The world champions were already on the ropes, and even elite players such as Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller were feeling the heat. They each had scoring chances saved by England goalkeeper Fraser Forster, in the 16th and 21st minutes respectively. Forster would make another vital intervention in the 23rd minute, scrambling behind a Reus cross to concede a corner.

 

Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos' corner was cleared by Wilshere, who successfully chased after the loose ball and entered the German half before playing a sublime crossfield pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain. Hummels and Hector tried to close Oxlade-Chamberlain down, but it was to no avail. 'The Ox' powered in an unstoppable strike, and with barely half of the first period gone, England's supporters were in dreamland!

 

With England 3-0 up on Germany, memories of their famous 5-1 dismantling of the Mannschaft in Munich in 2001 came flooding back. Another famous sporting victory that was springing to mind was from the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, where Great Britain thrashed their Teutonic foes in the men's hockey Final. Barry Davies' inimitable commentary from that day resonated well here: "Where were the Germans? Frankly, who cares?"

 

Germany were virtually nowhere to be seen - indeed, some smart alecks on Twitter were quick to post 'Missing Persons' reports on some of their defenders. Oxlade-Chamberlain was sent through on goal again in the 28th minute by Noble, but Neuer's save prevented the scoreline from becoming ridiculously one-sided.

 

As the first half-hour expired, though, there were signs that England's high-tempo start was beginning to take a toll on them. Forster made heavy work of another cross from Reus in the 32nd minute, conceding another corner. Kroos whipped it onto the head of Müller, who sent it just over the crossbar.

 

The visitors' next major opportunity came in the last regulation minute of the first half, when Henderson fouled Özil deep in England's half. Müller flicked Kroos' free-kick on to Hector, whose first-time strike was blocked by Keane. Bayer Leverkusen's 20-year-old right-back Henrichs then blasted home the rebound, reducing Germany's deficit to 3-1 just in time for the interval.

 

Henderson took the blame for gifting the Germans a lifeline. He conceded the England captaincy, and his place in midfield, to Rooney for the second half. Indeed, all three of the Liverpool players who'd started the first half wouldn't return after the break, as right-back Nathaniel Clyne and Sturridge were also sacrificed in favour of Tottenham Hotspur duo Kyle Walker and Kane.

 

Kane hadn't scored an international goal since September, but he could've ended his barren run in the 51st minute. Redmond continued his excellent debut by dribbling behind Boateng and finding the striker near the penalty spot. With only Neuer to beat, a 10th England goal for Kane looked a given... until he volleyed it against the woodwork.

 

Rooney also had an opportunity to restore the Three Lions' three-goal cushion after 53 minutes. The veteran drove Oxlade-Chamberlain's cut-back towards goal, but Neuer was in just the right position to make a secure catch.

 

Six minutes after that came more evidence that Neuer was world football's pre-eminent goalkeeper. The Bayern Munich custodian met a vicious effort from Wilshere with a stunning strike that tipped it against the corner of his goal frame. The Mannschaft then kicked off a counter-attack that would culminate in young Bayern midfielder Joshua Kimmich having a shot saved by Forster.

 

England were hit with a potentially more devastating breakaway move by the Germans in the 71st minute. Sami Khedira tackled Kane off the ball, which 21-year-old striker Timo Werner played long to André Schürrle on the left flank. The Borussia Dortmund dribbled through a wide-open channel between Walker and Keane, but he couldn't get his shot beyond Forster.

 

England's defence was now being seriously stretched, and Catterall saw the relatively inexperienced Keane as his most suspect link. The Manchester City centre-half made way for a Manchester United counterpart in Chris Smalling, whose first contribution was to accidentally shoot the Three Lions in the paws.

 

With 15 minutes remaining, Bayern playmaker Mario Götze launched an ambitious shot at goal from 30 yards out. Walker managed to block Götze's shot, but the ball took a second ricochet off an unsuspecting Smalling's leg. That additional rebound left Forster helplessly beaten, and England's lead had been whittled down to just a single goal!

 

All the momentum seemed to be with the Mannschaft. That was until their midfield destroyer Khedira appeared to injure his hip in the 77th minute. The 30-year-old from Juventus had to come off, and as Löw had used up all his substitutions, Germany were down to 10 men.

 

Despite their disadvantage, Germany still pushed on in an attempt to complete their comeback. Opportunity knocked in the 89th minute, when a poor clearance from Smalling was cut out by Ilkay Gündogan. The City midfielder played the ball through to Werner, but the RB Leipzig forward was hopelessly off target.

 

There were some anxious faces in the Wembley stands before the referee - 28-year-old Charlotte Carpenter from Abercynon in Wales - blew her final whistle. For the second time in just over a year, England had claimed a memorable 3-2 win over the FIFA World Cup holders!

 

28 March 2017: International Friendly - at Wembley, London

England - 3 (Jack Wilshere 8, Nathan Redmond 12, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain 23)

Germany - 2 (Benjamin Henrichs 45, Chris Smalling og75)

ENGLAND LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Fraser Forster; Nathaniel Clyne (Kyle Walker), Michael Keane (Chris Smalling), Gary Cahill, Luke Shaw; Mark Noble (Eric Dier), Jordan Henderson (Wayne Rooney); Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere (Adam Lallana), Nathan Redmond; Daniel Sturridge (Harry Kane).

 

A little over a quarter of an hour after the final whistle blew, the Wembley stands were all but deserted. The vast majority of the spectators were on their way home, leaving Mark Catterall and his family with plenty of privacy to do as they pleased at the hallowed ground.

 

Having completed his press obligations, Catterall invited his wife Jenny and son Luke onto the pitch. Jenny then used her iPad to record Luke having a laugh with his favourite player - captain Wayne Rooney - while Mark watched on with his assistant manager Michael Burke.

 

"You were rubbish today, Rooney," Luke told his idol. "You didn't score or nothing."

 

"Yeah, but we still won, din't we?" Rooney replied.

 

"Well, the next time I go to an England game, you have to score. Promise?"

 

"Erm, I dunno 'bout that. I've gotta work hard to stay in the team, ain't I?"

 

"Okay. What about my next United game, then?"

 

"You got a deal, kiddo. Next time you're at Old Trafford, I'll score one just for you. Promise."

 

Meanwhile, Michael turned to Mark - a fellow Manchester City fan - and asked, "Since when has your son been supporting the other lot?"

 

"Believe me, Mick, I did everything I could to turn him blue," Mark sighed reluctantly.

 

"I'm guessing you even played Eiffel 65 in the maternity ward, didn't you?"

 

"No, Mick, I weren't that sad. Anyway, Jen won that particular battle... so I guess he's a red now."

 

Michael continued, "At least he ain't like our Josh. He's supported Chelsea since he was five, so that obsession started about... 2005. I think they must've done something special back then."

 

Mark laughed, "Talk about a glory hunter! I've heard of Londoners supporting Manchester clubs just because they win things, but not the other way round!"

 

Jenny then walked Luke over to Mark, who asked, "How was your day, son?"

 

Luke beamed, "I loved it! Best day ever!"

 

"I'm so glad you enjoyed it," Michael replied. "I told the lads to play at their best today for you. That, and also because everyone loves to see the Germans get beat, don't they?"

 

"Thank you for buying the ticket for me, Uncle Mick."

 

"You're always welcome, mate."

Edited by CFuller

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Chapter 8 - Korea Calling

 

With one round of fixtures remaining in the 2016/2017 Premier League season, the title race was coming down to the wire. Manchester United had led the table for much of the campaign, but they had notieably faltered since the middle of March. A 1-1 draw at Anfield against Liverpool mathematically ended the Red Devils' chances of claiming their first league championship for four years. So much for new manager José Mourinho being 'The Special One'.

 

Significantly, that point kept Liverpool in the hunt for what would be a first top-flight title since 1990. Going into the final weekend of the season, the 2nd-placed found themselves three points behind new leaders Tottenham Hotspur with a slightly healthier goal difference. Spurs had been on an incredible 12-game winning streak in all competitions before heartbreakingly losing their final league game at White Hart Lane against West Ham United.

 

Tottenham would end a 56-year wait to be crowned champions if they could take at least a point from their final fixture at Sunderland. Were they to slip up, however, Liverpool knew that a victory at West Ham would see them steal the trophy from underneath the north Londoners' noses.

 

For England manager Mark Catterall, seeing Tottenham and Liverpool battling for the title was very encouraging. Those sides provided a large chunk of his senior squad's players. Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker were all key components of Mauricio Pochettino's Spurs side. Meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp's regular starters on Merseyside included the likes of Nathaniel Clyne, Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge.

 

On the Monday afternoon before the final weekend, Catterall arrived at the Sky Sports News studios in west London to be interviewed by presenters Adam Leventhal and Natalie Sawyer. Ava Leggett - the FA's Director of Communications - was there to give him some advice before he went in front of the cameras.

 

After Catterall informed her that he wished to put some points across in his interview, Leggett said, "As the England manager, you have to stay neutral at all times. I can't stress enough how important it is that you don't take sides. Just because one team uses more English players than another doesn't mean you should be seen to support them."

 

"Of course I won't say anything like that!" Catterall reassured her. "But I feel like I've gotta say something out there. I want to plant some seeds into the other managers' heads - something that'll perhaps encourage them to go a bit more English."

 

"Okay, that's fine. Just don't turn into Nigel Farage at the same time."

 

Moments later, Catterall met the two Sky Sports presenters on set, and then sat down to await their questions. Once the show went live, Leventhal began, "Good afternoon. We've been here all day looking back at the weekend's Premier League action, and building up to what is sure to be a dramatic final weekend in the race for the title. I'm delighted to say that we are now joined in the Sky Sports News by none other than the England manager himself - Mark Catterall!"

 

Catterall - a former Sky Sports pundit - replied, "After all these years, I'm happy to be back here on Sky Sports News."

 

Leventhal stressed, "Sky Sports News HQ - the HQ's important."

 

Sawyer asked the first question. "Anyway, Mark, we have to begin with the Premier League title race. Either Tottenham will be crowned champions for the first time since 1961, or Liverpool will win the title again after a 27-year wait. How do you think it's going to pan out?"

 

"It's in Tottenham's hands, for sure. Mauricio Pochettino has built a solid team that always stick together and often produces a lot of exciting football. It's not just the English lads that are having great seasons, either. Hugo Lloris has been magnificent in goal, and those two Belgian lads in front of him - [Toby] Alderweireld and [Jan] Vertonghen have been rock-solid in the heart of the defence. For me, they're the best centre-back partnership in the league."

 

Catterall was then quizzed on how he rated Liverpool, to which he answered, "I don't think they'll win the title, but I have to say that Jürgen Klopp has done wonders with that team. He's taken what was essentially a bang-average Liverpool side and built them in his own 'gegenpressing' style. A lot of side haven't been able to cope with the high intensity of Liverpool's play, hence they've done so well this season."

 

Leventhal added, "As England manager, you must be pleased to see so many of your players contending for the title."

 

"Yes, I'm very pleased. When you're managing any national team, you always want to see your players doing well for their clubs as well as their country. And when you've got Dele and Harry Kane ripping other teams to shreds in the Premier League, and to some extent the Champions League, it makes you think of the potential damage they could cause at a World Cup or a European Championship."

 

"Let's turn towards England now, and your first year in charge," Sawyer said. "Five wins from five in the World Cup qualifiers, and a couple of impressive friendly victories over the Netherlands and Germany. It's gone very well for you so far, hasn't it?"

 

"I'm not counting my chickens before they've hatched, Natalie. The one thing I've always said to you and to other broadcasters is that we can't assume that we've done the job until we've actually done it. Complacency has cost England teams dear in the past, and I won't let that happen again on my watch."

 

"But surely victories like the one against Germany will give you some confidence going into tougher matches?"

 

"Of course, but I don't think this team is playing anywhere near as well as it could be. We all know that there's a lot of work to do before we're considered a major force again. That could take two years, four years, maybe longer, but at this moment in time, I feel like we're making steady progress. Not spectacular progress, just steady."

 

Leventhal turned towards the younger age groups, saying, "In terms of the Under-21s, they'll be playing in the Euros in Poland next month. Will you be there to help lead them to what we hope will be a victorious campaign?"

 

"Yes, I'll always be at the big tournaments when the seniors and the Under-21s are involved. David Byrne's done a tremendous job coaching them to qualification after taking over from Gareth Southgate, but I'm sure he'll tell you that having me around will give everyone in the camp a big boost. The players will know that this is not just an opportunity to win a tournament; it's also a chance to put themselves in the frame for a call-up to the senior team."

 

"And what about the Under-20s? Their World Cup in South Korea starts on Sunday."

 

"Matthew Wells - the Under-19s coach - will be overseeing that, but I'll be following the boys' progress from St George's Park."

 

"That'll be a big test for your so-called 'remote management' approach, won't it?" Sawyer asked. "Can that transnational communication between manager and coach work when it comes to a major tournament?"

 

"Why can't it work? The coaches have a good idea of what I want to do with the youth teams. As far as I can see, it doesn't really matter a great deal whether I'm actually out there in South Korea or back home in Staffordshire."

 

"Looking at the various youth squads, who do you see potentially breaking into the senior England team in the near future? Marcus Rashford has to be up there, surely?"

 

"It's difficult to predict what'll happen with Marcus," Catterall admitted. "He's got bags of potential, but he needs to be playing regularly and scoring regularly if he wants to be in the senior squad again after the Euros. If that's at Manchester United, then great. If he has to go out on loan to get regular first-team football, then so be it.

 

"I'm looking forward to seeing how Jordan Pickford gets on with the Under-21s at the Euros. He's shown great maturity in goal for Sunderland this season to help keep them up, and I can see him challenging Joe Hart for a starting place with the senior team a few years from now. In the Under-19s, you have Tom Davies making rapid progress with Everton, and Ryan Sessegnon's just been picked up by Manchester City. I'm very excited about those two lads."

 

Leventhal then asked, "What do you make of the overall state of youth development in this country?"

 

"Honestly? Long-term, as things stand, I'm very worried. 20 years ago, when I was at my peak as a player, you had a good bunch of young players coming through into senior Premier League teams every season. Nowadays, you've only got a handful of them breaking through.

 

"There aren't many opportunities for our best youngsters in the top flight anymore. They aren't just competing with the best players in the world; they're also competing with a load of very average imports who are there only to provide cover. Watford's a good example of that. Most of their players just pass through Vicarage Road whenever Udinese or Granada decide they don't want them anymore. I can't understand why they don't do what the likes of Southampton do, and develop more players from their youth academy."

 

Leventhal - a Watford supporter himself - said, "I don't think you're being very fair on Watford, Mark. The Pozzo family have their own way of how they run their teams as businesses, and like it or not, you cannot make them change that."

 

Catterall continued, "And that's the thing with all these foreign investors in Premier League clubs - they are only in it for themselves! They don't care about the local community, or helping the local kids reach their potential. They just want to (A) get in the Premier League, and (B) make a lot of money out of simply being in the Premier League.

 

"When I was at Blackburn Rovers in the mid-90s, we were run by the late, great Jack Walker - a local businessman done good who simply wanted to do right by his local team. We only had a few foreigners when we won the league in 1995. The rest of the team was all British lads, and a lot of them - like me - were fairly local. We were all passionate about our club, and we had a winning mentality under Kenny Dalglish, and that's why we were so successful.

 

"I look at what Blackburn have become now under their Indian owners, and it makes me sad. They're just one of many examples of how football in this country has got worse - and how the England team has got worse - over the last couple of decades."

 

Sawyer said, "But now that you've been England manager for coming up to a year now, do you feel that you can make a difference? Do you feel that you can reach out to club managers, and co-operate with them to help make the England team stronger over the coming years?"

 

"I wish it was that simple, Natalie. This is something that the FA and the Premier League will have to sit down to discuss at length. As things stand, my hands are tied."

 

Leventhal wrapped up by saying, "Mark Catterall, it has been a pleasure to have you here. Thank you for speaking to us live on Sky Sports News. HQ."

 

Once the interview was over, Catterall returned to Leggett and asked for her honest opinion on how the interview went. She swiftly rebuked him, "I felt like I was listening to a BNP political broadcast!"

 

Catterall explained, "Look, Ava. I wasn't trying to sound like a Nick Griffin or a Paul Merson. I was simply saying that I felt too many English youngsters were having their opportunities limited by mediocre foreign players... and that in turn was hurting my chances of building a successful England team."

 

"I could understand why you raised your concerns about the lack of English players in the Premier League... but there was just no need to be so blunt about it!"

 

"That's just how I can be sometimes. Anyway, it's about time there was an England manager who had the balls to deliver some home truths."

 

"The media are going to have a feeding frenzy over this!"

 

"Let them feast, Ava," Catterall scoffed. "They'll quickly fill themselves up and then look for something else to wash it down with. Besides, I'm expecting Mourinho to have another meltdown any day now!"

Edited by CFuller

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