Euro dream over, and onto the World Cup

England U17s’ dreams of lifting the European Championship for a second year running are over following today’s defeat against the Dutch, but this squad now have an even bigger tournament to look forward to in the shape of the FIFA U17 World Cup in Mexico.

It kicks-off in roughly a month’s time, so Head Coach John Peacock and Team Operations’ Claire Duggan will head straight from Serbia to Mexico, via two days at home, for next week’s draw when we will find out who, where and when they are in action.

Given the squad’s time together over the campaign, there is a real spirit in place with all of the players now looking forward to what should be a fine experience for them at such a young age. When Peacock took the team of 2007 to the U17 World Cup in Korea, they reached the quarter final stage and notable members of that squad included the likes of Danny Welbeck, Henri Lansbury, Dan Gosling, Alex Smithies, Jason Steele, Danny Rose and Jordan Spence amongst others, who have all since gone on to feature for England at more senior levels.

The world really is their oyster now, but for this afternoon at least, it’s the more sobering thought of returning back to England and their clubs before preparations kick-in for the World Cup.

As I type, the kit man’s room is a hive of activity with the players returning their training and leisure gear whilst the medical room is being tidied up and equipment being packed away for the journey home.

With a 4am departure from the hotel in Novi Sad on Friday morning to look forward to, they will be resting this afternoon before an early night in preparation for the flight from Belgrade to Munich. From there, connecting flights to London, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh should get everyone home by Friday afternoon.

As Peacock said after the game earlier, the players can be very proud of themselves for finishing in the top four in Europe. This tournament starts with over 50 nations vying for a place in the finals and is notoriously tough to reach the final stages. England U17s and U19s have both reached this stage for the last three years running, which highlights that we’re not far away at all. The likes of Spain and Portugal didn’t even qualify for the U17s finals this year, so it’s been a good season already which has the potential to get even better in the summer.

For now though, it’s over and I think it’s time to start packing myself…

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Bewildering end to Serbian Cup Final

Serbian Cup Final

The Partizan supporters after their opening goal in the Serbian Cup Final.

After watching football at all-sorts of different levels and in numerous nations over the last 20 years or so, you start to think you’ve seen pretty much everything that could happen on a football pitch in the professional game.

But that was taken to a new level for me on Wednesday evening, as I was given the opportunity to watch the Serbian Cup Final between FK Vojvodina and Partizan Belgrade.

With the European U17 Championship semi-finals taking place on Thursday morning, I spent the best part of Tuesday evening and Wednesday making sure I had done enough work to be able to make the trip down to the Marakana Stadium in Belgrade, home of Red Star.

The UEFA officials here in Novi Sad had generously put on a coach and sorted out tickets for delegates and staff at the competition to go and watch the match, so it was an opportunity I didn’t really want to miss.

And what an incredible atmosphere awaited us! The kick-off had to be delayed by 30 minutes due to traffic in the Serbian capital which prevented many of the Vojvodina supporters from arriving on time, but that allowed the massed ranks of Partizan fans to really get things going.

Flags, flares, fireworks, banners and synchronised, loud chanting, they had it all. I really haven’t heard anything like that at a football stadium in years.

Whilst outnumbered probably by three times, the Vojvodina supporters were exactly the same too, but it’s what followed in the game that left me feeling a little sympathy for the fans of both clubs on the way home.

The first-half was a fairly scrappy affair, which Partizan no doubt edged and they took the lead through their rangy striker Prince Tagoe to hold the advantage at the break.

The Vojvodina fans celebrate their equaliser.It was in the second half that all of the drama started to unfold, as Vojvodina tinkered with their formation and started to cause Partizan one or two problems before getting themselves deservedly level through big defender Daniel Mojsov.

They were on the front foot, but things then switched back in Partizan’s favour remarkably quickly, as Tagoe’s theatrical fall in the penalty box was rewarded with a penalty kick by the referee. Substitute Zvonimir Vukic stepped up to restore their lead.

After initially complaining strongly about the award of the spot-kick, Vojvodina hit back again and it appeared they equalised with ten minutes or so to go, when Mojsov rose unchallenged in the area to head a free-kick from the left past Vladimir Stojkovic. However, the referee immediately ruled that goal out, much to the disdain of everyone in the Vojvodina team and dugout.

Moments later, Nikola Lazetic appeared to be tripped in the Partizan box and when that appeal was turned down, pandemonium broke out as the Vojvodina team left the pitch in some sort of protest against the officials with just less than ten minutes to go. It was almost like something you would see on a park on a Sunday morning and myself, veteran youth scout Bernie Dickson and Youth Committee members Brian Adshead and David Edmunds just looked on in disbelief.

It was hard to tell whether the Partizan players were trying to stop them deserting the pitch, or just happy to let them get on with it and when things appeared to calm down, it looked as though we were going to finish the game as the majority of the team returned sheepishly to the field.

However, after a few more minutes of debate, they then headed en masse to their band of supporters to start orchestrating chants and applause. With players now apparently throwing shirts into the crowd, it was quite apparent the game wasn’t going to get going again anytime soon.

So when the stadium scoreboard clock showed 90 minutes, the Partizan players suddenly darted off to celebrate in front of their fans. They had won the Cup.

We quickly departed to beat the traffic and get back to Novi Sad at a reasonable hour and everyone else on the coach was as equally stunned as us, including Serbs, Danes, Germans and Italians.

It’s certainly a game I won’t forget in a hurry, with a remarkable atmosphere but what took place on the pitch was quite unbelievable and in the end, it’s the fans who you have to feel sympathy for. Although, the Partizan support certainly didn’t let the manner of how the game ended stop their celebrations, that’s for sure!

For now though, it’s onto this morning’s European U17 Championship semi-final, which is live on Eurosport at 10.30am BST. I’m fairly sure this game won’t end in the same manner!

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Life’s a beach

 

Brad Smith 'shoots' at goal to open the scoring against Serbia on Monday.

Our stay in Serbia was extended by another few days at least following Monday’s victory over the host nation, and the fact that Denmark did us a remarkable favour by beating France in the other Group A game.

It was a strange scenario for the Young Lions as the odds seemed stacked against them reaching the semi-final. Whatever the result of the game with Serbia, and England knew they had to win in order to stand any chance of progression here or to qualify for the World Cup, once Denmark had already qualified for the semi-final after game two they were always likely to make changes to their team for the final Group A game. As a result, France were predicted by many to beat them and get their first win of the competition to eliminate England. But as they say, there’s always a twist in the tail in football.

As expected, Danish coach Thomas Frank made seven alterations to his starting line-up and who could blame him? John Peacock admitted after the game last Friday that he would have done exactly the same, as he did in 2010 when his team had won their first two games.

But the French flattered to deceive in Novi Sad, prompting their coach Patrick Gonfalone to question the attitude and team mentality of his players.

That wasn’t the case for England though, as the squad dug deep and gave Peacock exactly what he had asked of them by starting the game well. However, I don’t think anyone expected a three goal lead within 18 minutes. Brad Smith opened the scoring, before Hallam Hope notched his second and third goals of the tournament to become the competition’s top scorer so far and it was a fully deserved win for the Young Lions.

The squad were also joined by Michael Walker, of the Daily Mail on Sunday evening as he came out to report on the game. Staying in the same hotel as the squad, he managed to get a good insight into how the preparations and routines are undertaken by everyone involved, as well as speaking to Peacock, Sir Trevor Brooking and Club England MD Adrian Bevington. His report from Novi Sad can be seen here and it’s well worth a read.

So now, it’s onto the Dutch in Thursday’s semi-final. The Oranje arrived at the hotel in Novi Sad on Tuesday afternoon along with Steffen Freund’s German squad, who will play Denmark in the other semi.

With DVDs of their three group games and qualifying matches having already been studied by the coaching staff, it’s a case of on with the next one, which takes place tomorrow morning at 10.30am BST and live on Eurosport.

Whilst it may look as though the second semi-final, with its late afternoon kick-off appears a more favourable slot at first, it must be remembered that Sunday’s final is an 11am kick-off so the winners will be that little more accustomed to an early start than their opponents perhaps so it should be seen as good preparation for both teams.

The beach on the River Danube, which was visited by the squad on Tuesday.

A light training session followed for the squad on Tuesday morning, before the group took an afternoon trip to the River Danube and a beach on its banks. With the sunshine out again, it gave the players chance to have a stroll and a relaxing few hours before dinner out at a restaurant atop the Fortress of Petrovaradin. Interestingly, a number of the group ordered enchilladas and with the trip to the World Cup in Mexico next month to come, there wasn’t any irony about that!

Also joining the squad was Jack Dunn, who arrived in Novi Sad on Tuesday evening as a replacement for his Liverpool club mate Raheem Sterling.

Wednesday will see a more lively training session with the game to come in less than 24 hours, so minds are now firmly focused on the next stage and hopefully another step towards retaining the U17 European title.

In the meantime, Wednesday evening sees the Serbian Cup semi-final take place in Belgrade between FK Vojvodina and Partizan Belgrade. UEFA are providing a coach there from the hotel to watch the game, so I’m going to try and take advantage to sample the no doubt white hot atmosphere of a cup tie.

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Cup Final fever

Following Friday’s defeat to Denmark, it was a rather subdued coach journey back to the hotel from FK Vojvodina’s Karadjordje Stadium but an after-dinner meeting with Head Coach John Peacock soon got the players’ minds re-focused on the job ahead.

Novi Sad Cathedral

The Name Of Mary Church, or the Cathedral, dominates Novi Sad's centre.

England basically face a cup final scenario in their last Group A game on Monday. A victory over Serbia will secure qualification for next month’s FIFA U17 World Cup in Mexico, and if France fail to beat Denmark in their game then a semi-final place would also be guaranteed.

So the target is simple: win Monday’s game.

In terms of Friday’s match, Peacock summed it up after the game by saying his side’s poor start cost them dear.

It was highlighted before the game that Denmark would look to hit the Young Lions on the break and that was how it proved. A glorious strike from Viktor Fischer, said by many to be better than that other Danish wonderkid Christian Eriksen, set them on their way before a second shortly after from big striker Kenny Zahore gave them a crucial cushion to defend.

The good thing about tournament football though, is that it’s never long until your next match and the squad are now preparing for Monday’s game determined to put things right and get their first win of the competition.

After a light training session in the sunshine on Saturday, the group took the opportunity to visit the impressive Fortress of Petrovaradin in Novi Sad.

Planted on the right-bank of the River Danube, the Fortress offers fine views of the city and is a stunning piece of work, with over 16km of underground tunnels to boot.

The Fortress also hosts the annual ‘Exit’ music festival every July, with over 20,000 people from England attending last year’s shindig. This year’s headliners include Arcade Fire, Pulp, Jamiroquai, M.I.A, Portishead and Groove Armada. A shame this competition wasn’t two months later, as there might have been some extra support at the games should any of the festival goers wanted to escape the Fortress for a few hours!

Novi Sad Old Town

The main square in Novi Sad's Old Town.

After descending back to ground level, the group headed to Novi Sad’s old town area where the players were given the opportunity to have a wander, browse the shops and admire some of the architecture in place, whilst the staff stopped to have a coffee at the ‘Only Fools And Horses’ café just off the main square. Inside the cafe, photos of the likes of Del Boy, Rodney and assorted other characters from the classic BBC comedy show adorned the walls.  It must be popular in Serbia.

It’s back to training and more preparation for the players on Sunday though, as they get ready for the game with Serbia in Indjija.

The pitch was far from ideal when we played France there in the first game, but word is that it’s been improved since then.

There will undoubtedly be a bigger crowd in place for this game given it’s the host nation in opposition, so there will be a more lively atmosphere than what the players have experienced out here so far, but that’s all part of the international tournament experience which can be so crucial in any young footballer’s development.

Let’s hope they can get the right result.

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Back to business

It was a tough start for England in Serbia on Tuesday. Ever since the squad met up last Wednesday, John Peacock and his players had been preparing specifically for their opener with France.

In the build-up, Peacock had encouraged his charges that the best way to challenge the French would be down the flanks and by testing their goalkeeper Quentin Beunardeau.

Those were wise words from Peacock too, as both Nathan Redmond and Alex Henshall were a constant thorn in the side of Les Bleus and it was a cross from the latter which led to the opener from Hallam Hope.

Then, England capitalised on a mix-up at which Beunardeau was at the heart of, with Nick Powell executing a super chip over the ‘keeper to put the Young Lions ahead.

Anyone fancy a game?

Peacock had also warned about France’s physical power and with three man-mountains down the spine of their team in Kurt Zouma, Soualihi Meite and Sebastien Haller, it was no surprise to see them finish strongly on a heavy pitch which resulted in Haller’s second of the game to equalise.

It’s onto the next game on Friday though, where a spirited Denmark lie in wait. The Danes edged a thrilling game with Serbia on Tuesday and scored a late goal to win 3-2, justifying coach Thomas Frank’s thoughts that his side would be the ‘dark horse’ of Group A.

With the first game out of the way, Wednesday saw something of a rest day for the England squad. A pool recovery after the game was followed by a light session in the morning, before the squad and staff ventured into Novi Sad for a session of bowling.

However, it was slightly different to what was expected and the game turned out to be Serbian skittles. Basically, it was a shorter lane and played on a synthetic surface with smaller bowls which didn’t have the finger grips we’re used to back home.

Unsurprisingly, the ‘keepers proved the most adept, particularly Goalkeeping Coach Simon Smith who racked up multiple ‘strikes’.

Situated in a large, grey, Soviet-style building in the centre of Novi Sad containing a huge swimming pool, a parade of shops and more, it was a far cry from the sort of shopping malls which the players are used to in England.

Novi Sad Sports Centre

That’s perhaps another positive note from trips like these, as the youngsters see another side of life for people in a country which was previously under Communist rule and involved in war with its neighbours around the time that these players were born.

On a lighter note, Wednesday evening saw the players head out of the hotel for dinner and pizza was the cuisine of choice before returning back to base in time to catch the Champions League game between Manchester United and Schalke.

There has also been a pick-up of media interest back home too. Peacock did interviews with both Talksport and BBC Five Live on Wednesday, whilst Nick Powell was in demand from uefa.com, along with a number of photograph requests from local agencies and clubs back home so the camera will be out again in training later.

It’s back to business now though, as the players will resume their preparations for Friday’s match. Remember, the game is being screened live by Eurosport and kick-off is at 2pm BST.

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All set in Serbia

What a welcome!

So, we’re now just a day away from the opening game of the UEFA European U17 Championship Finals kicking-off in Serbia and it’s all systems go for the four teams contesting Group A.

We arrived here in Novi Sad on Saturday evening after what seemed a long day of travelling. It started with a 6am wake-up call at the squad’s Hinckley base in England before a flight from Birmingham took us to Zurich, and then on a connecting flight to Belgrade.

The England squad were joined on the same plane in Switzerland by their Danish counterparts before the hour long bus transfer north, and across the Danube, to Novi Sad.

Prior to travelling east, John Peacock and his side had been together since last Wednesday to prepare for the trip, training at Coventry City’s Academy and with the same squad which came through the Elite Qualifying Round in March to start with. There was only one enforced change to be made, as defender Matty Regan had to return to Liverpool with an injury and he was replaced by Courtney Meppen Walters of Manchester City, who has also been a regular for the U17s this season.

The party were given something of an interesting arrival to their base at the Hotel Park in Novi Sad on arrival, with five girls in silver outfits greeting both England and Denmark with a disco-dance routine, complete with steam billowing out into the spacious lobby. Quite a reception.

It’s a large hotel, said to be the best in Novi Sad, that has been selected by UEFA and all four Group A nations are based here along with the UEFA delegation whilst Group B is being contested back in Belgrade. Complete with a spa and wellness centre, there is no shortage of room for the players to relax away from their rooms. From a selfish perspective, the exchange rate seems good, the coffee has been excellent out here so far and the food isn’t bad at all.

Given the long journey taken during the day, the players didn’t have a full training session to contend with on top of that, but a brisk walk around the adjoining park, the biggest in Novi Sad apparently, gave the squad a stretch of the legs ahead of the first training session on Sunday morning.

The training base is at FK Proleter, on the outskirts of town and I’m reliably informed that the second tier club once came close to knocking giants Partizan Belgrade out of the Serbian Cup at the semi-final stage a couple of years ago in what was their greatest moment to date.

The players have their team photo taken by UEFA.

During the afternoon, the players were given a talk by the UEFA Referee group, highlighting several of the rules and regulations that will be enforced by the officials in the competition. All teams at this level are given the talk as UEFA look to promote Fair Play and Respect throughout the next two weeks or so.

Sunday evening then saw the squad joined by forward Raheem Sterling, who had been kept behind at Liverpool before linking up in time for the first game. He was accompanied from home shores by Club England Managing Director Adrian Bevington.

You know it’s what UEFA dub ‘Match Day Minus One’ when the Coaches are all called into a press conference at the hotel and photographs of the players, as a team and individually are taken. Interestingly from the press conference, Serbian coach Milovan Djoric claimed that England and France are favourites for the title, whilst young Denmark boss Thomas Frank said his side will be the ‘dark horse’ in Group A. Peacock and French counterpart Patrick Gonfalone sensibly kept their cards much closer to their chests.

With everything in place, focus is now on Tuesday’s opener with the French and after completing a second training session on Monday to further prepare, the squad have a steely determination ahead of what will be the first experience of life for many of them in a European Championship Finals after the six games in qualifying over the course of the season.

If they need any advice on what it’s like once the games kick-in then they don’t have to look too far, as captain and defender Nathaniel Chalobah tasted success in the same competition last year when he became a European Champion.

The Chelsea man was a key part of John Peacock’s side in Liechtenstein last May and is now hoping to lead his team to a similar outcome here. Unfortunately though, he will be missing the game with France on Tuesday due to a suspension carried over from the Elite Round.

With an 18-strong group as his disposal though, Peacock will be well equipped to replace him in the back-line.

I’ll be back with another blog after the first game and when I’ve had a better chance to explore Novi Sad, so let’s hope it’s with three points on the board.

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Euro 2009 blogs

And here are the ones I did in Ukraine, again at the UEFA Euro U19 Championship Finals, where our boys reached the Final only to lose against the host nation in Donetsk.

Just to get a flavour of where I’m coming from!

20th July 2009

23rd July 2009

29th July 2009

1st August 2009

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