THERE are few better people to sit with when you’re watching football than Gavin Hunt, coach of Supersport United. The man who has won three successive South African Premier League titles was in scathing form as we watched England wheeze their way to victory over Platinum Stars on Monday night.
The Three Lions were putrid in the first half and only a Bradley Grobler penalty miss enabled them to creep off at half-time 1-0 after an early Jermain Defoe strike. Hunt said: “That was rubbish. Horrible. England have no shape, no idea! I’m backing the USA to beat them (in their opening Group C clash at the nearby Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace on Saturday).”
But Hunt wasn’t simply being critical of a sub-par performance in what was, in truth, a meaningless friendly. He was right... and he accurately picked out the weaknesses in England’s formation which were largely dealt with by England boss Fabio Capello, who made ten changes at half-time.
Hunt grumbled: “Look at Ashley Cole, he’s supposed to be one of the world’s great full-backs but he’s getting pushed off the ball by local players.
“Shaun Wright-Phillips (above) is playing his role wide on the right all wrong. He’s like a second full-back. He’s not pushing on into the space. And Glenn Johnson? I can’t believe Liverpool paid millions for a right back of that quality!”
Hunt saved his most vitriolic outburst for the central-midfield pairing of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, generally considered the best midfielders in the English Premier League.
He said: “You just can’t play those two together. With Gareth Barry injured, you need Michael Carrick in there to spray the passes around, while Lamps or Gerrard play a holding role.”
At one point in the interminable first half, Hunt turned to former South Africa goalkeeper Deshi Bhaktawer and I and roared: “Rubbish! England are being outplayed by this lot... and they’re not even a very good side by our standards!”
Almost as if Capello had read his mind, Ashley Cole was one of ten players ditched at half-time. Gerrard, who barely touched the ball in 45 minutes, made way for Carrick. Tottenham’s Aaron Lennon came on for the ineffective Wright-Phillips... and the game turned around.
For the first time, Hunt was impressed. With Defoe and Peter Crouch replaced by the traditional England pairing of Emile Heskey and Wayne Rooney, England were starting to look like an international side rather than a bunch of jet-lagged tourists.
Rooney found himself booked for dissent, and he was throwing himself into ridiculous challenges – but Hunt was loving Manchester United’s talismanic top scorer. He bellowed: “Brilliant! What an attitude. This is what it’s all about. Give me a Rooney any day!”
Sadly, Rooney is way out of his price range at Supersports United. Three League titles on the trot haven’t served to boost their poor attendances. Though Hunt laughs: “We use our lack of crowd as a motivational tool when we play sides like Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. I love it!”
Back on the field, Heskey was fighting hard too, and running ceaselessly. Hunt, echoing the views of so many in the England camp, said: “Look at that guy. Hardly gets a goal in the Premier League, can’t get in the Aston Villa side. But he’s great with Rooney. He runs the channels. He holds the ball up. Magic. They work well together.”
Hunt appeared to be on Capello’s wavelength throughout. The man who must be in line for the South Africa job when Carlos Alberto Parreira goes back to Brazil after the World Cup, would go with Robert Green in goal “he’s got the experience”... and the West Ham goalkeeper appeared on cue, replacing the young Joe Hart.
But all that wasn’t enough to appease the sensibilities of Hunt, a man who commands massive respect and was constantly pestered for autographs through the game. His final verdict before departing a minute from time: “I still don’t rate England. It’s the US for me!”
Exclusive video footage of Monday night’s action, including Hunt in mid-criticism, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5CX4pb8Xmo