By Anika Backhouse
Blind Football World
All eyes were on England as they bowed out of the IBSA European Blind Football Championships in 2015 on home soil. Finishing fourth was disappointing, but the greatest heartache came in losing the semi-final on the previous day. Has the team managed to shake off defeat and are they ready to taste victory in Germany this summer? On behalf of Disability Sports News, Blind Football World chatted with Head Coach Jon Pugh and current Co-Captain Robin Williams to find out…
A touring England Blind Football team are playing Germany, Spain and Argentina in a bid to put the disappointment of a semi-final exit at the 2015 European Championships behind them and to prepare for this year’s tournament. Facing Germany first, the teams took a game apiece, which provided a great confidence boost in readiness for playing the hosts again in Berlin this August. The tri-nations tournament in Madrid is their next challenge.
In preparation for the summer’s competition, Pugh has looked back over his first major tournament in charge of the team and is still trying to figure out just what happened during the semi-final and what they could have done differently to win it.
“We did a lot of soul-searching after the Euros, collectively and as individuals,” he reflected. “Both the competition and the end result took a lot out of the players. It hit the team mentally and I realised there was a need for more psychological input into the players, so that is something we have put in place to help them.”
Failing to win the 2015 European Championships was undoubtedly the biggest disappointment of Williams’ career. Expectations were high for the home side. The players’ collective disappointment will only truly disappear when they win a major tournament.
“Unlike previous tournaments, I felt we were the favourites and that we probably wouldn’t get a better chance to win a major trophy,” williams said. “There was a lot of pressure on us. We did not know how the programme might change moving forward if we didn’t qualify for Rio. But, while that was a concern after we lost the semi-final, I think it was superseded by the overwhelming disappointment. Personally I’d had a difficult year leading up to the tournament with injuries, but I felt ready to make an impact and was upset that I didn’t have enough to score when it really mattered.”
There have been a number of changes to squad personnel. Some senior players have retired and been replaced with youngsters who williams has enjoyed working with and watching develop, and in whom pugh has confidence. Having tried different formations in the spring games against Turkey and Russia, Pugh knows how hard the team works, both in training and by delivering good results against tough opposition (England didn’t lose a match against the two finalists from 2015). The aim now is to win the forthcoming Euros and he believes no team truly wants to be in their group.
“It’s the biggest competition and I think it’s going to be the hardest Euros to win because of other teams like Belgium, who are playing regularly now, plus the new teams from the B tournament that took place earlier this year,” explained Pugh. “Our preparation is better this time. We’ve revised the structure of our training, centralised activity to Hereford, and utilised the national league to develop younger players and mix them more evenly with the senior players in the three teams.”
Watch England play and you’ll admire their energy and instinct. With the inclusion of new players, there is a youthful enthusiasm to an already strong squad. In addition, there is a belief in the future, and Pugh considers it to be a bright one.
“I believe we still have a team that can contend with anyone, and we should have a good shot at the European Championships this summer,” said Williams. “As we found out last time, you can play well and just be unlucky on the day. The tournament acts as a qualifier for the World Championships and, while not qualifying (by not reaching the semi-finals) would be a disaster for us, I much prefer to view tournaments as major events in their own right.”
Looking past the Euros and next year’s Worlds in Madrid, the Three lions co-captain feels that the issue with the qualification pathways is that the continental championships are viewed only as qualifiers for the world-level events, which can detract from the prestige and importance of the continental tournaments.
Pugh shares this view, saying: “We only talk about Tokyo as part of the four-year process. We’re a team that takes every tournament as it comes.”
In less than two months time, Pugh will lead his lions out to face Romania, France, Italy and then their old rivals Germany in the group stage of the IBSA Blind Football European Championships 2017. With true British determination, the England Head Coach states: “You’ve just got to win the games in front of you.”