England win Seniors World Cup!

As we all know, Euro 2016 didn’t turn out the way we all wanted it to for England. However another a squad of English footballers have had the best possible success in another international tournament, winning the Seniors World Cup, which was held in Thailand.

The England Seniors squad, comprising mainly  of PFA members, took part in the 11th Seniors World Cup, which  was played  in the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai last month. It was certainly no football jolly for the ex- players  as they were required to play five games in six days to win it , in temperatures of over 30 Celsius. There was also plenty of challenges for the management team as well – the complex rules, to ensure the competition embraces both young and old veterans, means there has always to be three over 50s on the pitch at all times, and only three “younger” players between 38-43. What’s more, only the Over 50s can roll on and off!

Nicky Southall is one of very few footballers that have played in every level of football from the Premier League (Bolton Wanderers) and the Ryman League Division One South when he was Whitstable Town’s player-manager.

He is now the assistant manager at Maidstone United and told the Kentish News during the week of the tournament….

“This whole week has brought back the player in me and the boys,” said a proud Southall.

“As soon as you put the England strip on, the adrenalin and will to win, whatever you want to call it, comes flooding back through your body.

“I’m seven thousand miles from home with a group of ex-pros trying to win this Seniors World Cup and it’s been tough for everyone playing four games in five days in near 40c heat, which is crazy, but it’s the way they run the tournament so you just have to get on with it but it’s like nothing I’ve ever played in! The Asian teams have the advantage in that department.”

The Veterans stayed in Bangkok for three days, prior to the tournament kicking off, during which time they trained and played a friendly against a local Thai team to acclimatise to the heat and humidity, winning 6-0. The squad  then flew up to Chaing Mai, the day before the tournament kicked off. The England Seniors faced Taiwan in their opening game in the impressive 700 Year Anniversary Stadium and quickly got into their stride, racing into a four goal lead by half-time and finishing up 6-0 victors with goals from Tim Ryan, Jason Price (2), Peter Beagrie (pen), Barry Hayles & Jamie Clark. Importantly, manager Paul Bell was able to replace his entire starting line up during the game.

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Next up the following day were the USA, who despite conceding an early goal from Gareth Ainsworth, proved to be stubborn opponents, and only when Nicky Southall converted a free kick early in the second half could the English relax and see out the game 2-0, which was to guarantee them a place in the semi- final. Earlier in the day, the Veterans had been to visit a school in Chiang Mai that was providing a lot of the support for the competition, along with soldiers from the Thai army who were based nearby. The players took gifts of footballs and kits for the under privileged school children, who all lived in the hillside villages outside the city.

The third game in three days saw the English play holders Iran, who as well as several ex internationals, also included three players who had been playing for the Iranian Premier League side Persepolis last season. The early chances fell to England but in a purple patch during the first half, Iran, twice got in behind the back line to become the first side to breach the English defence. A change of system in the second half saw the game gradually swing the other way with Iran rarely getting into the English half and being required to come up with a variety of methods to stop the wave of pressure on their goal. Hayles pulled a goal back, but the post denied the English a late equaliser when Southall’s header struck it. Although technically a dead rubber game, it came at a cost. The tackles on winger Ainsworth appeared to rule him out for the remainder of the tournament and the four yellow cards handed out to the English would be a millstone around the necks of players in the semi –final. The 2-1 defeat meant England would now face Scotland ,who had won their group courtesy of a head to head victory over Thailand.

The only free day of the tournament followed, but the players were still up early to partake in one of the most rewarding aspects of the trip, a coaching session for local children and the players were genuinely amazed by the skills shown by some of the younger children and humbled by their appreciation of the morning and the hand –outs they were given.

Although Ainsworth was injured, Price and Ryan were both available again after injury and suspension, and for the first time, Bell’s starting line- up consisted entirely of ex professionals. Scotland had several ex pros in their ranks as well plus a former international in Colin Cameron, and from the early jousting of songs in the tunnel and the passionate singing of the national anthems, it was clear that it would be a game played with high tempo and emotions. However, this was to be the day the English gave their best overall performance of the week. Price headed in Andy Hessenthaler’s cross in the 22nd minute to give them the lead and there were opportunities to kill the game off much earlier than the final quarter, when Hayles scored a brace from close range to make the final score 3-0.

Iran had been the expected opponents in the final but after a 1-1 draw in the other semi, they lost 3-0 on penalties to the host nation . Thus it was Thailand who England met in the final 23 hours later. However, heavy rain in the afternoon had caused a local power cut which momentarily threatened the match. As work was being carried out to eventually restore electricity, the kick off went ahead minus the PA system that was due to play the national anthems. Not to be deprived, the squad put their arms around each other’s shoulders and sang ‘God save the Queen’ unaccompanied. Surprised, the crowd comprising mainly of school children stood up in respect, and then followed it by singing the Thai national anthem. It was a very moving sequence of events.

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Paul Scott, the English physio had been the busiest member of the squad and had proved a miracle man already, getting so many players back on the pitch a day after limping off it. Incredibly, he had Ainsworth ready for the final, who took Ged Brannan’s place in the only change to the starting line-up, after the midfielder, picked up a second yellow card against Scotland. It was an offensive line up which took the game to Thailand, creating chances before a 24th minute breakthrough when Ainsworth’s corner was only partially cleared to Kenny Irons who fired home from 15 yards. “We’d done some work on corners, as so few goals in the tournament are scored from set pieces” said Bell “ although I hadn’t foreseen Kenny being a goal scorer from one!”  Further chances came and went. “ We could have done with another goal, as given their mobility and the heat, we knew we would be in for a tougher test in the second half with Thailand having more quick players to come on.” However, all the Veterans collective experience came to the fore as they defended resolutely as a unit to restrict the hosts to just a single strike on Steve Phillips goal in the half as they saw the game out to secure the 1-0 victory. Cue celebrations!

Former Fulham Striker Barry Hales, who at 44 is still playing with Non-league Cheasham United, netted four times in the competition recalls the camaraderie and the pre match build up

We had fantastic celebrations,” said Hayles. “We played well in the final. They were English conditions. The pitch was cut-up and we won a tough game 1-0. The semi-final against Scotland was really good. They’re renowned for singing in the changing rooms. So we came out into the tunnel singing ‘We’re going to score one more than you’ and I think that gave us the edge because they weren’t expecting it. We sang it in the tunnel before the final against Thailand. They were a bit taken aback as well!”

“We also had a great team spirit,” Hayles said. “Credit to the manager for that. We had a job to do, which was to go out and win it, which we did. It’s a real buzz representing the country and singing the national anthem, as well as the camaraderie with the lads. That was the platform for us. We definitely felt we had a squad to win it. We just had to go out there and do it.”goal

Bell, who was taking a representative side out to the tournament for the ninth time was full of praise for the players. “The competition has evolved so much in terms of the quality of the players going and the football being played, that we had to take a strong squad to compete against other good sides. We went out with the right attitude and put in some excellent performances and deserved to come out on top. What pleased me most was just how much these guys wanted it, no matter what they’d achieved in the game, they all had immense pride at wearing the shirt and just wanted to win for England.”

Wycombe manager Gareth Ainsworth who was voted Player of the tournament said on his return

“The Seniors World Cup is deadly serious. The stakes are getting higher every year and the participating teams take it mega-seriously. It wasn’t a tea party or a vacation. To wear the shirt, sing the national anthem , represent your country and lift the trophy was a hugely proud moment, incredibly satisfying. I still get a kick out of winning when I play Sunday league football because I just love the game ,so you can imagine what winning this World Cup means.”

Goalkeeper Steve Phillips, still playing at Bath City after lengthy spells with both Bristol clubs, echoed Ainsworth’s sentiments.

"As a footballer, if you win anything at any level it's pretty special," he said "Winning the Seniors World Cup was very special, I'm not going to lie. It was right up there with some of the great things I've done and been a part of during my career!”

Squad: 1.Steve Phillips 2.Ian Cox 3.Dean Barrick 4.Danny O’Shea 5.Kenny Mayers 6.Steve Charles 7.Gareth Ainsworth 8.Tim Ryan 9.Jamie Clarke 10.Jason Price 11.Peter Beagrie 12.Kenny Irons 13.Mark Bower 14.John Deacey 15.Barry Hayles 16.Mark Brady 17.Andy Hessenthaler 18.Blair Nixon 19.Nicky Southall 20.Alan Clayton 21.Ged Brannan 22.Lee Elam 23.Andy Barkway, Manager: Paul Bell ,Asst Managers: Mark Smitheringale, Andy Newell, Steve King, Kevin Mooney, Physio: Paul Scott

The Seniors World Cup is organised by the Seniors Football Association of Thailand and supported by the Thai FA. The inaugural tournament was played in 2006, following the devastating Tsunami that hit the country 16 months earlier, as part of the process to re-establish tourism as well bring additional football coaching to underprivileged children in the country. It has now been played annually for eleven years, with different provinces in Thailand hosting it on each occasion. Previous winners are Germany ( captained by Felix Magarth ) Thailand, Australia and Iran. Initially the successful Harrogate Veterans FC were given permission by the FA to represent England, with just two ex- pros, Garry Nelson and Ian Blackstone in their squad. Against all the odds, this “local” team won the cup in 2009 in Udon Thani. However as the invitation tournament has gone from strength to strength, the majority of countries now feature ex professionals and former internationals in their squads. This has meant that the English management team having to gradually enlist more and more ex-players to ensure that the England Seniors remain in contention. In the past few years, over 30 ex professional players have represented their country in the competition – each describing it as a unique and memorable experience, especially coming after their professional careers had ended. There are already plans in place for a 12th Seniors World Cup in 2017 and there is talk of both France and Uruguay taking part for the first time.