As England’s players walked onto the pitch in Nice last night I tweeted the words: “This could end up being quite horrific.” I take no pleasure in having been right.
After witnessing England go out of previous major tournaments largely thanks to a handball, penalty shoot-outs, a goal not being given that should have been and through being downright awful, I had a horrible hunch that this year’s punchline was being prepared for delivery and so it proved.
First things first, credit must of course go to the winners. If you were given a pound by every person living in Iceland you still wouldn’t have as much in your bank as most of the England squad earn in a month, yet they won every key battle and fully deserve their place in the quarter-finals.
They had the passion, desire and successful game plan that England lacked. They had players willing to put their bodies on the line and who were intent on creating their own hype rather than being absorbed in the misguided enthusiasm and belief that follows the England players around like a bad smell.
Plus they had a coaching team who had identified England’s threats and weaknesses and dealt with them admirably. Heck, they might even beat France.
Roy Hodgson is an intelligent and experienced football man, yet his inability to see the obvious was astounding.
Your average man on the street could see that Wayne Rooney was trying too hard to be the world class central midfielder he isn’t; your average man on the street could see that Harry Kane shouldn’t have been taking free-kicks and corners; your average man on the street could see that my nan would have been better off playing out on the right than Daniel Sturridge and she’s been dead for ten years.
Instead, England were still congratulating themselves on taking an early lead when Ragnar Sigurdsson wandered in unnoticed to level the scores, and when Kolbeinn Sigthorsson exposed Joe Hart’s left hand as being nothing more than a lettuce leaf the whole thing started to go horribly wrong and the rest of the game left us bewildered.
When Hodgson then sacrificed what in monetary terms was more than your average man on the street earns in a year by resigning three days before his contract was up, the gulf between common sense and fantasy football had never seemed bigger.
In the World Cup of 2014, England went to Brazil and failed to win a game, yet Hodgson, to mine and probably many others’ amazement, was allowed to continue in his job.
Why? What possible message does that send out to the players? It would suggest that had England scrambled a last-gasp equaliser last night and then nicked it in extra-time, the hierarchy would have been patting each other on the back and randomly picking a number out of the phone book to give to Hodgson as his next salary. The acceptance of mediocrity is astounding.
Instead, it’s the likes of Iceland, Wales and even an Italian squad frequently labelled as the weakest they’ve had in years that progress to the quarter-finals. Something is seriously wrong.
You can forget a 100 per cent record in qualifying, which may have been admirable even in a relatively easy group but papered over far too many cracks that were obvious to so many and which finally brought the house crumbling down last night.
Much has been made of Hodgson taking out-of-form or simply unsuitable players to this tournament. Raheem Sterling is one of the most overrated players ever to have worn an England shirt, his obvious early talent hardly helped by an over-optimistic move to Manchester City that eventually saw a dip in form last season which alone should have ruled him out of Euro 2016.
Joe Hart seems to be more of a legend in his own household than he is to supporters yet his inability to get his head and shoulders down quick enough to two shots in this tournament meant England conceded goals. His pumped up demeanour before each game may have won him points in the passion stakes but a more relaxed and focused goalkeeper might well have kept England in the tournament.
And the inclusion of Jack Wilshere was as bewildering as it was ridiculous, his performances in France emphasising why he shouldn’t have been anywhere near the country given he’d only played about two hours of football last season. Quite how he was deemed the answer in both the Slovakia and Iceland games rather than the fitter and more dynamic Ross Barkley, for example, was beyond the comprehension of most.
That having been said, there were players whose club form ensured they picked themselves for the tournament and yet when it came to the crunch they couldn’t produce.
Harry Kane has been superb for two seasons at Tottenham but a few poor touches early in the Russia game suddenly seemed to wreck his confidence, and aside from a textbook volley that was well saved against Iceland, he lacked the belief to reproduce that club form. The less said about his free-kicks, the better.
His Spurs teammate Dele Alli showed one or two good moments but didn’t seem ready for the tournament stage just yet. However, Hodgson’s decision to include him and Marcus Rashford in the squad was, at the time, at least commendable in the sense of giving raw talent a chance, even if the overall make-up of the team didn’t allow them to flourish in the end.
Rooney is a player who never lacks the desire to play for his country, which as captain is the least you’d expect, but he felt like another piece of the jigsaw that wouldn’t quite fit and was a shadow of the player we know he can be, especially against Iceland. But the reality is that he’s never consistently produced the goods on the big international stage and that, unfortunately, will be more his legacy than having broken the goalscoring record.
There are other examples of course, but whatever the form or talent of the players, the naivety of the coaching was England’s main undoing and didn’t lend itself to allowing any of the squad to really impress on the world stage.
The final insult to both the fans and the press came as the FA assured everyone that Hodgson’s scripted statement of resignation had been concocted in the dressing room after the game.
If that was the case, and he’d spent that short period of time writing what wasn’t a short speech rather than reading the riot act to his players, then he’d clearly made another error of judgement.
If it wasn’t the case, and that speech had been prepared for him well in advance, then it shows the FA’s preparation for failure was far more organised than Hodgson’s tactics. The line: “I hope you can still see an England team in a final of a major tournament very soon,” was as insulting as it was pie in the sky, given the quite obvious notion that nobody, including Hodgson, honestly believes it’s possible in the next ten years at least.
And claiming that the ‘players have done everything asked of them’ generates far more questions than answers.
The contempt then shown to fans by Hodgson, his bosses and his staff in refusing to do post-match interviews merely added to the debacle.
So what next?
There is much talk of Gareth Southgate being the man to take over, largely in the name of continuity. In my mind, continuity is the last thing that’s needed right now.
Continuity from one ageing coach after another failing to produce the goods? Continuity from sub-standard performers getting picked because of who they are rather than how well they’re playing? Continuity from having no obvious leadership both on and off the pitch and freezing when times get tough? No thank you.
It needs an entirely fresh approach. In my mind, someone like Eddie Howe should be the answer. He’s in a different mould to so many previous England managers in that he’s young, has produced superb results with Bournemouth since they were in the depths of the Football League, and gets the best out of what many may describe as average players, though that’s meant without being disrespectful to his current troops. Yes, he’s been aided by relatively good budgets along the way, but he’s done enough to suggest that when given the best players England possesses to work with, he’ll get it right.
The problem is, Howe might not have even the slightest interest in the role. It’s a job that has been nothing if not a poisoned chalice in recent years and any failure by Howe to produce might hamper his future club management career. On the flip side, he’s young enough to be in the job for a generation if he gets it right.
Too often people talk about the ‘spirit of 1966’ and harp on about the ‘good old days’, but that has to stop. The delusions of grandeur that surround England get more and more laughable as the years go by and only a widespread change from top to bottom will help alter that. The game as a whole has changed beyond recognition from what it was 20 years ago, let alone 50, but in terms of the international setup England have failed to move with it and more humiliation will only follow if that doesn’t change immediately.
I read a damning statistic this morning that said since 1966, England have only won six knockout games, whilst Germany have won six tournaments. Pretty much says it all.
Yes, those involved are paid too much and mollycoddled and pampered and all the rest of it, and there’s no question that drastically detaches the majority of players from those of us who watch them, but countries that consistently do well are no different and show that if the guidance is right and the mentality and infrastructure put in place by those at the top is realistic, then anything can be achieved.