And so we’re off! Last night the England football squad completed its warm-up campaign for Euro 2016 by beating Portugal 1-0 in a friendly match at Wembley and now flies out to its base in France before playing its first group game against Russia in Marseille a week tomorrow.
I can vaguely remember the 1966 World Cup and every single England World Cup and European Cup campaign since then [no, wait, let’s change that statement, I’d probably need heavy hints and reminders of most of them before being able to recall any detail for myself].
As a footballing nation we’re not quite as bad as Scotland (who can forget Ally Macleod’s famous ‘Ally’s Army’ that bombed so spectacularly at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina?) but we’re gold-plated world class top three when it comes to advance hype, optimism, hubris, false pride, overblow anticipation, false confidence and unjustified expectations whenever it comes to the big tournaments.
Not being a football expert myself, I’ve been reading, watching and listening with semi-detached interest as the pundits have conducted an orgy of entrail-reading these past three months on the home countries’ squad selections.
Roy Hodgson, with his public persona as respected veteran coach stroke amiable old buffer, has always been on a hiding to nothing with England. How he copes with the pressure, I’ll never know – however, I presume he begins from the viewpoint that (as far as the fans and pundits are concerned) whatever he chooses to do is going to be wrong so – in that sense – he’s got a pretty free hand to be as wild and innovative, or indeed left field, as he likes.
Take yesterday’s match, for example. I managed to tune into it as I was driving home back Oxford after an early evening meal, primarily via the Radio Five Live ‘live’ commentaries of John Murray and Alan Green (backed by pundits Danny Mills and Jermaine Jenas) … then watched about ten minutes of the second half on ITV upon reaching home … before going off to bed and rejoining the Radio Five Live coverage as I placed my head upon the pillow and thence drifted off to sleep.
Dear readers, the evening was oh-so-familiar territory.
As the match began, everyone was buoyant, enthusiastic and positive. Roy had opted for a diamond formation rather than 4-3-3 and, in keeping with his squad choice of five strikers and therefore fewer midfielders and defenders than some considered prudent, he’d gone for both Vardy and Kane playing together up front with Rooney (ostensibly part of the diamond) also playing up there as well.
In other words, all-out attack against a Portuguese squad devoid of Cristiano Ronaldo and – from the 35th minute of the first half – also of Bruno Alves who got sent off for an attempted Eric Cantona kick on England striker Harry Kane.
It was surely only a matter of time before – in front of an excited threequarters-full Wembley keen to bid farewell to our boys upon the eve of their crossing of the Channel in search of silverware – the balls started hitting the back of the net. Five-four seemed about a middling prediction of what we were about to watch (listen to).
A quarter of an hour in, however, and the traditional penny was beginning to drop. The formerly ecstatic crowd was now asleep, the atmosphere as flat as that of a thanksgiving service.
The Radio Five commentary team was ladling on the doom and gloom. I cannot recall whether it was John Murray or one of the pundits that opened the batting, but someone began remarking upon how dull, boring and uninspired the play was. Another chipped in with the comment that it was only to be expected – this was a friendly match, the last one before the tournament proper, and nobody on either side would want to go in hard for fear of crocking themselves and missing out on the tournament itself.
From there it all went downhill.
Soon it was all too apparent that it was madness to be playing three strikers together – they kept getting in each other’s way, stealing each other’s space. Playing Vardy on one side and Kane on the other was ridiculous – they were both ‘up front’ middle-of-the-park players of the old school.
Then everyone agreed that they weren’t the problem, Rooney was. He was now old and clapped out, but somehow still captain and one of the squad’s best players – and yet no longer a striker. He was getting in the way of everyone, forcing them to be played in positions to which they weren’t suited.
Suddenly, what was Rooney doing in the squad anyway?
The truth is that he was only there because of his name and reputation. Once you’d picked him for the squad, of course (and indeed as captain) you had to play him in the starting eleven, but this was inevitably going to have to be at the expense of someone who really should be in the team and might just win us the tournament.
By half-time, the game was an out-and-out stinker. Our boys were making absolutely no progress in terms of scoring goals and this was against a team of only ten men.
The commentary team – Alan Green naturally to the fore in terms of criticism (he practically corners the market in this regard) – was now calling for wholesale changes.
Never mind the three-strikers mess up front which clearly wasn’t working, there was nobody in midfield putting their foot on the ball and conducting the playmaking aspect (so important in a tournament scenario) and … if you pick two wing-backs who have been so conspicuously successful going forward attacking in the Premier League all season, it is absolutely pointless then telling them (as plainly had been the case this evening) never to cross the halfway line as if they were playing for an Under-13 academy team.
Everything was going wrong. Roy needed to make about eight changes to the team, sort out what the hell system he wanted England to play and then tell them how to do it, all in the fifteen-minute break over half-time.
The second half began where the first left off. On this evidence Roy was a complete idiot. He’d chosen the wrong team and was trying to make them play in an ill-thought out system and it plainly wasn’t working.
Where was the ‘on field’ team thinking to sort out the mess?
Where was the ‘technical area’ coach-thinking, ditto?
To those up in the commentary box, the solutions were glaringly obvious [albeit I cannot know remember exactly what they were]. It’s funny how so many media pundits are better managers and coaches than the guys actually doing it for real.
Suddenly substitute Raheem Sterling crossed the ball and Smalling headed it home and … er … all was well.
Well, perhaps not. With four official minutes to go, the game had simply shifted from being a potential horrendous disaster to a quietly acceptable victory in the end that could so easily have been a catastrophe.
Hey ho – so we’re back in the old major tournament routine, then …
It’s going to be a long, long summer.