Hodgson’s skills as a manager lie in the time he spends with the players, not just on the training pitch (though clearly he finds players to fit his preferred, fairly rigid tactics than the other way round), but in making them feel confident, wanted, willing to run through the proverbial brick wall. But he also had to pull off an arguably bigger trick, in placating the neurotic English fanbase who mixed good sense with idiot hope, high expectations and low expectations. Many with low expectations were really just masking their giddy anticipation so as not to appear irrational, while those who saw no reason not to expect a semi final at least were ready to default to gallows humour at the first embarrassment. Getting past the first round would be an achievement in times straitened by injury, lack of talent and the demise of the Golden Generation, but we were constantly told ‘why not, of course we can win it’ by all concerned. There was still a refusal to countenance England as a second-division nation despite the preparations indicating that performances would be somewhat compromised. There was still the sense of the Bulldog / Crusader mission taking it to the continentals with their maddening game of short accurate passing. What can’t be achieved by rolling up the sleeves and getting stuck in?
Yet in addressing the supporters, and getting the squad on side, he had won a certain amount of respect, as was evident in the way the senior players conducted themselves around him. Not many other England managers had seemed quite so aware and adept at this business of managing the gamut of expectations. Well done Roy.
And these parallel lines extended into our appraisal of the team. France had run us ragged for a while with their tight but largely impotent passing game, Sweden and their Zlatan had us worried, but with seven points we were first out of the group. Few would deny that progress had been made, yet real doubts persisted. You could argue that the 442, and a very deep 442 at that, stopped players like Gerrard from getting forward and influencing the play. Did the defence need that much support? Was the preference for Milner overcautious, were others (principally Ashley Young) getting more gametime than they deserved? Again, our conclusion was tempered, we had built a solid base from which to perform but seemed to be able to do little with the possession when we had it. Surely this would tell against the better teams.
Not bad enough to be beaten in normal time by Italy but never good enough to beat them, as Whispering Dave observed correctly. And indeed the drift into containment football, whether directed or not, from the second half onwards made for a largely drab affair for the neutral. Sure enough we deferred to type and bottled the penalty shootout despite edging ahead. Joe Hart’s antics were given short thrift by Pirlo’s Panenka (and indeed he didn’t get near all the others either), Young lashed an unthinking boot down the middle but onto the bar and Cole’s pen was much worse than his effort for Chelsea against Bayern, when it really mattered.
The damning statistics came thick and fast – 36% possession against Italy; Hart our most successful passer – Roy’s nous was no use here and we were left to the usual defeatist, dissembling clichés about pride in the performance, lack of luck, saw enough to be encouraged for the future, etc. As did the usual prescriptions – get the kids passing from birth, stop the overly competitive junior Sunday league system, fewer foreigners in the game, etc. Action on all of which is being prepared in Optimism House, Cloudcuckooland as we speak.
People talk of the renaissance of the game post-Italia 90 but even in hard times it was always the number 1 popular sport, capable of uniting north and south, middle and working classes, in its thrall. Our game, which at the top end at least is held up as a profitable and functional exception as the finance capitalism around it founders, has never wanted for intensity, and it’s the investment in the blood-and-thunder pyramid right up to the Premier League that makes those stakeholders reluctant to see it changed.
The modern football fandom of season ticket holders and Sky Sports subscribers will not jettison their weekly downloadable package of thrills and spills, ludicrous decisions, predictable outrage and wind-ups for the benefit of the national team, even as they profess love for the ‘Three Lions’. Being honest, Baddiel and Skinner’s ‘30 (now 46) years of hurt’ palls in comparison with club heartaches, the allegiance to which you fight your corner – through right moves and wrong by your team’s players, managers and owners – week in week out. We have been mainlining the collective hallucination, the hype, sensation and supersundays, for too long now and would find the comedown and transition difficult. Let the other nations, many of whose best players come to our Best League in the World™ for these very reasons, focus on national glories. That might be what a bit of us wants, in our slightly insincere Lionhearts, but we don’t want it enough to reorient our game toward it. What would be welcome is a realism about England with no lingering self deception; Hodgson is a canny enough bloke to aid that process.