"We should have defended deeper!"
“England let you down.” Roy Keane’s blunt assessment of England’s shortcomings against Montenegro last night struck a chord. Because that’s precisely what England do. Always. Even when, aged roughly 18, you have recalibrated your expectations to match the reality that England are no better than a quarter final side in the tournaments they do manage to qualify for. In short, England manager hands on misery to England manager; England fan hands on misery to England fan.
England’s first half performance was sprightly and sharp. Passes zipped to feet, which is something of a rarity. Wayne Rooney looked good; his chip to strike the post within the first few minutes was sublime, offering a glimpse of the “national team messiah” Rooney’s performances had promised us back in 2004. England controlled the tempo and Rooney’s header to give England the lead came as little surprise. That the score remained just 1-0 at the interval was about the only surprise.
And then it happened. A scenario we’ve all grown to recognise with a shudder. The moment 11 apples shrivel in the mud, emerging as an unrecognisable cobbled together bunch of onions. Onions who are not good at football. Composure, or its lack, is now a depressingly familiar occurrence in the second half of an England match. As depressingly familiar now as that solitary, forlorn ‘Come on England’ trumpet, the first pass goes astray. Then, quickly, the second. You roll your eyes as [enter England defender’s name] looks up, presumably sees an area of the pitch where none of his teammates are stood and proceeds to put the ball precisely in that spot. The two banks of four creep closer, minute by minute, to the edge of their own penalty area. The inevitable siege from the opposition arrives. And ever so slightly, a little part of you dies.
It’s not a phenomena directly attributable to the Roy Hodgson administration, of course; sides managed by a Swede and an Italian underwent a similar transformation after taking the lead, or starting games promisingly. Steven Gerrard himself admitted in the wake of last night’s 1-1 draw that England had simply “stopped playing”. But he cannot have been surprised, surely? After all, with 102 caps to his name, Gerrard has witnessed his fair share of the ‘composure conundrum’.
The lack of trust in their own and collective ability is stark and alarming. That a 21-year-old midfielder is the great white hope is telling. Jack Wilshire appears to be the only Englishman who would continue to demand the ball under pressure for 90 minutes (and not give it straight back to the opposition); the rest, well they are either incapable or unwilling. And when one watches England actually play with attacking verve like they did in last night’s opening 45 minutes, one suspects it is very much the “unwilling” camp in which the players have set their stall.
Should England qualify for the World Cup next year it would be wise not to expect anything visually appealing from our boys. As we first argued on these fair pages last summer during the Euros, it is best if England follow the Greek lead and appreciate what we are and what we are not. The difference between England and Greece, we argued back in June was that “it seems the Greeks know their place. And they went and won the bloody thing as recently as 2004”.
If the players are unwilling to put a performance in for more than 45 minutes before retreating to the classic “backs against the wall” defensiveness that has peppered any England game against decent opposition for decades, presumably because down that route lies glory, then I’d rather Roy Hodgson and Gerrard just said so. Genuinely. It really doesn’t help matters when Hodgson is saying stuff like “Whether [the result/performance] was down to the fact we played less well or Montenegro played better, I don't know.” Well I do. It was both. They saw it in your eyes Roy. And despite that, we are still no nearer an explanation. Stirring stuff.
Rather than feeling a bit cheated as I tend to do after an England performance, it would be healthier to have known from the outset that the plan all along was just to perform for just 45 minutes. Or even better, just put 10 men behind the ball from the opening whistle. As ever with England, it is the hope that kills you. Even if that merely relates to the willingness of the side not to start impersonating Corporal Jones en masse at the first sign of pressure.
Now where’s Harry Redknapp when you need him…