If I cast my mind back almost two years to mid-summer of 2010, I can recall it being one of the lowest points in my life as an England fan. Germany had just thrashed us 4-1 at the first knockout stage of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It wasn’t that we lost that was so agonizing, but the manner in which it happened. England had been awful from the moment the tournament started, and it went from bad to worse. I had noticed the signs in the warmup games against Mexico and Japan, and unfortunately my worst fears were confirmed. As England embark on another major tournament trail with a supposedly fresh approach and a new manager, we should ask ourselves, just how good is this new England under Roy Hodgson ?
Following England’s demise in South Africa, I had advocated a complete clear out of personnel. For me, it had to be the end of the totally mis-quoted “Golden Generation” as players such as Terry, Barry, Lampard along with Milner, Ferdinand (injured and couldn’t play) and James had been so woefully lacking when the chips were down. However, in England, as we all know, we are slow learners on the football field and the status quo pretty much continued with the failed Fabio Capello in charge still for the Euro qualifiers and the same group of donkeys carrying the load. Then, like a bolt from the blue, Capello surprisingly quit his position over a matter of principle involving England’s resident thug John Terry, and suddenly it appeared change was on the way. Most favored money was on Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp to take over but, in true FA tradition, after an agonizingly protracted “search” process, they went for the easier choice and former Fulham, Liverpool and current West Bromwich Albion manager Roy Hodgson parachuted in to take over the hot seat. I can’t say I was a huge fan of the man who succeeded so well at Fulham but failed so miserably at Liverpool, but he was surely an improvement on the stagnant, pragmatic Capello. However, when he announced his squad for the Euro2012 tournament starting in June, my heart sank, as once again, almost two years on, he chose to go with the same group of losers that I mentioned above. There were some slivers of hope with the inclusion of Phil Jones, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Danny Welbeck, but it looked as though Hodgson had elected to go for the safe approach.
One of my ongoing criticisms of the England national team set-up is that it is totally controlled by fear. The ruling body is afraid if they put a manager in there who speaks his mind, then their own comfy existence in those plush ivory towers will be compromised, so we continue to opt for the safe approach when selecting the manager, which is referred to as “The Brian Clough Syndrome”. Fear also grips the manager as he is under such high pressure media scrutiny that almost any decision is widely criticized, so again we adopt a softly-softly approach. Finally as a result, we get a group of players that are gripped by fear of losing badly, and unwilling to push the envelope, leading to perpetual mediocrity. Basically, this is what we got with this Euro2012 squad.
Last Saturday in Oslo, we got to see how the new regime looked as England played their opening friendly against a mediocre Norway team who had failed to qualify for the Euros. Frankly, despite all the flag waving patriotic spew that comes from many England fans whenever we win, it was a depressing sight. I will grant that it was Hodgson’s first game in charge, and the team was for all intents a reserve side, but again we were treated to an abject, uninspiring performance from players who supposedly play in the “best League in the world”. The same old deficiencies were on display again as our passing was horrific, our movement was slow and labored, and defensively, we were average at best. For long periods of the game, we were ball chasing again and in possession, we lacked creativity. A 1-0 win away from home is almost always a good thing but not necessarily in a friendly – it’s how you play that counts. One plus that did come out of the game, however, was Gareth Barry’s groin injury and whilst I never want to gloat over any player’s misfortune, it keeps him out of the squad, and that can only be a positive for me. He has never reproduced his club form for his country and good riddance. I read yesterday how many experts felt that England’s win was somehow improved by the fact that Holland and Germany both lost to weaker nations and France squeaked by tiny Iceland in it’s friendly. It amazes me how we can ignore the obvious and concentrate on meaningless facts that in the end count for nothing.
So how good are we ? Average at best in my opinion. In a Group that includes France, Ukraine and Sweden I doubt we’ll qualify for the next round although I think Hodgson’s tactical discipline will make us hard to beat. I’d start with Hart in goal, of course, followed by Cole, Cahill, Lescott, and Jones with Parker protecting the back four. Glen Johnson’s total inability to defend eliminates him from any of my teams and John Terry can rot on the bench for the whole tournament for all I care. My midfield would have Oxlade-Chamberlain, Young and Gerrard securing the middle with Gerrard playing further forward than usual. In the first two games without Wayne Rooney, Andy Carroll and Walcott/Defoe up front, and when Rooney comes back, sacrificing one of the other strikers depending on how the previous two games went. We won’t get spanked with this line-up but at least we’ll give ourselves a fighting chance to score.
A latest look at the FIFA rankings puts England at a very flattering 7th in the world. My feeling is that after June is through, we’ll be a lot lower than that. Get your crying towels out everyone, this could be a long, hot summer.