The final whistle blew at around ten o’clock on Monday night and boos rang out from the hundred or so people I was watching the match in the pub with. The end of the game not only signalled the end of another England campaign but also the end of another England manager who has failed to achieve semi-final status with the national team. England were out, humiliated by industrious Iceland, and Roy Hodgson was done for.
It may seem a familiar story; a leadership figure bowing out after a knockout stage exit in a major tournament. “Same old England” one might say. But don’t be so easily fooled. For this was not a defeat akin to the glorious failure of the Golden Era. Nor was this the tale of an encouraging young side undone by misfortune or outclassed by superior opposition. No — this was a defeat symptomatic of a team with ideas far, far above their station.
Don’t misunderstand me — I think this team is filled with exceptional talent. Harry Kane is indubitably one of the finest centre forwards in England, as are Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge. Joe Hart has proven himself a stopper worthy of Premier League glory on two occasions and in the likes of Dele Alli, Jack Wilshere and Eric Dier, England had a supremely talented midfield at their disposal. That isn’t to mention a captain who has won damn near everything there is to win at club level. So no, the failure of this England team wasn’t due to a lack of talent. It was due to a profound lack of respect and some eye-watering unpreparedness.
England sauntered out against Russia and expected to win against a team whose midfield had been decimated through injury. They needed a once-in-a-season set-piece goal through Dier and conceded in the dying seconds when they thought the game was won.
Take two and England were huffing and puffing in much the same manner, this time against Ashley Williams, Wayne Hennessey and the rest of the Welsh defence. Hodgson had selected the same team as before and yet again they failed to break down a packed defence comprised of better players than those who played for Russia a few days previous. Shock. Only when the likes of Sturrdige and Vardy came on did England look threatening, and even then it required a late, late show aided by some reasonably fortuitous ricochets in the Wales penalty area. England snuck away with 2-1 win but the responses from both teams told the whole story.
The Slovakia game came with six changes and in Hodgson’s defence, you could probably justify all of them. The Tottenham players had exhausted their energy on a Premier League title charge, Raheem Sterling had been insipid in both previous fixtures and there were only so many times Wayne Rooney could spray a cross-field pass to either fullback. But for the third time in a row, England were found wanting in the middle and final thirds. Wilshere and Jordan Henderson were nowhere near as bad as some would have you believe but still offered very little. When Hodgson introduced Rooney, Alli and Kane, England finished with the same team they had started the previous two matches with barring the fullback pairing. 0-0 it finished and if ever Albert Einstein’s clichéd mantra about the insanity of repetition was applicable, England’s Euro 2016 group stage was surely the time.
Wales’ response to their defeat against England? Spanking Russia 3-0 and topping the group in resounding fashion. The result said everything you needed to know about Chris Coleman’s side but also spoke volumes about Hodgson’s.
After a few days of uncertainty, Iceland’s last-gasp victory over hapless Austria secured their place in the last 16 tie against England. All players recalled while Adam Lallana, one of the only players who leaves France with any considerable stock remaining, was left out. “Fair enough,” we all thought “It’s only Iceland, after all.” Oh dear.
There’s very little point in recalling the events of Monday night. England lost to Iceland and in a way, that says it all. In a tournament expanded to 24 teams, where supposedly weaker sides were permitted entry to the competition, that only served in giving England more opponents to fatally underestimate. Hodgson’s resignation has meant a considerable portion of the blame has been dumped on him. Not unwarranted, either – the abject and monotonous attempts to break down lesser defences were void of any creativity or innovation – but he did call one thing right. The fact he seemed to have a speech prepared in the event of an early exit shows he clearly knew this group of players better than anyone.
I spoke before about how this was an alien feeling to that which came with any other tournament exit. During the aforementioned Golden Era, the overriding emotion was sadness. Certainly for me, anyway. Obviously there was annoyance in there too, but it was never any stronger than a simmering undertone to the palpable grief of being dumped out on penalties. Not once did it ever boil over into genuine anger. Not until Monday night, anyway. Monday night was the epitome of what England’s problem had been for the entire tournament. No respect for the opposition, no plan B, no coherent strategy to begin with.
England essentially echoed precisely what their fans have done since the dawn of time: just turn up and hope for the best. Why bother with preparation, eh? “It’s only Iceland, after all.”