When I am not writing for Box to Box, I contribute to a couple of other football orientated sites. For one I outlined why I would be cheering on any opposition England faced. In essence the piece boiled down to my hatred for the manner in which the English mainstream media conducts itself. Not a commitment to an archaic feud, not because of some petty jealousy, unlike generations past it is not because of the actions of the players nor the fans and not because of some perverse infatuation with Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. No, my gripe stems solely from the ceaseless, merciless, bottomless arrogance of the mainstream media.
Every two years you take some things for granted when it comes to the Euro’s and the World Cup; Scotland’s absence, German’s reaching a minimum of the last eight, a relative unknown capturing the imagination of spectators across the globe and, finally, mass waves of delusions of grandeur emanating from English television studios. As an outsider it is a source of real amusement and frustration to see the media, against all the evidence pointing to the contrary, build their nation’s chances up only to see the squad come crashing down to an unceremonious halt.
A normal tournament follows a strict routine where ITV and the BBC try and cram as many links to the England squad as they can, some of which can be extremely tenuous. Even games between nations like Ivory Coast and Japan cannot pass by without some inane statement detailing the exact series of events needed to see the sides face the Three Lions. In most tournaments this can be, if not forgiven, then certainly forgotten. On this occasion it cannot, with Northern Ireland and Wales also competing the overwhelmingly England centric punditry grates in the extreme. At times it feels that the BBC forgets that its name is the British Broadcasting Corporation, not the English Broadcasting Corporation. I can only imagine how it must feel for fans, who have waited generations to see their sides compete on the grandest stage only to be confined to the box marked “sidekicks”.
That is why I earnestly hoped that England would come-a-cropper against the minnows of Iceland, a nation with more active volcanoes than professional footballers. Life as well as football is rarely so accommodating. So hoping against hope I settled in to watch what I expected to be a straight forward England progression. When the England side was named I cast an eye over the starting line-up. Unlike tournaments of the recent past, where players like Terry and Cole ensured the mass public perception was one of revulsion, this set of lads is fairly likeable. Sure Joe Hart walks with an unwarranted and unjustified strut and Wayne Rooney has for over a decade cultivated a woeful reputation, but on the whole it is a young collection that looked pleasant and promising. Not too much to be irritated there. But then the ITV coverage started.
Mark Pougatch, Peter Crouch, Ian Wright and Lee Dixon sat, plotting and scheming a route to the final, debating the merits of potential quarter-finalists France and the likelihood of a trip to the semi-final. Hardly a word was whispered in reference to actual opponents Iceland aside from the brief mention of the Scandinavian’s prowess from throw-ins. Never mind the fact that they had beaten World Cup semi-finalists Holland home and away in qualifying and navigated a tricky group to make it to the knock-out stages.
This arrogance was not merely confined to the television studios; newspapers, radio broadcasts and podcast were also awash with rampant stargazing.
I know that telling someone not to gaze into the future and ponder what tomorrow may bring is as futile as telling a dog not to bark, but the hubris on display was almost too much to stomach. If that was bad, then the scenes at half-time were horrifying. Trailing Iceland and looking distinctly second best, Pougatch actually had the temerity to ask if Hart should be replaced for the next round. Mystifying.
The match itself.
It seemed that the overconfidence had seeped onto the pitch and infected the players on a cellular level. After a blistering start; a Rooney penalty was quickly negated by a well telegraphed throw-in routine, the game settled into a turgid affair. Until, that is, Kolbeinn Sigþórsson linked well with Gylfi Sigurdsson in the 19th minute, worked some space in the penalty area and unleashed an effort that trickled beyond Joe Hart’s outstretched left hand. From then fear infected every player in a white strip, the trepidation in losing to a side that barely registered to the general population, containing players few had ever heard of was visible.
The first half was bad, the second truly abysmal. The reason best summed up, oddly enough, by American acting legend Gene Hackman who in the 2000 film The Replacements, playing the charismatic coach Jimmy McGinty, tells his star player that “Winners always want the ball… when the game is on the line.” It was visible that the England players were deficient in this department, all but hiding behind the oversized coat of Roy Hodgson to avoid contact with the ball. When players were forced into possession they looked frozen; Rooney, Wilshere, Sturridge and Alli, cultured players all, constantly miscontrolled passes, over-hit crosses or were simply rushed into poor choices, all wary of becoming the latest in the long line of tournament failure scapegoats. The image that I think will characterise this disaster is one of Harry Kane visibly shaking before taking a free-kick, trembling at the thought of missing a chance. His effort ballooned harmlessly wide, summing up the evening for England.
In the aftermath, Roy has gone, how could he not? Despite Iceland obviously demonstrating that they are a quality, well-drilled, coherent outfit, this loss has been seen as the nadir of English national football. The general consensus, from the majority of the game’s pundits, is that Hodgson is an honest, hardworking, intelligent man who, unfortunately, came up short. However, in his press conference he appeared anything but, looking like a surly, posturing, callow youth pouting at the need to attend a press conference. The quote most have leaped upon is the now infamous “I don’t really know what I’m doing here, but I was told to come.” Having presided over what is generally held to be the worst result in your nation’s history I should think so.
It is unlikely that he shall be forced out of the exit door alone; assistants Ray Lewington and Gary Neville have also departed. From a player’s perspective it is hard to see how Wayne Rooney continues. This was to be the defining moment in his National Team career and it has ended in ruins. Now thirty-one and without a position he can truly call home it seems that it will be his head that the public seek as reparation.
As with every exit there have been the usual cries for more passion and for Championship players to be given a shot because “at least they will play for the shirt”. More and more have questioned the fortitude, not only of the squad, but of society as a whole, stopping just short in suggesting that Roy Keane and Terry Butcher should be employed to breed and then train and elite battalion of super players, filled to the pores with testosterone, to carry the hopes of the next generation. But in reality I think we have, myself included, been once again duped by SKY, the Premier League and their pristine adverting campaigns. Players who have thrived in “the best league in the world” must surely be able to compete at International footballs top table, no? Except it is not the best league in the world and the players who have made such a name for themselves have been merely packaged and presented as something far greater than they actually are.
I will leave you with a musing on the Welsh squad and their celebrations at England’s demise. In my opinion such scenes were not generated to goad a nation of folk not wholly unlike themselves, or to rub salt into newly opened wounds, nor was it completely “a celebration of becoming the last competing member of the Home Nations” as one player described them. I think they were, in large part, a way of sticking two fingers up to an overly condescending media.