Perhaps the most appropriate image to symbolise the collective humiliation we have experienced as football fans in the past weeks was that of Joe Hart, moments after conceding a goal most of our nans could have saved, angrily punching himself in the head. It has been a challenging few weeks, on both the political and sporting stage, for the English youth. Leaving the political commentary to the likes of The Lad Bible, I’ll try to make sense of the things that pensioners can’t vote to leave.
England’s Euro 2016 performance was symbolic of their usual standards in world football. Watching Alan Shearer talk about England players as if they were poorly-behaved children on the BBC is one thing. But, in many ways, why are we surprised? Our repeated failure boils down to simple errors of judgement and the wrong men in the wrong jobs.
Roy Hodgson, remarkably similar in appearance to an owl in a suit, oversaw England’s performances about as well as an actual owl in a suit might have done. The image of him inspiring a team with stirring words of encouragement at half-time, or even slightly raising his voice, seems unrealistic. Had he played to the team’s strengths, using the momentum of the solitary victory over the Welsh, he would have received far less criticism. However, Hodgson made numerous misjudgments throughout the competition. A lack of flexibility in key selections, bewildering squad changes in the group games and a fearful, tentative play style illustrated what might have been a promising campaign for a well-supported, able team.
This manager, the owner of an honorary degree from our very own university, was perhaps fortunate to enjoy a qualifying campaign with genuinely exciting and promising displays from a team with a clear game-plan. Unfortunately, tournaments are different. You don’t get to play a inconsequential game against San Marino in the knockout stages of the Euros. Hodgson was exposed as an ageing manager who simply cannot handle the intensity of competition at the highest level. In his departing press conference he simply explained, “I don’t know what I’m doing here”. Frustratingly appropriate! The best that England fans can do is hope for a manager who acknowledges the fresh outlook that is needed (and not Gareth Southgate).
Joe Hart, smugly running his hands through flake-free hair, claimed that he’d had “nothing to do” in the run up to England’s exit. I think it would be unfair to simply say Hart is a bad keeper. He’s not at all. However, his basic mistakes in these Euros have been costly beyond measure. Bale’s free kick and Sigthorsson’s stab through outstretched fingertips were misjudgements that keepers simply cannot afford to make at the elite level. All the blame being laid on Hart is unfair; the team under-performed as a whole; yet, it is difficult to not feel some frustration towards a keeper who continues to talk himself up in interviews, only to play like a Sunday League left-back who had to go in goal because the real keeper was stuck in traffic. Joe Hart is good, that much is true, but he’s not good enough.
We look at our own, under-achieving side and continually search for answers to explain the struggles England has competitively. After watching Welsh players bravely defeat a star-studded Belgian team, perhaps, ultimately, our problem is a lack of self-belief. For all our quality and domestic success, English players routinely play with an apparent lack of both structure and genuine conviction.
It would be totally inaccurate to say we aren’t good enough. The players have the ability and exhibited it for most of the past season (barring Jack Wilshere – seriously, who managed to get him on that team? Illuminati confirmed?). Even watching an Icelandic team, united, organised and disciplined, only makes English shortcomings so much more glaringly obvious. These teams didn’t have to dominate possession. Iceland rejected their underdog status and found a killer instinct to take their chances. These ingredients to success are attributes England has never really found in itself.
Oh, and Kane taking corners? Really? I’m pretty sure if we asked him about it as he went to take another, he’d remember an old Hodgson quote. Eyes glazed over, delivered with total conviction, he’d reply; “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”