We live in polarised times. Rather than opening people up to new worlds and new experiences, the internet has allowed us to retreat into tiny enclaves of people who feel the same as we do and draw up the barricades. There is little room for subtlety or nuance in our debates any more, since the only voices to get themselves lifted above the background hum of noise are the most extreme from either end.
So it was that last night’s friendly match between a patchwork England side and an ominously strong looking Netherlands side was unlikely to be seen for what it was – a curiously unique experiment in which a team is thrown together under the watchful eye of a manager of whom expectations could hardly have been any lower than they were and with a captain for whom even starting international has previously been a rare treat rather than a birth-right.
The scale ahead of whoever takes England through to the European Championships was made perfectly clear last night, though. An experienced Dutch team seemed to move out of second gear twice in the entire match. The first time they did this, they scored twice inside sixty seconds, and the second time saw them snatch a winning goal at the very end of the match. Between these goals, England had shown an admirable resolve in pulling themselves back into the game thanks to a surprising – and, frankly, offside – appearance in the Dutch penalty area by Gary Cahill, which was quickly followed up with a deliciously intelligent through-ball from Phil Jones which allowed Ashley Young to lift the ball over the Dutch goalkeeper to bring them level. This, however, wasn’t the abject humiliation that some might have expected from this match and England supporters have – albeit limited – reasons to feel optimistic about the future this morning.
Stuart Pearce, of course, is on a hiding to nothing. His disastrous spells as a club manager at Manchester City and Nottingham Forest will see to that. However, since being in charge of the England under-21 side it has reached the semi-finals and the final of the UEFA Under-21 European Championships – the sort of record that the first team would kill for, on recent form – and managing an international side is a different beast to managing a club side. If we, the watching audience, can temper our expectations of what they are capable of achieving, then Pearce made at least something approaching a cogent argument for being allowed to coach the team through this tournament. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the English may finally be coming to realise that to expect anything substantial from this summers tournament might be a folly, but whether this feeling will last is a different matter altogether.
The withdrawal of Steven Gerrard after half an hour also provided a potential watershed moment for the team. With Gerrard’s departure went the the last remnants of The Golden Generation, that deeply divisive group of players for whom pulling on an international shirt is a right rather than a privilege. It is likely that they will all return at some point or other, but this at least felt like the turning of a page, an opportunity for a new breed of players to demonstrate whether they have the potential to challenge amongst the best in Europe or the world. The answer to this question was inconclusive. The gulf between the two sides last night was obvious, but the potential for improvement was as well. To continue to develop this team – or a variation of it – would seem to be England’s best chance of rediscovering its poise on the international stage.
The captain, meanwhile, has been unable to fully avoid the claws of the hype machine. Scott Parker was an interesting choice to lead the team out, not least because even appearing in an England shirt has previously been a rare treat for him. He carried himself well last night, another player who sits somewhere in-between the assessments of those that worship the ground that he walks upon and those that see him as an outdated throw-back to a lost (or quite possibly mythical) era. The English continue to fetishise the role of their team captain like no other country, a peculiar tradition with possible traces back to the country’s militaristic past. If this fetishisation brought any significant benefits, the constant noise about who the captain should be might because little more tolerable, and it seems unlikely that this will change greatly at any point in the best future. In the short term, however, the question of how a succession of previous captains might integrate back into a squad based upon last night’s team could be the key to the harmony – or otherwise – in the England camp ahead of this summer’s tournament.
There were, then, as many reasons for caution as there were reasons for optimism at Wembley last night. It does, however, feel as if the ludicrous events of the last few months have had one possibly unexpected but very welcome consequence in England. Expectation levels have been tempered to such a low point that if this team can make it to its first match without somebody getting their head stuck in a letter box, it will be considered something of a success. England teams at recent tournaments have often played as if the weight of the world is sitting in their shoulders, but this realignment of expectations might even give them a chance of traveling to Poland in a frame of mind that is conducive to actually enjoying being there and, you never know, that little psychological edge might even help them out once they’re there. No-one should be getting excited about England’s prospects this summer, apart from those who enjoy their pantomime villain status in the international football community and look forward to their failures, but if last night was the beginning of the transitional period that this team has needed for at least the last six years, then perhaps we should all just sit back and enjoy the ride.
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