If this summers European Championships have felt a little unusual so far, with the rain and the old school hooliganism and all – Fighting stewards inside a ground! How quaint! – then perhaps the most uncharacteristic aspect of it all has been the lack of hype surrounding the England team. As time has passed, there has come to be a quiet mist of resignation hang over this squad, a sense that we already know that this summer is to be like so many before it and will end in defeat, only this time around the scores have been phoned through in advance. Indeed, the lack of hype surrounding the England team has been so great that this in itself is becoming a cause for criticism. “Enough with the false modesty!”, some cry, angry at the sudden and somewhat unexpected disappearance of one of the key justifications for hating England as much as many do.
This evening in Donetsk, England will take to the pitch against France without, for once, the hopes and dreams of a nation sitting too heavily on their shoulders. The tone of press coverage surrounding the team has ranged from quietly mournful to almost gleeful at the prospect of their imminent disappointment, and the peace and quiet that this has brought has been quite refreshing. Yesterday, ITV Sport sent an intrepid reporter to the England supporters campsite to try and gauge the feeling amongst those have made the ling trip east. One young man who put their chances of qualification from the group at “fifty/fifty” was as wildly optimistic as they could find. You know that a new reality has well and truly set in when the television cameras can’t find anybody amongst the die-hard support who will predict success in front of a camera.
The press propensity for hysteria when it comes to the England team is well documented, but even in the usually rabid sports pages of the red tops there has been a degree of quiet, with the most prevalent sound this morning being that of that last cigarette before the rifles of the firing squad are cocked. How long this blessed peace will last for is anybody’s guess. The prudent gambler, however, would probably not bet on much longer than seven o’clock this evening, by which time we’ll have our first solid indication of well placed such circumspection was. And, of course, what form the hysteria will take will likely depend upon what has happened in the previous couple of hours.
Should England contrive to avoid defeat, hopes will likely start to rise again and a narrative of the team as “plucky underdogs” may start to surface. Should they lose badly, the sound of knives sharpening for Roy Hodgson may well become deafening. We would certainly expect that crudely photoshopped images of the managers face superimposed upon the head of an owl and puns relating to the word “unwise” have already been in cold storage for several weeks, for example. Yet nothing changes this evening. What we will get tonight will only be confirmation or otherwise of what we already know. Nothing will be definitively won or lost this evening, with two group matches left to play. The best that we can hope for is a greater understanding of how Hodgsons plan for this team is likely to bring any success or the extent to which our expectations are likely to be fulfilled.
At times like this, it is easy to get dragged into a feeling of “what-iffery.” What if everybody has got it wrong? What if this rag-tag bunch of players can defend for their lives, hit France on the break and scratch themselves a win? What if they keep on doing that? Whta if? What if? What if? And then the reality hits back in. Martin Kelly is in the England squad. Wayne Rooney is suspended for the first two matches. John Terry, and all the baggage that comes with him. Such circular thoughts are one of the curses of the football supporter, and are inescapable, and this is without taking into consideration the likes of Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri, any of whom is capable on their day of thrusting a rapier through the heart of the strongest defences in the world. There can be little question that a point from Donetsk tonight would be a hugely creditable result for England, whilst a win would rank amongst their finest results of the last ten or fifteen years.
The likelihood of this happening, however, remains low. The France team is packed with bright, spritely players while England have in recent years come to mistake passing the ball ploddingly around their back four for being “a little bit continental.” There may be gaps at the back that England could, conceivably, exploit, but in order to do this have to retain possession of the ball for meaningful periods of time in the first place and then use it wisely – and this is not something that they have been conspicuously successful at doing in recent years. Danny Welbeck provides a little pace, strength and composure up front – presuming he starts either literally or effectively on his own there – but it will be getting the ball anywhere near him that may prove to be difficult. The French team does have defensive weaknesses that could, arguably, be exploited. Whether this England team has the wherewithal to exploit is, however, another question altogether.
All of which brings us back to where we started. England – the little corner of England from which this article is being written, at least – seems quiet and subdued this morning. The weather hasn’t helped, of course. Twenty-four hours or more of solid rain have washed away any semblance of a feeling that summer has started, and those who believe in pathetic fallacy might even be tempted to look skywards and wonder whether some form of greater power might already have already cast his or her verdict upon what might happen tonight. Even those of us with little or no faith in divine beings – whether Gods or weather forecasters – can be sure of one thing, though – regardless of what else may or may not happen today, the clouds will swell come five o’clock, and the likelihood of a storm within a couple of hours is reasonably high. Enjoy the calm while it lasts.
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