The St George flags will be hanging limply this afternoon. It was after midnight in Kiev last night when the final kick hit the back of the net and confirmed what we all probably already knew – that this England side wasn’t good enough to reach the semi-finals of the 2012 European Championships - but there is little sense of recrimination in the air this morning, rather an acceptance that the “lottery” of the penalty shoot-out – and whether this is true or not is a matter for conjecture in itself – merely served to see that justice was done. We had seen the evidence of this with our own eyes over the preceding agonising one hundred and twenty minutes.
Yet there they were, in the shoot-out itself in the first place, and thus in itself says something about the spirit of a team that has won a few friends back over the last couple of weeks, which had already played beyond what many of us assumed would be their capability in getting that far, and which had contrived to undo some of the badwill generated by the entitled, incompetent performance – or lack thereof – of two years ago in South Africa. England provided a little drama, occasional flashes of unexpected skill and a more positive headlines than negative this summer, and this is all the more surprising when we consider what a sorry state they were in just a few weeks ago.
In the middle of May, Roy Hodgson was appointed England manager. The sections of the press with ready access to the chummy Harry Redknapp were outraged. The sound of daggers being drawn hung heavy in the air. The tabloids mocked his speech impediment and expressed sheer disbelief at the fact that their man wasn’t even considered for the job. They had, however, misjudged the public mood. Perhaps the wider public saw through it and realised that the vastly experienced manager at both club and international level with a track record if getting mediocre teams to play above themselves was the wise choice for this team. Perhaps they were merely sick of the apparently perpetual cycle of overblown hope, the inevitable inability to fulfil that hope and the subsequent angry search for a scapegoat. Whatever the reasons, the tone had changed even before Hodgson set his stall out with two workmanlike but largely uninspiring friendly wins against Norway and Belgium which proved little more than that they might be difficult to beat in the finals.
It was a trend that continued to follow them to Poland and Ukraine, but something quite clearly had changed beyond anything else. The players, who in South Africa two years who had shuffled around with the posture of Atlas, were smiling and enjoying themselves. The draw saw them scheduled to play France in their opening match. It was a fixture that looked worrying, to say the least. Losing the opening match in a four team group can – as Sweden in the same group were to find out – be near-fatal, but England scrapped their way to a draw and in doing so demonstrated that they were capable of giving a decent team a decent game.
Next up, Sweden. Familiar insecurities raised their heads – not least the statistic of England not having beaten Sweden in a competitive match since 1968 – and when, having taken a first half lead, the much-vaunted English defence collapsed in on itself and gifted them an unlikely 2-1 lead it looked as if a familiar story was set to play out. This time around, though, something quite unexpected happened, and two goals from Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck spun the game on its head again and sent England through to their final group match with their fate very much still in their own hands.
For their final match came a very different challenge, an away match against the co-hosts, Ukraine. This time, England rode their luck, bagged a goal from a twice deflected cross that the goalkeeper made a horlicks of and survived a shot that was hooked out from over the goal-line. Sepp Blatter immediately called for the introduction of goal-line technology. The old man, who didn’t make such proclamations when England were on the receiving end of such misfortune in Bloemfontain two years ago, grows increasingly shameless with his passing years. But never mind. England had lurched through to the quarter-finals of the competition and, by winning in Donetsk and in turn their group, had managed to avoid Spain in the next round.
Back in Kiev last night, though, the shortcomings of English football caught up with this team. Italy played as if in love with the ball, England as if it was a cartoon bomb with a lit fuse, throwing it from player to player as if it might go off at any time, with predictable results. Italy played with intelligence and fluidity, England in the manner of, well, what they were – a reasonably well regimented but technically limited collection of players. Italian profligacy in front of goal sent the match to a penalty shoot-out, and even here England were gifted an undeservedly golden opportunity when Italy dragged their second kick wide of the post. Seasoned England-watchers, however, were taking little for granted at this point. A blood and thunder shot against the crossbar and the only save that Gianluigi Buffon had to make all evening were enough to knock England out of the competition.
Englands shortcomings reach further than the mere ability not to be able to win a penalty shoot-out. They lay in the structural deficiencies of English coaching, the lack of qualified coaches and – until very recently – the lack of anything approaching a co-ordinated system for the technical development of young players. There is no genetic reason why English players couldn’t play with the wit and the verve that the Italian team displayed last night if they’re brought up to do so (unless we’re going to bet into some deeply unpleasant rot about a lack of intelligence of young, working class men), but to set this problem straight will likely take years to achieve, if it can be done at all. Moreover, there is little to suggest that the all-conquering Premier League, which has effectively set itself in a position that is directly hostile to the national team – this is a marketplace, after all – will play any significant role in co-ordinated coaching for the good of the national team. Why should they, though? It’s not going to make them any money, after all.
Very little, then, has changed regarding the England team this summer, except, perhaps, for our own perceptions of the team. Watching England play frequently remains as gruelling as ever, but at least the team was a little more likeable and expectations for many have been tempered and will continue to be in the future. Perhaps the point is that the shortcomings of this England team were common knowledge to such an extent that we can only presume that anyone complaining about the way that they played last night hasn’t been paying very close attention to them over the last few weeks, months or indeed years. They played with honesty and toil, without much sense of entitlement and, unless anybody was realistically expecting this team to play like Italy, Spain or Germany this summer, perhaps that should have been as much as we should have hoped for all along.
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