The end of the 2012/13 football season has been, on the pitch at least, a little like a slowly deflating balloon. The Premier League ended as a competition about three months ago, and by the last day of the season the only product that Sky Sports had to sell a hungry audience was the internecine battle between Arsenal and Spurs over who would finish in fourth place in the table, whilst the Football League’s end of season play-offs, no matter how exciting they may have been for the supporters of those clubs that were lucky enough to win them, couldn’t match the drama the end of the standard forty-six match league season which had preceded them. We need a break. We need to recharge our batteries. We need to regather our enthusiasm. But the Football Association has other ideas, and so it was that 80,000 hardy souls trudged to Wembley last night for an international friendly match that delivered as little as we might reasonably expected.
The Football Association’s 150th anniversary celebrations have the feel of being a birthday party that nobody particularly wants to be at, and if that metaphor can be stretched any further – and yes, by God it can – then the idea of a match between England and the Republic of Ireland being a part of those celebrations felt a little like having John Major stand to give a speech. War analogies are usually trite when it comes to international football and this is no more the case than when England are playing one of the nations that they’ve subjugated at some point in the past, but it wasn’t necessary to assume the voice of Winston Churchill to form the opinion that this match was always likely to be attritional in nature, the limitations of both teams serving as a visual reminder of the lack of technical sophistication on these islands that is supplemented by such apparent virtues as ‘heart’ and ‘courage.’
So it was that Ireland scored first, through a tidy, looping header from Shane Long, and England huffed and puffed their way to an equaliser from Frank Lampard after Sean St Ledger momentarily – and, for England at least, fortuitously – forgot everything that he has ever learnt as a professional footballer and failed to clear a cross ten yards from goal. England dominated possession in the second half, but the Irish goalkeeper David Forde put in a confident performance and at full time honours were even at a goal apiece – the now traditional score for a match between these two teams. ‘You’ll never beat the Irish,’ indeed. England have now not beaten the Republic of Ireland since 1985.
For the Football Association and the England team, however, the party still isn’t over, and Roy Hodgson, whose post match interview made much of the extent to which his team dominated the second half without mentioning the fact that it is this current tendency to draw rather than win matches that is proving to be their achilles heel at present and which may yet mean that they don’t qualify for the finals on the 2014 World Cup, now takes his team halfway across the world to play Brazil in Rio De Janeiro on Sunday. It might even be that the Brazilian Football Association are taking the opportunity to remind their domestic audience, on the opening of the redeveloped Maracana stadium, that no matter how tepid their team might have become in recent years, they remain an advanced civilisation in comparison with the enduringly plodding English.
Meanwhile, and in lieu of much happening of note on the pitch at Wembley last night, talk turned to the new England kit, which are now manufactured by Nike following their gobbling up and spitting out of Umbro, who had – with a couple of exceptions in the early 1960s and for a few years from the middle of the 1970s on – been making the national team’s kit since before the days of televised football. The American company have opted for understated as their first design, and of course understated gives less room for criticism than the overblown last few designs that Umbro mustered. It’s a plain white shirt, festooned with a very dark blue collar and with a gold ribbon celebrating the FA’s 150th anniversary and with a single gold, for in case anyone had forgotten that England won the World Cup in 1966. The shirt could do with having red numbers on its back, but by and large it looks, well, like an England football shirt… apart from the Nike tick adorning its breastfeeding, and that is the biggest issue that this company will have in identifying itself as Brand England. On the pitch, meanwhile, the national team remains a work in the apparently perpetual need of progress.
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