Eamon Dunphy got it right. The “outspoken” pundit for Irish state television (RTE) said on Saturday night that “England won’t score, they have no creative players…it’ll go to penalties and Italy will go through.” It was a stroke of luck for Dunphy, who rather slurred his way through a short interview on RTE Radio, as he “was preparing for the Spain v France game.” As interviewer Joanne Cantwell semi-gleefully noted, “you did tip Holland to win it, Eamon.” Indeed, Eamon said a lot. It’s almost his job to be controversial for whatever reason – a story that requires another article which I’ll spare you. And he was particularly disparaging towards the English media’s assessment of Roy Hodgson’s team. “I’ve been in stitches reading the English papers today,” he said. “They love Roy Hodgson. They think they’re going to win it.” And, on this narrow point at least, he sort of had a point.
English media pundits have been desperate to keep a tin lid on their normally bullish consideration of England’s chances at international finals for which they’ve qualified. And, up to a point, they did. But past that point, a day or so after the scruffy 1-0 win over Ukraine, the instances of “we can win this you know” and variants thereof began to grow. The BBC’s Jonathan Pearce even managed to shoe-horn “there’s a growing belief that England’s boys can do it, and why not?” into his nauseating paean to Cristiano Ronaldo last Thursday. Dunphy answered the question, ‘why not?’ As indeed did England midfielder Scott Parker earlier in the tournament. “The one thing we showed was a lot of big hearts, courage and commitment,” Parker noted in the wake of the Ukraine win. “Whether that wins you tournaments, I don’t know,” he added, leaving the impression he knew well enough that it doesn’t.
But the general consensus appears to be that England had a decent tournament, that they could hold their heads high and that this failure to get beyond the quarter-finals wasn’t a failure at all. It was a “foundation” for future prosperity. With all due respect, no. This is the third time England have exited on penalties after a quarter-final draw against the first decent side they have met, having done so in Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup. And their displays in Ukraine were far closer to the huff-and-puff of 2006 than what still appears to be a vastly-under-rated performance in Portugal two years earlier. The 16-team format of the Euros, and its single-continent field of contenders, does not allow for lower-ranked nations to qualify, other than through being hosts. This is why the decision to increase the Euros to 24 teams in France in 2016 has been so roundly and rightly condemned.
So England were never going to be drawn against “the likes of” Trinidad and Tobago in the Euros. Ireland’s desperate campaign was as close as we got to such “limited” quality – even by comparison with the under-performances of co-hosts Poland and Ukraine (who were at least better than Switzerland and the desperate Austrians in 2008). However, England were drawn against ordinary Ukrainian and Swedish teams, which gave them a virtual pass into the knockout stages – the Beeb’s Alan Hansen making a pertinent point about the semi-final line-up coming exclusively from the two strong groups. They took the pass with some very good football at times against Sweden, a poor fifth official against Ukraine and vast periods of unpunished mediocrity. Against Italy, they were good for about fifteen minutes and not very good at all for 105 minutes, which was pretty much their tournament ratio.
In Germany, they had also produced most of their decent football against Sweden. Against Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago and Ecuador it was grim attritional stuff, with the Caribbean team only broken down thanks to some hair-pulling skulduggery by Peter Crouch. The display against Portugal in the quarter-finals was necessarily defensive, especially after Wayne Rooney misunderstood the view that England were “crying out for someone to put their foot on the ball.” But it hadn’t been over-inspiring beforehand. But while Roy Hodgson’s England were a bit better than Sven Goran Eriksson’s in 2006, they appear to be receiving the plaudits which were more worthily directed at Eriksson’s team in Portugal in 2004.
The dominant memories of 2004 should all be pretty good ones for England. It was, for instance, the first tournament abroad where England’s support was both large and well-behaved. And whilst bad luck has been cited in almost every failed England tournament campaign – qualifying and finals – since I can remember, only in 2004 (and possibly against Poland at Wembley in 1973) did bad luck play a key role in England’s downfall. England were too defensive in the second half against France in their first game, holding onto their 1-0 lead at least ten yards too deep and being punished by crass errors from keeper David James and Steven Gerrard for Zinedine Zidane’s penalty winner. This seemed to hangover in the early stages against Switzerland. But England were ultimately quite impressive 3-0 winners; form which they took into dismantling a decent Croat side, winning at least as comfortably as the 4-2 final score suggested.
The star of England’s show was undoubtedly Rooney. And England would have been indisputably better in their quarter-final against the hosts had the “spud-faced nipper” not limped out of the action with a broken foot early on, with England leading 1-0. As it was, England played their part in another absorbing match, despite making the same attitudinal mistakes when they were one-up as they had against France. And while they lost the penalty shoot-out, thanks partly to David Beckham’s sky-rocket, they were better from the spot than in 2006, and departed the scene having scored ten goals in four games, with the Croat victory coming in arguably the best game of the tournament. For many reasons, including but not limited to the ‘Little Englander’ mentality which set some journalists and fans against Eriksson regardless of his teams’ displays, the squad returned home to a less favourable reception than they deserved, labelled as under-achievers in the same way they were at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, and in Germany in 2006.
But, as I say, what they deserved was what Hodgson’s England are getting. In 2004, England had performed creditably and had certainly not let themselves down, aside from a little conservatism at key periods of two games, for which they were harshly punished. To describe Roy Hodgson’s vintage thus is over-cooking it a bit. Hodgson’s team were supposed to be well-organised, like all Hodgson’s teams. But swathes of both the Sweden and Ukraine belied that description – unless “organised” is an alternative way of saying “John Terry got his fat arse in the way quite a lot.” And they were supposed to be quick on the break, a speed which only manifested itself about twice in their four games, the best the incisive move, with Rooney at its core, which set up Danny Wellbeck’s miss against Italy.
Captain Steven Gerrard performed well as a captain and player. Wellbeck hinted at a fine international career (and I think he meant that finish for the winner against Sweden – if he was trying merely to control the ball he wouldn’t have swung his leg goalwards like that). Parker, Hart, Johnson and Cole had their moments. Terry got his arse in the way quite a lot, which is a slightly flippant acknowledgement that he was possibly England’s best performer. And Andy Carroll caused a stir when he could. But no-one else rose above mediocre. And while Ashley Young looked a natural international footballer leading up to the tournament, he looked like a natural rabbit caught in headlights when he got there. That he was on the pitch in order to slam his shoot-out penalty against the crossbar was probably the biggest of Hodgson’s few mistakes of the fortnight and the penalty was probably Young’s cleanest strike of the ball of the fortnight.
None of this tournament places England among the world’s “top six or seven” as Alan Shearer insisted in the post-match discussion on the BBC. They are barely in Europe’s top six or seven, as I was sure Shearer meant, until he repeated “world’s…” moments later – Brazil and Argentina, at least, may have a view on that. Yes, they were unbeaten and they were better than the Czech Republic and Greece among the other quarter-finalists. But they were not quite as good as Croatia. And they were over-reliant on the “Chelsea” template for winning the Champions League – a method some feared might be over-used in this tournament but rarely has been…and has been punished each time (Portugal against Germany, the Czechs against Portugal, Ireland… oh God…). I posed the question, pre-tournament, would Ireland be more difficult to beat or more difficult to watch. I thought they might be both and I wish they had been now. England were both. And Eamon Dunphy was right.
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