Repeat the mantra after me. It’s a results-based business. It’s a results-based business. Roy Hodgson must be thanking his lucky stars that this is the case this evening after England misplaced, mistimed and misadventured their way to a goalless draw in Kiev this evening, a result that does leave their qualification for next summer’s World Cup finals in Brazil – although how much reassurance this may offer England supporters who watch this match through the gaps between their fingers may come to depend upon whether a factory reset can be applied to this rag tag assortment of journeymen and ne’er-do-wells in order to get them to learn the basics of the game all over again within the next couple of months.
It’s not about a sense of inflated expectation, this, by the way. You have to be pushing fifty years old in order to remember an England team that came some way towards being world class – and, before any angries of Tunbridge Wells start licking ther lips and sharpening their pencils, England were the fourth best team at the worst World Cup finals of all in 1990 and went through distinct phases of riding their luck on home ground in the European Championships six years later – so there aren’t many of us under a certain age who have had any just cause to get ideas above our stations. This evening’s ninety-minutes of mediocrity was a failure of the absolute basics, of passing, of controlling the game, of keeping possession and of creating chances in front of goal. These aren’t fripperies in the world of professional football in the twenty-first century. These are the basic building blocks of constructing a team that is capable of competing at the level which – as Greg Dyke of the FA witlessly expressed last week – the powers that be would like to believe they are capable of performing.
Performances like that witnessed in Kiev this evening, however, are – and this said with full recognition of the fact that there are plenty of people who will read this with a shrug because they consider the entire concept of international football to be an unnecessary relic from a bygone era, like red telephone boxes or Paul McCartney – indicative of the greatest failure that the Football Association of recent years. It was the FA’s capitulation to the clubs over the formation of the Premier League – which was, sold to us as something that would come about to no small extent for the benefit of the national team – that has proved to be the debasement of the national team, of the very concept of the English professional footballer who is capable of performing anywhere near the highest level of the professional game at any level having become almost completely redundant over the last two decades or so.
England’s night in Kiev almost ended as soon as it started. Within forty seconds, Ukraine’s Roman Zozulya had been felled by goalkeeper Joe Hart, an incident which might well have resulted in a penalty kick had much more than forty seconds have been played at the time. Hart looked jittery for much of the rest of the first half, but otherwise the visiting defence looked sound enough. It was in the middle of the pitch where the problems really started, with the English midfield throwing the ball around as the referee had made the decision to swap it prior to kick-off for a baking potato fresh from the oven and filled with uranium, while the passing on display might have made some sense had this been a game of dodgeball rather than football, but even against a Ukraine team that itself seemed a little on edge over the occasion this was England the wanting, very much the poor relatives of the elder statesmen of European international football.
That said, however, a draw in Ukraine isn’t a disastrous result for England. It does, as ITV were keen to remind us – with, we might have suspected, a hint of desperation brought about by having one eye on the possibility of plummeting ratings should we witness too much more of that sort of thing – mean that their fate remains in their own hands. Herein, however, rests another problem. England’s two remaining matches are against Poland and Montenegro, and whether they can win both of those matches is, on recent form, a moot point. England have won four and drawn four of their eight matches in this group so far. Finishing the group stages with two straight wins is far from a foregone conclusion.
Two things, however, have to be borne in mind when we pause to consider the prospect of these upcoming matches. Firstly, and this is a point that we have been labouring since the slowly deflating balloon sound which was the 2006 World Cup finals, the condition of the England team has been one of slow decline for some years now, with the inertia of the Premier League and the slap-dashery of the Football Association both having a part to play. Secondly, over the course of the last four decades, the England national team has periodically failed to qualify for the finals of major tournaments. They managed this for the 1974, 1978 and 1994 World Cups, and they managed it for the 1984 and 2008 European Championships. Should England fail to make it to Brazil, they will be doing little more than continuing an inglorious four decade long tradition of occasional failure. And in more than one respect, there isn’t a great deal that Greg Dyke or anyone else at the FA can do about that.
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