Okay, let’s get it out the way first up: Robert Green. He had only one save to make in that first half, when Clint Dempsey hit – or in truth barely half-hit – a low shot from maybe 28 yards out after forty minutes. It was a routine save, Green seemed to get his body behind it, got both hands to it, and yet somehow it squirmed over the line for the USA’s equaliser.
It was an even bigger story because of all the discussion beforehand about which ‘keeper should play. Maybe it was ther trickiest decision Capello had to make – David James is the man with the experience but has dropped more than his fair share of clangers over the course of time; Joe Hart the man-in-waiting but maybe we’re reluctant to pressure them this early, mindful of Scott Carson’s failure to recover from a critical blunder in and England shirt a couple of years back. Instead, Capello went for Green, the compromise choice, and it backfired. Doubtless someone will blame the ball but it just looked like a common-or-garden cock-up to me. Funny though it was, I really did feel for him too. James has dropped plenty of rickets over the years but always bounces back up from the turf with the air of a man who just knows he’ll get over it, he’ll still be the eptiome of cool and there’ll still be plenty of supermodels to sleep with if he so chooses. Green, on the other hand, looks more like a man who lives with his mum and has the hangdog expression of a man likely to spend the rest of his life reliving the moment on videotape. I shouldn’t expect he’s going to get any sort of sleep for at least a week now.
Such are the margins of success and failure. For all that England weren’t particularly inspiring, they were rarely troubled, and without that mistake we’d have been saying it was a decent professional performance, they did what they had to, etc etc. As it is, I expect the press will get stuck in. (On the other hand, had they been really unlucky and seen the USA convert their only real chance of the evening – when Green diverted an Altidore shot onto the post early in the second half, it might have been open season.)
Up in my neck of the woods, the reaction to it all was rather more muted. Indeed, fifteen minutes before kick-off in an otherwise busy-ish Dunfermline pub it looked rather as though I might be the only person watching, though by the time it came to kick-off there was a reasonable crowd of blokes who’d abandoned the girlfriends and gathered round the TV. It being a football pub, they even turned off the jukebox and turned the commentary up a bit, though mercifully not quite loud enough for me to hear a word Clive Tyldesley was saying. And if ITV gave us a USA team line-up at any point then I must have missed it, so I confess to being a bit hazy on many of their players.
Green’s selection wasn’t the only decision to be made in the England line-up; there was also the question of who would replace Rio Ferdninand as Terry’s partner in defence – as expected Ledley King got the nod but doubts about his fitness were hardly helped by his failure to see out the game – Carragher replacing him and not looking entirely convincing. Then there was James Milner, picked ahead of Joe Cole for left-midfield – again this didn’t work out, and he was replaced after half an hour by Shaun Wright-Phillips for reasons I’m still not at all clear about. Perhaps Tyldesley would have put me straight if I could have heard him.
But all these troubles looked a long way off when England took an early lead. Emile Heskey isn’t universally popular, but his value to the side is obvious, he’d already got his head to a couple of long balls in the opening moments and then, in the fourth minute, turned a neat reverse pass into the path of the unmarked Steven Gerrard, who tucked it past Tim Howard to get England off to a flier. If anyone in the pub was supporting England they kept it well hidden at this stage, I didn’t hear anything but groans. And it turned out there was actually an American girl on the table next to me, but she didn’t give a stuff about football (I’ll resist the temptation to draw any general conclusions – either about Americans or about women) and when the odd half-hearted chant of “USA” went up it was in distinctly Scottish accents.
England continued to look in control for most of the first half. A stat was flashed up at one point telling me that USA had had 59% of possession, but it was a statistical quirk – they’d barely threatened whereas England, and in particular Aaran Lennon, had caused a couple more moments of panic. Until, in the fortieth minute, Green’s moment of madness turned the game on its head. If there was any doubt about how many people in the pub were paying attention, the roar that greeted it settled the point.
The second half continued much in the same vein, England still had the better of it – against Altidore’s chance you have to set Heskey and Wright-Phillips, both of whom fired straight at Howard when one-on-one – but now of course they weren’t in the lead and somehow it all seemed rather more panicky and lacking in ideas. Rather like France yesterday, it was the kind of performance you’d get away with if it got you the three points, but will get pelters for given that they didn’t. Such is life. Plus points – the defence was mostly comfortable, and Lennon was lively on the right-hand side even if his final balls didn’t quite come off. Also, Capello and Beckham looked very dapper in their three piece suits. (Stuart Pearce wore a tracksuit.) There are areas of concern of course, given the substitutions that had to be made and that the major decisions in team selection didn’t work out. Also, Rooney was quiet – not invisible, just quiet – and the Gerrard / Lampard pairing in midfield still doesn’t add up to the sum of it’s parts.
But overall it wasn’t that bad a display from England, and while they’ll have to play much better if they’re to stand any chance in the latter stages, they still have every reason to be confident – they’ll qualify comfortably from this group. The US will feel they have enough to get through to the knock-out stages as well they rode their luck from time-to-time in defence but once they’d equalised they managed to frustrate England for long spells, and have players with pace to hit teams on the break.
So I’ll still back both teams to go through. What this result does do, however, is throw top spot in the group open, and increase the chances that England might finish runners-up and set up a mouthwatering clash against, probably, Germany in the second-round. That might be no bad thing. Indeed, it might be the best way to banish forty-four years of hurt. Not that I’m counting.
Once again, our thanks go to Historical Football Kits for allowing us to use their images in this report.