It’s not going to be easy watching Roy Hodgson’s England, is it? You can’t take much from an international friendly, but this isn’t going to be an era of thrills and spills, directed by JJ Abrams after three cans of pop and a metre of strawberry bootlace. This is going to be rather more like one of those History Channel documentaries on early civilisations. It will seem appealing at first, like something you should watch, but very soon you’ll realise that it’s just endless footage of men staring at ancient shards of pottery and nodding. Sleep will take you long before despair whisks you away.
In so many ways, Saturday night’s 1-0 victory over Norway in Oslo was a resounding success. After all, while Hodgson’s earnest plodders were grinding out their victory, Germany had five put past them by the Swiss, Holland were beaten by Bulgaria and a day later France nearly had their pants pulled down by Iceland. You can’t ask for anything more than a win, not these days, and besides, just look at the positives.
Until the 58th minute, the moment when every international friendly is contaminated by substitutions, tactical switches and widespread ‘meh’, England looked…erm…solid. Say what you like about Roy’s ‘two banks of four’, they do offer considerable protection against plucky foreigners intent on tormenting us with inconvenient counter-attacks.
Andy Carroll looked impressive as well, continuing to prove that when he’s switched on and frisky he can be, if not our Didier Drogba, then at least our Didier Drogba-shandy. For a first game under a manager granted approximately 20 minutes to prepare for the tournament, this wasn’t actually that bad. But could anyone see potential for anything more than that?
I’m not anti-Hodgson. He never had a chance at Liverpool. Partly, this was because the football club was circling the drain at the time and partly it was because almost every decision he made was the wrong decision. He bought bad players, played bad football and lost the fans when he responded to Sir Alex Ferguson’s criticism of Fernando Torres’ morals with a shrug. But he’s experienced, respected, he seems nice and he has all of his own teeth. That has to count for something. Besides, what else could we get? Harry Redknapp’s media friendly short-termism? Stuart Pearce’s forelock-tugging earnestness? Alan Shearer?
This is where we are after 20 years of the cash-soaked, cosmopolitan Premier League. There just aren’t any top level English managers. Scotsman Sir Alex Ferguson and Frenchman Arsene Wenger have clogged the dugout at two of the nation’s biggest clubs for decades. Chelsea haven’t had a permanent English manager since Glenn Hoddle in 1996 and, prior to Redknapp, Tottenham hadn’t had an permanent English manager since Glenn Hoddle in 2004. Liverpool tried an Englishman recently, but that didn’t turn out so well…
It’s not just the managers who fall short. The players aren’t much better. This week, I had the opportunity to catch a re-run of England’s clash with Holland at Euro '88, a dismal tournament that saw the national team eliminated without racking up a single point. Bobby Robson was able to call upon Gary Lineker, Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, Glenn Hoddle and Bryan Robson. We have one player, Wayne Rooney, who could stand alongside that quintet without blushing and he’s suspended for the first two games. Frank Lampard hasn’t had a vintage season, despite the miracle of the Munich, and Steven Gerrard is injury-ravaged and out of form. We really were in better shape in 1988 and we were soundly spanked. What hope have we got this time?
The sad truth is that Hodgson is right for England because England aren’t right. Sure, there’s a gossamer-thin chance that his team could sit deep, pull tight and Greece their way to the Final, but that must be the limit of his ambitions. England just aren’t good enough to go out and play football against the likes of Germany, Spain and Holland. This is as good as it’s going to get. This is the new reality. This is the new England. I recommend coffee.