Roy Hodgson is pushing the line that tonight’s clash with Switzerland isn’t really that critical and, in a way, he’s right. England could lose 10-0 and you’d still back them to nab second place in the group.
“We want to get off to a good start,” he said on Saturday, “we want to play well and we want to win, but if it doesn’t happen it won’t necessarily impact on 2016…if we lose it won’t be the end of the world.”
You can’t argue the logic, even if it does bring to mind the inspirational team talks of Welsh legend John Charles in his days as Hereford manager.
“Come on, lads!” Charles would say to his team. “You’ve got to win tonight.” And then he’d pause for a moment and think it over. “Well….” he’d continue. “You haven’t got to win. But it would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
Switzerland are 3.70 to win to nil
But while Hodgson is correct in his assessment of the group, he is wrong if he thinks that anyone else will be quite as easy-going. Make no mistake, if England lose tonight, there will be hell to pay in the papers. The supporters have already made their feelings clear through the medium of ticket sales. The press will do it the old fashioned way.
It was curious that Hodgson escaped serious criticism in the summer. Three factors seemed to protect him. There was the nature of England’s start against Italy, a vibrant and attacking first hour that turned out to be as sincere as a politician’s smile. There was the protracted nature of the exit, the false hope that Italy might monster the group and allow England to sneak in through the back door, and the slow realisation that the Italians were in just as much trouble. And then there was Luis Suarez, the real saviour, hogging the headlines for snacking between meals. After that little episode, there was no space nor desire to kick Hodgson.
Besides, the World Cup was so much fun, it seemed pointless to dwell on England. They were just the guest who turns up at the party drunk, drops a glass, concusses themselves by striding into the patio doors and is sent home in a taxi at half past eight. The party went on without them, their exit noted by others with either mild amusement or a glimmer of fear that they might one day end up like them.
Just one or fewer goals in the game is at 2.55
But space and desire are of no issue now. England have won just one of their last six games and looked wretched even in victory against Norway. Hodgson hasn’t aided matters by snapping at the press either. While it is a little churlish for journalists, a body of men and women with a particularly fruity vocabulary, to complain about swearing, the ‘f***ing bollocks episode’ was a useful indicator of the disintegrating accord between manager and media.
England do not have a particularly deep pool of players from which to choose. Unlike Hodgson’s predecessors, there are no exiled stars heralded by a frustrated media as the missing link. But while there isn’t enough strength in depth for a viable B team, the A team isn’t really that bad. Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, Gary Cahill and Joe Hart are all likely to feature in the latter stages of the Champions League. England supporters are happy to be realistic about their team’s chances, but they’re not stupid. They know that there is more quality than results suggest.
Hodgson’s honeymoon period is now just a memory. This is the brutal reality of a high pressure marriage conducted entirely in the public eye. In terms of qualification, it doesn’t matter if England win tonight or not. But in terms of Hodgson’s position as England manager, in terms of national confidence, in terms of the mood of the press room, tonight matters a great deal. Another poor performance will not be tolerated.
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