England may still be a long way behind other nations, but there are signs of life under Roy Hodgson, writes former Arsenal midfielder Adrian Clarke...
Heaven knows how many times England have thumped us in our stomachs just when we began to believe. That’s why it’s our rite of passage to instinctively knee them back in the goolies, the moment they dare disappoint us again. The pattern is set.
Strangely, almost weirdly, I have no compulsion to lash out today. I’ve watched my country play 90 minutes of football, yet I’m not the slightest bit fed up. I’m even chipper.
OK, a 1-0 friendly victory on home turf against a diet Denmark side that wished somebody, anybody, would label them an average international team, isn’t exactly a fearsome statement of intent. And, as in any football match, not everything went entirely smoothly. But a lot did.
The honest truth is, the more I watch Roy’s evolving, liquid generation; the more I like what I see. The absence of round holes and square pegs excites me greatly.
For as long as I can remember - with perhaps the exception of Euro ’96 - England have played rather slow, stiff, inhibited football, often in straight lines. Hopelessly plugging away with rigid systems, filling players’ heads with unfamiliar orders and instructions, we’ve consistently asked our greatest talents to resist the urge to play their natural game.
Oddly, it’s one of our more old-fashioned head coaches that’s seen the light, and encouraged change. The England side I watched at Wembley last night was as uncongealed and continental in style as any I’ve seen since Venables, and the days when we believed it was coming home.
The next generation has also, in many ways forced his hand. While academies up and down the land have endured heavy criticism, some of it justified, it’s hard to deny that the elite young players it’s producing are as rounded and flexible we’ve ever seen for a while.
Raheem Sterling, skipping around the front line like a bunny in spring, is equally happy to attack down the left, the right or the centre. He’ll even come deep and collect the ball if he wants to.
Up top, Daniel Sturridge is proving to be the archetypal two-in-one front man. The TV pundits may have bemoaned the fact that he and Wayne Rooney didn’t always play close enough to one another, or that he spent too much time tracking back, but this is a player who’ll still score goals. Playing this way for Liverpool, constantly switching with Luis Suarez, and combining brilliantly in unusual areas of the pitch has hardly held him or his team back.
Flanking Steven Gerrard in midfield, Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson are young players who are comfortable sitting, striding forward, drifting wide or digging in. At any point in any match, they can pop up and do something without being outside their comfort zone.
Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ross Barkley, three fabulous talents, could all pretty much play wherever they wished. Restricting them would be criminal, and Hodgson knows it.
Luke Shaw, serene on debut, looks to me as if he could do a job anywhere on the pitch. Reminiscent in a way of Philipp Lahm, I wonder if one day he too will be pulling the strings in midfield. Flexibility like this, as long as it’s married with off the ball discipline, can’t fail to be a whopping great positive.
With a group of players who want to pass and move freely, without being self-conscious, finally England stand a chance of matching their opponents with unpredictable movement of their own.
Letting this liquid generation off the leash is unlikely to win us the World Cup in Brazil, but I suspect it will begin to restore our faith in England, and their future prospects on the international stage.
Before you know it, we might even stop the inherent bashing of them that we so enjoy. Actually, to kick that habit, it may take a little more time.
Who are you backing for this summer's World Cup? Brazil are favourites at 4.00.