We’ve seen this time and time again. A couple of good performances against moderately competitive opponents and suddenly England are world-beaters.
There is a new found ‘exuberance’ or ‘freedom’ to their style of play. The weight of history and tradition no longer bear heavily on the shoulders of our 11 players. The manager assumes a new role in the country, he is a messiah-cum-military general preparing to bravely lead his troops and his followers into the promised land, a feat that last happened so long ago there are few who remember it.
We have convinced ourselves so often that this time it will be different, and it never is. As I strolled down South street after the victory against Poland, however, a Hebrew phrase uttered on Passover by the Jewish people springs to mind, “Ma Nishtana Halaila Hazeh mikol haleilot.” The phrase so pertinently means, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Although I don’t think it stretches the boundaries of realism to believe that, as a footballing nation, we have turned a corner with our performances against Montenegro and Poland. Yes, we won and that was obviously important, but the manner of the victories was even more impressive and reassuring.
The displays were characterised by creativity, fluency, pace, inventiveness and, most importantly, control. Just think for a minute when was the last time you described 180 mins of English international football in those terms?
It wasn’t just the fact we started with attacking intent in both matches, even when the games were 2-1 and 1-0 respectively we kept driving forward, pushing for another goal, rather than sitting back and playing to what has been, stereotypically, our strength; defending with our backs against the wall.
Out wide Andros Townsend and Danny Welbeck didn’t drop back to being defensive wingers, they carried on attacking their opposite full back with Townsend especially wreaking havoc.
Leighton Baines’ fundamental ambition to push on as an auxiliary winger wasn’t stifled by cautious England coaching staff; he carried on pushing, pressing and providing an outlet on the left.
The coaching staff should take credit for not ‘sacrificing’ a forward after 70 mins, especially against Poland, for a ‘reassuring presence’ in midfield (In inverted commas as in those scenarios they are rarely reassuring).
What I’m trying to say is that these two performances weren’t flukes; they weren’t one-off, inspired performances against relatively mediocre opposition. They were performances of a team who believe in themselves, and surprisingly for England, believe in their own superiority. They were brave; a very un-English trait if I do say so myself.
This is the crux of my argument. There seems to be a new philosophy in English football and it seems to have come from the unlikeliest source, 66 year old Roy Hodgson. Since his appointment just over two years ago he has shown a willingness to blood new talent, and a bravery to try new ideas. Alex Oxlaide Chamberlain was handed a starting berth against France in the European Championships; Andros Townsend has been given his opportunity in these recent qualifying matches; Jack Wilshere has been given the responsibility of not just filling in for, but of replacing Frank Lampard; Rickie Lambert has been trusted to lead the line whilst Leighton Baines looks to have taken over the left back spot from Ashley Cole for good.
They have broken free of their shackles and are starting to represent their country in a manner befitting of their clubs. Wayne Rooney has excelled in his favoured number 10 position, he looks bright and sharp, his play is full of intent; he looks dangerous.
It must be said that Steven Gerrard has always been able to perform for England but I think his 87th minute goal against Poland spoke 1000 words. When was the last time an England central midfielder ran beyond the strikers in the dying stages of a vital qualifier when leading by a solitary goal? This, to me, is as strong a symbol of belief, and confidence, than we are ever likely to find.
There may be many cynics among you who doubt that there has been any real change. I’m sure you are resigned to the fact that come next June we will once again be bemoaning the lack of imagination and courage on display among most of the England players. They will surely revert back to their introvert ways, trying at best to come home with their dignity intact and their metatarsals unbroken. I have to say, I don’t blame you.
For once though, let’s all try and be realistically optimistic about this.
There are very strong signs that Roy Hodgson and his back room staff are changing English football for good, implementing a new style of football so un-English it may as well be German.
As fans we should try and be un-English as well; let’s not heap masses of pressure of them. Let them progress at their own pace, let them make mistakes.
We should accept we aren’t going to win the World Cup in Brazil. It would be dreadful not to dare to dream though, as every nation at a World Cup should. We could dream of 2022, however; the cadre of young talent coming through like Saido Berahino can only fill supporters of England with great hope and, dare I say it, a modicum of expectation for the future.
I think to myself that if we can avoid panicking, be brave and survive the inevitable up and downs that are to come, we may just find ourselves in a sea of success… maybe.