by Jack Heaney
The England job is not necessarily a position which has strings attached…it is one big string. A bullies dream; a place where logic is traded in and all hell breaks loose. And so often have we seen these strings work their magic. Even though Sir Bobby Robson is now considered by fans and press alike to be some kind of ‘Uncle’ figure to English football, he too received his fair share of criticism when in charge of the Three Lions. It is strange to even consider it. Yet true. There are very, very few men – in fact very few players – who can enter the camp and not feel the blow of the press; of the fans; of the failure we seem to be addicted to.
The strings attached come in different shapes and sizes yet always work their magic. During Italia 1990, the tournament which is now famed as the World’s one night stand with football which produced a serious increase of popular interest in the sport, England were a penalty shootout away from reaching their first World Cup. Endless modernised montages later and in 1996 – the year when football supposedly came home only to run off into the sunset with those suave, boyish Germans – Gareth Southgate’s tame penalty was saved and once more England were the tragic heroes.
The reaction to David Beckham’s sending off in 1998 was at best totally unnecessary, and at worst – and I think we all remember that effigy – inhuman. The World Cup 2002 was overshadowed by a metatarsal injury to the same man who was so potently vilified four years beforehand. And it was David Seaman, the fall guy every England camp seems to need, who could only watch in horror as Ronaldinho’s effort sailed over his ponytailed head. In 2004, the reaction to referee Urs Meir’s correct disallowing of Sol Campbell’s header was abysmal. The WAG distraction in 2006 became an obsession of the press. England did not even qualify in 2008 with Steve McLaren’s character too weak to sustain the various press attempts to assassinate him, while in 2010 the rigid England camp, the captaincy saga, the offbeat Wayne Rooney and subsequent alleged confrontation between John Terry and Fabio Capello culminated in a diabolical game in which Germany once more outsmarted and demolished England, and turned over the top hopes of winning the World Cup sour. The strings are always attached. There is always a controversy; a hideous background story; a meddling circumstantial bane to success. Most of it self-inflicted from fans and journalists alike.
It is with refreshment, then that as I write now there are few strings attached. It is remarkable considering the way the press have peddled the Harry Redknapp agenda and the controversy of Rio Ferdinand’s absence, but England are solid. We are organised and resolute; rather clinical in front of goal. We are dare I say it…happy. Roy Hodgson after just one month has turned England into the concentrated, strong outfit many feared the other ‘snubbed’ candidate could not turn them into. It is almost as if England are beating themselves; the camp are fighting typically cynical Media attacks, especially in the build up to the tournament, while taking every game slowly; methodically. We are fighting our very own penchant for over-ambition and defeating our ability to royally ruin our chances. We are simply comfortable in the gray of the spectrum; no lamentation, no war cries that predict glory.
England are not expected to win Euro 2012 and as such, we are cutting loose from the strings which have plagued us so frequently beforehand. And because we have so far provided good performances and topped our group, while not being brilliant nor abysmal, there are very few strings which we can break our own backs with. Is it a coincidence that we look unified and spirited? This is the benefit of being introspective, something England rarely are; we usually blame others or bemoan tragedy. But the best of us self-examine to pave the way for a bright future. And with heads cleared from the absence of over-ambition, a unity that Hodgson has gathered which probably wasn’t present in Capello’s South African camp and a gameplan more suited to our talents, we are getting a serious lesson here that we must heed.
We are not arrogant, nor has Hodgson allowed us to be cowardly. We are not overtly joyous, but content with what we have witnessed. Hodgson’s England are merely playing with an organised, defensive freedom; playing in a tournament where being written off has allowed the team a free run and a crack at the whip. It is so rare that I, and many fans I know, are simply able to enjoy England for what they are. We are not technically superb, we are not masters of possession; instead, England are focusing on strength of the back four, the midfield directory of the so far superb Steven Gerrard and hopefully an improved Wayne Rooney when facing the Italians. It is what it is, we are focusing on what we have rather than what we think we should have. And we must be grateful and enjoy such humility when absurdity has been the rule so often before. Perhaps this should be a lesson; a free run at the tournament with no expectations has so far worked. We have already met expectations, so let’s just have a go. More of the same please.
England are ready to face the Italians on Sunday with a fair chance at progression to their first semi final spot in 16 years. Thus far, we are content; how long has it been since you could say that? How long has it been since we played this big tournament gig in the right way? It would be folly to assume this contentment – this intelligent approach to our national team – will last. But for now let us simply enjoy this England side, buoyed by the detachment of pesky strings. For as Roy Hodgson’s endeavours have shown us so far, we may just be pleasantly surprised at the distance with which we can spring free.