by Jamie Whitehead
In the days when I drank I remember walking over London’s Hungerford Bridge approaching random strangers and wishing them a Merry Christmas.
Nothing strange there, you might think, but I was wearing shorts and sunglasses, slightly optimistic weather outlook for December? No, it was early June 2006. Poland had just beaten Ecuador 2-0 and we were on our way to a German bar to watch the hosts cruise to a 4-2 win over Costa Rica.
The World Cup had started in earnest. I’d arranged work around England’s games, and for some stupid reason, encouraging performances in ’02 and ’04 had given me a false hope that FINALLY, this was our time. I’d got it into my head it was going to be David Beckham’s last tournament (Hey, I got something right) and it was his destiny to hold aloft the World Cup in Berlin. Once again, Phil Scolari had other ideas.
Fast forward six years and a very different feeling brewed inside of me in the run up to Euro 2012. Sure, I was excited, looking forward even, to the prospect of some decent football with my experience enhanced by Gary Lineker and destroyed by that bloke on ITV that supports West Brom.
Unlike previous tournaments, like many I had no idea how England would do. Returning home from a backpacking trip in 2002 to Australia and making a whistle stop in Japan to catch England vs Brazil I returned home to plastic flags adorning every car, players appearing on beer boxes and a love for the team which probably hadn’t been seen since 1996. These traditions continued in ’04, ’06 and ’10 but in the run up to the Euros this year, the striking point for me was the perceived lack of public support.
Looking at the squad and taking into account Rooney’s suspension and the fact that the manager had only two friendly games to prepare for arguably the biggest challenge of his career, it was almost impossible to make an accurate prediction on how we’d fare out there.
The press also seemed disinterested. This was the first tournament in years where it felt like I didn’t know where each member of the 23-man squad was at any given time. Surprising really when you consider the advancements in social media since the Baden Baden debacle.
I asked myself honestly how I thought England would perform. And prior to the tournament beginning, coming home bottom of the group with no points and going out in a semi final penalty shoot out against the Germans both seemed equally plausible possibilities. One thing was for sure, we’d do better than we did at Euro 2008.
On paper, it looked like a tough group. Memories of Euro 2004 instantly came flooding back when it was learned we’d been drawn against France, we’d never beaten Sweden in a tournament before and the hosts, on their own turf in the final game, was a potential banana skin. Anyone who dared dream beyond the group stage was faced with a reality of playing Italy or Spain in the quarters. The truly insane hoped we’d play Ireland. But, the final table for Group D showed England as group winners with seven points from two wins and a draw. Too early to dream? Possibly, but you may have had good reason.
Looking back now, it’s easy to see how England’s Euro 2012 unfolded. France never seem to be any more than two matches away from total meltdown (Please check out episode four of the 3for3 podcast, The One with Dan’s Dolly Parton impression for a detailed and hilarious account of the French meltdown in South Africa) and this was proven further as the tournament progressed. Sweden presented a challenge but were too complacent when it came down to it. And Ukraine were far too reliant on Shevchenko. I have no doubt we would have been playing a different team had those games been played in Qatar, or on Jupiter if Platini gets his way.
Going into the first game with France, we were told by ITV’s West Brom Supporter that “England have never won their opening match at the Euros” and “England have never, ever won a match on June 11th” Pointless punditry when you think about the fact that only a handful of England players who played in the ‘Zidane Game’ in Portugal (England’s previous Euros entry) were playing in this game.
Then, something rather strange happened. The game kicked off and England started to… play football? We looked calm, controlled, the players (for once) didn’t look terrified of having the ball and we were unlucky not to go ahead after Milner put his shot wide in front of a gaping French net.
But, the wait for the duck break didn’t last too long. Joleon Lescott finally putting us ahead on the half hour mark with a Striker’s Header from an inch-perfect Gerrard free kick.
Typically England, though. We only lasted nine minutes in front before Nasri levelled and he began his one man mission against Europe’s media/Gary Neville dependent on whose Twitter feed you’re inclined to believe.
The second half played itself out into nothing. But…. a point against arguably the hardest side in the group was a great start. Shevchenko, sorry, Ukraine beating Sweden later that evening rounded off a very good day for the England team. The following day was a rather strange one in offices and playgrounds up and down the country because there wasn’t much to complain about. For once.
The following Friday and Sweden. Surely a game that will be remembered for the impact of Theo Walcott. It’s always been a strange one with Theo. Clearly, the man is very, very good at football. But prior to the game against Sweden, I struggled to think of more than a handful of decent performances from him. The away game with Croatia obviously being a highlight.
Not being an Arsenal supporter, it’s difficult to equate his performances for the Gunners as I don’t see him every week. But my over riding impression of him is that of a great player being in there somewhere, and Hodgson has certainly seemed to find a way of utilising him in an effective manner. We’ll never know how much his inclusion at the 2006 World Cup benefitted him, but in this squad. His place had been found.
The Sweden game greeted his with a surprise. And that was that Hodgson had changed his tactics for this game. Pubs across the land were stunned as England casually went about their business, and despite a scare going 2-1 down, the players remained calm and saw the job out with the goal of the tournament or the biggest fluke ever from Danny Wellback sealing the win for the Three Lions.
I was visiting my parents that weekend and watched the game with them and my little brother. Mid way through the second half, my dad, who has at best a passing interest in football turned to me and said “I like this guy (Hodgson) He’s the type of guy you want to see do well” I couldn’t help but agree with him and lay in bed that night asking myself if some of the bigger names (Rio, Lampard and the shadow of Beckham finally gone) was actually helping this squad gel together. It seemed the perfect balance between youth and experience, and crucially, we’d taken four points from two games without Wayne Rooney.
Aaaahhh, Wayne Rooney. Saint Wayne of Toxteth. After his sending off in the final qualifying game in Montenegro, Rooney was initially banned for three games, reduced to two on appeal.
On his day, Wayne Rooney is one of the most feared strikers in Europe, and ten years into his career (nine as an international) it is hard to believe he is still only 26, with potentially another two Euros and a World Cup left in him, suspensions permitting.
Ashley Young, Andy Carroll, Danny Wellbeck and to a lesser extent Jermaine Defoe (Seemingly commuting between Krakow and London following the tragic death of his father) all made great efforts in filling the Scouse shaped hole up front.
So it was surprising to see Rooney, who hadn’t played in six weeks and had a nice, relaxing holiday in Las Vegas prior to flying to Krakow in the starting XI for the game with the hosts.
Rooney looked off the pace and with England needing at least a point to ensure qualification (Ukraine were not out of the race either) the match made for a tense, nervy affair. It seems strange to say it as it was only the third game of the competition, but it was the first time you thought to yourself “Ah, yes. This is why watching England is Di stressful.
Rooney took the attention away from his lack of fitness by grabbing the winner and as the already eliminated Swedes had beaten France. England were going through as group winners, and a quarter final showdown with Italy loomed.
It goes without saying that Italy are one of the World’s finest footballing nations. With 3rd place, runner up and winning World Cup performances since their hosting in 1990, and a current squad featuring Balotelli, Buffon, Di Natalie, Diamante and arguably the player of the tournament, Andrea Pirlo, this was always going to be a tough task.
But there was hope. I know I wasn’t alone in thinking there was a chance we could win. A small chance. But a chance nonetheless.
After finding myself in a bar where I was outnumbered by Italians by about 15-1, the confidence drained from my face and suddenly I was a bag of nerves. Italy hitting the bar in the opening minutes certainly didn’t help matters. Yes, Glen Johnson came close but ultimately if he’s scored that it would have been like when you anger a lion. Italy would have just got madder and madder until they eventually destroyed us.
In reality, it was more like Chinese water torture. Every second seemed to last a minute and it all felt so cruelly taken away when Italy scored in the dying minutes. It was a dubious decision to disallow the goal, but even after Ukraine’s disallowed goal, I still felt we were owed something from the Lampard disgrace in South Africa.
“Just blast it, Ashley” I screamed at the TV, much to the amusement of the Italian contingent in the bar. Well, he listened, just hit too hard and got the bar. With England leading in the shootout, there was no pressure on Young, all he had to do was score a d we’d have been 3-1 up with two penalties each remaining. But no. Another player with a Villa connection missed and then it was just a case of seeing through the inevitable.
I wasn’t angry. I was encouraged. We’d gone with nothing, and come back with something. We didn’t win, so ultimately it was pointless.
But I wasn’t angry. And I left asking the question “What’s changed? Football or me?” A week later I still don’t know.
Hodgson’s job starts now. He’s shown he’s not afraid to make a big decision and switch things around.
Your job starts now, Roy. Good luck.
What do you think of the ‘new’ England and how they did at Euro 2012? Let us know in the comments.
Jamie Whitehead is co-host of list based podcast 3for3 as well covering the Premier League for the BBC. He’s asked a lot of questions about himself recently, and quite likes the answers.