Fruitcake is not the only fruit; (cake).

Mixed feelings aboundeth; should I go or stay/stick or twist/put up/shut up/disengage for the good of… something? Nah. Too much to be said and shared and okay, argued about. So let’s return to England. Please.

England the non-footie or anti-footie footie team; the Quarter Finalists(!) the redoubtable heroes, the cursed-blessed former Show Ponies now Honest Workhorses. ‘S about them again. And you – precious, brilliant or psychologically semi-detached you – you wot I heard holding court or fumbling with nerves or ranting with sweet delusion on that there phone-in – you… need to wind yer neck and listen. And then start shouting again; that’s fine. (#yourturn. That’s fine.)

Ahem. (In through nose/out through mouth… And GO!!)

The fruitcake-in-a-barrel torrent ricocheting down the plum duff river of our sporty-consciousness (5 Live/the back pages/the TV coverage) is a moody but eloquently kaleidoscopic wonder, is it not? Part home-cooked cobblers, part luminescent hope of the most exotic kind. Full of angular detritus, lobbed groundbait, eels. Right now there’s no escaping the whirl of it; the eddying and sometimes edifying snaffles of glorious opinion. Deranged or inspired, upon football generally or specifically Hodgson United – that all-new all-old construct seeping through the Euro2102 fixture list in a style offering encouragement both to the suicidally purist(ic) and the naively gaye. How one match – let’s say England v Ukraine – could be the source of so much impassioned verbage of such contrary or counter-attacking nature is… is absolutely bloody amazing, actually.

I’ve written caustically about my fear and loathing for the trend now being set by Roy and his Roverlets. The essence of it – the 2 crushing banks of 4, the absence of anything approaching that which many of us identify (without a smidge of pomp) as ‘football’ – feeling offensively reactionary to me at least. A sadly convincing photofit of/for the criminal Brit-footie-cultural inadequacies around and against which a consensus had formed moons ago. (Because we all know it’s utterly inferior to the genuinely richer and more beautiful ‘continental’ game, right? Even if we continue to make the argument that there is a place for English virtues). Spain/half of Europe (by the looks of this tournament) have played/are playing far better footie than our lot; but was this the case even before Roy got his hands on Stevie G’s rampaging instincts?

Yes!

Here I pause to differentiate between this aforementioned, elevated and now unarguably successful quality – in the example of Spanish Tippy Tappy Genius – and quality in terms of excitement.

Often ‘British’ football is of course packed with incident in a way that makes its Spanish or Italian counterparts seem frankly pallid. But this is another matter – so move on…

And yet… hold on there matey; isn’t it true that Gerrard has been by some distance England’s best player in Euro2012 thus far, thereby undermining opposition to his reinvention as an enforcing hod-carrier rather than flamboyant er… expressionist stonemason? Hasn’t that, that one instance within the reconstruction of an England side been an unqualified success?

Quite possibly. Except that this tightening of understandings and opportunities for the Liverpool man has been symbolic of the more damaging straight-jacketing (as opposed to mere ‘organising’) of his manifestly less able colleagues. I repeat my assertion that England have unsurprisingly played absolutely no football worthy of the name because of the rigidity and cynicism even of their system as well as because the players have been poor in everything but team shape and graft.

Roy Hodgson has gathered his forces swiftly together and this is clearly some achievement. They do appear to be listening to him and to be working for a shared purpose, with some conviction, in a way that sports journo’s on the spot respect and admire. (I do have a theory that because of this there is something of a softening in general critique of RH’s tactical stuff but perhaps this is the Morrissey in me breaking out?) But hasn’t the argument for retreating to ‘English’ virtues long been lost – or more precisely, is it not abundantly clear that skill/composure/comfort in possession are not only essential for betterment but integral to definitions of success?

What winning means and constitutes is always a fabulous wormy can of; but this campaign has for me a slightly depressing undertow – the unsettling feel of deceptively and shlocktastically crude bawling from the England FC touchline – even if expressed by the crypto-urbane, linguistically enhanced Mr Hodgson. The demands being for a stranglehold, for an avoidance of freedom, for a Parkeresque scurry and a prod towards safety. Then a retreat to the dullest kind of ‘stall-setting’ this particular euromarket has witnessed. Such a demand, such a coarse bellow for not losing, not losing at any cost, with no other notion of progress than getting through – even with an ordinary England Squad – rubs up against heartfelt footietruths as well as the very notion of the beautiful game itself. Hence my (laughably haughty?) concerns.

Maybe I’ve just been bad at keeping some perspective; maybe I’ve been cutting when I should have been fairer. However, this is the prerogative of the fan – and believe it or not – I am clear that I remain a football fan and that everything I ever write – scathing or soaring – is contingent upon an absolute belief in the power and the beauty even of this daft game. I do therefore contend that I still have the optimist’s argument here.

Hey look at what strikes me. The Parker-Gerrard axis has been key to England’s topping of their group. I like both. But Parker has been by his standards – by any standards – disappointingly sloppy in possession. In fact the entire team’s capacity to fail to execute simple passes in any sequence has in truth been pretty alarming. Like Parker, like Young, like Rooney was against Ukraine; virtually all of them – wasteful. Sadly, the raw talent of Oxlade-Chamberlain was clearly made vulnerable too by the occasion; his very few opportunities being characterised by schoolboy fumbles – much like his predecessor in the role of Crowd-Stirrer, Master Walcott. Wellbeck worked the unforgiving solo striker thing rather well; on occasion he was coolly intelligent as well as generous with his workrate. Would that he would have consistently held the ball up/treasured it. Like the internationals do.

Details. Hodgson will look long and hard at the facts and figures and mileages and percentages and he will judge – long after this event. For now he says the right thing. I have no personal animosity towards him or any of his players (though I accept in fanlike fury I have discharged abuse) and I fully understand his regression to that which he thinks they know. I do however, take issue on a fundamental level with his alleged ‘philosophy’ – if this is it. For this, for me, really is close to embarrassingly dumb. Win or lose against the Italians.

The brotherhood of whiteness? (Nah.)

So Euro 2012 starts with further injustice heaped upon the poor beleaguered Greeks, as a Spanish ref wafts absurdly punitive cards unthinkingly at a minor transgressor. Like the Greek economy then, he’s gone, before half-time, with his comrades and compatriots tearing out their sense of furious injustice from their own flesh, or begging for some consideration from stoically dense authority. Thank god, methinks, it wasn’t a German official.

But then they equalise!! Creating an ecstatically righteous medium-distant nation-lifting backdrop to a blog which intends regretfully now to banish them to the furthest but most maybe atmospherically coloured corner of this particular metaphorical writing shed. Where the dingle-dangle view has already shifted mercilessly from the Home Nation’s (Poland) tetchy encounter to er… home, to the Home Counties representatives – to Engerland.

England play in this tournament; they do; quite soon, honest. Despite the media foreplay (when judged against the rabid standards of previous noisily ‘golden’ years) putting the insipid bulk of mute into muted. England are there. In their white stuff, with their unfeasibly impractical yet predictable International Player Hairdo’s and their hip-switching warm-up routines. And the white noise that is the molesting of gum and parping out of reluctant mucous (deliberately and offensively surely?) right down the very lens of your Nana’s telly; just as she returns with the hobnobs; pre family dunk.

How, exactly, are these disparate but almost uniformly ordinary young men going to fare, I wonder? How will they carry the Olympic flame that is our low-burning expectation, this time?

Probably no worse than of late might be one, reasonable answer. Meaning they will #fail as a group in a way that falls somewhere between national disgrace and embarrassment and legally culpable cluelessness on the key  Salford van Hire-Fan-Richter-Fahrenheit-Guttinghood Scale. Indeed students of bloodydiabolicality – to give the science its correct appendage – have been primed judicially in this matter both by the late withdrawals from the squad and from the seeping appreciation that We’re Shit And We Know We Are (this time, finally.) Hence the relatively low-decibel slither into the tournament proper.

But of course that perennial danger of egg-upon-fizzog insists I – as an occasionally responsible blatherer – have at least a token imagining of a rampant Ashley Young and Oxlade-Chamberlain, in some previously unsuspected flush of exuberance destroying opposition defences and making a general mockery of (to be fair) our general pessimism. And Glen Johnson might do a Brazilian – converting with a glorious left-footed curler after a sinuous gambol down the right flank – he might. But such freedoms are unlikely; partly because the Hodgson body politic mitigates against much of that expressive nonsense but also because I suspect even the players, when dissected cleanly by an axe at the waist exhibit the letters WSAWKWA rather than those that spell out ENGLAND.

At previous tournaments – most notably the last Capello-led World Cup – a dispiriting lack of guts/fire/personality have accompanied the universally identified national technical deficiencies. To the point that it seems almost as though the alleged ‘grittiness and determination’ of our True Brit heroes has been mysteriously decanted; leaving us (actually?) with poncy English Show Ponies. (Discuss?)

So for example that same Johnson who on occasion has looked liked a threat going forward from his right back berth melted away in an uber-mare which must surely haunt him and his family still. As did Rooney, more extraordinarily – though it is accepted injury played some part in this. The players truly were an embarrassment to themselves, utterly lacking the leadership, the mental strength and the talent or style to rescue the campaign. That Capello remained in charge having presided over a championship which jabbed the accusative finger more pointedly at him than anybody else was mind-boggling. That fat contract clearly and nauseatingly being his get-out-of-jail stay in post thing.

This time it is different in several respects. One – which may be hugely helpful – is that expectation is astonishingly but also reasonably low. Given the capacity of previous England squads for what has felt to the proverbial man-in-the-street like frankly pretty pathetic capitulation – being ‘overwhelmed’ by either the ‘occasion’ or the opposition or both – the absence of this pressure may liberate those few spirits capable of courting the higher aspiration to excite.

There is optimism around Oxlade-Chamberlain but I personally was disappointed with his performance against the Belgians. He tried unconvincingly to appear the dashing young thing but like Walcott so often before him ultimately lacked the control, the dribbling skills that presumably had gotten him picked in the first place. In short he was nervy and he looked therefore like a school-kid trying to break into a grown-man’s set-up. I hope that unlike Walcott his confidence and his skills genuinely blossom with age and experience and that he does get the opportunity to develop. But – again, like the other boyish flyer – he is not worth a starting place in an England championship side, for me.

Young is an interesting one. Clearly a talent, clearly a danger in the sense that he may be the one to draw Limey ignominy around the globe through worryingly instinctive diving for a key spot-kick. (Imagine if he does that against one of the host nations… to get our lot an undeserved win!! The latent or explicit racism around the place might be lit up rather unpleasantly – even dangerously – by such an incident.) And who knows if it matters… but I personally would feel deeply ashamed and regretful if one of our lot brazenly cheated to get the team through; particularly if – as may well be the case – our general play is negative and ungenerous to the spirit of the tournament; assuming there is one.

I expect the general standard of play to be unremarkable, which again may allow our thin pool of talent to proceed beyond current expectation; but cannot see how England may find that necessary gear-change or splash of sweet, heart-stopping beauty to transform dull draw to foamy win. If Milner starts, I can’t help but see this as a marker for how pallid we currently are – poor Jimmy being more fit-for-purpose in the column role as ‘half the player he was 18 months ago’ than livewire wide-man. There is almost no possibility that he will actually beat an opposition defender, get to the byline and cross; instead he will hold; hold and roll the ball back to Johnson or Parker. This tendency for ease being dully infectious, there will, therefore, be almost no discernible momentum in the English play. And we will be easy enough to stop.

This reads depressingly, perhaps. Yet I cannot make a case for impervious defence or for imperious attack. It will be structured mediocrity; one that may be good enough, or may be swiftly exposed for what it is. And whilst I really do have some respect for Hodgson, perhaps it is pertinent to remind ourselves that there seems no likelihood that England will attack with any verve or belief; again.

What I’d like to see is some genuine fearlessness, some real want of the ball, rather than a repeated avoidance of responsibility – that waiting, that pointless offloading as opposed to constructive and purposeful ball-retention. Generally guys, give us what a wordy old arse like me might call some honourability; the game needs that, the fans (home and away) deserve that.

My view then has to be that England are unquestionably mediocre… but can they just raise something? Please?

Contact.

This is not all Ashley Young’s fault, this current malaise. The silky-skilled Manchester United forward is not unique in his thoroughbred cynicism, his (by Premiership standards) quietly coiffured amorality. Ashley – if he possesses the capacity to process complicated thoughts – thinks, poor love, that he’s just doing his job; skinning the full-back. So he drives for that magic line delineating the extent of the defender’s hopes. Should he breach it – and thereby enter the (effective) no tackle zone that is the penalty box, Ashley’s only thought is to win a spot kick. He’s not, some imagine, all that bothered about scoring, such is the miserly fixation seemingly automatically engaged once that limey watershed is crossed. Ashley (and nearly every other Premier League striker?) just wants to ‘draw contact,’ to win a penno, to collect the prize. And often he does.

In my view – admittedly a soulfully aromatic, moisture-affected one – this very deeply negative approach to attacking play is in itself an offence of a sort, though I admit not one that we can reasonably prosecute. Yet it’s clearly prevalent in the professional game. Top Players get near the box and their interest turns from goals to penalties – symbolically from gold to faeces. In a moment they succumb, these solid pro’s; rather than instinctively flashing past an opponent or two and gleefully, innocently, heartily smashing home, they become weirdly obsessed by the feet or body position of retreating defenders, so as to feel for a questionably dangled or interjected leg. A practice that if it was only a metaphor for the ways of the modern world might be poetically and justly resonant. However, as a fact of sporting life – even allowing for an understanding of the daftness of our ‘seriousness’ about sport – this spirit-killing reflex does matter, in both a corporeal, ie. de-mystified points-on-the-board kindofaway and an ethical sense. Because mean-spiritedness erodes joy and the expression of talent as well as helping bad guys to win.

Yesterday, in an allegedly crucial match against Aston Villa, Young claimed a penalty which set the Champions on their way. He gathered and then set; he waited and he waltzed and he drew; then he trailed a foot for contact with a defender plainly conscious of (but perhaps not entirely athletically/dexterously responsive enough to?) Ashley’s intention to throw himself. When Young either felt or was sure he was about to feel said contact some believe he launched, shamelessly, hilarious, nauseatingly, embarrassingly high and utilised that slightly rolling airborne gait he adds in for er… kicks. Or maybe for added ‘authenticity’ – the notion presumingly being that heavy contact is likely to result in dynamic distortions of a roll-about sort. And the ref pointed. Rooney, despite being fascinatingly poor for almost the entire match, notched from the twelve.

This is not all Ashley Young’s fault, this ‘debate’. But that was. In my personal revolutionary court he is guilty of a disgrace against the spirit of everything I can think of and I want to bawl at him and squirt lemon juice in his eyes. I want to demand answers and put things right immediately if not sooner… but how?

Whether or not Young actually practices what are perceived by many as his theatrical dives is a medium-interesting diversion here. I doubt that he or anyone else would do so in a public environment and shame on any club or manager or coach who actually presides over or witnesses such a rehearsal. Do we see him then safely in front of a full-length bedroom mirror, givin’-it-the-Tom-Daley’s before retiring to beddybyes? Is the length and breadth of the country sub-tectonically active Friday nights with the repeated dull thuds of similarly repellently prostrate strikers? I fear it may be, but the issue of whether the actual incidents on the telly are even provably-actually ‘dives’ is perhaps more relevant, being central to the concept of judging how and what to do as a result. For surely something has to be done about cheating in football?

Cheating is an emotive word of course. But how else are we to describe deception and manifest abuse of the spirit of the game? Hardened Pro’s might be less than moved by some woolly argument against idealised sportsmanship but even they have to concede that deception – conning the referee – is outside the laws. But because of the general low levels of honesty and respect for authority amongst players and shockingly one-eyed appreciation of issues arising from both fans and managers, the broad range of matters predicated around truthfulness, honour and sportsmanship in which this foul nugget of theatricality is set remain ungoverned. The matrix remains stolidly, amorphously powerless; an infuriatingly noisy flux. We need change.

Players and clubs must buy in to a move towards positive action but selfishness and rank myopia have typically got in the way of progress. Individuals representing clubs have generally howled about particular offences against their team rather than make any contribution to the increasingly necessary debate. Managers in particular rarely envisage anything which might generally elevate levels of sportsmanship, being far too busy calling for other, more immediately ‘relevant’ improvements, which may, incidentally advance their particular agenda or redress an injustice to their side. Plus nobody seems to want to – or have the courage to? Or be foolish and uncool enough to? – unashamedly claim the moral high ground. It’s easy enough – and right to – call for goal-line technology and use of TV reviews but more problematic, apparently, to call on the game to substantially re-negotiate aspects of broadly moral concern.

I have felt for some years that if it is necessary to implement or invent new rules to improve sportsmanship in football then so be it. If it does not work to use or extend the Ungentlemanly Conduct rule to encourage honesty or penalise dishonesty then fine; write a better law. Clearly there is a case for legislating against – for example – diabolical contempt for referees and diving or otherwise faking to gain advantage. (Etc.) Clearly something like the establishment of a small panel of informed and respected ex-players or similar charged with judging controversial incidents retrospectively might be helpful. Particularly if it was known that they had the facility to uphold spiritual early-footie-truths like respect and sporting behaviour through the application of meaningful punishments for serious transgression. If The Game had decided that other whiter-than-white lines of focus had to be drawn – lines against fraudulence and cynicism – and that players had to regard them as effective law and part of football itself then high-standard aspirations might be achievable. In short, cheats might not prosper – or would likely prosper less.

It is possible to improve things; even in footie, with its scandalous/wonderful/natural/psychotic tribalism and its capacity to crassly swamp intelligent thought. Players could be ‘caught’ whilst cheating or intending to cheat. And they could be banned… for weeks, if necessary.

Ashley Young is not to blame entirely. In fact perhaps the predictably growing outrage, the Young-gateism of this depressingly common moment speaks as loudly of us and our weaknesses as it does of him, the winner, the sinner. This is not, however, an argument for missing out on an opportunity to spring-clean the fusty cupboards of our national sport.