Nice.

A nice bright start in a nice, bright Nice. A high camera-angle may be exacerbating the weight of the shadows and the zing-factor of Sweden’s yellow and the white of Ingerland: it’s clearly baking there but maaan, I’m close to reaching for my shades, here, too.

Could be the same for Steph Houghton, who pops a pain-killer early on, following a blow to the head.

There’s some decent but unthreatening bluster-at-pace from both sides, then Sweden score. Greenwood, fortunate to be restored ahead of Stokes in my view, fails to clear an innocuous cross and Asllani accepts the gift.

Barely a minute later, Greenwood is again exposed by a simple lob forward and Jakobsson very nearly beats Telford at her near post. The keeper almost comically shins the ball back into her own net, following the rebound off the woodwork. Could be that England’s left flank is being targeted.

In fact, everywhere is being targeted. Sweden are all over the Lionesses. To the extent that a second goal – beautifully curled in by Jakobsson – is appropriate reward for their first quarter dominance. In truth, the defending was again hesitant and the tall, fleet-footed striker was allowed significantly too much time and space to engineer the arc for the far post.

In the 27th minute, England fashion a sweet move but there is again a sense of passing responsibility as the killer moment approaches: Kirby is off-side whilst attempting her tap-in.

Kirby’s next contribution is a kind of perfect opposite. The moment she receives the ball, wide right, is the moment the instinctive rush for goal begins – solo. Jinking in, she shapes for a left-footed curler and executes perfectly: class goal.

Before the Swedes can settle, Ellen White has an ‘equaliser’. Only she doesn’t. She may be unlucky to be adjudged to have handled a ball that runs up her body whilst she’s under challenge.

The England centre-forward had seemed to have rolled the defender legitimately – and there was no appeal from Sweden – but the ball may have contacted White’s arm (as well as, quite possibly, the defender’s). An unlucky turn of events and another example of VAR getting something right… that may not have needed referring.

It’s surprisingly physical: Sweden doing their fair share of old-school clattering, as if to emphasise the competitive nature of a fixture that we all regard (if we’re honest) as relatively meaningless. The TV reminds us that England have won only three of the last 20-something fixtures between these two and Blackstenius, Jakobsson and those behind seem pret-ty intent on preserving that intimidating record.

Last kick of the half and White, for once, shoots feebly when in at the angle. Half-chance only but going in level after a period in which they were largely either swamped or hurried could have been huge, for England.

Bronze has barely featured but for a single, characteristic drive, Parris has been absent and the midfield has been principally in retreat. Defensively there have been errors both on the flanks and between the central defenders, whose relationship seems less certain, understandably, than the first-choice pairing of Houghton and Bright.

Telford – asked to pass, pass and pass, rather than hoof – has it seems never really settled. A re-cap at the break: whilst the performance did improve, that lack of calm, of fluency is perhaps the standout feature and concern.

Better start to the second half, from England. Mead is soon withdrawn for Taylor, who may add more of a threat, centrally. But can the increase in energy, positivity and level of possession transfer into real control?

It appears so. As Bronze forces a corner on the hour, England are on top and finding a little sustained flow. Kirby shimmies again and puts Taylor through… but she’s plainly off. The midfielder has played at a level, finally, that she will consider acceptable.

The much-vaunted Bronze-Parris combo, however, has been ineffectual. The full-back is looking to burst forward, possibly in frustration at the lack of dynamism in front of her. In the 65th minute, this nearly costs England, as Bronze over-runs, is dispossessed and Sweden are in on that left flank. No damage.

Enter Carney, inevitably, on the 73 minute mark. The retiring maestro is there for sentimental reasons but she is also a real candidate for Person to Make a Difference By Threading a Brilliant Pass. (Which is what England need – someone to find that moment of quality – of clarity).

As the game stretches Jakobsson smashes in a worldie of a cross, which is just about cleared: England have to gamble and they are.

We’re seeing flashes of the possession-based game Neville wants to play, in this second half – there were none in the first – but I am struggling to remember a meaningful contribution from Lindahl, the Swedish ‘keeper. There really has been very little carved out.

Scott, Carney, Kirby are busy centrally but still not able to get White or Taylor clear. I wonder, now that Mead and Parris are both departed, if their best chance is a sharp one-two or a lung-bursting run from deep, such is the stoutness of the Swedish defence.

Bronze’s frustration continues; she gives away two unnecessary free-kicks but still finds herself unmarked with the ball falling to her twelve yards out. She volleys well enough but the ball zeroes in on Fischer’s forehead – cleared.

Zigiotti could finish it but hits Telford’s legs. Moore is rightly booked for checking her gallivanting opponent. The ref blows. A moral victory for the Lionesses, who win the half on points – but they lose the game and the medal.

Carney notably retains her calm after the whistle; she looks more angry and disappointed than sad. The Swedes, meanwhile, are emotional. Good luck to them. They deserved this. England’s tournament? Hmmm, let’s think.

Neville has done well. After the scepticism and outrage regarding his appointment, I think he’s answered most critics. He is clearly heavily invested in this: he gets it and his manner as well as his manners have been close to impeccable.

His view of a united squad, all contributing has been largely successful. His view of how this England should play is fine enough too – just maybe compromised (as so often in sport) by individual frailty or inability to rise. 

His bankers – Houghton, Scott, Bronze, possibly Bright – have been committed and strongish but not world-beating. (The fourth-place finish is bang on, wouldn’t you say, for these players, in this tournament?)

Disappointments and frustrations include the VAR stuff, Bronze’s seven-out-of-ten (for a nine-out-of-ten player), Kirby and Duggan and Parris. Successes would include White, not just for her goals but for her intelligent centre-forward play and, more broadly, that sense that there is a pattern there to aspire to – one which is beyond most of the teams in this World Cup. There are still places to go.

Finally, both these teams have made a contribution, here, to the Big Picture Stuff. Women’s football – women’s sport – is surging. The development, the profiles, the quality, the entertainment is now more visible day-by-day. If there is any disappointment for England maybe that will pass, as players realise and appreciate that they are making this game, their game, authentic and real and compelling.

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To hoof not thread.

Part of me wishes – honestly – that Jack Wilshere would just go out and have a few beers and smokes and be him. Then bundle his way past a protesting Woy-in-a-wight-lather (okay, cheap but doncha just kinda resent that flustering pomp thing Hodgson’s got going?) and on to absolutely dismember some half-tasty international opposition. Singlehandedly. In a tournament game. With little flip passes from the outside of his left boot. Threading DNA molecule-like clusters of wall-pass-to-the-power-of no-no-no-he can’t- YEE-EESSSSAA like some cack-handed and slightly boozy Fabregas. But then part of me wishes he would just give in to his fate as a perennial crock; put us out of our misery; break all available limbs in a rash challenge leapfrogging a bollard outside some niteklub in Prague and have done with it. We deserve that, surely – to be put out, right out, of our misery?

This billowing pro and contra emotion around Wilshere is all about… what? When did it start?

In the very beginning something about him stirred us. When he first dinked a tiddlywink of hope into our Ovaltine. When he first semi-loped (can small blokes lope?) and semi-swaggered onto the park in the white of England. We some of us sat bolt upright on the couch for the first time since the Wicker Man. We put away the bedtime drink and reached for a cool beer. In Wilshere it looked like we’d finally found one.

Not only did he have that slightly retro Landun schoolboy(ish) confidence fing abart ‘im – the whiff of catapults in playgrounds or blotting paper splatted expertly into the khazi ceiling, or fizzing past teacher’s ear, he oozed, crucially, excitingly, with what we tend to lamely call ‘culture’. He was so comfortable in possession there seemed little doubt he might actually actually express that higher thing, that football. But perhaps the binary peaks in our relationship with this phantom tightened early around the simple unpatriotic truth; that his was a Spanish Stroll, surely and this was therefore unlike us? It was likely better than us, better than the turgid precedent for tarnished gold but could it prosper in the Three Lions kit?

Plainly with Jack the potential was there to burst exhiliratingly through the fusty limits of what had been us into something better and – please god – more competitive. That caressing of the traditionally renegade sphere, that invented time and space, that fifteen yard passing range, that coolness in the clamour. He spoke of other worlds, of brave new everythings where Ingerland played – competed – with Alonso/Xabi/Schweinsteiger. Momentarily, he really did. At the end-stop of our fifty-year deathlike dearth, it just seemed possible that we might have one but experience having traumatised us, we waited quietly.

We waited and symbolically or otherwise the poor lad got crocked. No – he actually did get crocked – for a living, it seemed. Season after season. In practical terms the granddaddy Gerrard simply dropped a gear and the axis with Lampard persisted – hopelessly – and the national side of Ingerland went on being the national side of Ingerland; woeful; emasculated; subtle as an air-raid; dense as a docker’s sandwich. From before Sven to Fabio to Roy we all traversed together the saddening terrain from one cliché of a failure to the next, with all of it predicated on that raw inability to treasure the ball – to hoof not thread.

With every fibre Wilshere enacted his understanding of – his protestation against – that dumbness. But he was never there, or he never had ‘a run at it’ – injuries gnawing away at both his momentum and our belief. With every absence, with every ‘lay-off’ for the ῠber-Gooner we the resigned flopped out again with another miserable beer and more carcinogenic snacks. Rather than being the pivot at international level, the boy barely featured.  Cruel.

At Arsenal too Wilshere flitted and flattered, his Wenger-approved neatness and penchant for centrality being only sporadically key to their easy, double-clutched movement. Like his club though, there was maybe was/is something one-paced about his game; pleasing mid-gears, so much fluent transition but a lack (alack!) of murderous high-voltage. But I find myself in the past tense…
The possibilities for England still  include saviourhood/irrelevance/absence through injury. As always, availability for selection will define things.
The juicy prospect of a critical role at the rear point of a midfield diamond aired itself recently. Given that Sterling of Liverpool featured at the prow of this formation, a Gor Blimey tingle ran through some of us. We all know (and I imagine even Hodgson knows) that Jackie Boy is happiest asking questions of a central defender thirty/forty yards from goal. However, his brilliance at collecting and feeding and moving and threading with bodies around him equips him beautifully for the (deeper) Let’s Get This Baby Movin’ role too. He is good enough to not just carry the metaphorical water but also the expectation. He is close to England’s finest at (say it again) treasuring the ball and building a threat. So let him have a whole lump of possession and (with Sterling at 10 in front) the other buggers better watch out.

That the blend, the detail of this is still palpably unsorted by the England hierarchy tells us plenty, I would argue, about Hodgson’s lack of foresight. Henderson suddenly appears to be a nailed-on starter and this perhaps alleviates some of the fears around Wilshere’s lack of focus defensively-speaking. Much depends on how much width and creativity (or constriction and ‘control’) the wider two of the four diamond players are asked to provide. Sterling has already earned the right – ahead of Rooney, incidentally – to be the free spirit taunting the space immediately in front of the opposition centre-backs. Does this really mean that we have to be (as it were) culturally cautious elsewhere to allow for this luxury?

Hodgson may feel that he has to ‘protect’ our admittedly ordinary back four by opting for durability more than creativity but how ‘bout he told the defence to grow some and the essence of the diktat became about us with the ball? How ‘bout he/we stopped to count the number of defenders in his side and concluded that two of them probably don’t have to mark anybody for eighty percent of the game? And Gary Neville demanded intelligent pressing and brilliant – international level brilliant – defending with or without a shield?

In other words rather than denying expressivity in our own team by selecting surplus minders in our midfield could we not trust those who can really play to play? Huh?

Qualification for the next major tourney should be straightforward enough now following a good win in Sitzerland.  Hodgson has the slack he needs to be positive, to mould a brighter way forward.

The Spanish Era may be over but not in the sense that it remains clear (now and always) that quality of touch/vision/passing are the keys. Not how or if you ‘can tackle’. Not capacity to perspire in the name of the shirt (even.) Quality of touch and the presence and confidence to play and treasure the ball is it.

Wilshere if fit (yawn!) must play central. He could play deepish and own the team strategy. He could. He could blossom and so could the new generation. They could. But the fear remains that he simply won’t get the chance. Because his ankles seem knackered and the culture – our culture, not his – still works against him.

Immediate reaction? This is a crisis.

Unwise and unnecessary to be too gentle on the lads, just because of their alleged general impressionable yoofness. Don’t forget these people are massively over-remunerated athletes who live in a competitive environment but cannot seem to accept that challenge. Not when it gets big on them.

I’m not typically a hard-hearted sort but it feels like they’ve scudded beyond the range of our sympathy and even if some of them are decent enough blokes they’ve been so Sunday-League hapless we’re entitled to unsheathe the knives.

Lots of what we have seen from England was barely international standard; there may be cultural reasons for that or structural reasons or sociological but that’s where we’re at. I rate the main protagonists (ha! Like they affected anything!) here; the view being of the tournament rather just tonight’s dismal showing. I think I may have been generous.

Hart 5 – unconvincing. Probably our best but this again reflects very low standards elsewhere.

Johnson 5 – ordinary and rarely exposed entirely – which was something of a pleasant surprise.

Cahill 4 – ordinary and occasionally totally duff. Distribution often woeful.

Jagielka 4 – ordinary and rarely looked comfortable. Is actually quickish and reasonably dynamic if poor on the ball. Not here (except the poor on the ball bit). Nerves or just found out?

Baines 5 – offered a glimpse for about fifteen minutes against Uruguay. Otherwise a pale shadow.

Sterling 6 – nearly fabulous against Italy. The one player who can be reasonably satisfied with what he offered. He lifted us but then was garbage against Uruguay, mysteriously.

Gerrard 5 – a significant disappointment again. Could certainly play on in that Liverpool role – deep-lying, strolling about. Hope he doesn’t.

Henderson 5 – okaaaayish because we don’t expect fireworks… but (doing the easy job, remember) barely made any impact.

Rooney 5 – not a total embarrassment. Just ordinary but missed key chances.

Barkley – huge distance away from fulfilling Golden Boy status. Genuinely hope he gets there but this was not the start he would have wanted. Even given that his brief is a high-risk zone, he was disturbingly wasteful.

Lallana 5 – needed to show us something – that fluency, that movement, that composure. Didn’t, really.

Wilshere 4 – may have been unlucky with injuries but may have been lucky to get a further opportunity; which he manifestly didn’t take. We thought he may be the answer 3 years ago; his cuteness and skills seemed set to bring in some new, cultured, contemporary age. May be now that his chance has gone.

Wellbeck 4 – poor and probably the closest to full-on embarrassing at times.

Sturridge 5 – good against Italy. Disappeared, pretty much, against Uruguay, diabolical against Costa Rica.

Conclusions?

Need a book or at least another blog but clearly the manager was neither motivational nor tactically bright enough. But the players can’t hide behind that. They appeared marginally less petrified than in South Africa, marginally less rooted but still that central soul-crushingly painful fear of the natural gamble ate away. Only Sterling flew, looking and no doubt feeling in his element. And then he – the real Raheem – was gone again, against Uruguay.

So how do we get players – even ordinary players – to (in that famous phrase) express themselves?

Firstly you choose a superb manager; an inspirational sort, ideally. Then that manager chooses a dynamic blend of characters for his squad. Guys who will turn up, more often than not, when those big questions are asked. (If we again have to stick the label Mentally Strong on this then so be it). Then you work with them and sort a team pattern. If players are not up to being flexible or are not pretty damn comfortable in international fixtures – specifically, if they don’t look comfortable on the ball – you get shot of them. That ease over the pig’s bladder in Munich or Rio or Belfast is a NON-NEGOTIABLE. Wherever they play, positionally. Plainly we still lack that.

Sure there are questions about training methods and percentages of foreign players and all that but dumb maths says we should have enough bodies to gather a competitive international side. (If, for example, Uruguay can.)

I’m not going anywhere near those arguments right now. I’m just going to say that against ordinary opposition we looked (can I use the word literally, please, please?) Hopeless. And therefore I revert to the word crisis; in the knowledge that we have some young talent but a whole load of work to do. If Jones and Smalling (for example) are the future then yeh – a whole load of work.

So… what have we learned about England?

Maybe not much. Because we can only speculate about what might have happened should Roy have been moved to (say) bench Rooney and Wellbeck for Uruguay. Or Gerrard/Henderson – or whoever. Because the wry, chortle-inducing truth is we’re into the lurid, ridiculous and (c’mon!) essential business of this or any World Cup now: that sanctuary or graveyard or AA Meeting equivalent for all of us lovers and/or bitter haters and bawlers who just wanna say something about England. Because England are out (already) and that’s what we’re left with.

We may love to have known how an out-and-out 4-3-3 might have gone. Or how a yet more decisive lurch into free-form, youthful expressionism could be – dispensing with the presumed anchor that was the Liverpool skipper and casting off instead around flashers and dribblers and marauders like Barkley and Sterling, with Wilshere and A.N. Other manning the hospital ship. We may.

At the more caustic end of the spectrum we may be muttering darkly about the criminal, soul-draining absence of Cole, Terry and Carroll, whose presence might have a) stemmed the right-sided success of Italy in particular and b) dug the ribs of artsy pretention wherever it threatened to indulge – for or against.
There are a zillion great arguments for why England have failed again, many of them accepting of and possibly even grateful for the mild resurgence (or emergence) of some occasionally brightish attacking football. But what do we need to take note of? Is there cultural stuff as well as specific technogubbins around individuals or areas of the park? What can we learn – even if we can’t agree on it – what have we learned?

A few thoughts, vaguely geographically put.
• It might seem weird to start here in the context of arguably bigger issues elsewhere but… our goalies. Hart – himself another fumble away from outright membership of Dodgy Keepers Inc – is almost certainly the best of a mediocre bunch. That briskly faux confidence worries me and more importantly surely undermines any defenders quaking out front. He made minor errors again early in last night’s game, including patting away two corners like a reluctant twelve-year-old schoolboy press-ganged between the satchels. I freely admit he is not our biggest problem but he is a crack in the foundation.
The bigger question, of course is where are our ‘keepers? Answer – not in the Premier League.
• Full-backs. Twelve months ago Baines was a genuinely fine modern full-back. Bossing games with his energy and craft; ‘bombing on’ with almost undeniable vim. This season’s form has gently dipped and in this tournament we’ve seen just a wee hint of his best. (I’m thinking last night, either side of the Rooney goal – something worth noting, perhaps?) Then, without entirely blossoming, Baines was finally rolling; available, incisive, as opposed to nervy and literally withdrawn.
The chronic failure to defend ‘his’ flank during the Italy game was a strategic as well as an individual flaw. Ar Leighton might certainly have done more but Rooney let him down and so did Hodgson, for failing to direct remedial action or changes.
I confess to being mildly interested in the argument (however) that A Cole Esquire might have barked more successfully for support when Pirlo and co were unpicking England down his side of the park. Tight call as to whether Cole should have remained in the squad – with Baines then a candidate for either an advanced wing-back slot (possibly even in front of Cole against Italy?) – or the full-back position proper. Lastly on this it seems only sensible now to play Luke Shaw in the final game, does it not?
• Johnson. Has been something and nothing – which may not be as bad as forecast. In defence not exactly routed but crucially last night sloppy and slow to close down Cavani pre that peach of a chip for Suarez’s first, headed goal. In attack, where he can look positively Brazilian when the flow is with him, he was broadly unable to find the necessary pass or the surge to take himself clear. Johnson was medium pallid rather than petrified and diabolical –as he had been in South Africa.
• The two holding players disappointed. Henderson was in there to buzz about and cover but also to hit committed passes forward – to thread things. He did little of this, being if not an irrelevance, a minor minor player. Gerrard we needed – bigtime. We needed him to find both that easy control from deeper positions but also the whiff of, the threat of Roy of the Rovers that changes things. The cruel errors aside, he has significantly underperformed again, being simply too marginal when he – being one of few who could inspire in this way – had to grab a hold and shake his side to action.
Stevie G has been wonderful but not, in my view, for England; he’s been solid or so busy playing within himself that he forgot to really play. Ludicrous to criticise, perhaps but he will know (and he has said) his England career is a six out of ten not the eight he should easily have achieved. And now that career I think is over.
• The three who played behind Sturridge agin Uruguay will all feel England’s pain acutely. Wellbeck because he was relentlessly awful – presumably simply nervous beyond the ability to co-ordinate – Sterling because he fluffed too many passes and never broke the shackles and Rooney because he should have added to his single goal. Sterling, having been hearteningly in his pomp against Italy, has shown enough to get more opportunities; the other two… I’m not so sure.
Rooney was visible, without being eye-catching. In a first half that was largely (let’s be honest) barely of international standard we wondered if he was heading for a dispiritingly early seat back on the bench. Later he did improve as England had a goodish spell and he scored that goal/removed that monkey. But without being the calamity that his previous tilts at major championships have been (after his international infancy, as it were) this has been another low-key affair; Wazza has shown the world little. The brutalist view might be that this is the moment to move on from not just Gerrard and Lampard – the obvious oldies – but from Rooney too.
Wellbeck did reasonably well against Italy but we know he is no striker. He can sprint beyond folks but rarely does it. Mostly, he looks reasonably comfortable at elite level and yet… it doesn’t quite happen. When Townsend is back competing for a place and if the vogue turns towards Lallana and Barkley, he may be struggling.
• Sturridge was a tad isolated and a tad wasteful against Uruguay but he is our best genuine striker, no question. Much sharper and more dynamic than Lambert and yes, clearly ahead of Rooney. Like Rooney last night there were times when he failed to provide that crucial option for the midfield – he was too static, too markable – but he is a threat, always.
So much for the Director’s Notes. Where does this leave England?

If that sense of a significant cultural shift towards pacier, brighter football moves you – Italy game? Sterling? – you will no doubt draw away from the harsher view. Unless you think Hodgson’s hand was forced only by media pressure towards a gambol with the kids? In which case vent thy spleen fully once the final fling is flung, when rounder conclusions may be drawn on Roy’s inadequacies. (My guess is Hodgson caved in to the pro-Sterling/pro Liverpool style barrage rather than genuinely experienced some conversion to energetic and open play. He remains a decent enough but irretrievably conservative type unsuited and unable to energise the individuals and thereby pursue a dynamic game). But that’s just me; a former twinkling genius in the Duncan McKenzie mode – the sort of bloke, in fact, who never got picked by conservative gaffers.

Look if you played centre-back or full-back at whatever level, them thar Suarez-related cock-ups will define your fury. If you hate Liverpool, you’ll be pleased the whole thing blew up so sharpish. Whatever way we approach this, England are out after two games, which is apparently historically bad (as opposed to the hysterically bad under Capello last time out). And yet…

Seems to me there is no longer (simply) a monumental skills deficit and therefore no (single) imperative to embrace finesse. Improve skill, sure, but finding the blend of characters and the tactical framework to do the job has been as key as anything in Brazil. Part of this is about developing guys who are tough enough to stay clear-headed when the squeeze is on. Are enough of the doughty stoppers and the precious youngsters gifted enough and committed enough and up to it in knockout football – in World Cup games? Weigh up the football of it and the human. This is the work of the top manager and it’s demanding work.

We knew before England went out there that this side was ordinary and the defence weak at this level. We couldn’t be sure how the rarer talents might go. Put simply it was mixed – heinous errors, unsurprisingly punished, with an occasional burst of English footie. Two central disappointments for me personally? 1. The teams that beat us (so far) aren’t special, by any means. 2. My concerns about the gaffer largely confirmed.

England remain a side that tends to lack fortitude – yes! Mental strength! – as well as technical/tactical intelligence. They need a truly great and ideally visionary manager. Expect little to change under Hodgson and no major improvements until somehow… the pool of talent deepens.

Compare and contrast.

I know it’s daft… but just for the fun of it. Imagine there was some real intellectual weight to those impulses racing round. Imagine you really could make rilly valid points maaan by flicking that switch between footie and rugby realities. Relax; we’re all doing it but only some of us are daft enough to come out.

Hmmm. Hodgson and Lancaster. The one looking last night like a faintly doddering gramps on’t beach, wi’ t bucket an’ spaaaade, ‘n baggie shorts, like. T’other – despite Northern roots – a brightly forward-thinking member (arguably leader) of some new, bold, expansivist tendency, reassuringly or perhaps worryingly word-perfect but plainly succeeding with his revolution towards enlightenment. How the FA could do with er… a swap.

But we know it doesn’t work like that. Stuart’s upward curve, his Smooth Operation is his own – and England rugby’s own. His fondness for setting out both cultural and chronological stepping stones and then (blow me!) stepping neatly over and through them appears not so much justified as brilliantly engineered. His team have gone from dullards to committed dazzlers in no time. Where there was Johnson’s monstrous intransigence there is now hard-earned fizz and buzz – or at least the potential for that. They are dynamic. Rugby England has become a fifteen man game again.

Roy meanwhile appears to be stuck in what feels like the usual quicksand. Players subsumed beneath too much ‘responsibility’ and maybe simply too much fear. Players who can play not playing through… what? Fear that minnows like Honduras might score. Fear of the expectation that goes with being England – even when there is a generational low in that expectation – because England have been so shocking at tournament football for so long?

What IS this thing that so debilitates the whites of Ingerland – the footie whites?
Part of it must surely be lack of inspiration. Roy plainly does not motivate the group; certainly not in the sense of freeing them up. If England do go on to prosper in Brazil, it seems more likely to have been down to an individual moment of brilliance than through general, spring-in-the-stepness. England look dull and often downright wobbly.

Last night’s weirdly storm-affected game was, despite what FA staffers may say, a failure and a waste. The momentum again drifted or went backwards, because England were sloppy and yes, dull. Forwards notably simply often unable to control balls pinged at them; Hart back into that unconfident loop. Wilshere (despite really needing a performance) was infuriatingly close to pitifully wasteful and Rooney unconvincing at best; Sturridge just literally off-target. This week’s golden boy Barkley epitomised something of the oppressed state of things by being almost completely absent, despite playing 10 for half an hour against a poor side, down one man.

As a team England looked short of will, ingenuity, energy. Most of the second period they were what us over-educated scribes term ‘shite’. Rubbish. Against a side who looked largely Sunday League and who lost a bloke after 60-odd minutes. Much of this falls at Hodgson’s door.

In the moment of opportunity, with a team that is known to be limited but which has pace and brightness amongst its cohort, Roy has and will look for steadiness – Wellbeck not Sterling. He will counsel Baines against really ‘bombing on’ – playing his natural role, the one that got him picked – and thereby compound the sense that there’s little chance of breaking out. Just in case they (England) come a cropper. That narrowness, that lack of generosity towards fans, players and the game has been a central flaw in England footie’s approach for years.

I am fascinated by the importance of belief, in sport, as anyone who has read my blogs will have realised. My strong suspicion is that even at the very highest level the role of the coach is massive. This is NOT, I swear, because I happen to be a coach, it’s more about experiences through playing sport at decent (admittedly not elite) level.

The coach needs to be the spark as well as the strategist. It’s not enough to sort team shape. Players need inspiration – license. They need to believe in you the coach and to be liberated not enchained within the system. This is about relations, then, deeply personal stuff. Or rather it perhaps demands an (intuitive?) understanding of personalities – and the ability to touch differing individuals – to get to people. Most of us have been in dressing rooms where nobody listened to the coach, because he/she didn’t have us under that spell. It’s a deeply unsatisfactory experience. But the sharp, communal buzz that comes from maybe just a few words from a coach who is respected (or often loved?) is real sporting magic. Transformative; inspiring; precious.

Stuart Lancaster I have doubted and I still have concerns about his capacity to whole-heartedly inspire. But he is light years ahead of Hodgson in terms of what he has delivered and what he offers. England rugby is/are contenders. They are also entertainers, remarkably transformed when we look at a) their playing style b) selections c) their capacity to gamble.

Lancaster has been bold enough not only to use words like vision with a straight face but to enact change, to step or gambol towards that aspiration. That target is to establish a dynamic and structured and generous (i.e. open, diverse) playing style – that has the guile, power and responsiveness to beat great teams. The England rugby coach doesn’t think conservatism can win him the World Cup but that this new model might. Not only is he right, he deserves to be right.

Defenders of Mr Hodgson might argue that Lancaster has the resources – the players – to go the braver route. And that the footie man doesn’t. In fact I think Hodgson, in the absence of great players has been gifted an extraordinary opportunity. We all know his young fliers are flawed but just how well-equipped are we to play that allegedly mature international cat-and-mouse thing? Far better to say bugger it and let Barkley, Sterling and Sturridge go play. So do it Roy.

Carnival time?

Yes, surely, in an ‘everything’s relative’ kindofaway. England’s qualification for the Brazil finals will justifiably set one or two congas swaying – and why not? Hodgson’s team (if that’s what it is?) certainly succeeded (if that’s what it was?) by saving up or inventing their best two performances of the group stages for the consequently notably un-jangling end . As though all along they just maybes had a better sense of theatre than we did. Well good on ’em.

Over a genuinely entertaining and sometimes spicily competitive 90 minutes, a full England side did effectively on this occasion rise to the challenge presented by a thoroughly committed Polish group and their likeably raucous supporters. The atmosphere was palpably that of a proper game of footie, largely, it has to be said, because of the volume of – I think we’re talking nearer 25,000 than the 18,000 generally quoted pre-match – and the hearty defiance emanating from (if my translating skills serve me well) Lech Walesa’s Red and White Army. There was that pulse here; the thing that sets us aflutter. And god it was good to have that back.

In the first half in particular, this was an old-style ding-dong; a spectacle and a frightening test for the cardiac health of the management teams. Ludicrously open – with Cahill and Jagielka apparently only communicating via carrier pigeon – and with Townsend or a Lewandowski or two quick to exploit retreating space. To everyone’s credit – players, managers and fans in the ground – this had knock-out excitement and the feel of a knock-out match. (Which it wasn’t, remember, for the Polish contingent.)

The now local or visiting Poles brought into the thing a charge whose only negative was the predictable but clearly unnecessary whistling of the home team’s national anthem. Beyond that, they made a magnificent contribution to the evening’s sport. Including, perhaps, raising the tempo as well as the atmosphere of the game to a level that may have suited the England players: in particular the thought strikes that given the sense that the only viable mode of operation was via high octane engagement, the traditional retreat into hesitancy and plodding predictability was denied to the fellahs in white. A lovely thought that; who knows, or could know how much the nature of the game was determined by tactical preparation… as opposed to beery Central European breath?

Afterwards a dramatically shorn, former trawler skipper name of Keano again belied his national stereotype for waxing lyrical by soberly deadpanning stuff about ‘big players in big matches’ – meaning Gerrard and Rooney. And he was largely right. Those two will gather most of the plaudits for a performance that generally kept the English Disease – of coming over all donkacious and crap when the pressure’s on – at Kenny Dalglish-style (i.e. palming the bear-like defender) arm’s length. In interview, the England skipper may be as dull as the brilliant Scot but last night his relentlessly omnipresent force probably was the difference between the sides. Whilst Rooney’s influence gathered slowly, Gerrard was simply there – everywhere – from first to last. Without being exemplary or truly inspired he more than anyone delivered the victory.

Pre kick-off, a disproportionate lump of our time/airtime had been snaffled up by a certain WBA fan casting around blindly for meaningful/topical subject matter and alighting on the subject of Hodgson’s alleged bravery. Apparently the Brainy But Dour one (twice) threw off the shackles in choosing Townsend. I don’t quite see it that way, not buying (myself) the notion of significant cultural change in the soul of the England Manager implied by the esteemed Mr Chiles’ line of thought. Ar Andros clearly has the potential to be that boldest of choices but softest of targets – The Luxury Player – but the now pretty standard inclusion of six defensively-minded players plus the creaking port-cullis that is Hart allows for a certain slack in the girlie attackers capacity to protect the castle keep.

For those who haven’t got it, the inclusion of two holding midfield players as the hardcore lance-merchants in the central-but-deepish areas of the pitch enables or licenses dafter, more frivolous stuff up the pitch. Like Townsend gambolling or Rooney flashing and flicking; Sturridge loping and loosing that shimmy-stepover; the riskier, bamboozle-heavy and ideally more penetrative offensive stuff. Lampard and then Carrick, therefore, made Townsend possible agin Montenegro and Poland. It was relatively pragmatic decision-making, seen in the whole – a whole where Wellbeck’s lack of goal-threat but tremendous willingness and Rooney’s ability to chase were acutely factored in to Hodgson’s careful pattern. Roy hasn’t, in my view, converted.

And I don’t fully accept that the fact of the qualification following two goodish performances vindicates Hodgson. Whilst this may be the start of something, it may also be another in the series of perceived new dawns which have directly contributed to English complacency around the game. We remain – as surely evidenced by the bulk of this qualifying campaign and certainly by the tournaments that have preceded it – a fascinating but dreadful example of the proud fool, unable and unwilling to actually adopt patently more skilled and successful and downright necessary strategies from elsewhere. Because we never quite accept we have to learn that (foreign) stuff. Because (I suspect – hilariously) we still think there’s something worryingly unmanly about being able to twinkle or caress, or just be comfortable in possession of the ball.

But that’s again the Wider Issue. One which can only be addressed over years and following the radical overhaul of the coaching system. Being undeniably pessimistic about this particular matter, I intend to simply skirt past this one as though it fails to intrude with any relevance. (But man it does… and it is relevant… bigger, for me than the World Cup. I just don’t want to depress either myself or you by going there again this morning. Let’s get back to last night.)

For now we can enjoy – and I do mean that – the sense that our lot not only turned up but played. Played a 65/35 part, I reckon, in a bloody good game of football. And showed some promise – through Townsend’s directness and will to engage and Rooney’s returning quality and Baines’ brightness and busy-ness. Through a much-needed display of convincing collective spirit. They’ll need all that in Brazil.

I’ve now seen all manner of cobblers and conjecture over the possibles and the ‘realistic targets’ for England in South America next year.  The Telegraph even had a ‘Can We Win the World Cup?’ thing going on!?!  Jaysus!! 

I return to my earlier point about radical and meaningful reform of coaching nationwide and throughout the age-groups being substantially more vital than a decent showing by our First XI in Brazil.  Even if Rooney and co had an inspired outing there.  Yes, there is some hope that the younger guys in the squad might yet thrive, despite conditions and the likely spookily alien walk-dart character of the games.  It is also true I think that the general standard of play is relatively ordinary at tournament level – sometimes even through to the defining stages. 

So there is some hope – there is some real hope that an energised, positive England side may perhaps over-achieve in the manner of an England rugby team of recent vintage, rather than bomb out amid the usual ignominy.  If this sounds a weary sort of optimisim then maybe… that’s what it is.  I hope the attacking players in particular fizz with confidence and belief; I just don’t see Hodgson facilitating that because I fear he lacks generosity, dynamism, inspiration – deep awareness even.   These things the English game itself clearly lacks.

We’re left with issues we cannot and should not duck.  Yes England had a real good night last night.  But the football matrix here is still a shocking and pretty depressing mess.

Ratings; England- Montenegro.

To complement – or contradict – my earlier blog and prove – or disprove – the fact that I actually watched the game… some thoughts and some numbers.

Hart – simply very fortunate to be in the side. Close to chronic poor form but has almost no meaningful competition. Almost completely untested tonight and only one clear error – when he made a duff clearance in the first half that might have led to a forty yard goal. But didn’t. 6/10.

Walker – likewise lucky to be in the side (and possibly any England side?) following his most recent England performance. Linked reasonably well with Tottenham partner Townsend but showed intelligence-deficit (again) to get booked. Defensively, barely good enough at this level. 6/10.

Cahill – athletic and often composed – or has the appearance of composure. Has most of the necessary attributes but distribution not top drawer. Perhaps the major disappointment is his failure to get more goals from set-pieces. Cruised it, mostly tonight – as he should have done, 7/10.

Jagielka – journeyman, with decent pace but would not feature in a strong England side. Honest enough but can’t pass beyond about ten yards and not likely to either calm things or prompt things. Okay tonight. 6/10.

Baines – especially good modern fullback, who can both defend and attack – and strikes a dead ball beautifully. One of the opposition’s successes tonight was that they cramped his attacking style almost completely. He will be a worthy successor to Cole, whose days in the job are surely numbered. 7/10.

Townsend – decent opening, sporadically effective with comparatively little end product. Then – with the universe quite rightly moving for him, following his sustained attempt to do something positive – he unleashes a stunning right-foot shot for the third goal. Man of the Match for his directness and his energy, no argument but does not look, to me, like a consistent world beater. (So file alongside the other frenetic fliers.) But buy the lad a pint tonight. 8/10.

Lampard – still playing slightly depressingly within himself and… think about it… if he can’t unpick that defence with that much time and space (and against that midfield) then his noble but ultimately slightly underwhelming contribution to the national side is drawing to a close. (Which it surely is). Did little more than water-carried tonight. 6/10.

Gerrard – showed – was often available – but very often disappointed, I thought? Like Lamps, the lights – the Roy-of-the-Rovers fires, in fact – are barely lit these days. Stevie G being merely competent is the rather sad symbol of the England side for the last several years. 7/10.

Wellbeck – another good athlete who can seem really at home in both the MU and the England shirt– deft and bright, even. However…tonight he was sloppy and a little wasteful… and he does unfortunately lack threat, being quite obviously not a goal-scorer. His linking and ‘assisting’ (and – okay then – his defensive work) therefore needs to be absolutely top-drawer to justify a place. Not sure it was tonight. 6/10.

Sturridge – a real striker who was pretty ineffective, tonight, I thought. Again, given the opposition and his form, might have expected more. Can be genuinely elusive and has great instincts but it didn’t quite come off for him – admittedly under close attention. Slightly careless re his awareness of offside, 6/10.

Rooney – had an average game at best, being particularly ropey in the first half. Few if any moments of brilliance, too many miss-controls or poor flicks or dodgy passes. But grabbed a goal. And am pleased to see him sprinting – if only on rare occasions. Confidence clearly not fully there… and he needs to spark up that electric charge. 6/10.

Hodgson – have to give him credit for the Townsend call. But another unconvincing performance, with little in the way of (remember this) verve? It’s not like the lads looked inspired. (See previous blog!) 5/10.

Neville – good bloke and brilliant pundit who seems to be failing almost entirely to shape or motivate the group. But how much scope does he have. Some, surely? 6/10.