I remember the feeling of anger, and the unstoppable tears that followed, as England capitulated to a hapless defeat to Germany in the World Cup of 2010. It was embarrassing, as were the performances in the three games prior to it, against poor opposition, in the group stage.
In 2006, with a squad full of players that will go down as some of England’s best at their peak, I endured the pain of the penalty shoot-out defeat to Portugal. The performances in that World Cup weren’t particularly disappointing, but that a squad capable of achieving so much underachieved so emphatically hurt a great deal.
There have also been the European Championships in 2004 and 2012, not to mention the failed attempt to qualify in 2008. 2004, with an inform Wayne Rooney, was a similar story to the World Cup of 2006; 2012, although a write off, a reminder of how far off England were from Europe’s elite.
And in 2014, England have dished out yet more heartbreak to their supporters. Although the 2-1 defeat to Uruguay doesn’t completely condemn Roy Hodgson’s side to an early World Cup exit, they’re relying on other results, swings in goal difference and themselves picking up a convincing victory over Costa Rica to become the first side in World Cup history to progress after losing their first two group games.
It’s easy, in the aftermath of such disappointment, to demand a full inquest and suggest, as is always done in these moments, that English football is broken from top to bottom. This is, after all, likely to the first time England have failed to progress from the group stage of a World Cup they’ve qualified for since 30BC.
Grassroots football being a bit naff is the reason Wayne Rooney fluffed two big chances in both games, the amount of foreign chaps playing in the Premier League has a direct link to the referee’s failure to send off Diego Godin in the Uruguay encounter and the FA being a little bit incompetent was the cause for England’s costly defensive errors.
That of course isn’t to say that there aren’t problems in English football and we aren’t behind the other elite nations. The issues were there for all to see in both games.
The defence, Gary Cahill aside, was dreadful. It lacked cohesion, only increasing the severity and regularity of mistakes, and undid the positive work of England’s forward men. There are also questions to be asked of the central midfield duo, whilst England’s lack of world class performer was made all the more obvious by the fact it was two world class players that tipped the balance against both Italy and Uruguay.
But this isn’t a new low for England, nor is it more of the same; this feels different. In fact, it’s those fine margins in both defeats that means this tournament disappointment is heartbreak and not anger. England have gone out attempting to play the right way, not in a stale and predictable manner, and the manner of the all but confirmed exit is desperately unlucky.
Of course, talking about ‘luck’ and ‘fine margins’ is neither here nor there in international tournaments. You either make it through or you don’t. But a side, one that had little expectation surrounding it before the tournament began, could have so easily achieved positive results in both games, against respectable opposition, had it not been for individual errors.
England were excellent against Italy, a failure to convert and to two failures at the back their downfall, and, although not at the same level of performance, they dominated in the period before and after Rooney’s equaliser against Uruguay, only to be let down by Steven Gerrard and the centre backs’ error.
And, although I’m sure many will disagree, the bright performances from several England players, along with the manner in which Hodgson had them playing, is arguably more beneficial in the long term than another slog to the knock-out stages before a stodgy defeat. Is this case, it may be better to lose in the right way than win in a gritty and uncomfortable one.
For the first time in my lifetime, England are playing a brand of passing football. That brand isn’t quite perfect, inconsistent performances from England’s full-backs going forward and a general lack of true cutting edge is to blame for that, but there was certainly enough promise from the way Hodgson has his side playing to suggest future England sides can make a success of his system. It’s certainly not the ‘banks of four, hope for a draw’ style he’s had labelled to him.
It’s allowed England’s attacking talent, not least Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge, to play to their strengths. They’ve been allowed to be creative and expressive, not held back by a rigid structure that prevents individualism. Ross Barkley has also made an impression coming off the bench; these players in this system in two or four years’ time will move beyond just being promising.
And it’s not just those who will be two to four years wiser. Cahill, a shining light in a calamitous defence, will hopefully be at the peak of his powers over the next two tournaments, as will Joe Hart and Adam Lallana. It’s also a period where players who have split England fans will want to prove themselves; Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jack Wilshere have shown potential, but not always enough to suggest they’re going to be true international quality. Finally, the likes of John Stones, Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse, amongst many other exciting young players, will be pushing for the squad.
In previous years, a panic about a lack of quality has followed after an exit. I worry where our world class player is coming from, with Rooney seemingly destined to sit a tier below, and there’s also a danger the influence of Gerrard and Frank Lampard will be difficult to replace, but there’s enough very good players on the outskirts of the England team to avert a crisis.
In addition to his playing tools, Hodgson can also seek salvation in the quality of his coaching team. Not least Gary Neville; someone who can only be a positive influence and speaks with glowing enthusiasm about his manager.
But, undoubtedly, there will be those who react to the exit with calls for Hodgson’s head. It’s probably fair; should a proud footballing country like England really be falling at this stage? Is a man, seen as a ‘dinosaur’, who has failed in his major jobs before really the right man to take us forward?
There are undoubtedly better nations and better managers, but it doesn’t mean Hodgson is wrong for England. That Hodgson chose to blood the younger players, when another boss may have gone for a more conservative approach, speaks volumes for the beneficial impact he’ll have on English football in the long run. He’ll pick the promising players, get them playing in a positive way and eke out every ounce of potential they have. Hodgson is certainly the man I want moulding future England sides. Besides, especially from the pool of English managers, who is better and gelling this potential group of young players together?
Success for England won’t happen in the short term; it may never happen. But Hodgson’s England has shown enough promise to suggest there’s a bright future ahead. Where other World Cups have ended in inquest and disaster, this one, if this is the end, has ended in promise.