English football and failure have long walked hand in hand, and at Euro 2016 that was no different. Iceland, however, showed England exactly what they were missing – and it hurt.
Like many England fans, when I woke up on Tuesday morning, there was a split second of hope that I’d dreamt the events of the previous evening. It was a similar feeling to last Friday, after the Brexit vote. It wasn’t long before disbelief took its place, lingering for longer than its welcome.
England have lost games in tournaments before, it is in fact part of their football DNA (they’ve won just one European Championship knockout game in their history) but losing to Iceland was a new level of exasperation. Beyond the inept performance, lack of character and baffling selection, it was the presumption that Iceland were going to be easily beaten that made this hurt the most. This is a nation that qualified automatically for Euro 2016, that are still unbeaten and have personified what it is to be a team.
Iceland showed everything England have spent years talking about but barely any time actually producing – concentration, commitment, togetherness. And that was just last night. Iceland’s preparation for this tournament, this moment, began years ago and that too is something England can only aspire to.
Last night, Roy Hodgson’s team reflected the general mood of many of the countrymen they failed to adequately represent. They weren’t expecting to lose, and when it became clear that they might there was no plan. The players looked misinformed, unaware what they were supposed to be doing now and what will happen in the future.
Same old England, always failing
In truth, things haven’t gone England’s way for years and this tournament was no different. Other than the first half of the 1-1 draw with Russia, England have looked like they always do at tournaments – hopeful but poorly-equipped and without a genuine identity as a team. England couldn’t break down Slovakia who, in turn, showed how poor a side Russia actually were, Germany’s demolition of the Slovaks once again highlighted the extent of England’s lethargy and under-performance.
Harry Kane, the Premier League’s top scorer, appeared so bereft of fitness and form he barely looked at the international level. The same could be said for the most expensive English player ever, Raheem Sterling, whose performances dropped as dramatically as the currency that bears his name.
Hodgson’s choices were concerning, a sign that England head coaches have yet to rid themselves of a despairing favoritism of big name players – the decision to shoehorn Wayne Rooney in to midfield the latest in a line of such decisions we thought had reached their zenith with the never-ending, never-settled Steven Gerrard v Frank Lampard debate.
Hodgson strikes wrong note but who’s next?
Even more concerning was Hodgson’s seemingly pre- prepared departure speech, which was full of hollow and resigned phrases that echoed the disillusioned nature of English football: “I’m sorry it will have to end this way but these things happen,” the former Liverpool boss said. When you’re the highest paid manager at a tournament, these things shouldn’t just happen.
Real change will require so much more than appointing the right head coach. The presence of Hodgson’s coach Gary Neville (who also resigned after Tuesdays defeat) and under-21s manager Gareth Southgate at the top of the list of favorites suggests the conservatism of the English FA will remain and the boldness demanded by the situation will be cast aside in the name of continuity. Continuity of failure .
It’s been a tough week to be proud for the English, but last night England fans had an hour and a half of watching a real team playing bravely, sensibly and smartly. It was a team that were together in the truest sense of the word, and collected the ultimate reward as a result. For those fans, it was a shame (but no surprise) that that team wasn’t England.