There’s a hint of last-minute panic about England’s preparations for these European Championships. Like a tourist who picked up a last-minute bargain in the window of Thomas Cook, Roy Hodgson has taken on the air of a man thundering around his local Co-op remembering all the things he thinks he needs to make his unexpected foreign tour a success. But while most of us would be sweeping the shelves clear of shower gel and toothpaste – only later recalling the urgent need for batteries and power adapters- Hodgson has been grabbing at any young Englishmen he can lay his hands on while passing straight through the aisle marked ‘established internationals’. So it is that England travel with a squad containing Martin Kelly, Jack Butland and Phil Jones, while Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and David Stockdale sit at home channel hopping between Russia versus Greece and Deal or No Deal.
Strangely, rather than having me holding my head in dismay at the thought of impending disaster, the slapdash approach to the tournament has almost whetted my appetite. The last World Cup was heralded as England’s best chance at glory yet. Hours of preparation had gone into installing the perfect squad in its perfect base. Fabio Capello had brought the team through its qualifiers at a canter. We couldn’t even whine about the heat or the midgies, given South Africa was in the depths of winter. There would be none of the drinking and cavorting that blighted previous get-togethers, and the 3AM Girls were left trawling through Shoreditch rather than Johannesburg for celebrities, as the infamous WAGs were sent packing. Pre-tournament debate about how many bottles of dubious-looking moonshine Robbie Fowler could throw down his gullet were replaced by puff pieces about where Wayne Rooney bought his pillows.This time we were going to be professional, and be prepared.
Ultimately, history shows, England were at their insipid worst for the two weeks they stayed in the competition. They were tired, bland, and bereft of invention. So inevitable was England’s exit, when you stopped looking they became Schrödinger’s team – while they were still in the tournament, at the same time they weren’t – coexisting as both a success and a failure for every moment they stayed in South Africa. As a result, considering the class of 2012 beside its equivalent from two years ago, to be entering the competition in such haphazard circumstances is almost refreshing. ‘England doesn’t expect much’ has been the standard message from the tabloids.
Still, each time Hodgson pops back to the store to find a replacement for another injured first-teamer, he comes over like The Fast Show’s useless shopper: “Did you get the reliable centre half I asked for?” “Even better than that! I got some biscuits shaped like radios, a map of Cairo, and Jordan Henderson!”
A combination of factors has meant that the tournament has arrived upon us rather stealthily: we seem almost surprised to be milling about Eastern Europe with yet another new away kit and an untried winger. The lack of an England manager for the last three months of the season prevented Match of the Day picking out the incumbent boss in the stands at Craven Cottage, while Jonathan Pearce says: “No doubt Andrew Johnson will be keen to impress today…” At the same time, it was hard to look ahead to the summer tournament when the domestic season was barrelling towards such an exciting climax. While the Manchester clubs traded blows at the top of the Premiership, and Chelsea retained an interest in the Champions League, England’s likely summer disappointment was ushered to one side. The Olympic Games have been quite a distraction from England’s fortunes, particularly with accepted wisdom suggesting the football team is as weak as it has been for nearly two decades.
In fact, so sparse has been the build up to the tournament that even advertisers have been slow to leap on the bandwagon. Only Mars and Gillette have wheeled out campaigns to cash in on the tournament, and they both look like they’ve been dumped on the work experience kid’s desk while everyone else thinks about the Olympics. The BBC is leaving its punditry team in drizzly Salford for the duration of the tournament, such is the lack of enthusiasm from the broadcaster compared to its lust for London 2012. ITV, meanwhile, is showing a little more enthusiasm by building a studio in Warsaw to oversee affairs, with the only foreseeable problem being that Andy Townsend is likely to be in it at some point. The English well of forced patriotism, usually channelled through the fortunes of our football team, has run dry amidst the overblown pageantry of the Jubilee and the Olympics. Here we are on the doorstep of an international tournament, and barely an eyebrow has been raised.
But Hodgson’s trolley dash is complete, and as with all last-minute holiday plans, he seems to have lumbered himself with a number of basically useless items that he’ll instantly regret bringing when it puts him over the Easyjet baggage allowance. It’s not so much that England go into the tournament as loveable underdogs. John Terry’s self-parodying levels of arrogance have crushed that notion underfoot. But there is no weight of expectation burdening a young squad with plenty to prove and little to lose. So while the early evidence of Hodgson’s 1-0 friendly victories over Norway and Belgium doesn’t suggest that England are likely to play particularly well in Poland and the Ukraine, if nothing else it should be interesting. Isn’t that enough for now?
Posted by Thom Kennedy