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England has always been considered a country of “great expectations”—or rather, haunted by the ghosts of the Empire’s past. This football nation, in turn, has been saturated for decades with flashy displays of boldness, strong calls for a previous glory, and a barren anticipation for the highest success. Yet these Euros have been different. Many expect little of these Royal Lions—including themselves. Playing a deep, defensive game, they have traded in dazzling possession and attack for the grittier, dirtier foundation of a strong back four. Critics applauded the English side for the 1-1 draw with France; captain Steven Gerrard was “satisfied” with the result. With the recent win over Sweden, a headline from The Guardian read, “England turn on the style to send Sweden packing.”
Satisfied? Where are the unrelenting cravings for ultimate precision? Where are the slobbering jowls starving for the taste of perfection? Against France, of all people! From battle and blood to now boots and balls, their most infamous rival… And so now a 3-2 escape against Sweden—not Italy, not Spain—warrants an ovation for “style?” Closer to a lucky Walcott chip and Welbeck’s Herculean heel…
What is this different England?
In early February, the abrupt exit of Fabio Capello shattered the then weak and crumbling conscience of English football. Controversy had already been swirling regarding John Terry’s captainship (or lack thereof) and the not-so-distant memories of an abysmal journey to South Africa were still etching their painful mark. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back—or England’s seemingly sound psyche.
They were lost. Not like when buzzing media frenzies had swarmed after an underachieving major tournament. Not even in the same fashion of the French eruption at the 2010 World Cup. England faced the internal struggle of coping with their deteriorating external self. No manager could repair the deafening holes in their play, their success, and their identity. For the first time in decades, they recognized the impossible nature of their expectations. They saw their inferiority to the neighboring giants of Spain, Germany, and Italy. They understood that the 1966 World Cup was farther away than even the years told.
As midfielder Jack Wilshere put it, “The question everyone is asking, fans and players, where do we go from here?”
I wonder what it was like in those months of early spring. What the players had thought? In particular, what the so-called “Golden Generation” of Gerrard and the boys had in mind? It was most likely sentiments of anxiety and frustration. Like good Englishmen, they were probably disquieted about tomorrow and vexed regarding the present. But, somewhere in my own psyche, somewhere cynical believes that they were uncomfortably delighted with the ensuing chaos. They few, who had borne those weighty expectations on their mortal shoulders, relished such public recognition of self-fragility. They savored seeing that England, viewed as sturdy as a castle’s stone and iron walls, was in fact only a house of cards. For now, this Golden Generation was no longer the band of valiant knights marching for duty and country; for now, just maybe, they could again be football players, on the pitch, doing what they had once loved—no more and no less.
Alas, that sardonic self is probably wrong. Oh, well.
The recently ex-Tottenham coach Harry Redknapp was the overwhelming favorite to undertake the vacant English managerial position. The “people’s choice,” as he soon was called, appeared to be everything an English manger should be. Or used to be: flashy, brilliant, and a man of the media. He even had Wayne Rooney endorsing him. But that was the England of old, an England where humility sat far behind the likes of splendor and grandeur.
Roy Hodgson was quite the dark horse in the race for the English managerial position, and arguably, rightfully so. Hodgson has seen the precipice of European football with stints at Inter Milan and Liverpool, as well as heading the national teams of Switzerland and Finland; yet his longest and most successful tenure was spent at the Swedish club Malmö FF (don’t worry, I had never heard of it, either). Hodgson’s record is by no means outstanding and his coaching style is far from captivating. There is little from his reputation which dazzles the eye. To be blunt, he has middling Premier League coach written all over him.
Now he is heading one of the most prestigious football nations; and he’s perfect for it. Roy Hodgson will not be the visage of English football for the next decade: his players will. His endearing meekness, his ostensible mediocrity, that silly speech impediment. The lionheart gene is absent in Hodgson, and it’s a damn good thing. English football is lacking a face, an identity. With the waning years of the Golden Generation fading quickly, they are mix-match squad of veterans alongside the upcoming youth. The Steven Gerrard’s and John Terry’s are much more the past than they are the future. England needs a voice and it must come the boys on the pitch—not the man on the sideline.
Roy Hodgson may never be considered a great manager for England. He may never produce the wins and trophies and accolades that such a nation has been looking for. He may never even finish out his four-year contract. But right now, he is exactly what England needs.
Harry Redknapp, with all his flair and genius, would have been that face, that identity. I give all power to that man, a great coach. Yet, Tottenham became much more about Harry Redknapp than Gareth Bale, Scott Parker, or Luka Modrić. Ultimately, that was their demise and the lack of a Champion’s League bid. The Harry saga appeared to envelope the team, affecting their play, their confidence, their chemistry. Maybe ten years ago, Redknapp would have been right. But this is a humbled and subdued English team, attempting to unearth a leader amongst themselves, not their manager.
Furthermore, Roy Hodgson brings a strategy—and a strategy well suited for the England of these times. His attack is young: Wellbeck, Carroll, Walcott, this Oxlade-Chamberlain. Therefore, he relies on his strong back four—consisting of a qualified and experienced set with Lescott and Terry. His midfield is equally as competent, headed by captain Gerrard and the peaking Parker. These defensive-minded tactics allow for the brunt of the work to come from his practiced self, but the flashes of brilliances are to be displayed by the young.
And they’ve played it well—albeit unattractively. Granted, at times, they’ve gotten too deep against France and Sweden—allowing for both to hammer on the door. But England has kept in good shape and has played a tenacious defensive game, winning headers and blocking shots. Moreover, all three goals Thursday came from players under the age of twenty-four: Carroll, Walcott, and Wellbeck. Whether this success continues or not, they appear to be playing the game they want.
And remember: Sweden took the lead 2-1 midway through the second half. When all of past history predicts them to fold like a cheap suit, England scores. And then again.
What is this different England?