All England managers are entitled to begin their time in charge with the fresh spring of optimism and a clean break from the decades of disappointment that have followed the national team since its solitary triumph in 1966. Yesterday, even the notoriously unreliable Mancunian climate obliged Roy Hodgson by bathing his second training session at the Etihad Stadium in sunshine.
There are 17 days left until England play their first game of Euro 2012 against France in Donetsk and having convened his squad on Wednesday, Hodgson has – as it stands – only two fit and available strikers for that game. Yesterday, Danny Welbeck once again played no part in training, his ankle ligaments still a concern, and it grows increasingly inevitable that Andy Carroll will have to start the game.
Nevertheless, these are still the early days for Hodgson who, as is his way, took training himself yesterday morning. For those players summoned in from the margins, who now believe they have a chance to play games, and for the new coaching staff, it is a time to be hopeful. If they cannot be that way now, without a game played and none of the recriminations and grudges that have characterised so many regimes of the past, then when can they?
It has been the way of the Football Association in the recent past to swing from one extreme to another in choosing the kind of manager, and therefore the kind of regime, that the organisation thinks is best suited to achieving success. After Glenn Hoddle's hardline attitude to his players came Kevin Keegan and his card schools. When the pressure became too intense under Keegan, the FA appointed Sven Goran Eriksson who let everyone do what they wanted.
After Eriksson was Steve McClaren, unfortunately not the FA's first choice but in the end not regarded as enough of a heavyweight name to deal with England's problems. He was followed by the austere years of serial winner Fabio Capello who was, in the end, regarded with mixed feelings.
Where the Hodgson years will fit into this cycle of light and shade, boom and bust – mostly bust it should be said – will emerge in time. What was obvious from yesterday was that Gary Neville, his coach, will be a crucial figure in the England camp. With a shortage of defenders in the squad yesterday, especially with Glen Johnson still struggling with a toe problem, Neville put his boots on and played in a full-scale game at the end of training in a makeshift three-man defence.
Having Neville around is helpful when it comes to making up the numbers but there is a lot more to it than that. Joleon Lescott said yesterday that the new England coach had – in jest – already warned him to "stay away from the chocolate cake" at lunch. Neville, it was pointed out, had looked a bit tired after the practice game. "He looked tired before it," was Lescott's reply.
The joshing is not as trivial as it may first appear. A successful tournament can rely so much on the mood of the camp. The atmosphere will be one thing now and when Wayne Rooney, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole turn up after tomorrow's friendly against Norway in Oslo it will change again. In Neville, Hodgson has a bridge to the players that none of his predecessors enjoyed.
Lescott, who at 29 will be playing in his first tournament, is typical of those who may benefit from a new manager. "If coaches and staff feel the need to address you, they will but I think it's more natural for Gary to do that and he will feel closer to the players," he said.
- More about:
- Danny Welbeck
- Gary Neville
- Joleon Lescott
- Kevin Keegan
- Liverpool FC
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- Premier League
- Stephen Carter
- Steve McClaren
- Sven-goran Eriksson