Roy Hodgson calls for calm ahead of France match but seems to be unsure what England are capable of at Euro 2012
Manager takes first step into the unknown in his side's opener against France tonight
His hands fell behind his back as he stood in the punishing afternoon heat of a stadium corridor, so the really significant clue was obscured. Roy Hodgson's fingernails are bitten to the raw and while his latest articulate discussion of what lies ahead will offer belief to all those who hope that this time will be different for England, he still can't be entirely sure if these players will deliver for him.
It was no coincidence that both Hodgson and his captain, who shed his tracksuit as they talked in temperatures which will reach 32C tonight, used the same word to plead for a sense of perspective if things don't go to plan against France. The manager said one of his parting messages to his players would be "Don't get suicidal if for some reason things don't work out for you", and Steven Gerrard also observed that "If we lose the game it's not suicide" – though he also cautioned against euphoria if the game goes for England. Hodgson recently picked up a translation of the novella Chess Story – the story of one man's fight against mental disintegration by the Austrian Stefan Zweig. It might prove to have been excellent reading for the road ahead.
The terrain is certainly not as formidable as for those England managers who have gone before him. It was only Hodgson's 40th night at the England helm last night and the briefness of his tenure allows him to escape the consequences of tournament failure which have faced down his predecessors. It is significant that twice in the course of the past 48 hours, Hodgson has held out the prospect of himself sitting down some time soon and mapping a route out of another tournament calamity, if things go wrong. The point being that it won't have been his fault. On Saturday, to the momentary horror of FA officials who sensed the headlines, Hodgson said he just hoped his players had not been "conning" him into a sense of optimism all along, with their enthusiastic work. When it was put to him last night that he could not be sure all the vibrant training he has seen in his players won't come to nothing on the field, he replied: "Of course, I have to agree with that. Training is training, matches are matches..."
But Hodgson is also wise enough to know that national pride is at stake and the nation expects of him. He was just wrapping up his televised press conference last night when a French journalist piped up from the back to say that, "We are always afraid of the English but the English don't do so well. So the question is, is England a great football nation or not?"
"How far do you want to go back?" the manager replied, offering up England's invention of the game in support of his argument – though happily not borrowing from FA vice-chairman Sir Dave Richards' recent interpretation that the rest of the world else had stolen it from us. "We're all very much aware that we've not won anything since 1966," Hodgson added. "You didn't need to remind me of that. We have a chance, as one of the 16 teams here, to show how good a team we are."
It was a "facetious" question, he reflected later, but it revealed the perennial expectation. "As a top nation we haven't won as many tournaments as we should have done," he said. "Before the very good French period (1998 World Cup winners and 2000 European champions) we could have levelled a similar accusation against them. Of course we feel the weight of history. We all feel that weight."
England will also feel the heat. The French have had five days in the searing Ukrainian heat which Joleon Lescott wasn't so impressed by after England had flown in over the slagheaps. "This heat is a joke," he tweeted. To the journalist who put it to him on Saturday that the French would be wearing jackets packed with eight pockets of ice at half-time, Hodgson replied: "Well, you've got me there. 1-0 to you!" The France team doctor says the jackets look like bulletproof vests.
"Yeah, it's hot, but it's hot for both teams," Gerrard said and while there have been times when England have wilted in hot environments – 2002, Brazil in Shizuoka springs to mind – they do not always. The French were dispatched in the Bilbao heat in 1982, Tunisia in a sweltering Marseilles 16 years later and Paraguay in Frankfurt six years ago.
Gerrard's most important observation was that England are drawing inspiration from wearing the label of the weakest side from the nation's shores in generations and it was evident that the French journalist's taunt was not lost on him. "We have under-performed and not delivered in previous tournaments," he said. "I can take that, but for me it is a motivation and one tournament very soon it will click and it will come in and we will get that bit of luck and we will prove an awful lot of people wrong – not just in this country but around the world. Like that [French] fellow who was sitting in the back."
A little sense of perspective should be applied, before we get too carried away with this sense of overwhelming French superiority and their 21-game unbeaten run which is so often quoted. The centre-forward Karim Benzema must be watched like a hawk, but their central defence is immobile. Gaël Clichy and Patrice Evra have just concluded moderate and poor Premier League seasons respectively.
"We can't say right now that the French team are among the favourites for the Euros but at least we know that they're not the bunch of dunces we thought they were a few months ago," is the conclusion of France Football's Patrick Dessault. The lesson of the tournament for England so far is that Denmark's excellent performance against the Netherlands proves what a defensive, counter-attacking performance can deliver – and Laurent Blanc's side are nothing like the Dutch.
Hodgson insisted he would sleep well last night. "The fact is you can't do anything about the past," he said. "Whatever's happened to you in the past, whether it's good or bad, it's gone. But what you can affect is the future. And we've got to get our minds fixed on the future. We've got to make certain that if we're successful we don't let that go to our heads and that if we're unsuccessful that we don't start digging graves for ourselves." Perhaps he might draw, too, on the resolution of Zweig's story – the protagonist of which maintains mental equilibrium through discovering a book of chess moves which he drills, again and again, becoming so good that he defeats a grand master.
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