It is a curious feature in the career of Roy Hodgson that for a man as long in the tooth and well-travelled in world football, his knowledge of the minutiae of the England team’s history – its triumphs and despair, its scandals, false dawns and dashed hopes – is patchy. For so many of those international breaks over the years, Hodgson was an Englishman abroad and otherwise indisposed.
Temperamentally he is different to the English football public. For those who have gathered around the television, or at Wembley, for as long as they can remember, watching England is a ritualistic kind of disappointment. Hodgson, unburdened with the years of frustration, sees it otherwise.
The summer in Brazil has ensured that he too has his share of the England team’s pain. What he cannot understand is why the side’s history plays on an endless spool in the minds of the English public and was part of the reason why, on Wednesday night, when the usually innocuous subject of shots on target was raised, he described it as “absolute f***ing b*******”.
To see the England team through the eyes of Hodgson is to see it through the eyes of an outsider. Not one like Fabio Capello, whose loose grasp of the language meant that he could only offer the most perfunctory assessments. Hodgson understands how the nation consumes this epic tale of failure on the bad nights at Wembley, as a collective recurring nightmare. He sees it more as a problem to be solved; no different in principle to those he has encountered over his 38 years in management from Bristol City to Neuchatel Xamax.
The England team of 2014 are amid a crisis for player development. Too few good young English players being produced, a declining standard of tournament performance and with it a falling Fifa ranking that threatens seeding status in World Cup qualification.
Against that backdrop Hodgson has placed his faith in a small group of young players for Euro 2016. There are hardly any arguments about the best 23 at any one time, unless you fancy a debate over the relative merits of Jack Colback or Mark Noble. Generally speaking, the side Hodgson picked on Wednesday night was regarded as the best at his disposal. They struggled to break down a Norway team that came to defend.
Of the injured players he is missing, Ross Barkley and Adam Lallana were regular substitutes at the World Cup and Theo Walcott is likely to feature when he at last returns. But ultimately, this group is the best of English football, certain retirees notwithstanding.
What that 1-0 win over Norway told us is that the road over the next two years is going to be hard. Perhaps not qualifying for the inflated, 24-team European Championship but in how this new team takes shape. It is a young side taking its first step in the new era, post-golden generation and for all the obvious deficiencies – most notably in defence – this is what England are now.
In Raheem Sterling there is the potential for an outstanding player in two years’ time. The likes of Daniel Sturridge, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jordan Henderson should have matured by then into more rounded international footballers. It is plausible that Phil Jones, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill could find themselves overtaken by Calum Chambers and John Stones, depending on who holds down first-team places with their clubs. With the likes of Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere, the picture is much less clear. These are players whose careers have always felt volatile; how they present themselves for a tournament, that one-month snapshot of a footballer’s effectiveness, is much less easy to predict.
Through it all, Hodgson will attract the sharpest criticism. He is a man who tends not hide his emotions. Ahead of Monday’s Euro 2016 qualifier in Switzerland, he will be lauded as the man who restored them to the global stage 20 years ago when he led the Swiss national team to the World Cup finals of 1994. For the English he currently can do little more than plead they stop looking over their shoulder at the last World Cup, for which he is growing tired of apologising.
Hodgson has a stubbornness that is a trait of most successful managers, as well as a cheerful willingness to shrug off the argument and put his best foot forward. If the swearing offends anyone, it should be pointed out that this is a man who built his football career from the lower reaches of the amateur game in Sweden, and had to fight for every inch.
Funnily enough, Hodgson is by far the most erudite England manager of recent times. Not much competition in that regard, you might argue, but there are few managers who can wield the word “sophistry” with the confidence he does. Earlier in the week he recalled a tale about his time at Internazionale and it is hard to escape the feeling that he loved those days the best of all; when he rubbed shoulders with a grand generation of Italian football men who valued bold opinions and excellent tailoring.
Instead, he finds himself, at 67, not at one of the great old clubs of European football but trying to restore the dilapidated family seat. Escaping the shadow of its history is half the problem.
England comparisons: Present v past
England’s players compared to their predecessors:
1 Jack Wilshere
Caps21 Goals 0 Win% 52
v Bryan Robson
Caps 90 Goals 26 Win% 56
2 Phil Jones
Caps 12 Clean sheets 5 W% 42
v John Terry
Caps 78 Clean sheets 37 W% 64
3 Raheem Sterling
Caps 8 Goals 0 Win% 38
v David Beckham
Caps 115 Goals 17 Win% 59