Sam Wallace: Roy Hodgson's first battle is to prove his leadership
Latest Ferdinand row creates another tricky issue for the new England manager who at least faces low expectations for Euro 2012
Every England squad that goes to a major tournament, like any collective, has its factions. There are some who like golf and some who don't. Some who think they should be in the team, and some who think the team isn't good enough. There are competing agendas kept quiet between hotel room doors. The team omerta tends to hold strong however bad the situation gets. It emerges later in years to come, when the edges have been taken off the bad memories and managers have moved on.
Take Gary Neville's memories of Euro 2000, published for the first time in his autobiography last year. He admitted to being worried about Kevin Keegan's "lack of strategy" in the qualifying campaign, and he was not the only one. When he arrived in the "drab old hotel" in Spa he conceded he was not "in the best frame of mind".
"As I put my bags down in my bedroom my mood darkened. 'This is going to be a long few weeks', I thought. The tournament hadn't even started."
Neville's analysis of that team was brutal but honest. Keegan wanted to play a high-tempo style of football but, as Neville pointed out 11 years later: "You need youth and legs even to think about that, and we were so one-paced. Too many players were like me, solid and unspectacular." There was not a single left-footed player in the team. Steven Gerrard and Steve McManaman got injured. Michael Owen fell out with Keegan.
"Not only did we have Michael in a bad mood, but we had the slowest England team in history," Neville lamented. Certainly every England squad has its weaknesses and the Euro 2000 team, despite beating Germany, was the worst of the post-Graham Taylor years. They never made it out the group stages and within four months Keegan had quit in the toilets at the old Wembley.
Like any group of 23 players, there are holes in Roy Hodgson's squad. He lacks a midfield playmaker of the type that Spain are blessed with. Aside from Wayne Rooney, suspended for the first two games, his remaining strikers have just 17 goals at international level between them, and 15 of those have been scored by Jermain Defoe who is unlikely to start matches. The injuries have left the squad paper-thin and susceptible if others struggle over the course of the tournament.
The decision to call up Martin Kelly rather than Rio Ferdinand yesterday after the injury to Gary Cahill adds another dimension to the build-up. Ferdinand, a popular player whose omission is officially for "football reasons", now appears to have been made a martyr over his incompatibility with John Terry. His court case for allegedly racially abusing Ferdinand's brother Anton, lurks in the background.
You get the impression that even if Hodgson wanted to explain himself on this point he could not. The phrase "for football reasons" sprang up with such regularity in his squad announcement press conference, one could only suspect it was given to him by a lawyer.
Before the Cahill-Kelly-Ferdinand issue blew up yesterday, the mood was that for lowering expectations for Euro 2012 on the basis that this is a new manager and a squad missing so many important players. Now a coach on Hodgson's staff, Neville himself spoke last week about the inclusion of the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones and Jack Butland being made with one eye on their future development as well as what is best for England now.
It presents an interesting conundrum. Pre-Rooney's return, and certainly against France, England must be hard to beat, as they were in their two warm-up games against Norway and Belgium. But they must, at the same time, offer some solace for the future. No one seriously expects them to win the tournament – not with such superb teams from Spain, Germany and the Netherlands – and yet no one has the stomach for a humiliating group stage exit of the like experienced at Euro 2000.
When Hodgson was appointed there was a discernible public swing behind him. In part because he comes over as a decent, fair-minded chap who weighs his words carefully. He is articulate and capable of explaining his thinking while at the same time warning against how it may potentially be misrepresented. He understands the media better than any of his recent predecessors, and he often counsels against being too open, although to his credit he is just that.
The problem with the Ferdinand issue is that the sense prevails that Hodgson and the Football Association are not, for whatever reason, telling the whole truth about the situation. Perhaps they find themselves, on legal advice, in an impossible position. But the intensity of the scrutiny of England at a major tournament means that those weak points in an argument are sought out time and again.
On the day he was appointed, the heavy-handed front page by The Sun mocking Hodgson's rhotacism, in a strange way, strengthened his hand. He became the underdog, bullied by a big newspaper. That played out nicely for the FA who seized on The Sun's misjudgement and condemned it with an earnest statement that caught the public mood. Who can blame them? They have been on the receiving end for years.
But beware the backlash to the backlash. The Ferdinand issue has demonstrated how changeable the mood around England can be. Hodgson says that he has a team capable of giving France a game in seven days' time and the evidence of his two games so far would suggest that there is a core of something promising, even if it is simply a team that is hard to beat. Picking the right team is something that all England managers have got right at one stage or another; less easy to define is how a manager goes about convincing his players, the fans and the media, that he can manage England.
As a job it is as much about projecting confidence and personality as anything else. Just as there are some politicians one could never imagine being prime minister, so there are some managers you could never imagine taking charge of England. Steve McClaren never convinced the country he was that man. Fabio Capello, despite being unable to speak English, did. He had the gravitas and the track record. He looked like he knew what he was doing even at the times when all the evidence suggested he didn't.
The trick is to maintain that impression of leadership. The Ferdinand situation is a difficult one for Hodgson, especially given that the injuries had taken away much of the pressure that usually accompanies this England team. The forthcoming court case limits his room for manoeuvre. But he has Neville alongside him, who was on the other side of the fence in 2003 when Ferdinand missed a drugs test, and enough experience to navigate this situation.
With every injury, the team increasingly picks itself. The goalkeeper and defence are obvious. Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker are the two central midfielders. James Milner's work rate appeals to Hodgson on the right side of midfield and Ashley Young has earned his place in attack at the very least until Rooney returns. That leaves the second striker's place – Andy Carroll or Welbeck – and a choice of Theo Walcott, Stewart Downing or Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left.
England are playing to stay in the tournament until Rooney comes back from suspension for the third group game against Ukraine on 19 June and providing they are still in contention by then, they will be a different kind of team. Even so, the chances are that a second place finish in group D will mean meeting Spain, likely winners of group C, in the quarter-finals.
Under Capello, England beat the world champions in November and their approach that night was repeated to great effect by Chelsea against Barcelona in the Nou Camp six months later. The English football public, as well as much of its media, has a more realistic view of the quality of international football than it once did. Never more so than at Euro 2012 when a depleted England team prepares to take on some of the best sides that Spain, Germany and the Netherlands have ever fielded.
But so much is out of an England manager's control, not least the injuries to players at the end of the season – as Hodgson has found out to his cost.
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