Then & Now: Old England versus New England

How times have changed since the days of Gazza, Beckham and the WAGs. As England face Italy in tonight's Euro 2012 quarter-final, Robert Epstein finds that the low-key approach is paying dividends

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The star player

For much of the Nineties and Noughties, England's fortunes ebbed and flowed with the changing haircuts of one man: David Beckham.

From the fresh-faced classic curtains when he broke into the team in September 1996, symbolising new hope after our fortunes were dashed by Germany in Euro 96, to the shaven bonce of wisdom (those callow boy-band looks were shed after that red card against Argentina) that put England through to the 2000 World Cup finals with a last-minute goal against Greece. Then, of course, there was the Mohawk, the Alice band, the cockatoo ... and some suitably suave flicks, tricks and swerving free-kicks.

Nowadays, England are summed up by Scott Parker (top). Short back and sides Forties airman look, no fuss. If Becks was the king of the dead-ball situation, Parker is king of the dead-leg situation, unafraid to risk his shins (or his chin, or any part of his face) by diving in front of goalbound strikes. Where Captain Fantastic Golden Balls was all glory (Man United, the galacticos of Real Madrid), Parker (no nickname) is all grit (Charlton Athletic) and last-ditch desperation (relegated with West Ham).

The celebration

Gazza, Euro 96, devilish solo effort, GOAL! The dentist's chair.

Theo Walcott, Euro 2012, shoddy shot, GOAL! Sheepish grin, as if actually scoring was a complete surprise. That's humility for you.

The hotel

During the World Cup of 2006 in Germany, England were based in a plush hotel near Baden-Baden, seemingly to appease the shopping habits of the WAGs. In South Africa, the team stayed in a €3,300-a-night five-star place on the outskirts of Johannesburg so the players wouldn't be disturbed by hoi polloi blaring their vuvuzelas.

This time? We've piled into a package-tour place in Poland and the players seem up for the craic in the middle of Krakow, where fans are hanging out in the bars next door.

The manager

Glenn Hoddle had his faith healer. Sven had his dalliances (Ulrika, Nancy, Roman Abramovich ...). Steve McClaren had an unfortunate obsession with umbrellas. Fabio had his hard-nosed side interests. (Remember his statistical player index that didn't rate any England man in its global top 70?)

And now we have lovely Uncle Roy, whose biggest distractions are books (a fan of Updike, Roth and Bellow) and cracking languages. (He speaks Norwegian, Swedish, German and Italian well, as well as some Danish, French and Finnish.) He's coached in Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Denmark, the UAE, Finland and, of course, England. Hodgson is a man of learning, a man with depth, a man who can be relied on not to have his eye caught by a blonde in the crowd.

The karma

Lampard, ball over the line, no goal against Germany. Terry, ball over the line, no goal for Ukraine.

This time we were happy. Makes you wonder how many of the team are Buddhists.

The team spirit

During the years of the "golden generation" of Beckham, Neville, Scholesy, Rio, Lamps, Owen et al, we woz the England and we woz the best. Or at least that seemed to be the thinking: we had a divine right to qualify for competitions and we didn't even need to practise penalties, because no knock-out game would ever come to that, and anyway, who can't boot a ball in from 12 yards?

This time, we were half-surprised to qualify, even more surprised to get a draw with France in the first game and flabbergasted to win the group. The egos of the so-called "stars" have taken second place to the team ethic, and everyone's playing for each other. Not least because Roy's way is all about defending and retaining the shape of the team. Result: high-fives aplenty and happy campers who don't throw strops when they're substituted.

The novelty song

All together now, "Three Lions on the shirt, Jules Rimet's still gleaming, 30 years of hurt ..." Well, it's been 46 years now, and we've learnt a thing or two since we sang "That was then, but it could be again". From 1970's "Back Home" to 1982's "This Time (We'll Get It Right)" to 1986's preposterously unprophetic "We've Got the Whole World at Our Feet" to 1988's "All the Way" and 1998's (appalling) "(How Does It Feel to Be) on Top of the World?", we've realised that we no longer know the answer to that last question, so why bother harping on about it?

Far better, as the crowds have done, to join in with the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army", and belt out the odd verse of the national anthem (always odd, because no one knows a second verse to even it up).

The luck

Nothing ever seemed to go for us: Beckham's metatarsal, Gazza's inability to score from a yard against the Germans in Euro 96, and the divot that skied Beckham's penalty against Portugal in Euro 2004's quarter-finals.

Now, everything Roy Hodgson has done has fallen into place: he takes Lescott instead of Ferdinand, and the Manchester City defender scores our opening goal of the tournament; Walcott comes on, scores and sets up a winner; Carroll plays in place of the suspended Rooney and leaps like a ponytailed salmon to nod in the opener against Sweden; Rooney comes back from suspension, looks completely out of sorts, but scores from all of a yard and grabs the headlines.

The fans

Cry God for Harry, England and St George! Well, never mind Harry, but England fans have long been dressing up as chain-mailed knights, and this year is no different. The only difference is the number of them: in years past, our fans have traditionally taken over stadiums. Anecdotally, we can recall a match from Euro 2004 between Greece and Russia where at least 70 per cent of the crowd appeared to be Brits, just because that's how much we love football. It probably didn't hurt that the game was being played in the Algarve.

In the second game of the knock-out phase at Euro 2012, Swedish fans outnumbered English by more than three to one. Whether it's because of pessimism about the state of the team, the dampened economy, the much panicked-about claims of racism, the price of hotels in Poland and Ukraine, the sheer distance between the venues, or simply that no one really wanted to holiday in Eastern Europe, we're not there in our droves. But we do appreciate those of you who went to cheer on the lads for us.

The result

All of which means it'll all be different this time, and smooth sailing to the semi-finals. Or maybe we're just falling into the same old trap again, building ourselves up for another big disappointment. There's only one way to settle this: tune in at 7.45pm to find out.

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