World Cup 2014: Roy Hodgson struggles to find a fresh way forward for England
As England face final game, manager admits his side are far from world class
For the last time on Monday, the England team coach will follow the coastal road from their hotel on Sao Conrado beach, through Ipanema and Copacabana and on to the Rio de Janeiro military airport they use to fly to games. It is a route the players know well having taken it to training most days and it has given them a window on the party taking place in Brazil from their isolation in the England bubble.
They are not going back to Rio. From Belo Horizonte tomorrow night they will fly back to Luton airport 10 days after their World Cup started. On their way through town today they will pass the France team’s Sheraton hotel, and the Netherlands’ team base on Ipanema and reflect that their own exploits will be little more than a footnote to this great 2014 World Cup finals. When they come to assemble the post-tournament television montages, England will merit no more than a few seconds of crestfallen faces.
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What next for the 23 men in Roy Hodgson's squad?
Footballing glory no closer for England than it has been in decades
“Broken” was how Steven Gerrard described his emotions yesterday, 48 hours after elimination was confirmed. Roy Hodgson said a “period of grieving is necessary”. Each man was eager to accept responsibility for what had happened. What proved much harder for both was to explain why it had happened. There was the old story about “fine margins”. There were promises to “stay strong” and “face adversity” but no real insight into what might have been done better.
For the first time in the modern era, the embattled England manager did not even suggest that the Premier League implement a winter break to give the players a better chance come summer tournaments. That old chestnut is usually the first one that gets crossed off the post-elimination inquest bingo card.
“I haven’t been moping around staring at the wall,” Hodgson said. “I’ve had a bad night and a bad day following the game. My job leading the team is to pull myself out of that and make sure the players aren’t suffering in the same way, give them some of the qualities I’ve got. So I’ve been working hard to make sure people do get out of it.
“I need to try to find the mental, physical and emotional strength to move on. A period of grieving is necessary. In three or four weeks’ time, the Uruguay game may pop back into our minds and we may be miserable again, but that’s part of our lives. But we can’t chase the past. What we can change is what we do in the future.”
Hodgson pictured during defeat to Uruguay
Hodgson is right of course. In fact, much of what he said was utterly reasonable. The problem is that once you have witnessed first-hand a few of these sorry episodes it is impossible not to feel caught in a never-ending cycle that cannot be broken because the problems are too fundamental and too far beyond the influence of an England manager. Hodgson spoke about making playing for one’s country important for young players in the junior national teams. A fair point, but what if there are too few of those young Englishmen being developed?
England, Hodgson said, have “lost players” who have signed for big clubs and then disappeared. But that only really covers Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair at Manchester City, and Wilfried Zaha at Manchester United. Gerrard had praise for Jonjo Shelvey who left Liverpool in pursuit of first-team minutes. “Jonjo asked the manager if he would play and he said ‘No’. So he had a fantastic season at Swansea.”
But what about the other imponderables? How, for instance, can Costa Rica with their Fulham reject and their Arsenal loan striker out-perform a team of England players who have successful Premier League careers? Why are England almost always less than the sum of their parts?
“It is a conundrum,” said Hodgson. “But if you can become a good team, maybe you can survive without necessarily having ‘world-class’ players. Look at their team. Their players weren’t classed ‘world-class’ before the tournament and they might not be after the tournament, either. But they’ve had success working together. We are fully aware there’s a lot of work for us to do to make sure we’re better as a team.
“We have made strides. Our attacking play is more potent than a year or so ago, but that’s only scratching the surface. We have to learn a lot of lessons, not just from the Costa Ricas of this world but how we need to develop and get better. Wayne Rooney’s comment about being streetwise, maybe even that.”
Fewer world-class players? More world-class players? It can be confusing to divine exactly what it is that England need. The discussion was petering out until Gerrard reacted with some force to Harry Redknapp’s assertion on BBC Five Live that England players at Tottenham Hotspur had tried to pull out of squads. If there was one thing Gerrard was not prepared to accept it was the suggestion he and his team-mates did not want to be there.
Harry Redknapp suggested some Tottenham players didn't want to play for England
It provoked an interesting debate, and the onus will now be on Redknapp to either back down, or name the individuals. There are 12 Spurs players who are theoretically under suspicion, and everyone in the room had their own theories as to who the culprits could be. Some might wish to clarify their position. But it does not change the fact that England will head home tomorrow.
The side to face Costa Rica will be picked largely from the non-playing squad members. The mood appears to be largely sympathetic towards Hodgson. Football Association chiefs will not change their minds about keeping him. “I’m grateful I’ve not been made that scapegoat and that people think I can take the team forward, and that’s what I will be doing.”
On to Belo Horizonte where England were humbled by the United States at a World Cup finals 64 years ago, the first of many catastrophes to befall the national team. It can still get worse, before it gets better.
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