World Cup Qualifying: Roy Hodgson's problem is that England are stuck between the golden generation and the new
Manager still turning to the same old faces while he waits for next generation to mature
While the England players boarded a Football Association flight home in the early hours of yesterday, or the private jets provided by their clubs, the journey back for their Montenegrin opposition was a little different.
Many of the side who drew 1-1 with England on Tuesday night checked in at Podgorica airport yesterday alongside English fans on the way home, with neither group giving the appearance of having slept much the previous night.
The Montenegro captain, Mirko Vucinic, wearing rock-star sunglasses was having a coffee and chatting to Dejan Damjanovic, the goalscorer from the night before. Vucinic was on his way back to Turin but Damjanovic plays for FC Seoul and there are no direct flights to Korea from tiny Podgorica International. Simon Vukcevic, the former Blackburn midfielder, was with his partner and their daughter in economy on my connecting flight to Vienna.
It was a sharp reminder that Montenegro, England’s opponents in the last two qualification campaigns, is a country of modest means. It has a population of just 630,000 and a sprinkling of good-quality players who have spread far across the globe, to clubs of varying quality. The former Yugoslav republic, which only joined Fifa in 2007, now occupies a part of English football history. It is the only nation England have played more than twice and never beaten.
There is a vibrancy and a determination about this young country’s football team. They make the most of what they have and they do not expect the five-star treatment. Compare that with the FA’s insistence that Theo Walcott be accompanied by an official on a commercial flight home from Italy at the weekend, as if he was incapable of doing it himself.
Roy Hodgson’s team are not out of the hunt for World Cup qualification yet but, after six games, they have hardly got going. Three wins against the group’s two weakest sides, San Marino (twice) and Moldova, and three draws with Ukraine, Poland and now Montenegro. They are yet to suffer the defeat that would really spell disaster but it is hard to escape the feeling that they are sleepwalking, with the hope that at some point their luck will change.
As for Hodgson himself, he refuses to panic. Like a government minister trying to instil confidence in the markets, he realises that fear itself is one of the biggest dangers facing England. Confidence will play a key role in these final four qualifiers, three of which are at Wembley. If the home crowd becomes restless, the players will get skittish and then, as in the doomed Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, one could imagine England self-destructing.
“You were telling me [on Monday], that if we were to lose this game that we’d give ourselves a mountain to climb,” Hodgson said. “As it is we’ve got an important four to five weeks around the middle of September to middle of October, three matches at home and one difficult one away in the Ukraine so by at least not losing [against Montenegro] we keep it in our hands. We give ourselves a chance.”
But “a chance” is not what the other big European| nations have given themselves in 2014 World Cup qualification. Germany and the Netherlands are a racing certainty to be in Brazil next summer while Italy, Spain and Russia are all top of their respective groups.
Even when Hodgson took over in difficult circumstances last May, you felt that he was inheriting an England team caught between two epochs. One that still relied to a large extent on Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney and, back then, John Terry, while it waited for the next generation to establish themselves. It showed on Tuesday night when Gerrard had one of his poorer games, to the extent that you wondered whether Frank Lampard might have been a better option.
Yet Lampard, 35 in June, is hardly the long-term answer. Once again, the thought presented itself that Hodgson might have been better off sticking with Leighton Baines than switching to Cole. England are turning to the same old faces, but those faces are not what they once were.
As for the new guard, it could be politely said that they are taking their time. Danny Welbeck was excellent in England’s first half on Tuesday night but his goalscoring return – two in 34 games for Manchester United this season, five in 16 for England – is a concern. Jack Wilshere is the vanguard of the new generation but injury means he has played in only three of England’s last 22 games.
Hodgson has tried to bring through these new players and he will hope that his faith in the likes of Tom Cleverley and Chris Smalling will be rewarded. Certainly, at some point England had to be weaned off their reliance on the older generation and there is a good chance that those two will one day establish themselves as England internationals. But Hodgson’s reckoning is coming in those four qualifiers, starting with Moldova at Wembley on 6 September, then Ukraine (away) and Montenegro and Poland at Wembley.
Sven Goran Eriksson got the so-called golden generation in their prime, when they were capable of results like the 5-1 victory in Munich more than 11 years ago, and he benefited from the early blooming of Rooney. Fabio Capello was around for the late flowering of those players, with Steve McClaren’s injury-jinxed regime caught unhappily in the middle. What exactly does Hodgson have left?
He persuaded Gerrard not to retire after Euro 2012 to be his captain. He lost Terry, who would have been useful on Tuesday night, to a mess not of the manager’s own making. This summer, an Under-21 team full of promise, including the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilfried Zaha and Raheem Sterling, will play the European Championship in Israel. Should they prosper there, could Hodgson risk some of them in the autumn qualifiers?
England’s future is not as gloomy as some portray. There are some in that Under-21s side who will have good international careers, if not as many as the talent factories of Spain and Germany produce. But will they come of age soon enough for Hodgson, for whom the imperative of World Cup qualification is not a question of years down the road? Rather it arrives in six months’ time, which in football terms is no time at all.
As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”
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