Comment: Roy Hodgson ignores the background din and happily bangs the drum for his England ahead of Montenegro match at Wembley
Chest out, John Bull Hodgson laid every ounce of Englishness on the line ahead of vital World Cup qualifiers
Not quite his Agincourt speech but rousing nonetheless. For 15th-century Frenchmen bearing arrows substitute Gary Lineker firing barbs. All those who joined in the Dark Age thrusts against his England after the joyless draw in Ukraine, all those doubters out there, beware. Roy Hodgson is coming to get you as well as Montenegro and Poland. Gathered to his full height, chest expanded, John Bull Hodgson laid every ounce of Englishness on the line. This is Wembley, we are England, bring it on.
The coming four days define the latest chapter in the evolution of a football culture at odds with itself and desperately trying to re-establish its identity. The England captain, Steven Gerrard, has 105 caps in his wardrobe yet claims that none of what has gone before compares in significance to the contests that will decide England's participation or otherwise in next summer's World Cup in Brazil.
The idea that England might fail in their quest is too big a deal to contemplate. Hodgson won't hear of it, yet in the background reality rumbles on. A fresh probe into the state of the national game is under way, led by the urgent promptings of the Football Association's new champion, Greg Dyke. Damning statistics underpin concerns about opportunitities for English players in the Premier League. Whether measured in bodies or minutes played, the picture has never been bleaker.
In this febrile atmosphere every indiscretion carries a high tariff, so that a player caught having a crafty fag behind the bike sheds is compelled to issue a statement apologising for any offence caused. Let woe rise up and consume any who ventures a view on what constitutes nationality in this age of want and the migrant footballer.
Hodgson has had to deal with all of this as well as the hubristic ramblings in the wings of the people's manager, Harry Redknapp, whose job he apparently claimed. In his own dignified way Hodgson has delivered England to the point of nirvana without raising the heart rate. We sit at the top of the group needing only to win twice at home to satisfy the principal objective of World Cup qualification. Yet still we are not happy. England is a nation exhausted by the pushing of boulders up qualification hills only to be flattened in tournaments beneath feet seemingly prettier and quicker. We want some of that, Roy, not the prosaic bump and grind of the past 47 years.
We have learnt from grim experience that safety-first pragmatism is neither fulfilling on the journey nor productive when we reach the final destination. South Africa was arguably the lowest in a long line of low points that reached an ugly nadir in Cape Town, with Wayne Rooney mouthing abuse at England fans down a lens as he left the pitch following another deeply unimaginative display against Algeria. So when England once again fell victim to old failings in Kiev, hoofing long balls to willing runners while nimble opponents dominated possession, there was no sympathy left.
Hodgson asks now that we put that behind us, that we join him in his enthusiasm for, and belief in this squad. This is different he says. For one, Rooney is back, the malcontent of 2010, of last season at Manchester United, is no more. In his stead returns a player approximating to the teenage rapier of 2004 who lit up the European Championship. "Rooney is a wonderful player. He has been first-class with United these past few weeks with and without the ball. David Moyes is delighted with him. I don't know whether it is right for me to say he is our jewel but I concur that he is an important player. There is a lot of responsibility on players like him, Steven [Gerrard], Frank [Lampard]. They know what it's like to bear that responsibility."
None of the background din surrounding Jack Wilshere, Redknapp, Joe Hart and the state of the English game has been allowed to penetrate Hodgson's bubble. The "Stone Age" debate sparked by Lineker's post-Ukraine attack is no longer on the agenda. It's all good in the house of Roy.
"I believe in the players," he says. "I trust the players. We are even stronger on paper than we have been for a while. In the time that I have been working with them I have never had reason to doubt them. It's Wembley. We are England. We have good players. It's been a great week. The training sessions have given me an enormous lift. I do believe in this team. I make certain that's my focus. I'm anticipating four very good days but nothing is certain."
If part of the problem in embracing Hodgson has been a failure to project positively, it seems uncharitable to slam him for banging the drum in this way. He is sincere in his belief that England is still a nation of some clout that ought to think just as big as it did when Bobbies Moore and Charlton ruled the earth. "It is a big responsibility when you take on this role. We are England, one of the big teams expected to qualify. You realise there is criticism. We realise England expects us to play well, to win and get to World Cups. We will be doing our level best to do that."
Gerrard is right behind the boss. Though an admirer of Redknapp and supportive of his claims to the England post, he denied he had texted his backing to Harry. For Hodgson he has only praise. "I was absolutely delighted that he got the job because I have worked with him before at Liverpool. He made me captain and I think I have played my most consistent football under Roy so I have a lot to thank him for."
If England fail it will not be entirely Hodgson's fault. He is working in a climate no England manager has faced. The dearth of options resulting from institutional failings in the structure of the club game constitute a historical challenge. If Hodgson is prepared to give it one more heave to get across the line, we should fall into line with him. Changing the world is for another day.
"If I compare how I feel today with a year and half ago I feel we are a long way forward. These games give us an opportunity to improve the model somewhat. The players are determined to do that. It can't come quick enough for us now. I believe the nation will back us. Like us, they expect us to be in Brazil."
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