England are out but manager Roy Hodgson has made a mark
A far cry from the side that slumped so wretchedly in South Africa, Hodgson's men leave Euro 2012 with dignity intact and not without hope, writes Jack Gaughan
Two years ago they were an embarrassment. Not fit to wear the shirt. Bruised, but mainly battered by a Germany team playing with the vibrancy England supporters could only dream of during a humiliating 4-1 defeat in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Frank Lampard's phantom goal was quickly forgotten – it was patently evident that Joachim Löw's young side had metaphorically given their very own Powerpoint presentation as to why the Three Lions were in no position to challenge for honours on the world stage.
But now, well now, England are more akin to the sort of international sides that have been admired by many supporters from these shores over the last 20 years. Unfancied but playing with a degree of exuberance so surprising that even the most pessimistic of fans ventured some hope of Roy Hodgson's side winning last night.
It was not to be, with the agony of defeat on penalties, but the refreshing way in which they went about their business throughout the tournament has been fascinating to watch. The mindset has altered. Gone are the days of an England party, WAGs et al, turning up at a festival of football with a giddyingly unrealistic sense of self-worth. That new-found attitude, almost definitely instilled by the manager as soon as he donned the less-than-flattering red coaching T-shirt, has resonated with the public.
Working-class these players are not, but the way in which they set about defending for their lives against a France team they knew had that added guile in possession, putting in a proper shift, impressed the nation. Whether it bridged an ever-increasing gap between players and supporters is difficult to say, but it is hard to imagine an England team operating so rigidly obediently to their tactical instructions under the last five managers.
Perhaps, deep down, they knew that by attempting to beat these teams at their own game, they would be fighting a losing battle. For all the liveliness going forward, there was never a moment when you really believed that the likes of Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard could orchestrate possession for minutes on end. That has never been the English way.
That is where the manager earns his corn. How do you progress to the latter stages of a tournament, first of all navigating through a tricky group, with a team who – even though fans may not like to admit it – lack sufficient quality on the ball to upset the top teams? By making them hard to beat and managing expectations, the latter arguably more important.
A defeat against France in the opening game would not only have heaped extra pressure on the final group match in the cauldron of Kiev against co-hosts Ukraine, but would certainly have damaged morale within the camp and back home.
And so, however hypothetical, when a lead against Sweden was reversed within 14 minutes of re-emerging for the second half, Hodgson might have been staring down the barrel just 46 days into his reign. Instead, the work he put in, both in training and in front of the world's media, paid off handsomely. Unlike his predecessors, Hodgson is frank, realistic and likeable.
Prior to the indignity suffered in 2010, Fabio Capello was insistent on talking up his side's chances. "I've been focused on winning. That's all that matters to me: I exist to win," he said the day before embarking to the tournament.
What from Hodgson on the same day two years later? He told his players publicly: "We've done the best preparation we possibly can. You're ready, you're good enough, now have the confidence and the belief in yourself to get out there and show it. Don't get suicidal if for some reason things don't work out for you."
There is a manager here who knows how best to control his players. There are few other reasons as to why they were so loyal to him against the French and why they battled back so strikingly against the Swedes. "No pressure, go and play your game. Listen to what I have to say and we could surprise a few" is the message.
And boy do they listen. Roberto Mancini said last week that Hodgson is an "Italian Englishman – intelligent and crafty." That is something which has visibly been taken on board by the senior members of the squad as well as the younger pack, pointing to a side who are willing to learn in order to perform to their maximum for their country.
Let's go back, for a brief moment, to that horror show in Bloemfontein. The German side had an average age of 25. Exciting naivety can count for a lot in the modern day game and Germany thrived under it. England now have it, especially in their exuberant attacking trio, who have all been vying for a starting berth.
Danny Welbeck (21) showed tenacity with intelligence beyond his years, specifically in the opening two games. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (18) is a raw talent and Theo Walcott (23) is finally beginning to come of age.
The way in which the manager deals with these players is starkly different to those before him. Walcott remembers being barked at by Capello for not entering a room in the correct manner and was told he would not be going to South Africa over the phone. Hodgson, on the other hand, said "Theo's contribution was enormous" after his display against Sweden. Encouraging these players to express themselves – letting the opposition worry about them rather than coping with lingering anxiety that they may be hounded in the dressing room afterwards – breeds confidence.
Credit, though, must be given to Capello. His decision to choose Krakow as the team's base was not overly popular because group games were in Ukraine. But learning from previous mistakes – when players were isolated, cooped up in a hotel and away from the tournament atmosphere – he has helped the squad immerse themselves in the culture of the spectacle, a judgment that bore fruit.
They have been forthcoming to supporters, not necessarily English ones, milling around in the city and there is a togetherness around the place similar to an Ireland side rather than the uppity egos we have grown accustomed to in recent years.
Reaching the quarter-finals, and only coming unstuck against the Azzurri, is quite an achievement for a team in such transition. Expectations were at an all-time low, which undoubtedly helped, but here was a squad that included 12 players who had never been to an international tournament before. Eight of those played some part in the success.
They played without fear, looked competent at the back and had a spring in their step. It's been noticed by others.
The Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci said before the quarter-final that "England have become more like an Italian team thanks to Capello. England are defending better, and can play on counter-attacks." Having a continentally-savvy manager at the helm to carry on Capello's largely unnoticed good work was always going to be crucial.
Hodgson proved to be just that, and is the perfect man to yield even better in Brazil in 2014: an intellectual father-figure who's extremely tactically astute. Harry who? The Football Association have found themselves a keeper.
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