James Lawton: Hodgson's choices are paying off

Manager has got to grips with a team formerly run like a celebrity club

Kiev

England and the vanquished Swedes performed an extraordinary feat here on Friday night. They made a compelling match of something that most of the time looked as if it had wandered in from another decade, indeed another century.

This was extraordinary, not least for the likely reward of a quarter final against Spain, the exquisite masters of the football of today.

But then if such games are not supposed to happen in the finals of the European Championships, which down the years have given us winners with the natural born sophistication of Andres Iniesta, Zinedine Zidane and Marco van Basten, this one had some extremely impressive redemption.

Theo Walcott re-established himself as a potent contributor and Andy Carroll seized one moment of untouchable power which should always buoy him against the sneers which have besieged him for so long.

Most significant of all, though, is the fact that even while he has been lamenting the absence of England's most talented player, Wayne Rooney, Roy Hodgson has systematically dismantled the idea that he, too, is a man out of place as England manager.

The circumstances of his appointment were atrocious and for many he represented a point of bleak compromise, even a failure of nerve in the wake of Fabio Capello, who arrived with such an awesome reputation for getting the best out of players at the highest level of the game. That was seen as one defeat. For some another was the FA's almost contemptuous refusal to consider the claims of Harry Redknapp after four years of largely brilliant work at Tottenham.

Hodgson's greatest strength, some of us suggested, was that he was a much better fit for an FA blazer than the Cheeky Chappie from the East End. There were no dubious antecedents, just a solid record of professional competence across the football world.

Here Hodgson, who ran such a gauntlet of mockery during his brief reign at Liverpool – he just wasn't big enough for the job, the Kop chorused – provided something rather more substantial and biting. He produced a piece of crisis management which £6m-a-year Capello would have happily borrowed in England's catastrophic appearance in the last World Cup.

First, his reading of the Swedish defence, and the mayhem Carroll might inflict upon it, proved wonderfully astute. There were some gasps when the Liverpool striker emerged at the forefront of team speculation before a game that England had to win after the underwhelming opening draw with France.

Carroll is, of course, not the kind of gamble you can consign to the margins. You can't tell him to feel his way into the action. He is going to come off or crash horribly. In the event, he simply terrified the Swedes with his stupendously powerful conversion of Steven Gerrard's ravaging deep cross.

At 2-1 down, and England performing the starkest impression of a team falling apart, Hodgson gave Walcott half an hour to remind his critics about the best of his game. It was more than enough, and when he first scored, spectacularly, and then burned off the entire left side of the Swedish defence before playing in the winner for Danny Welbeck, Hodgson did another small, celebratory dance.

No-one needed to tell him coming into this tournament that his regime might easily be broken before it began.

There was one imperative behind the loss of men like Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Gary Cahill, the pungent smoke of the Rio Ferdinand affair and the absurdity of having his best player, Wayne Rooney, missing for the first two group games through suspension.

It was to draw everything available from resources that when compared to those of the leading nations would have looked pitiful enough even without the Premier League's latest TV bonanza, a development which can only stoke the cynicism about where the new largesse will go.

The best bet, of course, is even greater investment in foreign players – and development systems – and profits for the agents.

Hodgson, however, is showing the touch of a man unfazed by the sight of a wine glass only half-filled.

Without Rooney, he has gleaned the best out of Welbeck and Carroll, made a winning wager on Walcott's residual power to reinflict his talent, given Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a significant taste of the international football for which he is clearly destined. He has also given Ashley Young the chance to prove a competitive instinct that, unfortunately, has yet to blaze in this tournament.

This isn't some magical transformation of England – certainly not on the evidence of some long and critical phases of the latest game – and the hard view is that they are still pretty much half the length of the Ukraine away from a serious challenge – either here or in anything like the near future.

But then you have to start somewhere, and the where Hodgson has chosen is in the psychology of a team which for so long was run pretty much like a celebrity club. He has accepted the inevitability of Rooney's return, and is welcoming it with some considerable enthusiasm, but it seems reasonable to believe that is not unconditional.

Carroll made a huge impact but he is unlikely to reappear, at least at the start, against Ukraine in Donetsk on Tuesday night. Welbeck will survive for his compatibility with Rooney's game, while Young will return to the shadows following his insipid work against Sweden.

One knock on Hodgson was that he might lack a certain hard edge in dealing with players who have persuaded themselves they are top performers. For the moment all the evidence is refuting that theory. Indeed, he seems to be wielding something rather more intimidating than a whip. It is a sharp understanding of who, all reputations aside, should be doing what – and when.

Somewhere along the road, even Wayne Rooney might be wise to take note.

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