The promised land, or rather the land Roy Hodgson promised, is out there somewhere. England are a step closer to Brazil in material if not spiritual terms. And that, the inner pragmatist reminds us, is all that matters.
The yearning for some kind of representation of the football we witness on a Saturday afternoon is still some way off. A first start for Andros Townsend proved a thrilling tonic in flashes, not least for England’s first goal and later his own. Once the back of Montenegro was broken England got a move on, but the first half was the kind of prosaic thrash around Wembley of which we have seen far too much.
This group is willing enough, maybe too willing. With the teams assembling pre kick-off we witnessed acts of communion not normally paraded on Friday nights until the amber nectar has moistened the midnight hour, young men embracing in plain sight and urging each other on. Hodsgon was right, his team would be at it from the start, a wall of white advancing in one-touch union, sound and fury coming off their heels.
The game demanded the early goal. Hodgson’s pre-match rhetoric promised a divine start. There was, he seemed to be saying, a special feeling about this match, something in the air tonight.
He was less convincing when asked to explain where the evidence to support his claims might be. It was, perhaps, an act of faith, the kind that led to the introduction of Tottenham winger Townsend after barely a dozen Premier League games.
In one sense this was an endorsement of the FA commission to examine how so few English players of the right calibre are coming through as well as a damning verdict on the value of James Milner in an offensive position. Townsend has played for England right through the age groups and broke into the Spurs first team in February of this year, but lacks the kind of experience usually associated with promotion to the national team. That is not to deny the appeal of a player of obvious ability who attacks with pace down the right. Only to point out that left field measures are speculative punts. So hats off to Hodgson. This one paid off handsomely in the end.
When Greg Dyke’s Pinkerton’s return from the shires with their recommendations and a way forward is devised, it must be hoped that a line of progression from elite Premier League club to the national side results and becomes formalised.
Mezut Özil played his 50th game for Germany against Northern Ireland last night at the age of 24. He graduated via the Under-21s but was no surprise. His progress at Schalke and Werder Bremen was part of a policy imposed by the German federation upon the Bundesliga.
The English heart ached when the Premier League chose not to accept a formal role with Dyke’s FA commission, demonstrating how much it cared for the prospects of the national team.
But that’s for another day. Hodgson is, of course, hamstrung by the short-termism and self-interest inflicted by the culture of club football in the Premier League. Though not absolved of criticism, it is a circumstance that must be taken into account when laying out judgments.
And so, 20 minutes in and without a goal, the evening began to take on a familiar feel. England trying a little too hard to please, proceeding with a pre-conceived plan instead of playing the game on its merits.
Montenegro retreated behind two banks of four and invited England to remove the wheels from their bus. News filtered through that Ukraine had scored, cranking up the tension that was slowly taking hold. In the absence of incisive movement individual solutions were sought. First Danny Welbeck and then Daniel Sturridge tried to curl England in front extravagantly.
If this were training the coach would have blown the whistle and shouted stop, reminding the players of the need to play more instinctively when confronted with the uber organisation of an outfit wanting only to avoid defeat. England offered pace when what was needed was a change of pace.
Finally, with the first half ebbing to a close, Montenegro chanced their arm in the opponent’s half. England won the ball and raced into the open space via Wayne Rooney and Townsend. The result was a shot from Rooney into the side netting. Yes he might have done better, but at least we had a move born of instinct and the night was better for it.
The best was still to come, of course. The second half was blessed by the early goal the first half so badly needed. It was not the cleanest strike Rooney will ever put on a ball, rather it was notable for the split second he seemed to take to steady himself before rippling the net. Great players make time stand still and this was Rooney’s contribution.
For the fireworks we need look no further than Townsend, whose debut was crowned by the kind of butane strike Bobby Charlton used to put away. Sir Bobby turned 76 yesterday and could not have asked for a greater gift than the sight of Townsend dipping a shoulder and unloading with his right boot. Into the turf he sank, not quite believing what he had done. Hodgson whipped him off within minutes. He was still floating when the final whistle went.
Hodgson is one win from satisfying the terms of his job. Victory over Poland will see England at the 2014 World Cup, where he believes we ought to be by right. The national anthem was sung proudly at the end, suggesting many in the crowd share that view.
But a wise Hodgson will stand back from the rhetoric of his preparation for this match.
There are more people living in Milton Keynes than Montenegro. Indeed the Dons may have provided stiffer opposition.
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