Big Mac heaven gets the Euro 2012 makeover. There they sit, football thrill seekers glued to the action on TV, unable to look away as the burgers make their entrance. The ad men deal in aspirations. They are right to pitch the action in this way. It is meant to be dramatic, uplifting and fun. The only difficulty is squaring this idealised living room scene with the English experience.
Watching England play football has the aesthetic appeal of Bill Sikes' dog. For those not familiar with Oliver Twist, think of a breed that could pull a truck up hill, or take a barn door of its hinges with a nod of its bulbous head. Bill would beat the beast bloody yet back it would come for more. There is a dependable quality in the animal but not one that makes the heart skip a beat watching it go about its work.
The Bull Terrier can do nothing to transform its prospects. It is bound to a brute of an owner and set of predetermined canine characteristics. But what of John Bull? To listen to some you might think our footballers are similarly hamstrung by type. They are routinely classified as a subspecies that lacks the ability, technique, wit and vision of our continental cousins, condemned to exist in a footballing half-light, feeding off scraps, nicking results.
Roy Hodgson appears to have chosen for his team a minimalist path, prioritising containment over creativity. But it doesn't have to be that way. Greece, a man and a goal down to the hosts Poland in the opening match, showed what can be achieved with a change of attitude and approach. They were given the last rights at half-time by the BBC panel, concluding that only a set piece could save them. It was an example of the kind of narrow thinking that informs too much of our game. Good job the Greeks weren't listening. After levelling inside six minutes they might have taken all three points.
Next up Russia. After a quiet 15 minutes shaded by the Czechs, Russia began to assert a rhythmic grip. Midfield runners burst forward beyond the ball, dragging the Czech defence out of shape. There was nothing exotic or complicated about the patterns weaved, just attacking fundamentals playing out via the agency of competent footballers, not world beaters. Andrei Arshavin was involved in the pageant for goodness sake. Arsenal could not discard him quick enough so it can't be about brilliance.
We are told that England cannot reach for the stars because this particular group is not capable. Really? In what area is Steven Gerrard lacking compared, for example, to German fulcrum Bastian Schweinsteiger? What aspect of Wayne Rooney's technique is deficient? Is Lukas Podolski the better man? Mario Gomez? Don't think so. There was no technical fallibility in the deft finish of Danny Welbeck against Belgium nor in Ashley Young's feet as he sliced through the Norwegian defence to score.
I offer no defence of Jordan Henderson or Stewart Downing and accept that James Milner is nobody's idea of a footballing rainmaker but he is good enough to hold down a place with the English champions. The difference at the Etihad is the fluid, attacking template to which Milner is attached.
Gomez and Podolski thrive for Germany because of the support from Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Mezut Özil, who arrive at pace and in numbers. In Hodgson's model, the creative hub of Gerrard and Scott Parker duplicate each other in the deep space in front of their own back four, dislocating the team's offensive function. It is left to the full-backs to rip forward in support of wingers inflexibly working their channels in a grim reprise of Seventies football dystopia. In this scheme the ball moves either slowly or long and possession is almost impossible to boss.
The wonder is that we suffer it. Isn't football supposed to lift us out of the monotony of our working lives, to provide relief from the daily grind? From where does the assumption arise that defensive rigour is the surest way of delivering success? And don't offer Chelsea's Champions League triumph to make the case. Last-ditch defending of that magnitude is simply not sustainable.
Maybe Hodgson shares a long-standing distrust of the flair player that has blighted our national side since the dark days of national strikes and 30-hour weeks, when footballers of the calibre of Alan Hudson (2), Tony Currie (17), Stan Bowles (5), Duncan McKenzie (0), Rodney Marsh (9) and Frank Worthington (8) amassed only 41 caps between them. Glenn Hoddle gained 53 a decade later but it was nothing like the number his tender gifts deserved. The players on this list did not lack skill, only the belief of those picking the team.
English methods, not technique, have held us back. It is incumbent on Hodgson to get his head up, to aspire to a new aesthetic, to look beyond the 1-0 win. He speaks a few languages. How about adding German to the list? After finishing bottom of their group at Euro 2000, Europe's most successful nation tore up the blueprint and went with youth and pace. Look at them now. Achtung baby!
- More about:
- Andrei Arshavin
- Aston Villa
- Danny Welbeck
- Europa League
- Premier League
- Roy Hodgson
- Stephen Carter
- Steven Gerrard
- Stewart Downing
- West Bromwich Albion