Stan Hey: Vampire of the vanities raises hell for England and Lawro van Helsing

Click to follow
The Independent Football

The two Alans - Shearer and Hansen - were more bullish about England's long-term chances. "We've got six or seven, maybe even eight world-class players..." Shearer asserted, leaving us to guess the three, maybe four, who weren't.

But if they'd looked at the running order they'd have noticed an imminent item about England's exits from World Cup tournaments since 1966. This turned out to be a truly Wagnerian spectacle, as the compilation reminded us of how only England can contrive such heroic, or farcical, losses on a football pitch, from Peter Bonetti's horror-show in 1970, to the Stuart Pearce-Chris Waddle penalty-kicks in 1990.

The form-guide for England's first games in tournaments from 1986 were examined and added to the general queasiness, reading something like this: LLDDWLDL. Sunderland fans would have been proud of such a sequence, you felt.

To boost national morale, two of the Ashes heroes, Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison, were wheeled out, looking like a pretty convincing pair of night-club bouncers. Flintoff seemed a little, er, "jet-lagged", if that's possible on a mere 90-minute flight from England.

Fortunately we were soon in the hands of Motty and Lawro, the first always chirpy, the latter always steeped in existential gloom. Motty raised a smile by likening the Mexican referee to Hammer Horror movie star, Christopher Lee, while I'm sure a single bell tolled as Lawro incanted, "the heat, John, the heat" in sepulchral tones.

But the heat was soon bearing down on Paraguay as "Dracula" awarded us a free-kick and Beckham drove a stake into Paraguay's heart, albeit by way of a South American head. Paraguay's curse continued as their goalie limped off, and the new one was soon under pressure as the ref's long finger pointed for a free-kick inside the box which Lamps could only lamp into the wall.

Given the previous first-game horror-shows England suddenly found themselves starring in something akin to The Sound of Music as Steven Gerrard ran across the grass as carefree as Julie Andrews. Only Gary Neville, in the role of lonely goatherd, was out of tune with distribution that would have shamed the old GPO Then a late scary moment from Nelson Valdez had us hiding behind our hands.

The panel were suitably impressed at half-time - "more of the same" Shearer ordered, while there were vague warnings about needing a second goal. Unfortunately Paraguay looked more like scoring it as they rose from the dead in the early period of the second half. This was soon followed by one of Sven's ominous substitutions - Stewart Downing for a struggling Michael Owen - which seemed to assist England in losing the plot, and the ball.

"We're stretched," Lawro said gloomily as the bell tolled again, and as the shadows on the pitch increased, "Dracula" found any excuse to penalise England. "This is going to be an anxious last 15 minutes for England," Motty shrieked.

The appearance of Owen Hargreaves signalled a further shudder for England fans - as with all the best horror movies it was time to hide behind the Crouch. "Dracula" was in his pomp by now and short of donning a Paraguayan shirt he couldn't have done much more to help them. "Give him both barrels," Lawro suggested, but it was a silver bullet England needed and Lampard almost provided it with a ringing shot outside the box.

But then came the surprise ending - England held on. Emotionally exhausted fans crawled to their wall-charts to ink in a W before going off to get thoroughly jet-lagged. But there was still plenty of work to do by a baffled and angry panel - not quite a post-mortem but almost.