We all knew England were not going to make it to the final of Euro 2016, but it was not meant to end like this.
The Three Lions concluded their brief stint in France with the ignominy, embarrassment and incredulity that has now become synonymous with the country in major tournament competition. A manager without a clue, a group of players without a spine and a set of fans exasperated. Where do we go from here? Sadly, it all seems endemic of the problems that have engulfed English football since our last relative tournament success at Euro 96.
This was meant to be a new England. This was meant to be an England that played without fear, without restraint. This team, we were told, contained none of the baggage that hindered previous tournament performances. The memories of 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2012 were supposedly cast aside in the wake of a bold new Three Lions that had managed to defeat the world champions Germany in their own back yard just three months ago.
Little did we know, however, that the result in Berlin was nothing more than yet another false dawn. Perhaps the most disappointing of all given the contrast in performance to Monday night’s horror show. The players must shoulder a large chunk of the blame for England’s embarrassing exit to Iceland, but so to must Roy Hodgson.
After all, it was Hodgson who claimed that ‘systems don’t win you football matches, players do.’ From England’s four games in France, it became clear that Hodgson truly believed those words. From the baffling decision to allow Harry Kane to take set-pieces, to the lopsided 4-3-3 formation that resulted in England’s best striker – Daniel Sturridge – operating in an ineffectual wing position, not even on his favoured side. How can a competent manager allow for that to stand? How can a competent international manager opt for a squad bereft of natural crossers of the football, yet persist with a system which relies on it? Because Hodgson doesn’t believe in systems you see, systems don’t win you football matches.
It seems as though Hodgson failed to prepare any sort of plan to deal with the obvious difficulties of facing a resolute Iceland team. He appeared to think that 270 minutes of possession football with little attacking bite in the group stages, would somehow translate itself into a marauding forward display against an Icelandic side that appeared far more resolute and effective than England’s group stage opponents, Slovakia and Russia. How can that be?
Hodgson’s rhetoric ahead of the game was similarly baffling. He talked of the prospect of a quarter-final meeting with France ‘if we were lucky enough to get through.’
Furthermore, who could say that in any one of England’s four games at this tournament, we played with a coherent way of breaking down the opposition? Who could say that England came to games with a plan? Hodgson, emboldened by the prospect of youth, went against his core principles and England paid. A coach with his experience and nous should have known better.
It meant the whole sorry chapter concluded late on Monday night. Following defeat to Iceland, Hodgson and his assistants Gary Neville and Ray Lewington tendered their respective resignations. The haste with which the trio departed hinted at a pre-prepared statement to add a further level of farce to the FAs proceedings.
Amongst all of this, however, we should not forget that Hodgson is a good man, and despite his numerous flaws, the players badly let him down. Such a spineless performance against Iceland has only been matched by the 0-0 against Algeria in 2010. This group were not meant to be dragged down by past failures, yet it affected them more than ever. Psychologically, these players have not been able to cope with the pressure of the England shirt. They’re not the first and they won’t be the last.
England now must turn to the next chapter in an ever increasingly grim fairy-tale. The candidates are few and far between, the quality even scarcer. Gareth Southgate, the man who relegated Middlesbrough; Alan Pardew, a man constantly embroiled in controversy or Gary Neville, whose stock has fluctuated more than the FTSE 100. Sam Allardyce appears the best of the rest, and given his ability to turn around sides bereft of confidence, looks to be the obvious choice. Eddie Howe is also in the frame, but why would we want to burden the career of a promising young manager with the poisoned England chalice?
Further questions will also be levelled at the FA. Whatever their spin may be, do not believe that the addition of ‘B’ teams in league football will solve the problem. It is much deeper than that. The Football Association must look at encouraging more men and women into coaching. That Iceland have more UEFA qualified coaches per capita in a population of 325,000 is not far short of a national disgrace. The cost of coaching needs to be reduced, accessibility improved and quality increased. It’s not as simple as one seemingly straightforward change, but it’s a start.
At youth level, we have lost sight of football for football’s sake. The focus is not on enjoying the game and teaching the basics, it’s about trying to be the best. Sometimes you can try too hard to make something work and England’s XI on the pitch in Nice on Monday night proved that tenfold.
Until the FA starts looking at the fundamental reasons behind England’s continued failure, nothing will change. We may be living in a post-Brexit Britain, but it still very much remains Carry on England.