Hodgson's unsung heroes are looking the part
SIDELINE CUT:There is no denying they have rediscovered something of the old stuff in Poland. The impossible can’t be discounted now, writes KEITH DUGGAN.
WHAT HAS happened to England in these European Championships? When and how did it all go so right? Tomorrow night, England play Italy in an eminently winnable quarter-final match. Just one more win will give them an opportunity to compare those virtues as traditional as Yorkshire pudding – hard-work and athleticism and honesty – with the dazzling new order offered by Spain and Germany.
If England are still in the championship on Monday morning, their summer will have been an unqualified success. There have been no humiliations on the field or scandals off it.
The English fans have been conspicuous by their anonymity. Word is that those English supporters who made the long trek to the Ukraine have been royally welcomed and have enjoyed themselves. No snarling, no riots, nothing to be ashamed of. Luck, too, has smiled on England in the match which saw them eliminate the dashing Ukraine team.
Their captain, Steven Gerrard, has revelled in the responsibility of wearing the armband. And for now at least, the Fleet Street brigade seem content that Roy Hodgson is the right fit for the nation.
Already, the Fabio Capello era is becoming a distant memory and the clamour for Harry Redknapp to be handed the crown has also quickly faded away. The appointment of Hodgson, the sensible journeyman, seemed to promise that England would just muddle through these championships and then begin again. Instead they are on the verge of turning their June in Poland into something special.
The strange thing is that in the very summer when England have had to operate on the hoof, they have behaved impeccably.
The tone was set when the squad visited Auschwitz before the tournament began.
They weren’t the only squad to do so – the Germans, the Italians and the Dutch also paid a visit to the former concentration camp.
It is very easy to be cynical about the idea of gilded millionaires bowing their heads appropriately in front of the snappers for an easy public relations exercise. And there is something disconcerting about the idea of Wayne Rooney, source of so many indecorous and daft headlines down the years, visiting such a solemn and sombre monument to a barbaric period in history.
There was always the danger too that someone would say or do something inappropriate. More than one veteran English football writer recalled the disastrous outcome of a visit to the camp by a national under-21 team a number of years ago. The players tried to joke their way through their unease and were subjected to a lecture afterwards from a livid Peter Taylor.
It might have been better if neither cameras nor reporters were permitted to accompany the English party on their visit; if they made their pilgrimage in private. But through the articles and films taken of the event, it was clear to see the shocking story of Auschwitz and its artefacts made the English men forget themselves for a little while. Egos and vanities were left behind on the bus. When Rooney spoke afterwards about the images that had affected him most, it wasn’t as the leering, instinctively brilliant finger-pointing front man for Manchester United but as a 26-year-old from Croxteth who had been confronted with a history lesson that moved him in a way school books never could.
Goalkeeper Joe Hart and Phil Jagielka managed the difficult feat of articulating the power of the place without sounding trite.
David Bernstein, the head of the English FA, is Jewish and spoke of Auschwitz as “a huge overhang to my life”. And Hodgson managed to remove the sense that the English team were somehow gracing the place with their presence by noting that while he didn’t know if a visit from a mere “football team” could help to spread awareness of the story, he would be delighted if it proved to be the case.
For a few hours anyway, the visit to the national monument removed the England players from the bubble of the Premier League wealth and fame and maybe just gave them a perspective that they will carry with them.
When it came to playing football, England have not given the impression they are the best team in the tournament. But the spoilt, petulant attitude which has never been far from the surface of English teams in recent years had vanished. Against France, England were frequently outplayed but they were organised and clearly unified and they looked game for any challenge. The attitude was there in buckets in the entertaining game against Sweden: to go from 1-0 up to trail by 2-1 and recover to win 3-2 is evidence of character if nothing else.
And if England were blessed against Ukraine, there was nothing fortuitous about Rooney’s goal: he was there, scavenging, as he is always is.
Strange too that after Roy Hodgson’s inglorious exit from Anfield, he should be the one to rekindle Steven Gerrard’s form.
After Gerrard’s pale contribution to Liverpool’s disastrous season, no English player came into Euro 2012 under more scrutiny. And for the first time, Gerrard seems entirely at home playing for England rather than a Scouser fulfilling his national duty.
You could see the belief radiating from Gerrard after the Ukraine game: that can only be a good sign for England.
There was a peculiar moment after the Ukraine match when Hodgson was asked about the dangers presented by Italy. He had the confidence to raise his hands and admit he hadn’t had much time to learn about the Italians and that he has had to wing it.
Hodgson has been hard to characterise: the safe pair of hands with the nomadic football background; the football obsessive who is equally passionate about the novels of Philip Roth; the English manager nobody thought would get the job. His master-stroke in Poland has been to never try and pretend he has all the answers.
From tonight, the virtues of the English game will be put to the test. The Premier League is a spectacularly powerful and attractive sports franchise but denuded of its all-star parade of talent from Europe and South America, its English representatives can look distinctly earnest rather than inspired.
Already, this has been a brilliant Euro 2012, with hardly a dud game since the first game – there was even a strange fascination in watching the way the Spanish toyed with a mesmerised Irish team. Euro 2012 has in its parade a scintillating young German team, a Spanish team seeking its place among the greatest ever teams, a happy French squad and a Portuguese team led by the impetuous talents of Ronaldo. And it has old England too, plodding along in its own distinctive way.
It seems preposterous that England can last much longer against the heat of sublime continental talent. But if they beat the Italians, they are just two games away.
God knows, we have laughed at them often enough and enjoyed it when their hopes and pretensions fell like a house of cards.
There is no denying that thy have rediscovered something of the old stuff in Poland.
The impossible can’t be discounted now.