Saturday, 16 June 2012

From One Extreme to the Other With England

General wisdom of the so-called experts, the professional pundits and the people who get paid to prognosticate and speculate holds, stereotypically, that Roy Hodgson teams play dour, functional football. It is often said that his teams are more entrenched than exciting, more stoical than sensational. For once, all of these people were wrong. All of this negativity, all of this pessimism, all of this slander was disproved with one magical night in Kiev. Facing a Sweden team on the precipice of extinction, England were thrilling, exiting and stirring to a level rarely seen in the last decade. This England were phenomenal.

From the first whistle, the intention was clear: to play a high line and squeeze at every opportunity. So refreshing it was to watch Hodgson's midfield reveling in the freedom something akin to that which they experience at club level. In stark contrast to the opening French encounter, there was a burning desire and spirit, a confidence and brash cockiness which served England in great stead. Parker and Gerrard, like men possessed, implemented a high-octane, high-lined style; affecting both ends of the park with tremendous consistency. We were high and bright, breezy and fluid. We were, for the first time in years, truly exciting.

The purists, and those who like to focus on "what can be worked upon," will sit and analyse certain aspects of poor play. But, when your national side shows such heart, character and spirit to come back from a monumental deficit and win a game against its per-eminent Bogey Team, none of that matters. The true fans, those who do not get paid to watch the games but rather pay to watch them, are exulting and ecstatic tonight. England did us proud.

Midway through the first half, England made the breakthrough. Just as the pleasantly-surprising and refreshing start to the game gave way to a nagging belief that "we need to get a goal to consolidate this," our nation delivered. Steven Gerrard, found entrenched in that gully some thirty-five yard from goal wide on the right where he is at his most deadly, shaped and crafted and whizzed and fizzed and bent and crashed a cross of pure magnificence into the penalty area. A nation rose, as Andy Carroll cajoled himself into position. With a monumental leap, and a thundering header, somehow, Andy Carroll had gifted England a dream lead. A phenomenal goal which not only brought joy to a nation, but vindication for a manager who is perpetually, and wrongfully, second guessed.

Spurred on, England looked sharp and feisty for the remainder of the half. There was a dynamism about our play, a little added spontaneity and inspiration than in the previous outing. Again, the analysts may, with a wag of the finger, point to the retraction and dropping of our line, but we did so whilst in complete and total control of the game! England were, at one-nil, in command.

For this England, the stars seem to be aligning. Even the chronic English disease of haplessly throwing away comfortable leads manifested itself as a platform and agent merely used to instigate and create euphoria of an altogether different universe later on. In the present moment, though, it was harrowing and mentally-disturbing to watch, firstly, Glen Johnson scramble an own goal and, then, Olof Mellberg, the old veteran warhorse, plunge us into a dark and seedy state. At two-one down, with barely half-an-hour remaining on the clock, there seemed but little chance of the victory needed to aid our chances of progression.

And that is when our lads turned into the fighting and scrapping Lions, with bravery in the heart and determination in the body.

Also, that was when Roy Hodgson made one of his greatest ever substitutions. It was, in and of itself, a microcosm of Roy Hodgson's approach to this tournament. Start with stringent defence, end with skill and flair and pace. Thus, James Milner made way for Theo Walcott, who promptly wrote himself into another chapter of England history.

It will be an eternal source of bemusement and pub debate as to how on earth Theo's whizzing, darting, flailing shot, from all of twenty yards, ended up in the back of that Swedish net. With assistance from the Footballing Gods (well, there is a first for our grand old nation, is it not?), and an absolute mental clanger from Andreas Isaksson, the ball, indeed, nestled with a satisfying ripple in the back of the net! How it went in did not matter in the slightest, for it was an equalising goal of dramatic and untold importance. England fans everywhere rejoiced not only in the moment of Theo Fantastic, but in the spirit and character of a team.

If the style and narrative of Walcott's goal did not matter as long as it went in, the fashion in which England won the game was simply an additional bonus of mesmeric and absurdly-euphoric proportions. A passing move befitting any team on the planet, even the Spaniards, snaked from Cole to Parker, into Gerrard, and, sensationally, out to Walcott. With true industry, Theo burrowed and flashed through the smallest of gaps, wriggling and exploding free, into the Swedish penalty box. To the wonderment of all, Theo found the part of his game which has, over time, proven so elusive: the end product. Into Danny Welbeck a ball was scuffed.

What followed next was simply unbelievable. Danny Welbeck, a man of little International football experience, produced one of the great England goals. With a spontaneous and instinctual flick of the heel, Welbeck engineered not only a sphere of opportunity, but imparted on the ball a phenomenal pace and direction. With a nation on its feet, in expectation and excitement once more, the ball trickled and squirmed gloriously into the side netting of the Swedish goal. Danny had done it. We had done it. Back from the brink, this nation erupted, once and for all, in a chaotic flurry of patriotic love and glory. Nobody on the planet can celebrate a goal like the English, and how we did!

England help out, fortifying the convictions and impulses of Roy Hodgson. Once again, England have a manager to believe in. Once again, England are playing with an evident harmony, camaraderie and togetherness. Once again, England have captured the imagination and heart of a nation.   

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