New manager, new captain, new kit, same old England? In what is likely to prove Stuart Pearce's only game as national manager, the caretaker was able to coax some of that fabled passion and spirit out of his players as they fought back from 2-0 down at Wembley, yet ultimately the superior quality of Netherlands shone through in a 3-2 defeat. A familiar tale that is echoed repeatedly throughout England's past.
It was by no means a bad night for England, not when taking into account a bright performance in the first 45 minutes — personified by newly-crowned captain Scott Parker, who produced two stunning blocks as well as getting clattered in a Nigel de Jong-Dirk Kuyt double team, ugly in all senses of the word — but for Pearce on a personal level, it wasn't quite enough, and though England's fight-back stirred Wembley, the second-half performance also served to frustrate.
Pearce said this week he has aspirations of leading England at Euro 2012 should the Football Association require him to do so, but for those dreams to be fulfilled, and for the FA to steer against the overwhelming tide of public and media support for the appointment of Harry Redknapp, he needed something extraordinary at Wembley against the 2010 World Cup finalists, a result that would give his employers little option but to seriously consider him as a medium-term replacement for Fabio Capello, for the finals at least. He did not get it.
Though England played their part in a highly entertaining conclusion that witnessed three late goals - the winner coming from the peerless Arjen Robben in injury time - the final result against a more technically accomplished Netherlands side ultimately did Pearce's cause little good. Like the patriotic caretaker himself, plucky defeat was so typically English — not generally regarded as a positive trait when it comes to international football.
In a rather downbeat press conference — otherwise notable for opposite number Bert van Marwijk getting into a rather heated debate with a persistent Dutch inquisitor sat in front of Early Doors — Pearce was adamant that he has never proposed himself to be a long-term replacement for Capello, though he does believe he can do the job at Euro 2012 if required.
Of his own evening, he said: "I didn't score, I didn't keep a clean sheet. I didn't see it as a big night for me; I am not auditioning for anything. When asked the question a few days ago, to be honest I put myself forward to my employers. I don't think beyond [the Euros] I have the experience for the job. The full-time manager of England certainly isn't me."
Early Doors would suggest that if he is not ready for the job full time, then he is certainly not ready to lead England into a major tournament. The 90 minutes that preceded his admission only strengthened that belief, despite some bright spots.
The first aspect of Pearce's stunted reign that could be held up to public scrutiny was the composition of his team sheet at Wembley. And, unsurprisingly for a man that once played David James as a striker at Manchester City and had to be told by his wife that he had accidentally omitted a goalkeeper from the first starting XI he picked as Nottingham Forest boss, there was a minor surprise or two.
Selecting Adam Johnson was a touch unexpected, despite the winger starting Manchester City's past three league games, as Theo Walcott approached the game off the back of his two-goal performance against Tottenham and Daniel Sturridge had made a firm case for his own inclusion thanks to some influential displays in the blue of Chelsea this season. It was also somewhat incongruous, in a game in which Pearce was ostensibly keen to experiment, to see a midfield three comprising Gareth Barry, Steven Gerrard and Parker.
However, given their opposition in Oranje were the elegant playmaker Wesley Sneijder and the brutal enforcers Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, it was clear that Pearce felt the midfield was not an area in which to tinker. Despite Gerrard's premature departure with a tight hamstring, a state of affairs that is likely to send Kenny Dalglish into yet another funk, England did compete very well in the first half, especially with Parker seeming to relish the armband placed around his bicep.
Pearce, to his credit, also got his front three of Adam Johnson, Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young functioning well. It was a fluid, interchanging attack, though somewhat toothless. An often hostile Wembley crowd were in appreciative mood and there was a sense that the supporters had a manager, a captain and a team that they could readily identify with throughout what was an impressive first half for a team shorn of a number of key players and facing a teach of the quality of the Dutch.
Replete with Robin van Persie, though he had a quiet first 45 minutes before his removal, Robben and Sneijder, Netherlands have a genuine Golden Generation worthy of the name; by contrast, when applied to elements of the squad bequeathed to Pearce by Fabio Capello, the term rings awfully hollow and has done for some time. Ultimately, the gap in class between the two sides was embodied in the scintillating shape of Robben, who after 57 minutes picked up the ball in his own half, charged forward 50 yards and scored arguably the best goal yet seen at the new Wembley.
England's second-half transformation was, again, personified by Parker, who had vacated the area which Robben accelerated into and then almost gifted the Dutch with another goal when slipping soon after. Late goals from Gary Cahill and Young seemed to set England on course for a famous and somewhat fortuitous draw, yet Robben materialised in injury time to expose the home side's shortcomings.
England's inferiority when compared to European powers like Netherlands is hardly the fault of Pearce, and, given the players he had available to him, last night could not be painted as a bitter disappointment. After all, hopes that the likes of Lampard and Gerrard will fire England to glory have been surrendered for some time: realism has set in. England would probably have lost if Capello had had the same set of players against the same opposition.
But on a night when Pearce needed to wow his employers at the FA if he is to have the opportunity to manage his country at Euro 2012, a mixed, somewhat typically English performance was not quite sufficient.
Immensely proud he may be of his brief reign as England boss, but it will surely extend to just the one game. It remains to be seen if Redknapp is the answer, but Wednesday night suggested that Pearce is not.
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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "The Liverpool goalkeeper has lived and worked in the UK for nearly a decade, does he think it's okay to characterise black people this way. Does he think his black team-mates will laugh at his joke? How would the Spanish feel if the English stereotyped Spanish people as backward, stupid, and animalistic homosexuals?" - Trouble is on the horizon again at Anfield after an advert featuring Pepe Reina was pulled after being criticised by anti-racism campaigners. The above quote comes from Operation Black Vote director Simon Woolley, who is unhappy with this clip.
FOREIGN VIEW: "It was emotional to watch him, his speed and explosiveness are astonishing. He has showed again he is the best in the world." - Even Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld gets all misty-eyed when reflecting on Lionel Messi's first international hat-trick for Argentina.
At lunch we will also publish the second part of our interview with Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill, as he discusses his sporting heroes.