Fear: It was an apt word for Roy Hodgson to choose ahead of tonight’s game. His England team, he says, will play without any of that sort of affliction in the two home games which conclude their World Cup qualification campaign. Carefree and relaxed, he is confident they will do enough to book their place in Brazil.
And, looking at it objectively, there is no reason why he and his players should be quaking in their boots. This has been an unusually serene build up for the England team. The great gushing torrent of blather that normally surrounds them has been distracted by arguments that have little bearing on their ability to achieve the required result. We have been detained instead by Jack Wilshere’s views on Englishness, by Harry Redknapp’s book-plugging tales of why he should be where Hodgson is and by Joey Barton’s views on the England team. They are shit, he says - which, makes you wonder what that makes him, an English midfielder unable to gain selection for a shit team.
This has allowed Hodgson quietly to prepare with probably the strongest squad he has been able to muster in his time in charge. He has the Premier League’s most in-form striker in Daniel Sturridge, he has Wayne Rooney looking fired up and keen, he has – in Ross Barkley and Andros Townsend - two of the sharpest young talents around, both on sparkling form for their clubs. Sure, his goalie might be suffering the yips, but the rest of the team look to be humming. Even his injury crisis has taken a benevolent form. If there is one position where he has genuine excellence in reserve, it is left back. The damage of losing a player as accomplished as Ashley Cole is somewhat diminished when his direct replacement is Leighton Baines.
Nothing to fear there for this evening’s game, you might have thought. Especially as Montenegro are missing their first choice keeper Mladen Bozovic, as well as Miodrag Pekovic, Marko Basa and most debilitating of all Juventus’s superb play-maker, Mirko Vucinic.
Surely, the necessary victory should not be that hard to accomplish.
Except this is England. And this is Wembley, a place that seems to inspire everyone who plays there. Except the hosts.
Tonight will give us perfect demonstration of the problem most likely to undermine Hodgson, the one every England manager struggles to overcome. England are up against a side that, on paper, look entirely beatable. In midfield, Steven Gerrard will be confronted by Simon Vukcevic, who passed two years at Blackburn barely noticed before his contract was rescinded. Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill, meanwhile, will face Stevan Jovetic, a centre forward so far down the pecking order at Manchester City he can barely get a game in the Capital One Cup.
And yet when they pull on the national team shirt, they and their team mates suddenly look like world beaters. Somehow their game swells when they play with the Montenegro crest on their chest. They pass and move with an added vim. Jovetic will take the opportunity to show Manuel Pelligrini that he has a diamond on his hands.
England’s players, on the other hand, seem to suffer from a sort of inverse alchemy; pull on the white shirt and the golden generation turn to straw men. Players who have won the Champions League shuffle and scuff. The easy explanation is that, when they play for their clubs, they are surrounded by better foreign players who hide their deficiencies. But that does not explain Wilshere’s crumbling showing in Ukraine, or Rooney’s inability in South Africa to find a player wearing the same colour shirt, or the general collective wither that seems to overwhelm England players. Why is it that while their international seem to draw inspiration, they seem to be gripped by – to use Hodgson’s word - fear?
It is not a problem of the current manager’s making. It seems institutionalised in the England set up. Graham Taylor, two decades on from his time as boss, recalls that the most striking thing he noted was how nervous his players were. Seasoned league performers suddenly played like hapless beginners. He reckoned it took at least ten caps before a player – no matter how self-confident he might appear on the surface – felt fully at home in a white shirt.
How invigorating it would be to watch Townsend, Barkley, Wilshere, Sturridge, Rooney and the rest play this weekend with the care-free up-and-at-em approach of which they are capable. How great it would be to see them play with the verve and enthusiasm of their opponents. But don’t hold your breath.
“We will play without fear” Hodgson insisted yesterday.
That would be wonderful to see. And if Hodgson achieves it, how we will all enjoy our weekend. How it will lift our spirits. Even Joey Barton will be cheering.
- Sports & Recreation
- Roy Hodgson