I have to confess something off the top: it’s been some time since I watched an England football match. It’s partly that as I get older, I like cricket more and football less. Another part of it is that something broke in me when I watched that mind crushingly awful England v Algeria 0-0 draw in the 2010 World Cup that is still rightly derided as one of the worst football matches ever played anywhere, at any level, ever to this day. So I did not come to last night’s match having watched this particular England side a great deal. Or indeed, at all.
I used to watch England play football a great deal – in fact, fairly religiously. For a large chunk of my life I watched every single England match, even the friendlies. The beginning of the end of my need to watch the England football team whenever they played was the 2006 World Cup. I never fully bought into the idea that the team from ten years ago was destined for Jules Rimet glory – it was what happened with Rooney in the quarter-final match against Portugal that did it for me.
In 1998, England faced Argentina in a second round match in the World Cup in France. It was notable for two things: Michael Owen’s brilliant goal, and Beckham getting sent off, the latter leading to the inevitable loss on penalties. In many respects, it was the classic England tournament match: end to end action, with England looking to be in control for a large part of it, until something horrible happens and then they lose in a shootout. The reason I bring up that match now is because after Beckham kicked Diego Simeone and got himself sent off, in the season that followed (which resulted in his club, Manchester United, winning the treble) he had to endure an incredible amount of abuse from English football fans. To get a flavour of what it was like, one chant went “I hope your kid gets cancer and dies”.
I always detested this behaviour, but part of me thought, “well, England fans take this stuff seriously. Cost them a World Cup elimination match and expect the worst.” But now I take you back to that 2006 World Cup quarter final match against Portugal: it was 0-0, deep into the second half of the match. And Rooney decides, for reasons that remain a mystery to me, to stamp on Ricardo Carvalho’s groin, right in front of the ref. It wasn’t even a question of whether he would be sent off or not. It was obvious. I thought at the time, oh dear, Rooney’s going to get it now from the England fans.
But he didn’t. For whatever reason, they gave it to Beckham and let Rooney completely off the hook. It was Renaldo’s fault, apparently, for winking. What made it all the worse was that Beckham clearly took playing for England very seriously, all while being a limited player in some respects but a genius at the stuff he was great at. While Rooney has always struck me as a nasty piece of work who doesn’t really like playing for England very much and who also may well be the most overrated footballer of all time. Something about all this made it impossible for me to follow England with quite the same devotion ever again.
So with all that backstory out of the way, what did I think of England v Russia last night? In many ways, England don’t look anything like England these days, which is kind of good and kind of bad. In the way back times, England usually had two or three really great players, at least one in midfield and one up front, surrounded by mediocrity for the most part, with the added bonus of a usually pretty ropey back four made up of a few Pentonville escapees with nicknames like “Bonebreaker” or “Psycho”, coupled with a too few many Nevilles for anyone’s comfort (a good friend of mine used to say to me, “If there’s a Neville on the pitch I won’t watch England”). To make matters worse, the keeper was usually pushing 50.
These days, England appear to be young, dynamic, aggressive and organised. But the downside to this new look is they seem to lack a player of genuine genius (I repeat, Rooney is not it, never has been, never will be). There is no Gerrard or even a Beckham. This comes through on things like free kicks. Can I just say that Harry Kane cannot take set pieces? He is absolutely terrible at them. I’m assuming after that goal last night that we’ve just discovered Eric Dier’s ability in this area and he’ll be handling this from now on, but prior to that why didn’t Rooney take them instead? By Beckham standards, Rooney is terrible at them as well, but he’s exponentially better than Kane. Is this still something to do with the fantasy that Rooney is the classic English centre-forward and therefore we needed him in front of goal? He isn’t, get over it.
For most of the match, I figured 0-0 was inevitable. Not because it was boring and both sides were playing defensively, but rather, England looked much better but lacked anyone with a killer touch (or even a semi-decent first touch, Sterling’s mishap early in the second half being only the most obvious example of this tendency). Meanwhile that Russia side was the worst bunch I’ve ever seen wearing Russia shirts (I kept thinking, “Are you Belarus in disguise?”). After the Dier goal, I was convinced that was that – Russia had never looked close to scoring in the whole match up to that point. This new look England side were going to get away from the old England style of fouling things up at the end.
Only, unfortunately, they didn’t. But again, even though the last second Russian equaliser seemed very England-esque in may respects, the way it actually happened wasn’t. Back in the day, when England was up in a match late on, they would absolutely panic. It was like they all wanted to say to the ref, “Listen, I don’t know if you know this, but we’re England – we are not meant to win football matches, okay? Could you please give the other side a dodgy penalty before one of us has to break someone’s leg in the area?” There was none of that last night. It was much more like a young team who just couldn’t quite keep it together until the final whistle. Which was sad, but encouraging.
It is all set up now for England v Wales. With Wales having beaten Slovakia, England have to beat Wales if they want to top the group. This is far from certain to happen, however. Like I said, England seem organised but lacking any individual greatness. Gareth Bale will be the best player on the pitch bar none in that match – and I don’t need to remind you that he’ll be wearing the Welsh kit. We’ll see how much of a difference that makes come Thursday.
At last we come to the hooligan stuff. What happened in Marseille reminds us of just how much the idea that football related violence is a thing of the past is very wishful thinking. It appears that when you put together militant Russian nationalist hooligans, large groups of English fans due to the close proximity of the tournament (amongst them would have likely been some of the most hardcore hooligan element from these shores), and French police who seem frighteningly unprepared (or diverted towards terrorist concerns), you get a disaster. I hope for nothing worse than what’s already gone down (two England supporters have been seriously injured), but I think that may be a wish in vain.