THE DANGER signs are already appearing: England were being listed among the favourites for Euro 2016 on the back of a 3-2 friendly win against World Champions Germany. But, in time-honoured fashion, the balloons were burst a few days later as the Netherlands, stricken by failing to qualify for the finals and the death of football legend Johan Cruyff, won 2-1 at Wembley.
The timing of the Dutch win could not have been better. Even the most sobre and grounded of journalists started to predict an England renaissance in France. I even heard comparisons being drawn between the 1966 squad and Roy Hodgson’s workmanlike outfit – Vardy the new Hurst, Stones the new Moore and so on and so forth. Football fans can easily get high on the fumes of kick-about success.
The fact is, and to Hodgson’s credit, he has moulded an average squad into something that may not leave us red-faced this summer. But we should not forget, England started at a low point after a miserable World Cup 2014 that ended with a draw against the mighty Costa Rica.
The team that lost to Uruguay in the second, and decisive, group game in Brazil was: Joe Hart, Glen Johnson, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge. Subs: Ross Barklay, Adam Lallana, Ricky Lambert. Of those 14 players, Johnson, Gerrard, Baines and Lambert will definitely not feature in Euro 2016.
Hodgson, however, has been fortunate in that two strikers, unexpectedly, have emerged in the aftermath of the disaster that was Brazil 2014 – Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy. For the first time in a while, England have two men at the top the Premier scoring charts. For too long, England have relied on Wayne Rooney and, frankly, his international career, while being long and statistically successful, has failed to live up to expectations. Daniel Sturridge has been injury-prone and also, cannot be classed as a top-level striker. Kane has the potential to become England’s front-man for a sustained period, while Vardy is the man for the moment. In 12 months, he may not be such a compelling case.
Kane’s club, Tottenham, have come to the rescue for England in promising some youngsters that could – could being the important word here – build a half decent team for the next few years. We thought likewise with the Arsenal set of Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott, but they have not yet realised their potential – if indeed, they ever will. Eric Dier and Delli Alli, along with Kane, represent the next batch of prospects and it could be they are coming good at the right time.
When you add this trio to Ross Barklay, John Stones (minus the slip-ups) and Raheem Sterling, you suddenly get the feeling that things, perhaps, are not so grim for the England team. But it ‘aint no team of world beaters.
I saw Greg Dyke a few months ago at a FA Cup tie and he was proudly talking about England’s run of wins, mostly in the European Championship qualifiers. While it is true that 10 wins, 31 goals scored and three conceded is impressive, England would have to be pretty inept to have failed to qualify from a group that included: Switzerland, San Marino, Estonia, Slovenia and Lithuania. In truth, the first game, in Basle, resulting in a 2-0 win, all but guaranteed qualification.
In today’s fragmented and geographically-liberated Europe, it is hard not to come through a group, although the Dutch will tell you things can go horribly wrong. Look at England’s qualification record in last six World Cup and European Championships:
Impressive qualifying figures guarantee nothing, but each time England storm through a group containing various Baltic states or reconstituted Balkans, the nation starts to get carried away. With the last couple of tournaments, a sense of reality crept in, but even an unexpectant nation was deflated by World Cup 2016.
Beating Germany set that barometer soaring again, but it you look at England’s recent record in friendlies, you can derive some optimism from Berlin and the November win against Euro 2016 hosts France. But these games count for little (until the UEFA Nations League starts in 2018, that is) and are, to some extent, a rip-off for the public – training games with multiple substitutes. I watched the Netherlands game and was more distracted by the constantly moving advertisements than the football.
What can we conclude from the last few days of England watching? It is unlikely that either the Germans or the Dutch will have drawn too much from the games – and neither should England. Hodgson has a better squad than World Cup 2014 and we’ve – thankfully – seen the last of that over-hyped “golden generation”. Wayne Rooney’s time is coming to an end, the hopes now rest with Kane, who is able, and a player who may turn out to be a one-season wonder, Jamie Vardy. With a 24-team tournament – neither fish nor fowl – you have to be an also-ran not to get through the group stage, and England should be able to come through the initial fortnight or so and face a last-16 clash. England will not get embarrassed in France and, after the past few years, that will be progress. But let’s keep things in perspective.