England v Belgium 2 June 2012

With balloons in the crowd, a strong focus on Royal Family look-a-likes and the Mexican Wave starting before the first fifteen minutes had passed, the general atmosphere in England’s match against Belgium less than a week before the start of a major tournament summed up the ambivalence towards the current national team. In fact there were so many paper aeroplanes thrown from the stands, made from the red and white ‘clappers’ left  in every seat, it is arguable there hadn’t been as much rubbish on the pitch of an England match since the display against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup.

However, real evidence of the low levels of expectation as the national side head towards the European Championship came at the end of the match; two years ago after England played Mexico at Wembley ahead of the 2010 World Cup the majority of the crowd stayed behind after the final whistle to fervently wish the players well before they set-off to South Africa. Steven Gerrard even commented about how he could see the determination in the eyes of so many that Wednesday evening. This time as the players started their walk around the ground, most had already headed-off despite the more convenient Saturday early evening kick-off, with polite applause from those that stayed.

And with news yesterday that a sixth player from the team that finished eighth in the League will now be part of an England squad challenging for the European Championship, as Martin Kelly was called-up to replace the injured Gary Cahill, it is no surprise there is such little anticipation and excitement, as the current England side takes on an uninspiring style, both on paper and on grass.

Cahill’s injury occurred early, as he collided with Joe Hart, resulting in a dislocated jaw. Despite the farcical background and FA politics that has led Kelly, Liverpool’s reserve right-back, to be called up as a replacement, it is lucky it wasn’t Hart who was injured and forced out of the tournament. With Rob Green now the first-choice back-up according to Roy Hodgson, and the young and inexperienced Jack Buckland also in the squad, Hart’s presence will be vital, particularly as England continue to concede possession easily and face the prospect of defending for large spells in the game against top class opposition.

That is partly because of the pattern of play. Glenn Hoddle’s observation of past poor England teams before his reign – that they play in straight-lines – looks like it will also apply to Hodgson’s team, with an early example on Saturday of the ball being passed across the centre-backs to right-back Glen Johnson, who when he receives it had few options, so quickly plays a percentage ball down the flank that the opposition easily swallow-up. Fairly depressive fare.

The Belgium side, with a mix of technically gifted players and aggressive bite throughout the team, were the better side for much of the game, but one moment of class, when Danny Welbeck beautifully lifted the ball over the on-coming Mignolet, after a through ball from Ashley Young, was enough to win the game. Though Young was nominally playing in the hole, his position was advanced enough that there was a big gap between him and the two central midfielders, Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard. And with the two other midfielders, James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin, stuck on the flanks, England were often out-numbered in midfield.

The previous day in a training session at Wembley, work with the attacking players involved Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard feeding balls in, with Walcott on the right, Chamberlin on the left, and the four central strikers being Carroll, Young, Defoe and Welbeck. With a recognition that Rooney and Gerrard are the most creative playmakers from a deep lying central position it is surprising that Gerrard is not playing in the hole in the absence of Rooney for the first two games, which would allow another central midfielder to play alongside Parker, and also allow two other attacking midfielders, such as Young and Chamberlin, more freedom in the final third.

Hodgson of course said he felt Lampard and Barry were better than the one fit English player who could dictate the pace of games from a central midfielder position, Michael Carrick, although neither of them could do what Carrick does. Now with Lampard and Barry out, the squad contains only Phil Jagielka and Phil Jones, converted defenders, that could join Parker, or Jordan Henderson, who was greeted with a few boos on in his introduction on Saturday, no doubt more as a scapegoat for the disappointment of his inclusion in the squad after an average season, rather than a personal attack.

The boos for John Terry when he was replaced were of course personal, and a reminder of the divisive nature the squad takes on by the day, with decision to replace Cahill with Kelly ahead of Rio Ferdinand yesterday again bringing into focus Hodgson’s decision to take Terry in the first place. The FA could have taken the matter out of Hodgson’s hands by suspending Terry, which with a criminal trail hanging over him would have been standard in most other professions. However, as the choice for Hodgson was seemingly either Terry or Ferdinand, despite his decent form-in the run-in Terry’s performance against Liverpool at Anfield in the League game days after Chelsea won the FA Cup, gave Hodgson the perfect opportunity to leave out him out on footballing grounds, and giving the side a fresh start that we should have all been entitled to expect with a new manager.

Instead, the decision to pick Terry, and then go back to an old captain who was unsuccessful in the World Cup, Steven Gerrard, means the legacy of past failures remains, and highlights the bizarre decision to single out Rio Ferdinand, with age supposedley a factor. The two alternate captains still showed positive signs on Saturday; Parker once again mopped up when Gerrard conceded possession, while Joe Hart’s leadership was evident throughout, perhaps none more so when England scored, when as others were celebrating he ran to the half-way line to tell first Ashley Cole and then John Terry defensive instructions they both listened to and accepted.

Like the Spain win under Capello, and the win over Norway last week, it was a 1-0 win that is reliant on last ditch defending, Scott Parker winning the ball back constantly and England somehow nicking a goal it can defend. Greece showed in 2004 major international tournaments can be won that way, and even Chelsea’s Champions League win was a further boost for negative, “anti-football”. And there is talent to score goals as Welbeck showed on Saturday, while Jermain Defoe, who looked the sharpest finisher in training on Friday, also came on and hit the post in the second-half on Saturday, as England were forced to survive on counter-attacks as the game wore on.

But there is nothing to get excited about.

For all the injuries England have, match-winner Aaron Lennon has been ignored while playmaker Michael Carrick, two goalkeepers, Micah Richards and Rio Ferdinand, have all been ostracised, while their places in the squad have been taken by inferior players. Hodgson has managed to create little expectation, with could heighten the impact of any success, which shouldn’t be too much to ask in a relatively easy Group compared to the opposition, say, the Germans or Italians are facing. But there will be little sympathy for failure, with such a self-defeating and negative approach.


The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to buy for a Kindle from Amazon for £4.27 inc VAT, and for a number of other formats including as a PDF, an online download and for Apple, Palm and Sony hand-held devices from Smashwords. With recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey over land and sea in the 2010-11 Champions League. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.