So, international weekend again. After the late but entertaining scramble to qualify, the English national football team take a form of precedence and spend the forthcoming long weekend entertaining their cohorts of the upcoming Brazil World cup.
In recent years the break in league football for glorified international kickabouts has received significant and vocal cynicism – the kind that wouldn’t have you expecting to hear of a mad rush for tickets for the World Cup from this stamp of the Northern hemisphere. Cynicism is too easy when England are concerned – it’s deeply set in our national psyche, we’re a nation that seems to expect underachievement – to be underwhelmed, whether justifiable or not.
“Really poor performance but fortunately it was against a team so bad you could drag people out of pub teams to play for them and they wouldn’t look out of place..”
That was just one in a string of negative comments taken from the BBC Sport website after coasting past Moldova in a 4-0 victory. Whist not wanting to give overemphasised credence to the factual accuracy of the tribal rage that circulates the comment sections of major websites, the cynicism is there for all to see. Even ITV, broadcasting the final home fixture against Poland days later, chose to open with various citations to late failures to qualify in the past – raising a very questioning eyebrow at the time to its actual purpose.
In most ways, the national side has unwittingly helped create this specific cynicism. The out-of-context “golden generation” tagline has many still reacting to every squad selection like a swathe of world-class players are being overlooked for the inclusion of James Milner – even if the headline of “Jordan Henderson hoping to win England World Cup place” won’t set many a pulse racing.
However, recent events have created a spark of hope that this outlook can improve. Two home wins in the final two qualifiers were required to guarantee a trip to Brazil next summer, and Roy Hodgson somewhat surprised the masses by fielding two very positive teams. Intent on taking the game to the opposition from the very start and winning by numbers, six goals and a host of aggressive attacks followed.
The monotonous, greyish appearance of Hodgson certainly hasn’t made his sale to the general public easy – as an unlikely source as any to deliver rousing optimism, but the wise old manager has far more positive thinking within him that credited. His call-ups to previously unselected players such as Ricky Lambert and Andros Townsend have been met with the standard cynicism, but made a refreshing (if not small) break from the days a player’s name could have been finely carved in the dressing room bench. Moreover, both players played scoring roles in the final qualifying games – pouring cold water over the howls of derision that greeted their squad inclusions.
The trend has continued with recent, and deserved, additions of Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez; however their inclusion in a playing side will be required to give long term belief that England will be genuinely selected upon form and future – players not called upon simply to fill up the squad numbers.
The quality of entertainment, at Wembley mainly, has also risen. The 0-0 draw in Ukraine was the only game England had failed score since exiting Euro 2012, 15 games ago – 15 games which have seen a whopping 55 goals scored. The cynic may point at routine wins over minnows such as San Marino, but it would be disingenuous to say the games vs Brazil, Sweden and Scotland were not good value entertainment, regardless of end result.
Roy Hodgson should be at pains to extrapolate this small spark; this glimmer of entertainment – of fun – that has dried up with following the national side in recent years. After all England will not win next year’s World Cup – we will be there to make up the numbers (unless you’re feeling insanely confident and ready to Get your tickets to the World Cup final), but do we go as plucky entertainers playing with a refreshing release from pressure and genuine enjoyment at being there, or return to an apparent safer way, attempting to stumble along to quarter finals?
The nation’s imagination may not exactly be there to recapture, but their collective attention certainly is. Many weaker teams have proved a knack for delivering unashamed entertainment – it is a realistic possibility. And at the home of samba, what better stage to begin.