England’s Roy Hodgson goes for broke and hits the jackpot against Wales

England head coach Roy Hodgson

Perhaps it is not that hard after all. Facing perhaps the biggest 45 minutes of his managerial career (though Fulham fans may disagree), Roy Hodgson picked up his pile of chips, crossed his fingers and shunted them all on to red.

He had just heard his team, 1-0 down, booed off at half‑time by angry England fans and watched his goalkeeper, Joe Hart, trudge the length of the field back to the dressing room without a word of support from any of his team‑mates after making the mistake that left them adrift.

He had watched Raheem Sterling, the Manchester City winger with whom he had persisted despite the fact his confidence appears complete shot, run up endless blind allies and become the whipping boy for the England support.

At the umpteenth attempt, there was little rhyme or reason to England’s tactics and little sign they were building towards a discernible end point.

And as was oft-noted in the wake of the opening draw that put England on the back foot, where Russia’s last-minute equaliser is now bound up with grim memories of crowd trouble, Hodgson can often appear to have caution hardwired into his bones.

But if the temptation is to mark this down as a new, bold dawn for a man who has doggedly refused to bend to his critics then it was probably more accurate to say he had simply shaken up his kaleidoscope one more time. Staring disaster in the face, he had little choice but to go for broke.

Daniel Sturridge, everywhere as England upped the tempo in a helter‑skelter opening to the second half, proved he was a world-class, big‑game player. Jamie Vardy did what Jamie Vardy does and scored a crucial goal. It might be more pertinent to wonder why neither man had appeared until desperation kicked in. And later the youngest player in the tournament, Marcus Rashford, was chucked into the fray for good measure.

Yet there was little to suggest that here was a man working to a plan. Whereas Germany (obviously) but also smaller teams like Wales and Iceland can claim they have been building towards France with a coherent sense of destiny, Hodgson has sometimes seemed to baffle himself.

And yet there are moments in tournaments, often when backs are against the wall, when something shifts and clicks almost imperceptibly into place, almost by accident. Think Bobby Robson’s five-man defence in 1990 or the introduction of a teenage Michael Owen by Glenn Hoddle in 1998.

In Hodgson’s defence there were plenty who argued the key to unlocking England was to play Dele Alli in harness with Harry Kane. Yet Kane looked shot.

For once, Hodgson reacted to what was in front of him. His pallor during much of that first half, and again when Wales seemed to have quelled a resurgent England in the second half, was as white as his team’s shirts.

Stroking his chin, biting his nails, occasionally straying to the edge of his technical area, Hodgson knew he was starting humiliation in the face. While England’s hopes of qualification would still survive had they lost, it was hard to imagine how Hodgson would once they got home.

Hodgson had a disastrous World Cup in Brazil. A similarly unconvincing Damascene conversion to attacking verve on the eve of that tournament came unstuck. This time a more forgiving format and an element of luck that was lacking in Brazil breathed new life into England’s campaign.

Judgment day for Hodgson arrived with a deluge of rain and slate-grey skies. Before the end the sun was shining on him and his coaching team of Ray Lewington and Gary Neville as they exchanged furious, frenzied hugs on the touchline at the end. He would also be entitled to point out that other teams, not least the hosts, are haphazardly playing their way in and searching for their best combinations.

Instead of the wheels coming off as they had in Rio England instead found redemption through Sturridge’s fine winner and, after a grim few days on and off the pitch, celebrated in the corner with their voluble fans with gusto.

By the time he had made his way to the post-match press conference Hodgson appeared relaxed and happy – as well he might. “With my passion and enthusiasm for the game I’ll probably stay 40. It’s just a case of avoiding mirrors,” he joked. Hodgson’s desperate gamble had taken years off him. Whether it has taken him any further forward in his circuitous quest to cast off the shackles of his innate conservatism, or left him any clearer what his best team is, will be answered only as England journey deeper into the tournament.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Owen Gibson at Stade Bollaert-Delelis, for The Guardian on Thursday 16th June 2016 18.55 Europe/London

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