When the final, decisive blow arrived, Roy Hodgson was off his seat and out of the dugout.
His hands were in the air and England’s manager had set off on the kind of victory run that had rarely been seen during his four years in office. Nothing gets the blood pumping more in football than a 92nd-minute winner and the significance of that moment, with its impact on Group B, could hardly be overstated.
England had given everything in their pursuit of that exhilarating high when Daniel Sturridge clipped in the stoppage-time winner that meant Hodgson’s players could enjoy the view from the top of the group, almost certain to qualify barring a calamity against Slovakia at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, St Etienne, on Monday.
Wales are still in a strong position to join them in the knock-out stages but it was an excruciating way for this tough, obdurate side to lose a game that carried so much importance. Chris Coleman, their manager, described it as the worst feeling he had encountered in his professional life and used the word “gut-wrenching” to explain what everyone could already see from his body language. England’s players will have a rough idea how it feels themselves after conceding a goal at precisely the same time in their opening game against Russia. Yet this is the nature of sport and England were entitled to those raucous celebrations at the end when it felt like a switch had been turned on and the entire mood surrounding the team had changed.
It certainly isn’t difficult to imagine the pressure on Hodgson, with his future in question, if his team had finished their second game in this tournament with regret in their minds. Hodgson would have had, in effect, one game to save himself, with the heat rising dangerously close to intolerable. Instead, there might be a strong argument to consider the second half the most satisfying 45 minutes of his reign bearing in mind the importance of the occasion. More than that, we might have seen the very best of Hodgson’s management after the lapse from Joe Hart that allowed Gareth Bale’s free-kick to squeeze inside the post just before half-time.
To put it into context, Hodgson was asked in the post-match press conference whether he had ever made a better double substitution in a managerial career going all the way back to Halmstads BK in Sweden in 1976. Hodgson, desperately needing some new impetus, had brought on Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge at half-time. Vardy equalised with his first shot before Hodgson added Marcus Rashford to the mix and went for all-out attack. Hodgson, lest it be forgotten, once found adjectives such as “conservative” and “prosaic” being used to describe his football ethos. His new adventurous streak has been both unexpected and fun, in equal measure, and it meant Wales being subjected to some concerted pressure as England set about trying to make sure the occasion would not be remembered solely for Hart’s ordeal.
Hodgson certainly deserves acclaim for abandoning his initial formation at the end of a difficult, slightly unnerving first half. England still had a packed defence to get through – at one point Ashley Williams and James Chester could both both be seen throwing themselves at the same shot – but the new additions brought a vibrancy that had not previously been there. Raheem Sterling was taken off after another undistinguished performance, most notable for an inelegant finish with the game’s first scoring opportunity, and Harry Kane was also removed as Hodgson put in place an entirely new strike-force. Kane is a formidable opponent but he has played in 118 games in the previous two years and it might be that everything is catching up with him.
Vardy, in stark contrast, brought raw energy and a new wave of enthusiasm and, ten minutes into the second half, his goal turned the game in England’s favour. Sturridge had clipped a cross into the centre and, though the Welsh players appealed en masse for offside, the ball had actually spun off the head of Williams before reaching Vardy, unchallenged, inside the six-yard area. From that position, he was never likely to pass up the opportunity.
Hodgson was less enamoured by the officiating in the first half when Sterling’s cross looped off Chester and left Kane with a headed chance at the far post. Kane’s effort struck the nearest opponent, Ben Davies, then ricocheted against the defender’s arm, but the German referee, Felix Brych, waved on play and Wales made the most of their good fortune by taking the lead three minutes before the interval. Hart might wake up in a cold sweat thinking about this moment because there is no doubt a goalkeeper of his distinction should not have been beaten this way.
Bale was over 30 yards from goal when he started lining up the shot. He struck it forcefully and the Real Madrid player has an uncommon ability to hit the ball with unorthodox swerve and dip, making it move like an inflatable on a beach. All the same, the free-kick did not carry venomous pace and Hart had long enough to work out the trajectory of the ball. He reached it with both hands but the ball spun off his gloves, squirmed inside the post and suddenly Bale was off on his victory run, Hart’s face was in the turf and that was the moment when it became clear Hodgson might have to rethink his entire strategy.
Coleman might reflect that his team defended too deeply from that point onwards. Their attitude could be summed up by Joe Ledley’s indefatigable performance in midfield, back in the starting line-up only 40 days after breaking his leg. Aaron Ramsey led by example and Wales came agonisingly close to emerging with a draw they would have regarded with considerable satisfaction. What they lacked, perhaps, was composure on the ball. Coleman talked about his team rushing passes, questioning whether they might have let the occasion affect them. Bale, he admitted, was “too isolated” in attack and Wales desperately needed their best player on the ball more often.
For England, there were still imperfections but in the warm afterglow of a victory it probably did not matter so much that Hodgson had Rooney taking the team’s corners, having apparently decided that Kane was not the man for the job, after all. These are details the England manager should have nailed down long before now, and it is not entirely encouraging at this late stage that he is still working out which player is best for which role.
Overall, though, Hodgson has not had many better days as manager. England had never before won a game in a major tournament after losing at half-time. They also went into the second half having not scored twice in 13 of their previous 14 tournament matches, going back to the 2006 World Cup. Yet the introduction of Rashford was another clear sign of Hodgson’s thinking for the final 20 minutes or so and the Wales defence could probably be excused if a little fatigue crept in during those final exchanges.
Sturridge looked sharp and lively, picking out Vardy in the penalty area, then darting forward after the return pass. Vardy turned it inside to Dele Alli and then it was Sturridge’s turn, again, and even though he seemed slightly off balance, with Chris Gunter closing him down, he always looked in control. Coleman had turned away, unable to look, and Hodgson was off his seat, punching the skies.
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