At the Stade des Bourgognes, England’s training ground on the outskirts of Chantilly, there was an unmistakable hint of irritation in Roy Hodgson’s voice. His players were going through a training exercise featuring two sets of players in one penalty area.
On one side, Hodgson was rotating groups of four or five attackers. On the other, outnumbered, Gary Cahill and John Stones were trying to keep them out with Joe Hart in goal. And Hodgson did not sound too enamoured by the number of times the various attacking manoeuvres came to nothing. “The quality at the moment has to be better than this,” Hodgson, halting play, could be heard shouting to his players.
It might have to be in Nice as well if the game against Iceland on Monday is not to take a place fairly high up on the list of England’s more chastening experiences. England, to use Wayne Rooney’s description, will be “overwhelming favourites” in the Allianz Riviera and it is worth noting the reaction of the five-man Football Association delegation who watched Lars Lagerback’s team play Austria at Parc des Princes on Wednesday. Hodgson’s entourage were visibly pleased when Arnor Ingvi Traustason scored the goal that meant England will face the smallest nation in the tournament. However diplomatic Hodgson and his staff might be over the coming days, there can be no doubt they are relieved to have avoided Portugal and a renascent Cristiano Ronaldo when Iceland, to put it one way, have a centre-half whose career incorporates spells at Plymouth Argyle and Rotherham United.
Not that England can be overly presumptuous when Iceland have gone through Group F unbeaten and won against Holland, home and away, in the qualifying stages. “In the next couple of days, now we are in the knock-out stages, I’m sure we will practise penalties a lot more,” Rooney volunteered, returning to a familiar theme. “We’ve been practising them every day anyway but now we will start doing it as a group, like a match situation.”
Rooney, it transpired, already had his own routine in training. “I always know where I am going to aim,” he says. “Then, whatever corner I am going for, I tell the goalkeeper so they know where to dive and that deliberately makes it harder for me. It makes it difficult, but I also know that if the goalkeeper can’t save it, despite knowing which way I am going to shoot, there are no worries for me taking them properly. It’s difficult, but if he doesn’t save it, I know it should be fine.”
England, he pointed out, do not have a player in the current squad who has missed in a penalty shootout for the national side. “It’s a nervous moment. I remember in the last Euros against Italy. As I’ve said, I always know which way I’m going but when I walked up to the spot [Gianluigi] Buffon was actually pointing to where I was going to kick it and telling me he knew I was going that way. He was right, so then I started wondering whether I should go the other way. I ended up the going the same way – and he dived in the opposite direction. But just by a goalkeeper pointing one way, it can knock you off.”
Ideally, England would like to spare themselves the ordeal against a team that was so far off their radar going into this tournament there have been questions about why Hodgson chose not to attend the Iceland-Austria game when he had spent Wednesday in Paris sightseeing. More details have now emerged of Hodgson’s day trip with his assistant, Ray Lewington. The two visited Notre Dame and took a boat ride along the Seine (Lewington had never visited the French capital before). Hodgson, however, has described it as “laughable” to suggest it was an oversight on his part bearing in mind he has access to extensive video footage.
The reports from his scouts have described Iceland as a “throwback”, heavily reliant on long balls, defending in numbers, and trying to capitalise on set-pieces, knockdowns and long throws. Iceland have reached this position despite their opponents having roughly two-thirds of the possession and England’s players will be told to put pressure on the full-backs, Birkir Mar Saevarsson and Ari Freyr Skulason, both of whom are regarded as potentially vulnerable. England’s own full‑backs, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, will be encouraged to play as auxiliary wingers.
If everything goes according to plan, England will certainly have more challenging assignments to follow, with France potentially waiting in the quarter-finals and Hodgson’s team now in the section of the draw that features Spain, Italy and Germany.
The common suspicion is that England might ultimately regret finishing runners-up to Wales but Rooney came up with an alternative argument when it was put to him that Hodgson’s team selection in the goalless draw against Slovakia, giving six players their first starts of the competition, might have made life more difficult than necessary. “If this was four years ago and you were saying we had to play France, Spain, Germany we would have been worried. But the gap isn’t as big now and perhaps some of them aren’t as good as they were. It will be tough, of course, but I personally feel we are as good as all those teams.” Asked to name the best side he had seen so far, Rooney nominated Croatia, in the other side of the draw.
For Rooney, the trip to Nice will result in his 115th cap, putting him alongside David Beckham in second place in the list of England’s all-time appearance-makers (10 behind Peter Shilton). Beckham, true to form, has been in touch and Rooney offered a revealing insight about why he seemed more relaxed in this tournament than previous ones. “I have always felt a lot of pressure before,” he said. “I would come into tournaments feeling I had to be the one who would win us games. I would be thinking: ‘If I don’t play at my best I cannot see us winning it.’ Then, when it didn’t go well, it would build up inside. It’s different now and I’m happy to take a back seat. We have five or six match-winners in our team and I cannot say we have always had that.”
That was some statement bearing in mind Rooney initially broke into an England side featuring, among others, Beckham, Paul Scholes, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Yet he sounded like he meant it – and he was not done there. “We don’t just want to get to the quarter-finals,” Rooney said. “You don’t play for the achievement of getting to a quarter-final. What would I, and the other players, get out of that? We want to win it. That’s the aim. I am not going to sit here and say: ‘We’ve got some good young players so we’ll be happy to get to the quarter-finals, the future’s bright’ and all that. We are here and we want to win it.”
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