For Roy Hodgson it was a desperate and ignominious way to end his four years as England manager. Whatever else happened in that time, his period in office will probably always be remembered for the full-on humiliation that accompanied this defeat and the knowledge it will rank among the more infamous results in the history of the national team.
How can it be thought of any differently when the suffering came against a country with a population roughly the size of his home town of Croydon and absolutely no history of tournament football? What heroes Iceland were: brave, organised, superb. They have established themselves as the greatest story of Euro 2016 and it feels almost like a trick of the imagination that it is only four years since they were ranked 133rd in the world. That, however, will not lessen the embarrassment for England, their departing manager and a set of players who chronically under-performed after Wayne Rooney’s early penalty.
Iceland played with courage, skill and togetherness and might also fancy their chances against France in Sunday’s quarter-final. England, in stark contrast, dramatically lost their way once their lead had been wiped out and Hodgson resigned because he knew there was absolutely no way his contract would be renewed. England will have another manager for the next World Cup, Hodgson’s reign will be defined by a result comparable to losing to the United States in the 1950 World Cup and the now-familiar inquest will begin again in a country that likes to see itself as football royalty.
And so it fizzled to its close with Gary Cahill galloping around as an extra centre-forward, mutinous chants of “you’re not fit to wear the shirt,” from the England followers and Hodgson’s media staff announcing he would not take any questions. Joe Hart held up an arm apologetically towards the supporters. Mostly the players were on their knees. Some hid their faces in the turf and, once again, questions will have to be asked about what stifles them in England’s colours. How could it possibly be, just for starters, that Harry Kane finished last season as the Premier League’s leading scorer but played so badly? Kane did more than anyone to provoke the crowd’s dissent with his overhit passes and misdirected shots.
England certainly had the personnel to save themselves after that wild 15-minute spell in the first half when Iceland – little, patronised Iceland – scored twice to turn the game upside down. This, however, was a dismal night for Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and particularly Kane. Raheem Sterling won the penalty that gave England their early lead but did little otherwise to justify his recall and, defensively, it must have been startling for Hodgson to see the way they capitulated.
Iceland’s first goal came from one of Aron Gunnarsson’s long throws and precisely the kind of routine that, according to Hodgson, had been uppermost in England’s thoughts during their training sessions. The second was another reminder that the modern-day England side simply do not have the outstanding centre-backs of previous tournaments. It was also, once again, a personal ordeal for the increasingly accident-prone Hart.
England’s goalkeeper may bellow the words to the national anthem more vigorously than any of his team-mates but in the rather more important issues he has become a danger to his own side.
Hart’s mistake when Kolbeinn Sigthorsson scored Iceland’s second goal was not quite as wretched as the one he let in from Gareth Bale in the Wales match but, to put it kindly, it was another shot he should have kept out. Hart’s carelessness has become a recurring theme. No team can be this generous at the back and expect to get away with it.
All of which seemed nothing short of remarkable bearing in mind that only three minutes had elapsed when Sturridge’s curling pass sent Sterling running into the penalty area and Iceland’s goalkeeper, Hannes Halldorsson, brought him down to give away a penalty. Rooney aimed the ball, low and hard, to the goalkeeper’s right and at that stage England’s supporters might have been lulled into thinking this was an evening when their team would win with something to spare.
Instead the equaliser arrived within two minutes and was bordering on tragicomedy given that it was the first time Gunnarsson had hurled in the ball from the touchline. England, Hodgson had told us, knew all about this trick and would be drilled to guard against it. Yet it was difficult to see any hard evidence. One Icelandic centre-half flicked the ball on, the second ran in and applied the final touch. Rooney had been beaten by Kari Arnason for the first header and Kyle Walker was even more culpable in the way he failed to cover Ragnar Sigurdsson’s run into the six-yard area.
Iceland’s second goal followed in the 18th minute and, in fairness to Hart, he was not the only one at fault. Cahill and Chris Smalling both stood off as Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Sigthorsson exchanged passes on the edge of the penalty area. Sigthorsson moved in between England’s centre-halves, took aim with his right foot and Hart was diving to his left, just as he did for the Bale goal, when he helped the ball into the net.
England were rattled and, by half-time, starting to look a little desperate. Rooney could be seen slashing wildly at a volley that needed control. Dele Alli resorted to diving to try to win a penalty. Passes were misplaced and, though England did threaten to get behind their opponents, Iceland did not simply retreat once they were ahead. They gave everything to protect their lead but when they had the chance to go forward this tough, obdurate side did so with confidence.
One moment typified England’s inadequacies midway through the second half. England had a free-kick 40 yards out and Kane insisted on shooting from an almost implausible distance, aiming his effort harmlessly wide and, again, attracting voluble dissent from the fans packed behind the goal.
By that stage Hodgson had brought on Jamie Vardy in place of Sterling. Jack Wilshere had already come on at half-time, replacing Eric Dier, and Marcus Rashford was introduced in the 85th minute. What a statistic it is that Rashford completed more dribbles – three – in that time than any other England player throughout the match. Hodgson had taken off Rooney when it surely made better sense to remove a defender. None of it worked and England will never live it down.
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