Pack away the flags. Put the song-sheet down.
After two strangulated, ultimately hysterical weeks in France it really is time to go home. It was not just England’s tournament that ended at the Stade de Nice with this stunning last-16 defeat by Iceland, a nation the size of the London Borough of Lewisham. At the final whistle a wider full stop arrived with Roy Hodgson’s resignation after four years in the job, capped at the last by one of the great English sporting failures, defeat so abject it qualifies as a kind of uber-loss, humiliation that will sting even through the scar tissue of all that accumulated tournament failure.
Hodgson had to go. And he duly went, handing in his blazer and badge with a brief statement in the media room here. There is an element of sadness to every ending, even one as hapless as this. Above all there was a horrible, bruising grandeur to this exit, an instructive kind of poetry.
Clunky, rather obvious poetry, but poetry nonetheless as on a humid night the last of Roy’s England lost to a more vibrant, more coherent shadow-version of themselves. England were not just beaten. At times it felt as though they were being dragged backwards through space and time as the Swedish connection, Roy Hodgson’s England and Lars Lagerback’s Iceland, produced a hard-running, long-passing game that would not have looked out of place in the old first division of hoofs, mixers and knock-downs. Welcome to our world, Côte d’Azur. This is England 1985.
Outplayed but also outmanoeuvred on the details, there were so many painful points. Want a window into why England fail? Perhaps we should start with arrogance and entitlement. England’s scouting staff had punched the air when Iceland scored at the end against Austria, ensuring England would be their next opponents. Shades here of poor old Graham Taylor against Norway (“the Norwegian players are in awe of Gascoigne”) and that familiar dunderheaded sense of unearned superiority.
At least one otherwise sensible voice had suggested defeat by Iceland, a team that qualified by beating Holland home and away, would be the biggest embarrassment in England football history, a statement so obviously incorrect it seems an act of Mike Bassett-level little-Englander parody.
Sadly the sense of causal prep extended to Hodgson himself, who went off on a boat trip up the Seine with Ray Lewington rather than watch Iceland play in the flesh. Ray, you see, had never seen Paris. Oh, the horror. Perhaps in time Roy’s boat ride will find itself enshrined alongside Steve McClaren’s umbrella, Kevin Keegan’s toilet, Sven’s psychedelic fake-sheikh yacht ride among the anguish-laden friezes of the England managerial death vault.
Iceland do not deserve to be lumped in as a function of England’s humiliation. They were by far the better team on the evening. Although it was still fitting it should be them. This is a nation with arguably the best youth coaching set-up in the world, football’s greatest first-world overachievers, a place where nothing is wasted, only reproduced; up against the great barfing, burping behemoth of waste and mangled talent that is English football, a Premier League where players are broken rather than made, where the only line is the bottom line.
Raheem Sterling, the most expensive England player ever, was supposed to tear Iceland apart on the right here. Hodgson’s spotters had identified the full-backs as a weakness. Hence another in the endless late-Hodgson reshuffles on England’s flanks, where an odd fretfulness has become Hodgson’s defining feature in the last days. Lallana and Sterling in. Sterling out. Lallana out. Sterling in. Henderson in then out. Sturridge in then in somewhere else. Welcome to Roy’s wing roulette! Sterling’s direct opponent on his flank was Birkir Saevarsson, fingered as a weak link but a hugely experienced player and a regular at Hammarby. Sterling did not get a kick.
From the moment the late-evening heat settled a little heavier before kick-off there was a genuine twang of tension around this steeply banked bowl. Not for Iceland, for whom this is a genuine first-step-on-the-moon moment of sporting history. But for England’s lost and frantic players, who seemed as the night wore on to disintegrate a little in that familiar fashion, stricken, baffled, faces contorted with ancestral confusion.
At least England did not show the same weaknesses as in the group stage, when the old habits of losing the ball, and playing too quickly were replaced by a sickly imitation of possession football, all lateral trudge and hopeful pot shots. Instead England showed other, more urgent weaknesses. Pressed by a team it was assured would sit back, Hodgson’s defence was exposed. The faults were similar to those at the last World Cup. Too much space for a cross, too easily cut open.They were outmuscled at times, at others simply outplayed with Gylfi Sigurdsson the best midfielder on the pitch.
The most gruesomely poignant moment of Hodgson’s farewell arrived after England had taken an early lead via Wayne Rooney’s penalty. Moments later they were undone by the most wonderfully English Iceland equaliser, a goal 40 years in the making, and gift-wrapped in more ways than one by Hodgson himself.
It was Don Howe, England’s assistant coach, who brought the long-throw flick-on goal to the world at Spain 82, where Bryan Robson scored a near-identical goal to Ragnar Sigurdsson’s here. Hodgson was already in Sweden that summer, already friends with Lagerback, already introducing this kind of innovative set piece to Swedish football. A “petard” is, according to Google, a small French bomb used to destroy flimsy structures.
Not only did England fail to defend a Roy-hallmarked long throw. They looked out of time, fretful, unable to assert their qualities, to show any kind of leadership or drive. They were again stationary as Iceland took the lead, this time through Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. Players came and went, as they have through this four-game campaign, a shuffling of non-specific parts into non-specific roles. So many of England’s footballers seem oddly generic, lacking in the extreme, identifiable qualities that define their own role. In France Hogdson has fiddled around with them the way you might a set of matching cards.
It is of course wrong not to smear the blame around evenly. Hodgson made bad decisions. The loudest boos here were for the moment in the 87th minute when Harry Kane, the Premier League’s baffled, haggard golden boot, took another free-kick on the right, blathering it miles into the crowd. It was a very England moment.
Part Hodgson’s stubbornness that this absurdity was still happening. But above all a product of the fact England simply don’t have any good enough ball-players to take free-kicks.
Individual errors meet swooping structural flaws: welcome to another England tournament exit. The real issue, of course, is the picture beyond the picture, failure spreading back up the arm. Some damning facts will be parroted in the days that follow.
Iceland has one Uefa B licence coach for every 825th member of the population. In England that number rises to one per 11,000. At times you wonder if the English really are interested in being good at this.
It is of course a more complex picture. Players still come through. Marcus Rashford was England’s boldest attacking presence at the end. The good has not yet been coaxed out of him, the fear set in. Football often comes to fine margins even when the end result is a collapse as stunning as this. For now the end of Hodgson’s England, so staid at times, will linger as a genuinely rare and refined humiliation.
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