NICE — I’m a proud Englishman but there is no point letting the dust settle. Let’s tell it like it is.
In a week which has already seen England become a comedic figure due to the handling of Brexit, another European exit marked the most embarrassing night in English national team history. Period.
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Let me state that Iceland deserved their victory. I don’t mean to take anything away from the smallest ever nation to compete in the Euros. They battled hard to go ahead after England went 1-0 up and the woeful Three Lions couldn’t break them down, just as we’ve seen throughout this tournament despite having the majority of possession and the second most shots (82) at EURO 2016.
Hodgson, England’s manager, resigned as he walked in to his post-match press conference and rattled off his statement of resignation.
It should have said: England is in ruins. This is not a knee jerk reaction. It has been coming.
Speaking briefly to the media on Tuesday in a hastily arranged press conference to mark the end of England’s tournament, Hodgson couldn’t hide how catastrophic the defeat to Iceland had been.
“One particularly bad game has caused a lot of damage to me personally and the team going forward,” Hodgson said. “We have a major bridge to repair – had we played better last night that might not need repairing.”
Now a new era will arrive this summer and Hodgson, 68, has left behind a mess.
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True, this squad has plenty of talented players but what we saw from England at EURO 2016 is that they can’t apply that talent when it matters most. At major tournaments. England has a young team — in fact, they have the youngest average age of a starting XI in the tournament this summer — and this result could ruin them.
When they resume play in the Premier League in six weeks time, these England players will be booed and ridiculed. It could last some time too. Plus, England games will see lots of empty seats and some may never recover from this or play for England again.
After their worst-ever World Cup campaign in 2014 under Hodgson and now this, England have now failed to win a knockout game at a major tournament for 10 years. That wait will extend to at least 12 years and that’s only if — a big if judging by this summer — the Three Lions qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Who knows what kind of psychological damage a defeat like this, to a nation ranked 133rd in the world four years ago, can have.
It wasn’t so much that it was a defeat, it was the manner of it.
Fans booed Harry Kane repeatedly following his woeful set pieces, they were quiet throughout and also sung the song below at the final whistle as England’s dejected squad fell to their knees on the pitch in front of them. After the game, England’s fans were stunned. Around Nice they shook the hands of Iceland fans and congratulated them. They knew they had lost to a team who wanted it more.
The abuse England’s players received from the fans could be scarring. Did they deserve it? Probably not to that extent, but their display was devoid of the quality and fight expected in a knockout game.
One thing is clear: Hodgson’s decision to hand Wayne Rooney the keys let him down once again. Rooney, 30, put in his worst display in an England shirt. His touch was heavy. He gave the ball away. He put teammates under pressure. England’s all-time leading goalscorer was awful in a deeper position in central midfield. Okay, everyone can have an off day. But for your captain and talisman to put in such an awful display when his country truly needed him, it only acted to accentuate everything wrong with England.
The midfield look disjointed. The defense switched off less than 60 seconds after going ahead as Aron Gunnarsson‘s long throw was flicked on and then flicked in as Kyle Walker slept at the back post. Up top, Raheem Sterling was hooked off after running down blind alleys and Daniel Sturridge looked disinterested out wide as Kane battled but was way off target up top. England looked jaded, lethargic and mentally beaten.
All the pressure leading up to the game was on them and it showed. Massively.
This England team didn’t even have the lofty expectations thrust onto them like past generations. The so-called “golden generation” under Sven-Goran Eriksson at least made the quarterfinals of major tournaments… then went out on penalty kicks in heartbreaking fashion.
It is time for a reality check. England has won just six of its 20 knockout games in major tournaments since they won their one and only major title, the World Cup in 1966. Expectations need to be altered. England cannot compete with Germany, Argentina and others, no matter how many resources it continues to pump into its national team. England expects — as I wrote about earlier today — but it shouldn’t.
Joe Hart, England’s goalkeeper who also had a stinker alongside Rooney as he somehow let Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s game-winner squirm through him, was blunt when assessing where this team is at, how they will be remembered and where they’re heading.
“As a group it is down to us. All the plans are put in place, we knew everything about Iceland but ultimately we didn’t perform. Personally I didn’t perform,” Hart said. “It’s not a question of wanting it, there’s nothing we want more. They are just words though. We were in a good place but we haven’t done it. We will get a lot of flak and we deserve it. We will learn from this and try and bring English football back to where it belongs. We have been put it in a low place. We just couldn’t find a way back into the game. The next manager has a tough job on his hands. We worked hard but with no success. That is how this team will be remembered.”
This team probably won’t be remembered at all. It’s harsh, but true.
By crashing out to Iceland, this young group have extinguished all of the promise the nation had in them and it will be a long, hard road back from this painful European exit.
With Hodgson out, his successor is not clear. Will U-21 manager Gareth Southgate be promoted? Can Eddie Howe or Alan Pardew be tempted out of Premier League jobs? Judging by the players they have to work with and the state the program will be in, it would be a huge gamble for either.
Yes, the English national team is still among the most glamorous in the world. The English Football Association proudly backs itself as the home of the game and that helps to keep a certain allure. That, plus a large salary for its manager. But make no mistake about it, this is a monumental job. Any headway Hodgson had made over the past four years has been lost and a huge rebuild awaits whoever is brave enough to take it on.
England has been on the brink of disappearing from among the world’s elite for many years. After this summer, if feels like it has.
The future of the national team, much like the country, is in ruins.