And all of a sudden, England are a world force again. Just like that. Well maybe not, but Friday’s 4-0 win over Bulgaria did at least bring a hint of a smile to the perpetually glum faces of our jaded and mal-nourished supporters. As the FA shamelessly did their best to plug the needless new kit with a fit inducing advert hoarding barrage of multi-coloured St George’s crosses (which, incidentally, aren’t St George’s crosses) here is what I noticed from my lofty vantage point in the Wembley Terminal 5 stands…
1. Everything changes but you – After a well worked but scrappy goal inside 3 minutes, any hope of England pushing on and demolishing their opponents like a pack of hungry dogs seemed to dissipate almost instantly. For the remaining 40 minutes of the first half those inside and out of Wembley Stadium’s imposing colourful arch could be forgiven for thinking they were watching Algeria mark II, or just experiencing some kind of hideous group nightmare flashback, like a bad episode of Lost made by iTV and staring Gareth Southgate. Steven Gerrard seemed to be playing as a newly invented Makalele/Lucio hybrid deep lying anchor come sweeper – for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom – against a side who looked like having all the goal scoring threat of a dead penguin. Wayne Rooney, whose sublime chipped ball had created England’s opener, had lost interest and was doing his usual half arsed impression of a left winger whilst stubbornly refusing to pass the ball to our actual left winger, despite essentially playing in the same position as him when he wasn’t playing in central midfield or jogging around like he was doing light training. At one point Glenn Johnson tried to liven things up by testing Joe Hart with his standing leg whilst his teammates further forward decided that hitting long balls up towards the shortest man on the field was unquestionably the best way to go about breaking down the Bulgarians.
2. Will the real Slim Shady please stand up – Just when I think I’ve got Theo Walcott pegged, he always goes and messes it up for me. So many times I’ve been sure he’s nothing more than a flat track bully with a good turn of pace and an under-developed pirate beard, only for him to go and be genuinely impressive against a team like Barcelona or, erm, Blackpool. Then, just when it looks like he’s suddenly found his feet as a reliable danger-man, he goes and shows the decision making instinct of an agoraphobic rabbit trapped in the headlights of a runaway bullet train. He wasn’t bad here per say, but whenever he found himself in a position of promise, his control and/or crossing ability let him down. Let’s not kid ourselves, the Bulgarians were tenacious in their defending, but not a side of quality. On the only two occasions Walcott did get behind his man he either hit a blindly hopeful cutback in the style of a pre-2009 Aaron Lennon, or got the ball caught under his feet and attempted some kind of hanging chip cross/shot type thing that succeeded only in being both both and neither. In fairness though, he wasn’t helped by the support of Glenn Johnson, who seemed to be playing whilst high as far as I could gather, or the erstwhile efforts of Gareth Barry, who had decided to launch long balls at him in the bizarre assumption that he could out jump his marker. It’s Theo Walcott Gareth. Theo Walcott!
3. Woop!, der it is – Then all of a sudden, after a Bulgarian counter attack had been fisted away by the impressive Joe Hart, England broke up the field like they were German and grabbed a second. Rooney and Defoe were again the central components of the move, with the latter megging the keeper like a pro, and from then on in it was like watching a completely different team. Rooney still seemed to be flippantly deciding new positions to play in, none of which was anything like a striker, but never the less began pulling the strings like the Rooney we all know and love. After almost chipping the keeper from fully 25 yards, he laid on the final pass for all of England’s 2nd half goals in addition to being the creative force behing the first. Adam Johnson came on to prove yet again that he looks like having both the talent and the hunger to play for his country for years to come, and Hart in goal displayed so much maturity and assurance between the sticks that he even managed to showboat some juggling skills as the Wembley crowd rose – for reasons other than Mexican waving for once – in a chorus of “England’s number one”. If giving new blood a chance was the motto Capello was pushing (despite starting with pretty much all the stalwarts he had available) then his City slickers were living up to the billing. A glistening life of personal invasion and media scapegoating awaits them. God’s speed young Lions.
4. Totten Luck – One person who won’t have left Wembley beaming like a cheshire cat (if he was even there, or ever does anyway) was ‘Arry Redknapp. With Glenn Johnson acting as comic relief for most of the evening, Michael Dawson was putting in a respectable shift in place of the injured John Terry and/or Rio Ferdinand, but ended his evening early by straining his knee and ankle ligaments whilst falling like a harpooned giraffe. Even more worrying for Knappers was the sight of Hat-Trick hero Jermain Defoe seeming to do his own ankle whilst reeling away in celebration of his splendid third. Defoe should be fine for Tuesday, but the prospect of losing both his rock and his fast place (see what I did there?) for any portion of what’s sure to be a gruelling season for the Lilywhites should strike enough terror into the jowly one to ruin his frivolous family Wii sessions. Literally.
5. Stand up, for the Eng-er-land – Whilst the performance – eventually – was reassuringly positive, it may take a while to win round those still smarting at the debacle that was South Africa 2010. The lowest attendance I’ve seen for a competitive game at Wembley that wasn’t a League 2 play off or Johnston’s Paint Trophy final, was a stark reminder that it’ll take more than four goals and new kit to get the juices flowing again. One thing that might help, by which I mean ‘one thing that might help me’, is the ceasing of the ubiquitous Mexican wave ritual. It’s a stark and apt commentary on the quality of International football witnessed in the era of the shiny shiny Scientology induction center that is new Wembley, that almost no game passes nowadays without the trusty accompaniment of the Mexican wave. I have attended my fare share of football matches home and abroad, and never…never…have I been forced into as many Mexican waves in all the accumulated time I’ve spent watching live football as I have in one single season of watching England. Standing up and sitting down again in sequence is all well and good when you’re 4-0 with 10 minutes to go, or during a break in play at Wimbledon (the Tennis one, not the defunct South London FA Cup winners) but it’s not when the scoreline is anything beyond a two goal deficit and never in the first half. The boos and dirty looks that accompany the sensible act of continuing to watch the action I’ve turned up specifically to watch doesn’t affect me in the slightest you massive hoard of steaming poo poo heads (content edited for family readership.) Am I alone in this? or am I just a hugely cynical bastard.
All in all though, credit to those who did show up and out-sing a boisterous travelling support for once, and credit to the players, who did well in an admittedly no-win situation. Fail to win and the knives stayed out, won well and the inevitable question of “why couldn’t you have done that 3 months ago?” would be rushing to the fore. If I’ve learned anything as an England fan, it’s to enjoy the good times while they last. But why couldn’t they have done that 3 months ago?
You can follow Oscar on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/oscarpyejeary Where you can try and help him understand the appeal of Justin Lee Collins. Honestly, what is it?