Despite what some supporters will have you believe, England winning the European Championship is not beyond the realms of possibility. Since taking charge of the national team, Roy Hodgson has had anything but unwavering support and to be fair to the Sun, he has made one or two mistakes during his brief tenure as England boss. But with the first round of fixtures of Euro 2012 done and dusted, it is not out of the question to argue the case for the Three Lions going all the way this summer. Having said that, this is exactly the kind of talk that could bring the whole operation crashing down.
Expectation has been a problem for England in recent tournaments. The media Sun will frequently ignore every other nation and have the country believing that anything other than defeat in a penalty shootout at, say, the semi-finals stage, represents abject failure on the part of the manager (especially if he’s foreign), the players or possibly one of the tournament referees. But expectation ought not be a problem for the current squad. Having watched England register back-to-back 1-0 victories over Norway and Belgium in the run-up to the Euros, the overwhelming feeling seemed to be: ‘Yeah, it’s a win but it’s negative and boring. Any half decent side will carve us open.’
Most will agree that Roy Hodgson’s teams are well organised at the back. And that’s exactly where you need to begin. It’s no good having Wayne Rooney scoring hat-tricks left, right and centre if the back five are shipping five or six goals a game. You need your defence to be alert, organised and solid for 90 minutes, which is exactly what you’ll get with a Hodgson side. Of course, everyone wants to see their team playing party football on their way to European glory, but unfortunately, we don’t all have the luxury of having Cesc Fàbregas, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta playing triangles in the midfield. Stoke City fans will be the first to tell you it’s important to recognise your limitations and play to your strengths. Chelsea’s surprise Champions League campaign is a notable recent example of how you can succeed at the very top level when you get it right at the back. This England defence should be able to soak up the pressure and release the flair players at the right moments. Steven Gerrard, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and later Wayne Rooney all have the ability to make things happen, while Lescott, Terry and co. can keep it tight at the back.
One other crucial thing to get right is the team spirit. The Liverpool and Chelsea sides that won the Uefa Champions League against all the odds in 2005 and 2012 respectively were in it together. You probably won’t see Borussia Dortmund-Bayern Munich divisions in the German squad as Jogi Löw seeks a fourth Euro glory for Die Nationalelf. Consider England’s more successful national sides in recent history: Sir Bobby Robson’s 1990 World Cup side and Terry Venables’ 1996 Euro semi finalists. One thing you can say is that they were all playing for each other and club football was forgotten as soon as they pulled on the England jersey. It was difficult to believe that the squad egos that went to South Africa in 2010 really got on with one another. When Denmark and Greece emerged as shock winners in 1992 and 2004 respectively, there was a real unity in their dressing rooms. Being written off only spurred them on. Fight and team spirit on their own may well not be enough for England to win the tournament, but it certainly can hurt to give it a try for a change. And even though Stewart Downing is there, it’s not like they’ve got no quality in the squad.
England have passed their first test of the tournament – they weren’t ripped apart by France. Those anticipating a hammering as soon as Hodgson came up against a half decent team were proved wrong. Laurent Blanc’s side is among the best in the competition and the England rear guard coped fairly well with the threat of Karim Benzema and Frank Ribéry. Having seen every team play, is there a side that you could firmly say would comfortably beat England? Like it or not, they are in with a chance.
A couple more things to be wary of: Sweden and Ukraine. The lack of expectation is surely more of a help than a hindrance to the England team. They need to make sure they take the France game as it was: a 1-1 draw and nothing more. It is crucial they avoid thinking like the ‘we only watch the Barclays Premier League but we know it’s the best in the world’ Match of the Day boys by writing off Sweden and Ukraine. They’ll have you believe that not only is there nothing to fear but there is also nothing to respect. The toughest test on paper may well be out of the way but Sweden and Ukraine deserve England’s respect. There’s plenty of work to be done, but it’s possible. Well, it’s not impossible.