As gloom enveloped England’s players and their 72 backroom staff on the journey back to base camp in Rio de Janeiro, the familiar jungle drums started beating: England – just not good enough. And with Friday night’s Italian defeat to Costa Rica, whatever slim mathematical hope remained disappeared in the blink of a goal.
There are those who see promise for the future in this team, but the stark and immediate reality is this is England’s earliest ever World Cup exit – just six days into their tournament.
On Friday night the Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, insisted the England manager, Roy Hodgson, was safe in his job, but the FA – which has preached patience in the wake of a long overdue investment in the £100m national football centre at St George’s Park – will once again begin the familiar search for scapegoats and answers.
Hodgson has proved popular with his players and, increasingly, with the public and the media. Off the pitch, the man chosen over Harry Redknapp to replace Fabio Capello has been an inspired appointment. The problem has been on it. England navigated their qualifying group but whenever they have come up against high-quality opposition, in friendlies or in tournaments, they have foundered. Most worryingly, they failed to learn from their mistakes and appeared to lack any kind of plan B.
Having preached continuity and safety-first football for most of his career, the former Liverpool manager had a Damascene conversion on the eve of the Italy match and plumped for a youthful, attacking line up that left holes in his defence. It backfired. More damningly, the Uruguay performance was reminiscent of so many other low-key past tournament exits. By the end, Hodgson looked like a beaten man.
He made it clear afterwards he would not resign. There will be the inevitable calls for him to be sacked, at a cost of £6m given that his contract has two years to run, but there is little appetite at the FA for more upheaval. Barring a further humiliation in England’s final group stage match against Costa Rica, Hodgson is likely to be given the chance to build towards Euro 2016 and groom a replacement. Gary Neville, perhaps?
As ever, they talked a good game. Despite more realism surrounding their chances than during the fevered frenzy of the Sven-Göran Eriksson years, England’s squad – a mix of old heads and novices – gradually convinced themselves they were in with a chance. When they were cruelly exposed against Uruguay, it came as a shock to the system. But it shouldn’t have been a surprise – the outcome was no different against Germany in South Africa four years ago or against Italy at Euro 2012.
When it came to the crunch, players feted for their Premier League performances had not proved up to the job on the biggest stage of all.
Where Pirlo and Suárez stepped up to the plate for Italy and Uruguay, England’s biggest names failed to ignite. If there are positives to be drawn, it is from the fearlessness shown by Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling against Italy. The concern will be that the familiar taint of failure will now weigh them down as England approach another overhaul of the playing squad.
In Hodgson’s defence, he can only work with the tools available. FA chairman Greg Dyke can at least say he told us so. His first move on taking the job was to warn that England risked sliding into irrelevance thanks to the dearth of talented players coming through the youth ranks.
The Premier League paradox – its huge success as a global product having squeezed the chances of young English players – is only getting worse. In the season 2012/13, 32% of Premier League players were English. A year later, less than a quarter of those playing for the top four were qualified to play for England.
Dyke promised answers but his big idea to solve the blockage of talent between 18 and 21 – a new division of Premier League B-teams – has been knocked back. The Premier League and the FA say their new youth system, plus the £100m investment in coaching at St George’s Park, needs time to work. There are some signs of progress and a long overdue willingness to try to improve the technical skills of young players.
But others look at the unintended consequences of 20 years of Premier League dominance, and the absence of joined-up thinking in English football’s corridors of power, and despair. Further down the food chain, there remains a crisis in the provision of grassroots facilities with young players forced to train on municipal mudbaths while the Premier League banks £1.83bn a year in television money.
The media & The Public
A strange sort of doublethink settled over England’s Brazilian cup adventure. The more the media and the public talked themselves into accepting that their chances of getting out of a tough group were limited, the more they expected to do so.
Perhaps it is the inevitable triumph of hope over expectation that still surrounds the team after all this time, or perhaps it was fed by the bold talk of players and management.
In the final analysis, most fans said before the tournament that the minimum they wanted to see was evidence of improvement and hope for the future. The disappointment over the display against Uruguay stemmed from their absence. Hodgson’s future, and the final analysis of England’s performance, may now rest on whether they can salvage some pride from the wreckage against Costa Rica.