New England generation suggest they can match the best in the world
ENGLAND’S followers are right to be allergic to talk of grand beginnings. The 'golden generation’ myth encouraged caution.
So when Roy Hodgson’s men upped the rhetorical ante before this friendly there was a tendency to side with Brazil’s Neymar when he advised his hosts to make a date with reality.
“England are a good team with some very good players, but I don’t look at them as one of our main rivals for the World Cup,” Neymar said before his country’s 2-1 defeat. He will still think that.
Tournaments and friendlies are oceans apart. Yet next time he will be less quick to say: “Maybe they rely too much on Rooney. Once you look past him you don’t see an obvious player who can win them a match.
“Brazil have got many players who can. England have players to do well, but do I think they have the same quality as Spain and Argentina? No.”
There was little to be indignant about. The latest guardian of Brazilian creativity was only reciting history. This view of England is a worldwide orthodoxy.
But there is no reason for Hodgson’s squad to surrender to it, as they demonstrated with this uplifting victory, in which youth was to the fore. Their job is to summon the 34 per cent of Premier League players who are available for national selection and fight their way back to prominence.
The most senior of Hodgson’s men argued that Euro 2012 was a turning point: a chance for new players untainted by failure to start a revival.
Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole even said they had stuck around in the belief that a rebirth was imminent. Deep intakes of breath.
It was precisely the right faith for England’s players to be promoting but did it correspond with reality? Does Tom Cleverley really possess the subtlety of vision to go with his energy? Could Theo Walcott replicate against Brazil the best of his Arsenal form? Will Danny Welbeck mature to the level of Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer or Michael Owen?
One thing we know: there is even less room for doubt now about Jack Wilshere’s ability to bring the vital qualities of vision, movement and incisive passing to a team who have traditionally been too mechanical and wasteful in possession to get anywhere near Spain.
For the hundredth time: Wilshere is the one young English midfielder who would look comfortable in the same paragraph (and perhaps eventually the same sentence) as Spain’s Xavi.
Arsenal’s young maestro had not started for England since the 2-2 draw with Switzerland in June 2011 and had played for only 13 minutes with Gerrard.
On this evidence, Hodgson was within his rights to hope this midfield pairing will be able to “compete with the best”.
Plainly Wilshere’s work on the training ground had set off a spark in the manager’s mind.
If Ashley Cole’s talk of England’s youngsters giving the country a “great chance” of winning a tournament had induced the odd cringe, the quality of the side’s first-half attacking play was a source of delight. Wayne Rooney, Wilshere, Welbeck and Walcott all capitalised on a lack of Brazilian cohesion.
“We had quite a young team out there, with players 22 or younger,” Hodgson said. “The player you guys made man of the match [Wilshere] was 21. Theo Walcott is 23 and was a contender. It was a blend of youth and experience. Young players: Cleverley, Welbeck, Smalling. So it’s nice they’re blending with the experienced ones and seeing they’re good enough to play in this team and win matches.”
The backdrop is that Brazil have won five World Cups to England’s one and have reached four finals since 1966, echoes of which were audible when Wembley marked the 20th anniversary of Bobby Moore’s death.
Equally salient was that England had won only one of their last four games: beating San Marino 5-0 but drawing with Ukraine and Poland and losing 4-2 in Sweden.
Yet England endured the early Brazilian keep-ball and opened the scoring through Rooney after a superb ball from Wilshere to Walcott. Seven minutes earlier Ronaldinho’s Ali shuffle had not helped his penalty-taking as Joe Hart dived to save the first attempt and then blocked the follow-up.
Neymar’s subsequent miss from the under the posts weakened his own case to be an authority on match-winners in other countries, though he is, of course, a marquee talent.
It was an act of attempted Brazilian coolness by Gary Cahill that led to the equaliser. Cahill swept out of defence with the ball but lost possession and saw it ricochet to Fred, the substitute, who blasted it past Hart.
No game can pass these days, though, without Frank Lampard advertising his imperishability. England’s second came from the grand old man’s boot.
While Lampard made his latest long-range contribution Cole collected his 100th cap. Further down the experience scale we see why Gerrard and Cole keep talking about young guns. Chris Smalling was making his fourth appearance, Cleverley his seventh, Wilshere his seventh and Welbeck his 15th.
Walcott is a comparative veteran now on 31. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Daniel Sturridge and Kyle Walker are among those who will have a say in the months to come.
“One man can’t be expected to carry a nation on his own,” Gerrard said of Wilshere, and he is right.
Neymar was right, too, from a recent historical perspective. Now England need to prove him wrong in a tournament.