English circus limps on with show of unity
IN Port Elizabeth, a city which leans onto the Indian Ocean, the fans wandering away from Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium sing about Britannia ruling the waves.
Slovenia, a country with a population of two million people, have been successfully cast aside. All is wonderful in England's world again.
Fabio Capello is about to depart his post-match briefing when he is asked if he'll let the players have a beer to celebrate. He quips that he'd actually given them permission to have a drink on the eve of the game. Nobody is quite sure if he is joking. "Ask the players," he smiles.
We wondered, in the immortal words of John Terry, if, "Lamps, Wazza, Aaron Lennon, Jamo, Crouchy, Jonno, Jamie Carragher and Stevie" had been on the razz again, following on from the post-Algeria gathering in Cape Town which good old JT helpfully arranged and subsequently detailed.
So, the England players who stopped on their way through the mixed zone were forced to declare if they'd imbibed the previous evening. "We had the option, but I don't think anyone took it," said James Milner. "Maybe tonight", laughed Joe Cole.
Again, nobody was quite sure if Cole was attempting a wisecrack or delivering a statement of intent. Possibly because of his earlier assertions, related to a discussion about how England could build from here.
"Now we can push on and try and win this World Cup," he said, enthusiastically. "If we keep playing like we did today, then anything can happen."
These mixed zones -- where players and journalists mix in the aftermath of a game -- are strange affairs. They are designed in the style of the maze-like corridors you must negotiate in departures at an airport before approaching security.
Unused substitutes pass through first, in groups, perhaps to suss out the route for the dignitaries behind. Few dare to ask the back-up boys for a word; it's an unwritten rule.
Understandably, it is deemed humiliating for an individual to offer his thoughts on a game where he wasn't considered worthy of inclusion; although David James did, of course, speak freely in the aftermath of Rob Green's error against the United States.
Aaron Lennon is asked why he's wearing a cast, and refers to a bad ankle. Ledley King negotiates the corners without incurring a setback. Peter Crouch, Michael Dawson and Joe Hart stare straight ahead. Green walks through alone.
England's big shots are each accompanied by an FA official who directs them towards the various huddles of assorted hacks. Some, like Frank Lampard, are amenable and stop more than once. JT apologises for proceeding, explaining that he has just undergone a series of TV interviews.
Wayne Rooney, regarded as an obliging sort, is downbeat looking and shuffles through sheepishly, confirming on the move that his ankle feels okay. Capello has just fielded a series of questions on Rooney's bad ankle, without convincingly declaring that fitness issues, rather than poor performance, was the reason for the Manchester United star's withdrawal.
Meanwhile, Ashley Cole struts through with a smirk, nodding his head disapprovingly at requests for a word, flashing a smile at the female blazer who leaves him to do his own thing. She is confident that Ashley won't succumb to the temptation of interview.
Still, Joe is more than making up for the silence of his namesake. The gushing praise he received from JT in Sunday's remarkable challenge to Capello's authority is brought up. Showing true leadership qualities, JT suggested that Joe and Wazza were the only two England players capable of opening defences up, a statement which will surely have delighted the other attacking members of the squad.
It is time for the compliment to be repaid. "JT is the best centre-half in the world," declares Cole, unequivocally.
There is rarely a middle ground with England. Certainly, the display here was a step up from what they produced in their previous two starts, but Lampard was reasonable enough to admit that the ending had been 'nervy.'
Terry did produce some heroic blocks and tackles, but he also conceded a series of ridiculous free-kicks which could have been punished by a slicker outfit. Gareth Barry, the rock that was supposedly missing against the United States, was conceding possession flippantly, while Glen Johnson, for all he offers in the attacking sense, allows opposition left wingers a certain degree of freedom.
Sometimes you wonder if opposition managers are in on the joke. Slovenian boss Matjaz Kek, understandably distraught at the manner of his side's exit with the late goal for US against Algeria, is asked to assess England's prospects.
"I hope they win the World Cup," he replies, "because they are a very good team and for me they are favourites."
The assertion is hard to fathom. Sure, Capello's troops wasted chances to put the result beyond doubt, but the profligacy was symptomatic of an overall lack of conviction. The body language was poor; Rooney, in particular, looked ill at ease with those around him.
At the final whistle, however, Capello appeared desperate to present a positive front. When the players organised an impromptu huddle on the pitch afterwards, he raced towards the posse with his arms wide, seeking out individuals for embraces in a manner that has been perfected by Diego Maradona. Totally out of character; but then that's what the England circus does to people. He even shared an embrace with JT.
"He is a leader," said the Italian, when an assessment of his ex-captain's performance is sought, related to the events of the past few days.
"I haven't had problems with the players, because I respect the players and the players respect me. All the players played really really well."
Down in the mixed zone, Cole was equally eager to stress that it's all one big happy family.
"We're right behind the manager," he insisted, "We're right behind everyone."
Alas, when the rousing reception he received from the crowd upon his introduction is raised, the Chelsea outcast brazenly responds that the "fans know what I can do for my country." Miaow.
It's all very entertaining, and Bloemfontein is the next stop on the road. Never mind the wintery elements. Where England go, hot air will follow.