Sport Soccer

Thursday 18 January 2018

Dion Fanning: Maintaining low expectations remains an art form in itself

Dion Fanning

THERE are many who are becoming disillusioned with Roy Hodgson's England, which only demonstrates the problems with illusions in the first place.

Hodgson's mission statement when he became England manager was, in essence, that there was no mission statement. He was planning for the future and remodelling expectations. As a miserabilist, Hodgson is in a weak position to front this project.

Hodgson offers no soaring rhetoric as a counterpoint. On the contrary, he appears haunted by some defeat, perhaps some years away in the future, maybe a consequence of his years reading Roth and Bellow.

It is a hard trick to pull off: to lower expectations while conveying the sense that everything is hopeless without making everyone feel hopeless. His rallying cry always sounds more like a note to the milkman.

This lack of hope is being felt now by those who thought he was the prudent choice. His appointment was hailed by many, for several reasons, with The Guardian noting that he is "probably the only football manager in England to have once drawn parallels between his career and a Kandinsky painting".

Increasingly, these parallels don't matter. There was a time when Sven-Goran Eriksson's interest in Tibetan poetry was considered significant while people spoke with reverence of Fabio Capello reputation as "an adventurous eater".

Hodgson is heading in the same direction but this time it's no surprise. Perhaps it is not even a surprise to him as he anticipates bad news and plans accordingly. He is the desk sergeant who, when you report your stolen bike, tells you that there's no chance of it being recovered but he will record it diligently in the logbook nonetheless.

There are times, such as on Wednesday night, when this approach is convenient for everybody. After the game, Hodgson was able to point out that this was "anything but an end-of-season friendly" and Giovanni Trapattoni was able to talk up England's position in world football.

Ireland had nothing to fear from England. They were dealing with a manager who before the game had stated that the best moment of his time as England manager was an away victory in Moldova. Away victories, of course, were never part of the Hodgson project. "I remember when I was at Halmstads we had two years without winning away. It goes that way," he said during his time at Fulham when they were on a fruitless search for a win on the road.

At Wembley, Ireland might have had more to fear, but not much, as the game petered out. It was declared a spectacular success because nobody chanted the wrong chants or rioted. With England wearing their replica Germany kit and Ireland in green (Germany's away kit), it also allowed us to revisit one of the great comforting myths of our childhood. West Germany, we were always told, had been so moved by Ireland's offer to play them after the war that, as an eternal gesture of goodwill, they had promised to make green their away colour.

Nobody could explain Ireland's eagerness to play them and how it came about, unless it was an offer made by De Valera as he left the ambassador's residence having offered his condolences on the death of Hitler. "By the way, whenever you lads are up for a game of ball, just say the word. We're ready."

The truth is more prosaic, and doesn't involve Ireland at all, but it has not prevented that self-aggrandising myth taking hold. When Trap talked about the improvement in Anglo-Irish relations over the past 15 years which had made last week's game possible, there was another fictitious narrative developing.

Ireland against England wasn't Croatia against Serbia. If the England fans who ripped the seats out of Lansdowne Road were doing so because they were appalled at the direction of the peace process, they must have been pretty mad at Belgium and Switzerland and all the other countries they rampaged across for 25 years.

I've witnessed three serious outbreaks of trouble by England fans in Dublin, Marseille and Charleroi and the others were more terrifying. The game at Lansdowne ended in abandonment primarily because England's supporters were sitting in the wrong place and had not been policed properly, not because they had firm views on talks about talks.

There was only going to be one ending to last week's story and it wasn't because relations between the two countries have changed.

This convenient fiction was maintained and it was equally convenient for the managers to pursue other lines. Hodgson could talk about the severity of Ireland's challenge even if people are running out of patience.

After Wednesday's game, he sounded characteristically despondent, pointing out that England had about 16 fit players for the game in Brazil and suggesting that maybe some of the journalists would like to play too. Both countries must fret over the declining relevance of their players although, as has been pointed out, England no longer have the shunned maverick that once exercised them.

In the past it was Glenn Hoddle or Matt Le Tissier who represented the division between the hapless manager and football's commentariat. Trap still excludes Wes Hoolahan when it matters but in England, it doesn't happen any more and players are picked too soon rather than exiled.

Systems are the only fault line now. On Wednesday night, Hodgson found himself in a position defending 4-4-2. His arguments were valid (it is not entirely his fault that Theo Walcott doesn't know where to stand on a football pitch). He says he is not wedded to a system and he could be right as his sense of impending doom transcends any formation.

Now Hodgson is in Brazil to play a game that briefly looked unlikely to go ahead. He may have glimpsed another career achievement when a Rio court ruled that the Maracana was not safe to host the game. England would have avoided away defeat on a technicality. They all count.

Irish Independent

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