Saturday 18 November 2017

Bulldog may have bitten off more than he can chew

Tommy Conlon

Roy Hodgson said on Friday he'd be very surprised if any of his England players were to carry an inferiority complex into the game against Italy tonight.

But it's not as if he can frisk them on the way out the dressing room door to make sure they leave it behind them with their money and jewellery.

But at least it's finally out in the open, after decades of denial, this fear factor that has gripped England teams in tournament after tournament. The problem for a long time was the opposite: a superiority complex built on contemporary delusions and the comforts of history.

In the run-up to Euro 2012, the penny finally dropped. England no longer expected. Fabio Capello had come and gone, amidst great expectations and even greater expense, leaving the national team more or less back where it started.

They replaced an international coaching galactico with a bloke from Croydon. A nice man, by all accounts, if low on charisma -- more of a training ground academic, diligent and earnest. Roy Hodgson was a modest man for a modest team. He was taking over at the 11th hour, going into the tournament untried and untested. The public mood was pessimistic. Even the English press called the dogs off. Roy would have his honeymoon in the Ukraine.

And lo and behold, they have discovered to their pleasant surprise that a little humility goes a long way. A team that used to suffocate under the pressure of all that manic expectation has been given room to breathe.

England players haven't coped well beyond the comfort zone of their domestic game, what Hodgson has called the "golden cage" that is the Premier League. All the money and fame, all the sound and fury of the richest league in the world, has counted for nothing when they've found themselves stripped of their comfort blankets in some foreign field.

The Premiership has a global reach but its England stars have an insular look about them when it comes to the elite international game: lost and confused abroad. The inferiority complex so well hidden at home rises to the surface. Footballers who play with such rampant conviction at Old Trafford, Anfield or Stamford Bridge turn timid and fearful. It got to the stage where even the old reliable blood-and-guts gallantry was disappearing.

At least they have rediscovered this much in the Ukraine. And what's more, they're not apologising for it anymore. They have more or less admitted that it's their primary asset. "We are what we are," said Scott Parker on Friday. Parker has been holding the fort in England's midfield, running himself ragged for the cause. He was described by one football writer yesterday as a "muck-and-nettles" player. But he's happy to offer muck and nettles because he's not going to turn into Andrea Pirlo any day soon. "We all need to recognise our own qualities and strengths," he stated.

Ashley Cole reiterated this attitude by invoking an English ideal so ancient it can be traced back to Agincourt -- none other than the mythical "bulldog" spirit of yore. It must've had the reformist wing of the English game cringing, the modernisers who want to see their players becoming more continental in their approach. But that will have to wait for another day. The game of Pirlo and Iniesta and Ozil will have to wait. England are going back to Terry Butcher.

"You know with most English lads," said Cole, "we're like 11 bulldogs who will never give up, who will always work for each other and basically die on the pitch for each other."

With that kind of talk, it sounds worryingly like they're setting themselves up for another glorious failure, the latest in a long line of them. But they haven't even had this in recent times so it would probably qualify as a meaningful consolation. It could be enough to restore some battered pride, after all the humiliations and reams of patronising platitudes they've had to put up with from their superiors around Europe.

But good luck to them. It gives them a chance. They have looked woefully fragile at times, particularly against Sweden, but they've had the spirit and resilience to survive. Hodgson has made them feel good about themselves. "You can't underestimate the sort of

quality we have," said Parker, "and how much belief you can have from togetherness in a team and a siege mentality." He's right about that: it shouldn't be underestimated. And they do have players in Rooney and Gerrard who can turn a game.

It is probably not in England's long-term interests that a team still playing such a crude version of the game could make it to a semi-final or final of the European Championships. They might stick their heads in the sand for another generation. And by extension it wouldn't be in Ireland's interests either. The last thing the game needs in these islands is a vindication for this dying style of play.

But still. It will be tempting to root for them tonight: the underdogs, the neighbours' children whom we follow week in, week out across the water. Giovanni Trapattoni talked about Ireland doing a Greece on it at Euro 2012. Maybe it's England who are about to do it. The comparison with those dogged champions of 2004 mightn't please them -- but they'd be more than happy at this stage to emulate that achievement.

thecouch@independent.ie

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