Saturday 21 April 2018

Stephen Hunt: Unlike England, we responded to finals pressure in right way

As for England, well, it really is remarkable how these things keep playing out. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
As for England, well, it really is remarkable how these things keep playing out. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
Callum O'Dowda was a welcome addition to the Republic of Ireland squad but he needs to play at a higher level in club football. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

Ireland have had a Euro 2016 to be proud of but it's impossible not to imagine how exciting it would be to be in Iceland's situation today, in a quarter-final we of course could have played in. Iceland have almost had our 1988 and 1990 rolled into one, and now have such a chance at making even more history.

Over the next few weeks we're going to rightly hear a lot about what we can learn from their football revolution, but there was something that struck me about their amazing win over England.

Iceland's goalkeeper made a mistake for Wayne Rooney's penalty but they didn't panic or shout or let their heads drop. They stayed focused. That was different to us after France's first goal last Sunday. We have plenty to learn from Iceland in terms of calmness and focus.

I've played with a few Icelandic players - you might remember Brynjar Gunnarsson and Ivar Ingimarsson at Reading - and they have always been very strong-minded, and very good with people. There's no over-aggressiveness. There's a steel to them.

It helps when you get on that pitch in the heat of battle. They were never flustered, despite playing against what some have admitted were their idols, and England never once unnerved them. They were hitting the English players hard but picking them up, not revelling in it.

As for England, well, it really is remarkable how these things keep playing out. There's already the usual media inquest with everything from coaching to structures being discussed, but I think it could be a lot simpler in this case - if still difficult to fix. I think the players bottled it. I think it got to them. They got hit by a rabbit punch that left them on the canvas, and they never got back up. They were expressionless in the last half hour, not much happening. They didn't have that fight in them, to get a reaction out of Iceland, to try and really make them worry. Players as calm as Iceland's were always going to see it out.

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The other thing about it is that for all the talk of structures and what goes on at grassroots, they already introduced the 'England DNA' philosophy just under two years ago. It's obviously going to take a while to see proper effects, and some of the ideas are good. It's a framework consisting of five key elements "to create winning England teams", with titles like 'who we are' and 'how we coach'. I jumped in on a course with the FAI a few months back in St George's Park and, while I was impressed with the day and got some real value from attending, it did get me thinking as I watched on Monday night. You can do all the preparation in the world at every level but there are still intrinsic managerial and team qualities that come into play when you're 2-1 down against Iceland.

The relative detachment of a course doesn't really come into it then. That's when you're properly in it. That's when it's up to a manager to bring out the best in his real fighters, to find out who they are. That still matters so much.

Because, if you watch that game, England are actually fine from a technical and tactical point of view. They got all of those fundamentals that they've spent so long discussing in the last few days right. The problem was what came after. We didn't really see them have a go in the way we did from some of the better England tournament teams in the 1990s or - I think it's fair to say - Ireland against Italy.

There was just nothing from England. They kept trying to play the same way, there was nothing different in their game, and there was no streetwise element to it, they weren't really ruthless.

Look at the real top end. I've played in games when Cristiano Ronaldo was getting frustrated but at that point it's not just about his talent. He gets in amongst you, tries to rattle your players, maybe even trick someone into getting sent off. Luis Suarez is another example. I'm not saying you have to go biting people but he does come out fighting in a way England just didn't. They never tried anything else.

Even though they all looked utterly devastated afterwards, it seemed that the reality of that never kicked in during the game, that it never led to them raising their game.

It's difficult not to put some of this down to the atmosphere around the England team. Some of those players are as canny as anyone in their club game, after all - look at Wayne Rooney at his best under Alex Ferguson - but that's not quite as transferable from club to country. The cultures of the teams are different.

Despite some of the league winners in their squad, who have responded to such setbacks in domestic matches, they looked like a side who knew what was coming but didn't know how to do anything about it. The pressure of playing for England just came up again.

I think a lot of that comes down to the manager. He has to take the pressure off the players and encourage them to play fluently. England never did play like that. They were stilted, the shackles were never off. They were never really going for it. Jamie Vardy was the only one pressing, and it surprised me he didn't start. Harry Kane's all-round play is better, but the difference is that Vardy gives you a tempo, and a carefree attitude that can rub off.

Instead, the manager's worry rubbed off. Even when things were calm, Roy Hodgson looked flustered, as if things were going wrong for him. He never managed the emotion of the team well.

England ultimately went out without a real fight. And you can't say that about Ireland.

We gave it a go and at least just ran out of gas, whereas England never put the pedal down. They were too tentative. We did initially feel the pressure in the Belgian game but the difference was we responded. In that defeat, we didn't do the aggressive stuff. Against both Italy and France, we did.

Overall, our campaign was a positive experience, especially because of the way we were just playing football at the end. We played the right passes at the right time and played long at the right time.

There is a lesson there too. Given our own current football identity and how our young players are coached, the way to go at the moment is to mix our game up and then press with intensity.

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From under 9s all the way up, we have teams that want to go and press. Why not go with it and structure it around that?

We can press the ball and not be left bare. I really liked our balance in that regard, and how we kept our shape. We have to keep our natural win-the-ball-back mentality.

I think the football in recent years has been too different. We've now had a tournament with this positive approach, so it should encourage that.

This squad itself does have good foundations to build on. I think there was definitely a feel of freshness in the team.

Given the short-term nature of a tournament, though, I would caution against making too many big personnel changes too quickly.

If some of the senior players hang around for a while, it will give that familiarity and guidance.

It would be nice to see a bit more pace, though, and great to see Callum O'Dowda come in. I think he does need to get up a division or two because, with respect, I don't think any League One player can be an Irish international. He needs to play at a higher level.

I know the players are proud of the campaign, although disappointed at how they actually went out. We weren't beaten by better France play, but by individual mistakes.

Shane Duffy showed real responsibility in admitting to his errors and I'm sure he will be better for it.

France had genuinely struggled against us until going to 4-4-2, given where Antoine Griezmann was, so I imagine they will play that same second-half formation against Iceland. That would mean they go up man for man, especially as Iceland play 4-4-2, and that should be enough. It will mean France win the personal battles.

Today could be a step too far for Iceland, given the grand occasion their win over England was. At the same time, there is encouragement. I don't think France's centre-backs are the strongest and they're too aggressive in always trying to win the ball. That makes them liable to mistakes.

Iceland don't do many mistakes. It gives them a big chance. I think France will win, but Iceland have already won so much.

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