Comedians at the training ground; the ever-widening grin of Sam Allardyce; and choruses of “Big Sam’s Barmy Army” – this was supposed to a more fun and relaxed England.
An attempt to eradicate the misery of Euro 2016 and remove some of the fear factor which continues to envelop English footballers whenever they don the Three Lions. It’s to Allardyce’s eternal chagrin that he can never truly remove his character from his role as managerial tactician. But that has to be part of the reason why he was appointed in the first place.
For since the departure of Kevin Keegan, each England manager appointed has been a reactionary move against the fallen boss; the slick and continental Sven Goran Eriksson followed the tactically and overtly ‘English’ mindset of Keegan; Steve McClaren was supposed to be a return to a more hands-on, training ground coach after the laissez faire approach of the Swede; Fabio Capello was installed to restore a discipline lost under the Englishman, while Roy Hodgson represented a more approachable and affable figure.
Allardyce is the man putting the pride, passion and pleasure back into a team which has lost its way. Except, for much of the 95 minutes it took England to score the winning goal against Slovakia, it all seemed very familiar.
Wayne Rooney sending floated 40-yard passes to his full-backs, giving defenders amble time to regroup; Harry Kane’s first touch resembling a tightly-gauged trampoline as opposed to a cushion, and a ponderous midfield which showed little ingenuity or guile in breaking down a Slovak defence they had exactly the same problem against 76 days earlier.
The Premier League’s unofficial moniker has flipped between “best in the world” and “most exciting in the world” for years but the national team it’s supposed to foster resembles the exact opposite of both boastful claims.
Pointing fingers at Allardyce after only a few days working with his squad for a reasonably tricky away encounter to negotiate is a touch unfair – and a win is, indeed, a win – but the eerie reality is that this was no better than England’s dismal displays in France.
It only emphasises the job Allardyce has on his hands in turning a deeply average football team into something befitting of their grand surroundings at home and the expectations that creates.
It appears Rooney is guaranteed another 10-15 caps before Russia 2018 with Allardyce claiming post-match his No10, “can play wherever he wants”. Too often Rooney was the deepest of England’s three midfielders, attempting to spray passes from deep a la Andrea Pirlo.
It evoked memories of David Beckham against Northern Ireland in 2005 where a manager’s favourite was indulged against the betterment of the team. It’s that sort of flattery which has held England back for too long. Some don’t seem to have to earn their place anymore.
Allardyce’s former assistant at Bolton, Phil Brown, insists he’s a round-pegs-in-round-holes kind of manager. But are we really going to have to go two years of a qualification campaign to establish Rooney is now barely an international-class No10, let alone a deep-lying midfield playmaker? The shoe-horning should have stopped with the Lampard-Gerrard debate.
Kane’s reputation is sliding as fast as his performance levels and the Tottenham frontman simply shouldn’t have started in Trnava. His form since May has been woeful, he looks shot of confidence and energy and there’s been 263 minutes of Premier League evidence to illustrate this. Yet, still he played.
We’re 26 caps into Jordan Henderson’s international career but, as yet, there are few signs he can operate at this level with any great consistency, an attribute crucial to a central midfielder expected to anchor the team. It goes on.
True, the England manager can only work with the tools he’s got and there are a troubling lack of options available to him. On the one hand, selecting eight of the 11 who were humiliated against Iceland shows faith and an attempt to rebuild brittle belief.
But, on the other, maybe displays a lack of fresh ideas only seeking to enhance the overall feeling that this will end up merely being more of the same from England.