Sure, the Three Lions stumbled through Thursday’s late win over Wales – but, ponders Seb Stafford-Bloor, shouldn’t we live for the here and now rather than ponder glumly on what wasn't?
England haven't provided cause for celebration for some time. They've qualified for tournaments and won important games at Wembley and away from home, but they've produced very few hug-a-stranger moments.
Daniel Sturridge's late winner against Wales was one of those. Fuelled by relief, joy, and the realisation that a local rival was being condemned to cruel defeat, it was a Holy Grail of a moment; the kind which is never forgotten and which, irrespective of how England perform during the rest of the European Championship, will always stir something inside those who experienced it. We kicked cats, broke crockery, and acted liked fools and, honestly, it was wonderful.
Roy Hodgson's side had laboured in Lens and, before Jamie Vardy's equaliser, had been dominant in a very sterile way.
Two forwards became three with 20 minutes to go, as Marcus Rashford was thrown on to give the Welsh defence one more conundrum to solve, and in the shadows of full-time the dam burst
Much as had been the case against Russia, possession and territorial advantage had not translated into clear opportunities or goals and so, with England 45 minutes away from galling defeat, Hodgson went to his substitutes' bench. Vardy replaced Harry Kane, and Raheem Sterling gave way to Sturridge. Ditch the shield, sharpen the sword; throw away all the tactical reticence and light the cannons.
And it worked. Hodgson is a cautious manager and his tenure at the FA has been dogged by accusations of tactical conservatism. Even as recently as the opening game of this European Championship, his reluctance to make aggressive substitutions was – with that familiarly smug sense of hindsight – perceived to be behind the failure to kill off the Russians. The introduction of James Milner and Jack Wilshere was a show of respect to a team who didn't deserve it and which, ultimately, amounted to a wilful surrender of the momentum.
So what a welcome change Thursday afternoon was. Two forwards became three with 20 minutes to go, as Marcus Rashford was thrown on to give the Welsh defence one more conundrum to solve, and in the shadows of full-time the dam burst: Sturridge danced in the corner, Wayne Rooney screamed into the television camera, and the sun burst out from behind the clouds.
Clubs within countries
The gravity of success and failure is increasingly defined by which clubs' players have caused it. We win as England, but we lose as Arsenal, Manchester City or Tottenham
Or, at least, it should have done – it certainly used to. For as long as it has been playing competitive matches, this nation has had opinions about its football team – who should start, who the manager should be, and how it is performing.
Previously, however, all the bluster would be suspended during the actual football. Maybe it was a perception guarded by the lack of social media and shaped by nostalgia, but it always seemed as if the warring parties would drop their weapons, put away their tribalism and gather around the television together.
If England won – great. If they didn't – well, we were all just losers together. That's really the value of international football. While the club game bubbles with animosity for 11 months of a tournament year, the national team have always held the power to call a truce – but that ability is waning: the gravity of success and failure is increasingly defined by which clubs' players have caused it. We win as England, but we lose as Arsenal, Manchester City or Tottenham.
Let it linger
Rather than troubling itself with a chase for a mythical stylistic perfection, this nation should be permitted to linger for a little longer on its triumphs
Perhaps, though, it's not even that simple.
Some people bounced to work on Friday morning. The birds will have been singing extra sweetly, their coffee will have been sharper, and even their bus to work might have glinted with an odd beauty.
For others, though, that late Sturridge goal was seemingly an inconvenience. Winning is an exhilarating experience and, in time, that euphoria should rightly give way to more level-headed analysis. England were not perfect against Wales and, given the fortunate ricochet that led to their first goal and the scramble that preceded their second, they were clearly lucky. In years gone by, it was OK to enjoy winning – at least for a few hours.
— Nerdy Geek (@bossy_gibby) June 17, 2016
England are not a particularly successful international team and feel-good moments have been rare over the past half-century. It stands to reason then that, rather than troubling itself with a chase for a mythical stylistic perfection, this nation should be permitted to linger for a little longer on its triumphs.
England have taken punch after punch in the international arena, so it must be fine to enjoy the sweet relief of surviving a round without worrying about clumsy footwork.
Justification over joy
The internet has formalised things: a blog post or even a tweet might as well be carved in stone
In 2016, though, that's not really the case. Even while England's players were still gathered in that big mess of a celebration in the corner of the Stade Bollaert-Delelis, the asterisks were already being prepared.
Arbiters of joy were beginning their prowl of the social media corridors, turning out the lights and hushing the noise. Wearing pious expressions and pointing to a long list of unsatisfied criteria, they reminded the nation of what they already knew but were choosing to ignore: context-givers, determined to shut down all the fun that supporters spend their lives chasing.
This, in fact, wasn't really a victory at all, but a false win achieved by a manager who had been given no choice but to make changes. The scoreline may have read 2-1 and England may now sit at the top of Group B but, really, that's a mind trick – so stop revelling in the win and pay attention to everything which might have gone wrong and the frailties which, like night following day, will inevitably be exploited in the next game.
This movement draws most of its energy from a need to be right. While football has always been a game of opinions, the internet has formalised much of that discussion: a beer garden thesis on midfield structure vanishes into the wind, but an article, a blog post or even a tweet might as well be carved in stone.
Increasingly, then, details are massaged. Like PR agents after a televised political debate, events are bent and twisted around these existing messages. Those who have, for instance, spent the last two years castigating Hodgson and demanding his replacement were forced to spin the Welsh result into a form of vindication: it was the unintended consequence of a series of desperate actions by a desperate man.
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He was, went the logic, only able to retrieve the situation because of his errors in initial selection. Broken clocks, broken clocks; this is a strange territory in which micro-agendas and the value of ultimate credibility are being allowed to dominate the sport.
It's a mindset which implies that, for some, it's preferable to lose than to be wrong.
If they dislike a manager, they present his successes as anomalies. If they have expressed previous distrust of a player, then his future good form is the consequence of something entirely unrelated which could never have been predicted.
Of course, this has been a feature of club life for some time and the source of many a fanbase squabble, but now it's infecting England too and creating a faux-justification for being utterly miserable even while in the embrace of relative joy.
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