For the English sport has become one of the few national pastimes through which we can celebrate our identity. Of course Englishmen have contributed culturally and politically on a global scale, but so much of that is subsumed beneath the flag of the union.
Football is not. In this we are English alone. We go forth under the cross of St George and from now until Sunday, and hopefully beyond every household in the country will be touched by football fever.
Roy Hodgson has imbued the coach’s role with a certain dignity. His avuncular presence conveys a sense of unity, order and calm to which the players have responded. From the defensive, safety first approach against Norway Hodgson’s England have inched towards the first flowerings of attacking coherence.
There is more to do to achieve anything like the fluidity of our continental brothers but no longer are Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker employed as auxiliary centre halves.
The most encouraging aspect of England’s progress to the quarter-finals has been the advanced positions taken by Gerrard. The England captain is an exceptional footballer whose England career has largely been shoe-horned alongside Frank Lampard’s into a compromise formation that did neither any favours. Both flourish in the final third attacking the opponent’s box. Each deferred to the other in an England shirt with the result that neither was able to express club form.
Gerrard is doing that to increasingly impressive effect, helping to skewer the adhesive idea among the English that we do not have players of sufficient technical range compared to Spain, Germany, Italy et al. We do.
What we have historically failed to do at international level is to evolve a method, a strategy to match the fluid movement of the top sides. But this is improving.
Against a Ukraine team needing to win at home with 60,000 screaming them on, England started well enough. They used possession intelligently with Gerrard immediately staking out the kind of advanced positions he did not against Norway and Belgium.
Hodgson has been bold in selection if not tactics. The choice of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the first game against France was a sea change. It recognised not only the kid’s talent but the need to be more effective offensively.
The introduction of Theo Walcott for James Milner against Sweden was an extension of this. His impact validated the value of offensive, attacking play not only to Hodgson but the team. Walcott’s goal and the impetus it gave was a turning point for Hodgson and the group.
England will not be the first team to start slowly and improve during a tournament. Italy were jeered during the opening games of the 1982 World Cup and drew all three games in the group stages before Paulo Rossi located his mojo and fired Italy to a third title.
Hodgson has started to join the dots between midfield and attack. The next step is to encourage lateral fluidity, depending less on the dogma of right and left wing play. England need to encourage their wide men to come inside, not on a whim, but as part of a cohesive pattern that sees the full-backs or the spare midfielder fill the space outside. This makes England less predictable and therefore harder to defend against.
The pass back to the keeper also needs to be addressed by the coaching staff since for the most part it leads to a one-dimensional hoof up the pitch from Joe Hart and the consequent surrender of possession. England do not yet see enough of the ball to give it back so quickly.
A step at a time. England are learning to love themselves in Ukraine and we them. As the Beatles told us way back in the Sixties when England ruled the world, sometimes love is all you need.