As Roy Hodgson prepares for Euro 2016 opener against Russia, England expects more than Euro 96 nostalgia

Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney

Since the World Cup in 2006, Germany have won 18 matches at international tournaments. Spain the same. Holland have won 14, Portugal seven, Italy a disappointing five. How many have England won in that time? Three.
Single goal winning margins over Slovenia in 2010, and Sweden and Ukraine in 2012 is the sum of it.
Switzerland, Croatia, Belgium and Saturday’s opponents, Russia, have celebrated more tournament victories in the same period.

England, meanwhile, have savoured heady triumph in an equal number of matches as Turkey, the Czech Republic and Greece. It is something for those getting sniffy about Euro 96 nostalgia to consider.
The reason this sad little country continues harking back to a golden age of two competition wins under Terry Venables and a semi-final exit on penalties, is that England fans have scant else to cling to.
They do not have Germany’s reserve of tournament success, or a golden age that genuinely came to fruition, like Spain. They take solace from fleeting moments of hope and hype, really: from Paul Gascoigne in 1990, or Wayne Rooney in 2004, or 90 minutes against Holland in 1996 when it really looked like England could play.

We don’t play, that’s the problem. Think back to those matches with Slovenia, Sweden and Ukraine. Were any of them remotely memorable?
You might have a distant imprint of John Terry insanely throwing himself at a point blank shot by Zlatko Dedic, for instance, but who scored England’s winner against Slovenia? Anyone recall Jermain Defoe?
The heroes of the victory over Sweden were a retro 4-4-2 with Andy Carroll and Danny Welbeck the two big men up front, while the match against Ukraine is best recalled for another heroic Terry clearance that wasn’t – the ball already a foot over the line when he hooked it away.

Had the referee, or his useless goal-line official, spotted it, England would have been able to count tournament victories since 2006 without even needing fingers.
So the opportunity to hit the ground running in Marseille against an ordinary Russian team weakened by injuries in important midfield positions is to be welcomed. So, too, is Roy Hodgson’s decision to abandon the midfield diamond that seemed to bring the worst out of everybody.

Whether his 4-3-3 – although it may be nearer to a 4-5-1, or a 4-1-4-1 in its attempt to get Dele Alli and Rooney in proximity to Harry Kane – is the answer remains to be seen. Once again, England arrive at a tournament with the manager throwing open the mystery box.

If England’s starting line-up is as predicted – Hart, Walker, Cahill, Smalling, Rose, Sterling, Rooney, Dier, Alli, Lallana, Kane – then for the second tournament in succession in the opening game, Hodgson’s chosen XI will not have started before.
Indeed, this XI has never actually been on the field for England in so much as one minute of any match, let alone in one as important as the first tentative step in a tournament. For a pragmatic coach, Hodgson is given to placing particularly big bets when the pressure is on.

Of course, teams evolve with the intensity of final competition, and that may be the case here. Not much point in all the secrecy at England’s Chantilly base – Hodgson’s players only strolled around the Stade Velodrome pitch on Friday night in case Russian spies hacked their final training session with binoculars – unless England actually have the odd secret.
The score of the players’ darts competition, or what Gary Neville considers a fair price for prawns – he bought some from a local fishmonger, but it is claimed haggled over the bill – doesn’t really count.
Who knows whether Hodgson has been cunning or simply indecisive, but maybe the uncertainty over England’s best or preferred XI will prove advantageous.
If Hodgson is unsure of his team from game to game – it is highly unlikely the starting XI against Russia has been in his mind for weeks, unless all three friendly matches were an exercise in deception – then it is going to be doubly hard for the opposition to second guess.
Is there a specific game in which Hodgson sees Jack Wilshere featuring? Having lost his place at nine, and now ten, is Rooney out entirely if he cannot make this latest deeper midfield role work?

Where champions start is not always where they finish, and England too often seem caught up in the energy around the first game, allowing any disappointments to dictate the narrative. It is worth remembering that all of England’s three most successful tournaments – the World Cups of 1966 and 1990 and the 1996 European Championship – began with unremarkable draws against ordinary opponents: Uruguay, the Republic of Ireland and Switzerland.
Yes, England should defeat Russia, but with 16 of 24 teams progressing it would not be a calamity if they did not, as long as the performance was strong.
There is some optimistic precedent to be found in Sir Alf Ramsey’s wingless wonders, who came late to the competition in 1966. Some argue that was the plan all along, Ramsey reluctant to show his hand and only fielding his preferred formation in the later stages.
Others believe accident as much as design played its part and Ramsey was trying to make wingers work, before the disappointment of the group stages made him abandon the idea. Yet this team and its likely shape remains a departure for Hodgson if as expected Rooney plays a midfield role.
He has performed there for Manchester United, but not England, and the one worry would be that such a late switch smacks of a coach sensing his captain’s waning influence, but unable to make the final leap in leaving him off the team sheet.

In Marseille, manager and player disembarked from an official vehicle for their press conference, late through the gridlocked cars inching home in time for France’s opening game with Romania. ‘I’ve never seen so much traffic,’ said Hodgson to a UEFA official, meaning he has clearly erased Brazil two years ago as a painful memory.
‘Without the police escort we would have been here at ten.’ Later he would go ten rounds with a set of UEFA headphones as Rooney did his best to stifle laughter, but for the moment the captain marched on, hatchet-faced. Another tournament, and the debate centres around him.

‘Sempre Butcher,’ Italian coach Enzo Bearzot would say – ‘always Butcher’ – scorning England’s reliance on a certain breed of lion-hearted centre-half. ‘Sempre Rooney’ could be written on the side of the England team bus now, so much has England been about one man for more than a decade.

He bristled when told that Russia’s management and players do not think he is the player of old. ‘I don’t have to sit here and defend myself,’ he shot back, eyes blazing. ‘My game has changed but in many ways it has changed for the better. I know the qualities I have and the opinions that matter are those of my coaches and team-mates.

Wayne Rooney and manager Roy Hodgson answer questions during Friday’s press conference
‘I’ve played with people who operated in a different way later in their careers and some of them became better players, too. I played in midfield at Manchester United for some of this season and in many ways it was natural because my football is intelligent football. If I play there more I may further my career.’
The problem is that if Hodgson does shift Rooney into midfield and it doesn’t work, he really doesn’t have too many other places to go. Sir Alex Ferguson once said that if Manchester United had injuries at right back, Rooney’s confidence was such he was the first to volunteer. He said Rooney would sidle up as they were leaving the training field.
‘I can play right back,’ he would say. ‘I’m a good right back.’ Ferguson didn’t doubt it. That was then, however. It would be lovely to imagine that Rooney still had the confidence and spirit of his youth, but he looks careworn on occasions now, fed up with being asked to justify his place ahead of the latest young shaver.

He talked of the advantage of having youth in the team, going out without fear. ‘I did that in 2003,’ he said. It is 13 years ago now – measured in football terms, a lifetime. Hodgson added that the worry of every manager is that the players carry their anxieties onto the field – in England’s case the anxieties of past failure.
‘All we can say to them is that they are good enough, that we think they are good enough and that they should believe in themselves,’ he insisted. ‘Yet nothing we can say will wipe the slate clean. We can’t help the fact that it is 50 years since we won a tournament, 20 years since we reached a semi-final.’
The mission to redress that void begins. ‘It could be a big tournament for England and this group of players,’ Rooney concluded. The ride home awaited. It would be slow progress; but, with England, it is ever anything else?