England are associated with so much negativity. In the current climate and with Marseille still ablaze, that’s a very broad statement. However, if the past has taught us anything it’s that passing hasty judgement on supporters without having a full grasp of the facts is reckless; at the time of writing, one supporter is in intensive care and many others are injured. What happened in the south of France appears to have been a layered situation with several different elements, and that complex reality demands a considered response rather than reflexive, damning judgement.
But consider England from a purely sporting perspective – and, as evidenced in the aftermath of the opening game draw, the bilious negativity they breed. The relationship between the country and the team is toxic and it’s that dynamic, rather than the team’s actual performances, which have made international football something to dread.
Prior to Euro 2016, most were enthused by Roy Hodgson’s squad. England are not the most talented team and Hodgson isn’t presiding over a golden generation, but he selected a group with enough flair and verve to be worth watching. It was more sword than shield, at least, and a departure from the “please, don’t hurt us” approach employed at the 2012 European Championship and the 2014 World Cup.
So on to the Stade Velodrome on Saturday evening and a performance which was largely impressive. Given the circumstances, it was a showing which most could have predicted: England have strengths and weakness, are capable of being bold and vulnerable, and they showed their full range against Russia. Against an inferior opponent employing a rather formulaic approach, they enjoyed long periods of dominance while never looking entirely comfortable and that, unfortunately, cost them in the dying seconds. For all the neat inter-play in midfield, the exhilarating runs from the full-back tandem, and Adam Lallana’s unexpected good showing, all it took was a long, desperate diagonal and a looping header to hold them to a draw. Disappointing? Yes, but not cause for a full-scale post mortem and the irritatingly familiar “oh, aren’t we terrible” self-flagellation.
But that is England now: we are only capable of responding in a binary way. Either the world should be cowering to our irresistible might or laughing hysterically in our faces. We are either the best or the worst, represented by a team who should be carried aloft through the streets of London or pelted with rotten fruit at the airport. Other than in very small pockets, all the nuance of post-match debate seems to have vanished and been replaced by the worst elements of “five things we learned” culture: there must always be cold, hard, definitive conclusions and every mis-step must carry some kind of consequence.
It’s exhausting and it’s into that framework that the performance against Russia has been shoved. A cool-headed appraisal would recognise that England were exactly the team they were expected to be. In the vacuum between the end of the domestic season and the start of this tournament, during which the side’s strengths and weaknesses were debated and examined, the working consensus was that they would be capable of textured attacking play but hamstrung by their weak defensive unit – and that was borne out in Marseille. Disappointment is natural, because how can fumbling victory in stoppage time ever not be, but it’s the sulking which grates and the speed with which the toys have exited the pram. The concession of Vasili Berezutski’s late header was a gut punch that England’s performance didn’t deserve, but rather than treat it appropriately – as bounce-of-the-ball misfortune from a lottery long ball – it’s being presented as an inevitable consequence of a series of unforgivable errors which warrant immediate retribution.
James Milner shouldn’t have lost the ball high up the field. Jack Wilshere was probably the wrong player to introduce at the wrong time. England, in retrospect, should have tried to extend their lead rather than simply protect it.
Correct, correct, and correct again. But all of those conclusions lean heavily on hindsight and ignore the wider context of the game. England were good, England were fun to watch and, if they tweak aspects of their approach before they play Wales and Slovakia, there is still nothing to suggest that this can’t be one of the more encouraging tournament showings of the current generation. There are many shades of grey between the black and white extremes and our tendency to ignore all of them is truly wearisome. Sack Hodgson, drop Harry Kane, fire Raheem Sterling into permanent orbit; England, it seems, can only exist in a state of absolute triumph or outright catastrophe.
But pick the soft animals up from the floor, wipe away that solitary, sulky tear, and be encouraged by what this side can be if they grow into this competition. Fourteen countries had played by the end of Sunday night, and only the Germans were noticeably superior.