"It’s The Hope That Kills You" is a MatchPint series looking at England since the turn of the Millenium, examining the results before every major tournament that left you thinking that maybe, just maybe, something special could happen.
Many of you will have clicked on this headline with furrowed brows, thinking: “Hope? For Roy Hodgson’s England team? When, exactly, did this happen?”
Not at Euro 2012 mate, that’s for hell damn sure. Given about 20 minutes to rebuild after Fabio Capello left him almost literally holding the baby, even the tabloid press gave Roy a free pass to try and get something from the tournament. An inexperienced squad managed a respectable and predictable quarter-final exit - to Italy on penalties – and we all hoped they would learn from the experience.
But Hodgson’s England era contained more false dawns than a French & Saunders lookalike contest.
In a rough-and-tumble World Cup qualifying group, by February 2013 we already had our backs against the walls, playing like a team deliberately managing expectations. Montenegro were top of the group and we’d scraped lucky draws against Poland and Ukraine. Our manager had less the air of a top international coach than that of a confused nocturnal bird of prey.
The Three Lions had won only five of the past eleven Wembley outings, and attendances were plummeting. In our previous friendly we’d been given a Zlataning so humiliating the lads might never recover.
The last thing England needed was a test against a real world-class opponent.
But there was an anniversary in store and if there’s nothing the FA likes more is reminding everyone how important and old they are. Indeed, the world needed to witness our large metal semi-circle in all its glory. To that end, the Mighty BrazilTM were invited to celebrate 150 years of the FA with a friendly predictably billed as a carnival of football.
One problem though: neither team was actually much cop. This was Big Phil Scolari’s first game back in charge, having been recalled to whip an unremarkable Samba squad into shape.
Super Mario’s dad was the type to pick 20 holding midfielders if he could, but he was fortunate that every team he ever managed had possessed a wealth of mad skillz up top. This formula had allowed him to become England’s nemesis at back-to-back tournaments a decade previously, eliminating us with Brazil in 2002 and Portugal in 2004.
Brazil brought a few Champions League winners of the calibre of Dante, Oscar, Dani Alves and Dave Lewis to celebrate Ronaldinho’s 100th cap. And they had a kid called Neymar, still playing for Santos, who was already gaining favourable comparisons to pre-divided loaves.
Allegedly quite handy.
Brazil-based striker Luis Fabiano, QPR-based keeper Julio Cesar, the Brazilian Ray Mears – Ramires - and the other, other Adriano completed those in yellow. Whilst hardly a vintage Seleçãothere was still a real sense that, for England’s confidence-shot rabble, this game was all about avoiding disgrace.
Brazil spent much of the first half discovering that the chosen child, Neymar, wasn’t quite ready to do any miracles yet. England’s best work all came through 19-year-old Jack Wilshere, making up for lost time after over a year out with injury.
He was unlucky to have an early penalty awarded against him, just twisting as he charged down a cross which smacked against his whirling arm.
A Ronaldinho goal was surely written in the script of this match, but Joe Hart flew down to his left to block the pen, changing direction like an Olympic swimmer to keep away the rebound.
That moment of world-class glovesmanship produced a roar from the England faithful and prodded the Three Lions into action. Assisted by Rooney’s clever movement and slick one-twos, Wilshere set about wriggling between Big Phil’s tightly packed lines, wearing the determined expression of a semi-finalist on Gladiators.
Jack’s first atom-splitting through-ball found Dat Guy Welbz on the left of the box, who could easily have slotted under Cesar had his left peg not existed entirely for decorative purposes. Acutely aware of this, our Danny assumed the body position of a man trying to catch a closing door with his arms full of shopping, and duly scooped the ball into the rafters.
But now Wilshere and Wazza were running the show, and after another one-two Jack spotted Walcott putting the burners on Dante and threaded the ball into his path. Cesar was out quickly to block Theo’s shot with his legs, but Rooney had read the danger and was on hand to curl a first-time left-footer past three defenders on the line.
1-0 up at half time and hungry for glory, Roy wasn’t about to make the wholesale changes that turn so many friendlies into fresh-legged exhibitions. On came Lampard for Cleverley, and Walcott pushed forward into a 4-3-3. If substitutions could talk, this one said: “Express yourselves!”
“Not you, Gary - ah for f*ckssakes!” Three minutes later, Brazil were level, some erp-a-derp dribbling from Cahill giving the subsequently hopeless Fred the considerable time and space he required to whack an equaliser past Hart.
Cahill’s jitteriness on the ball summed up England’s longstanding fear of possession. Milner came on for Welbeck on the hour. If this could talk it said “take the draw.”
But Lampsy had other ideas. When Brazil failed to clear Walcott’s cross, football’s most impressive IQ was first to react to Rooney’s interception.
An imperceptible tiptoe backwards to get his head over the ball, a split-second to let the bounce reach its apex, and the decision to float it when everyone expected a thunderbolt, combined for a beautiful goal that clanked off the inside of the post on it’s way in.
England’s back line defended the lead, absorbing waves of Brazilian pressure until the final whistle, encouraging the world’s cockneyest Irishman to exclaim: “It’s a big scalp to claim, Clive!”
At the time, unbelievably, Townsend was right. Scolari’s Brazil would go on to win the Confederations Cup in June of that year, beating the all-conquering Spanish team 3-0 in the final.
In fact, they somehow managed to squeeze in 21 games before the World Cup even began, losing only once. Everyone had their suspicions that they weren’t the best Brazil of all time, but it took until that semi-final, when the Germans nonchalantly annihilated them 7-1, for us all to realise they were the worst.
Point is, beating them 2-1 at Wembley was wildly unexpected, and could have been a massive confidence boost for Roy’s rebuilding project.
Wilshere looked almost as at home on the international stage as he did on crutches, and deserved his Man of the Match award. When Rooney dropped deep to keep the ball zipping along the floor in tandem with him, it looked like we might just be starting to play modern, fluid football.
Wilshere has arguably never reached the heights that night ever since.
The affable owl tried the tactic again in a must-win qualifier in Montenegro, where Rooney snatched an early lead. But, with Wilshere’s ankle back in a moon boot, neither Milner nor Cleverley nor Welbeck had the class to unlock a deep defence. England collapsed, barely hanging on to a 1-1 draw, now looking utterly baffled by the false 9 concept.
We were a strange team, qualifying by the skins of our teeth, yet undefeated in the group (W6, D4). Given 2 years to prepare for this tournament, Roy took a less experienced (and worse) squad to Brazil than the one that had no time to gel at the Euros. The rebuild was an illusion.
I’ll take Terry, Cashley, Defoe and Big Andy (2012) over P-Jag, Luke Shaw, D-Studge and Lambert (2014), any day.
Drawn in a Group of Death with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica, the only way England were going to get through was by harnessing the ability to rise to the occasion that we had shown against Brazil at Wembley. After losing valiantly to Italy in the 31ÌŠC heat of the Amazonia Arena, Costa Rica’s 3-1 victory over Uruguay looked to have done us a favour.
But four days wasn’t enough recovery time for the same XI to play Uruguay, (and Los Ticos weren’t the whipping boys we’d assumed.) Tiredness caught up with Stevie G during a route 1 clearance; the slipper – sorry, skipper - allowing cannibal clubmate Suarez in to nab a fatal winner.
What a palaver for a 5-day tour.
Having failed to get England out of the group stage for the first time since 1958, Hodgson emerged to face the press looking less ‘barn-dwelling vole-connoisseur,’ more ‘Theresa May in a K-hole’ – mumbling madnesses about being the right person to take the country forward.
Two years later we couldn’t get round a supermarket at Euro 2016.