That was the season that was. After nearly eleven months, 58 matches, 168 goals and a road map of venues from the Scottish border to north London – not to mention the full human spectrum of emotions from agony to ecstasy to coronary – this was the final football of the season.
It started at York Street with the Lincolnshire Senior Shield in pre-season and ended at Wembley – not in the cup final scenario with Boston United we all dreamed of, but with yet another dreary national team performance as they plodded another point towards the European Championships next summer.
I still believe the Home of Football experience is something special, even after my fourth visit, and it was a delight to show Andy around on his first visit. To me, new Wembley is worth every penny. Catching that first glimpse of the glass facade and the silhouette of Bobby Moore, the flag of St. George fluttering above him, from atop the tube station steps still makes the heart palpitate, as does finding your seat to gaze out upon the swathes of gleaming red seats and the sacred greenness beneath.
It’s just a shame the fare on offer doesn’t match the magnificent setting.
After the 2-0 win in Wales in March, I genuinely believed that England had finally hit upon the winning formula that would carry them into a position of strength entering the tournament in Poland and Ukraine. The version of 4-3-3 favoured in the Millennium Stadium needed some fine-tuning but at least it wasn’t bloody 4-4-2. It appeared England had joined the rest of the world. Here was a system that harnessed the brilliant potential of Jack Wilshere and married it with the steel of Frank Lampard and Scott Parker, one of the players of the season.
The forward trio of Wayne Rooney, Darren Bent and Ashley Young, in trident formation, looked like it might actually trouble someone. The traditional target man had been binned for width and pace. Thank the lord.
Fast forward to Saturday and I’m half-disbelievingly pointing out to Andy as we take our seats that Young has been omitted for James Milner. Capello claims Young’s best position is “not on the wing” – so I suppose when he joins Manchester United next month he’ll be playing in the holding role. Rubbish. Milner, when he plays, is best in midfield. Here he’s marooned out on the left wing, lacking the pace and courage to take anyone on. Maybe Capello got them mixed up or something. Maybe he just doesn’t care anymore. Either way, it was wrong.
I felt so vindicated when Young came off the bench and transformed the game in the second-half. His goal confirmed everything United and Liverpool see in him, a beautiful half-volley from Leighton Baines’s chest-down. At that point, 51 minutes, there looked only one winner but England conspired to miss chance after chance. I’ve nothing against Bent but the guy missed two open goal chances. Either he’s not good enough for this level or, well, Wales are worse than we thought.
Credit to Switzerland, whose players and 5,000 fans were superb. Their two-goal lead inside 35 minutes gave England an almighty wallop up the arse and highlighted some familiar, haunting problems. We thought we’d found the settled number one we’d craved for years – after all, everyone else was pulling out or retiring - but now Joe Hart has a question mark hanging over him. Milner didn’t cover himself in glory by cowardly stepping out of the wall for Barnetta’s second but you have to say Hart’s positioning was schoolboy.
During the surprisingly painless journey back to Sheffield, inbetween the occasional giggle at the craic doled out by the Blades and Owls fans on my train, there was plenty of time to mull over the national team’s failings. The sense of déjà-vu from when I was sat on that National Express coach back to York staring into the biblical rain after England 2 Croatia 3 in November 2007 was inescapable. Have we moved forward at all?
The only positive is a slightly lowered average squad age thanks to Walcott, Wilshere and company. And even in this, we trail the rest of the world. In other areas, such as set-up, technique, clinical edge, goalkeeping, we’re light years behind. We’re locked in a loveless marriage with a coach who just doesn’t care. A cycle of mediocrity. The same old malaise.
Sigh, bring on pre-season...