Saturday, 15 September 2012

England 1 Ukraine 1

Off we go again, another vicious circle of stratospheric expectation with the national team - people in every street in the land humming Vindaloo, panic buying St George’s flags and calling for the canonisation of Steven Gerrard - before it all comes crashing down in the familiar spiral of shoot-outs and self-loathing. 

This next time, we can expect the shanked sport-kick to plop a couple of days later somewhere in the Amazon delta, for the World Cup is heading to Brazil, which makes me a great deal more excitable than if you said it was heading to Russia or somewhere really crazy like, say, Qatar. Oh hang on. 

And so, on a late summer’s evening at Wembley Stadium, England continued on the Road to Rio. If Roy Hodgson has done anything in his tenure as manager so far, it is to dampen expectations so much that you kind of turn up and think - ‘well, as long as we’re not humiliated, then it’s a job well done and Roy’s such a nice chap and perhaps if we ignore his resemblance to an owl and the lisp, perhaps everything will be alright in the end...’

Now, I’m as English as they come (something which was awkwardly apparent when I lived in Scotland). I enjoy watching cricket, I like a pint of good ale in the local pub, I appreciate the art of Turner and Constable, and the music of Elgar and Britten and Oasis, I think the Houses of Parliament is the most beautiful building in the world and I believe gazing out at the rolling countryside on the train journey from London to the North is good for the soul. 

If I had a boat, I’d probably mess around in it and if I lived near a village green, I’d probably go there sometimes. But, unlike many in this country, I don’t share the rabid belief that we have the best football team in the world. Sure, the Euros exceeded all my predictions, but I’ve watched enough penalty heartaches through tear-filled eyes in the past to know not to get carried away - even if we have just demolished Moldova. 

And, on this occasion, I was right not to get ahead of myself. England were second best to Ukraine on their home pitch for large spells and so were horrendously profligate in front of goal in this game as to forfeit their right to win it. 

But despite what I’ve already said, I’m likely to become a regular at England internationals in the next few years. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and, who knew, but it’s one hell of a lot easier if you live in London. Besides, Adam H needed a new match-going partner now that Andy P has emigrated to Scotland and I was only too happy to oblige. 

We had excellent seats behind the goal, the first time at Wembley I’d not been on the top tier, and the band were positioned not far behind us. In fact, we were if anything too close to them, as it seemed like just a continuous thudding noise rather than any discernible song - like if you dance next to the speakers in a club 

There was a pocket of fans initiating the atmosphere behind us too, often singing something different to the band but succeeding in getting almost everyone in our section involved. They started two ovations for the group of Army soldiers away to our left and there were several minutes of applause for the British Olympic and Paralympic medallists at half-time. Such a feel-good factor. 

But it didn’t extend to the team, who were pretty jammy to get as much as a point against an accomplished and forward thinking Ukraine side who dominated possession in the first-half. Up high to our right was a great swathe of empty stadium - some 20,000 seats - left redundant and those who stayed away missed only a succession of frustrating moments. 

After ten minutes, Jermain Defoe had a perfectly legitimate goal chalked off when his hand flew into Andriy Yarmolenko’s face in the act of shooting for goal. Being down the far end of the stadium, it took quite a few seconds for us to realise the official had blown.

Tom Cleverley had been excellent against Moldova and, playing in a more advanced position than he has been used to at Manchester United, he was in the right place for an absolute sitter when Defoe deflected Gerrard’s cross into his path. But from five yards and with 95% of the goal to aim for, he found the goalkeeper’s boot. 

I hadn’t been too impressed by Ukraine at the Euros, but the technical superiority of Oleg Blokhin’s team was painfully apparent when Yevgeni Konoplianka’s magnificent curling shot gave them the lead on 39 minutes. There was such a sense of inevitability about it that the crowd around us didn’t actually get that angry. 

Hodgson twisted and threw on first Danny Welbeck and then Daniel Sturridge to improve the attack. In fairness, England were much more assured in possession after the break and utilised the wing-backs more often. 

But in scoring the equaliser they cut it very fine indeed. Welbeck, who was very good, squandered an excellent opening when hitting the post from five yards out, leaving us all staring in numb disbelief. 

Eventually, salvation arrived in the form of Frank Lampard and his reliable penalty taking. Hodgson’s predecessors have said for many years that Lampard and Gerrard are simply incompatible in midfield, using their similarities as a convenient excuse not to deploy them together. But with both players now in their 30s and less inclined to hare forward, Hodgson has correctly realised that they can still run a midfield. 

Anyway, Welbeck prised a handball from the unfortunate Yevgen Khacherdi and Lampard rarely lets you down from 12 yards. There was only going to be one winner from that point and the crowd jacked up the volume - at least until Gerrard was dismissed for a second yellow card, his first ever dismissal for England. 

Farcically, Gerrard was set to be named the man of the match and his award was flashed up on the big screen to a cheer of concurrence from the crowd. But the tannoy announcer wasn’t so sure and after a moment’s hesitation, Lampard was picked instead - the FA clearly wanting to save face in light of the red card. 

A bit uncomfortable really, like watching England at the moment.

Next match: More Conference South action on Saturday with a trip to the East End for AFC Hornchurch against Dorchester.