I really respect Roy Hodgson as a man and a manager and I truly believe that his methods and his manner of playing will take the England team forward in time - but he’s been so good at dampening our expectations that international weeks have become absolutely non-descript.
There was no anticipation for England’s third World Cup qualifier on Friday night against San Marino. And if you’re going to be clever and argue that that’s because it was against San Marino, then I can tell you there’s going to be no excitement or anticipation when we play Poland this week either.
At work, it’s become a running joke and an editorial nightmare. Stripped of the Premier League and with just one match to focus on, the news dries up to a trickle. When cursed with such a run-of-the-mill opposition like San Marino - a mountainous kingdom surrounded entirely by Italy, famous for favouring three-tiered cakes and with a national population smaller than that of Boston - it’s inevitable my feature ideas run out too.
I wrote about the greatest moment in their history when Davide Gualtieri sprung onto a Stuart Pearce mistake to score after eight seconds in 1993, I wrote about how they’re all students and barmen and goat herders, and I even got to ask 1966 legend and true gent Sir Geoff Hurst what he thought about them (“Roy will have told the lads not to take anything for granted because there are no easy games at this level...”)
Thankfully, I was not asked to pick three key battles from the game. I would have chosen: England against Boredom, England against Complacency and England against Their Own Shortcomings.
Incredibly, being probably the only sports journalist to be writing about the game with any kind of craft and attention, Talksport called me up in the office and asked me if I’d provide ten minutes of analysis after the game. Of course I would. If there was anything to say without the caveat: “But of course you have to remember that it was only San Marino and it’s probably not an accurate reflection of where we’re going as a team...”
Advertised by the FA as the “Game you can’t afford to miss” it actually turned into the “Game they couldn’t give away.” I was offered six different tickets for the match by various people, including a tempting one that included a three course meal at the Hilton. Having felt smug earlier in the week with a ticket already bought when it was announced, to universal bewilderment, that it had genuinely sold out, I felt cheated by the end to have had so much choice.
In the event, I kept my promise to Mr Hallgarth, who had some kind of mental railway nightmare to even get there, and we had good seats in one of the corners in the “sell-out” crowd. I must protest, because 85,000 does not constitute a sell-out at a 90,000-capacity venue and it was apparent that many of those in the buttock-massaging, halogen-heated, leather-upholstered, prawn sandwich-munching, claret swilling Club Wembley seats hadn’t bothered to show up (I’m just jealous...)
I had said through the week to anyone who wanted to talk about the game that there would be a sizeable period of time before England broke through the blue ribbon of San Marino defenders (for they were all defending, even the strikers) and that everyone would be getting irate.
This obviously happened - Joe Hart was the loneliest man in international football, matched only perhaps by Gasperoni up front for San Marino, whose service was akin to trying to get between two Scottish Highland villages by bus at half four in the morning on a Bank Holiday Monday.
As England plugged and plugged away, trying to break down the greatest Sammarinese resistance since Mussolini came calling, Hodgson’s public did indeed become restless. Numerous accents sprung up around us - a Brummy, someone from the Westcountry, a Cockney and a Partridge caricature from Norfolk way - Carrick was sh*t, Cleverley was sh*t, Lennon was sh*t, England were sh*t, life as a whole was sh*t.
Walcott had been clattered, so had the post and the crossbar. Eventually, Welbeck lived up to his tag and fell down easily, allowing Wazza Rooney to stroke home a penalty. Last week, he had a gash in his thigh that looked as though he’d been shot by gangsters, now he’s going to be the permanent captain of England.
Moments later, Welbeck backheeled Wembley into delirium. He’s good at that too - his first attempted flick was after about 55 seconds and he was trying various combos all night. The sh*t stirrers behind us were suddenly leaping up and cheering in the obligatory Mexican wave as though every Christmas EVER had come right at once.
Further second half strikes from Rooney, Welbeck and Oxlade-Chamberlain gave the scoreline a necessary gloss and everyone trooped home happy. It could well have been seven or eight, though Roy said he wouldn’t have felt a great deal happier if it had been. Bless. Still lowering hopes.
I dashed home to get on the radio and spout off. I assumed my national radio debut would be on a live broadcast and I’d be having a verbal dogfight with a half-wit from Wolverhampton or something. I was wrong, I wasn’t trustworthy enough to throw straight on uncensored and uncut. It was a recorded interview that was going out just after 1am. A debut heard by the insomniacs and long-distance lorry drivers only.
I enthused about Rooney. In fact, it was all about Rooney because they kept asking about Rooney. Yes, he was captain material I concluded. I didn’t even stay up to listen - I just don’t like hearing my voice played back to me. Honestly it's horrible.