After watching his England team canter to a comfortable 3-0 win over Peru at Wembley, Roy Hodgson had no doubt as to who the stars of the show had been. Daniel Sturridge, Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka did not make the cut.
“The crowd, the atmosphere, 85,000 people,” he enthused. “What a send off, and what a tremendous vote of confidence for these players from the English footballing public. That really pleased me.”
He was right and wrong. Certainly, the England supporters who admirably packed out Wembley for a meaningless contest against unheralded and ludicrously weakened opposition were in a party mood all evening.
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But a “tremendous vote of confidence”? Not quite.
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Prior to kickoff, there was a palpable sense of optimism after a well-received tournament squad announcement, but all it took to drain the hope and conviction away was 30 minutes of England playing football again.
In truth, this was a game in which Hodgson’s men were never likely to look good. A friendly vibe, latent fear of injury, substitutions galore and opponents content to simply keep the score down are not usually the ingredients for a thriller. It was no more than a public workout, designed to boost morale and fitness.
With all this in mind, those in attendance quickly resorted to amusing themselves. As England labored to break down Peru’s massed defensive ranks the relentless barrage of paper planes from the stands began, turning Wembley into a glorified classroom where all the pupils had been left to their own devices, tasked with making their own fun.
Sturridge briefly regained their attention with a brilliant curling shot from 25 yards to break the deadest of deadlocks on 32 minutes, but the evening’s only flash of genuine quality did not get the biggest cheer; that was reserved for the moment deep into the second half when Peruvian substitute Hansell Riojas unwittingly found himself struck on the back of the head by one fortuitously aimed gliding invader launched from the top tier.
The first appearance of the dreaded Mexican wave came on the hour mark, and it had completed countless circuits of the stadium by the final whistle. In the meantime Cahill and Jagielka also found the net from Leighton Baines corner kicks, adding a layer of gloss to the scoreline that England deserved for its ceaseless territorial dominance, if not its creative verve.
Some stayed behind to give Hodgson’s men a final round of applause before Sunday’s flight to Miami, but the majority opted to make a swift exit and launch themselves into the formidable human traffic jam on Wembley Way.
Make no mistake: When the World Cup starts, support for England at home and in Brazil will be as loud and committed as ever. But the events of Friday evening provided a timely reminder that disillusionment and apathy – the toxic legacy of the Fabio Capello era – will never be far away, even for this vibrant young squad.
Hodgson has helped England rebound from the disgrace of South Africa, but the national side is yet to recapture the imagination of the people. The emergence of Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson and Ross Barkley has raised fresh hopes of one day regaining a team worth believing in, but there is scant evidence that such a day will arrive in Brazil.
The starting XI Hodgson picked on Friday evening had never played together before and it showed. Neither Danny Welbeck nor Adam Lallana looked truly comfortable or effective out wide, Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson are not used to being partnered in a two-man midfield and Sturridge and Rooney still possess no real understanding to speak of up front.
Within the 23-man squad the individual talent and potential is undeniable. And so it should be – unlike Luiz Felipe Scolari, Laurent Blanc or Vicente del Bosque, Hodgson has chosen his men almost entirely on club form. But while this England group possess rare confidence, cohesion is the price.
Nine of Hodgson’s squad are yet to reach double figures for England caps. Henderson, Sterling, Lallana and Luke Shaw have never played a competitive minute at international level, while Barkley has just half an hour against Moldova at Wembley to his name. The blossoming of domestic talent at Liverpool, Everton and Southampton this season has greatly widened the England manager’s selection pool but it is hard to shake the sense that this squad has come together slightly too late.
Hodgson has little more time to bind his players into an effective unit than he did before Euro 2012, let alone follow the forthright advice of Paul Scholes and try to emulate the slick attacking style refined by Brendan Rodgers this season – without the not inconsiderable talents of Luis Suarez.
But then perhaps individual ability and youthful exuberance can overcome such obstacles. Perhaps Hodgson can work his magic quickly in Miami. Or perhaps a more realistic hope is that England and its manager are still inclined to salute the crowd when the Brazilian adventure finally ends next month.