England learning to have fun

For 20 years England have stunk out nearly every tournament they’ve qualified for. But, thanks to the maligned Roy Hodgson and a team of quick and clever players, Dan Brigham believes Euro 2016 may finally bring the fun times back

Remember those house parties when you were a teenager? The ones with cider in sludge-coloured litre bottles, disposable cameras, permanently locked bathroom doors and Lynx Africa? Weren’t they so much easier, so much more enjoyable if the girl or boy of your stuttering, mumbling dreams wasn’t there.

You could relax in the knowledge that your eyes wouldn’t be darting around in search of them all night, that the threat of rejection could be parked for another day, that you wouldn’t have to turn around and freeze in heartbreak at the sight of the Chosen One locked in an embrace with The Nemesis. Instead you were free to drink as much White Lightning as you liked, talk to who you wanted and chunder without shame.

And so it is with England and football tournaments. In the 12 World Cups and European Championships since my football education began with immediate emotional scarring thanks to Chris Waddle’s moon-landing penalty in Turin in 1990, two tournaments have stood out: the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2008. They were the sit-back-with-your-arms-behind-your-head contests, four weeks of not having to worry about seeing the girl or boy you fancy ruining the party.

Not having to follow England meant that in 1994 you were free to revel in Gheorghe Hagi destroying Argentina, Ray Houghton roly-polying, Diego Maradona’s eye-bulging goal celebration, Jorge Campos’ neon goalkeeping kit, Alan Hansen gaffing in commentary when he said a defender “wants shooting for being in that position” just days after Colombia’s Andres Escobar had been shot dead. There were Jurgen Klinsmann, Romario and Roberto Baggio at their peaks and Hristo Stoichkov powering the Crazy Gang of Bulgaria to the semi-finals. And all of this, gloriously, without English distractions.

Euro 2008 wasn’t a classic tournament, but still it was a blessing to watch without the black cloud of an England penalty shootout hanging over it. There was Turkey’s jubilant march to the semis, Netherlands crushing both France and Italy in the groups before being downed by an entertaining Russian side, Germany’s football revolution gathering pace and Spain taking their first tikki-takki steps on their way to world domination.

So, gawd bless you Graham Taylor and Steve McClaren, and boo-hiss to you Bobby Robson, Kevin Keegan, Glenn Hoddle, Sven-Göran-Eriksson, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson. Boo-hiss for bloating us with hope, for making it impossible to enjoy World Cups and Euros without the fear of England’s inevitable slimy snail-trail towards elimination.

There was only one exception: Euro 1996. It wasn’t just because England were hosting, it was because Terry Venables had a team of Shearer, Sheringham, Gazza and McManaman playing attacking football in interesting formations that strived to get the most out of its creative players. They were having fun out there – dentist chairs, Paul Gascoigne at his best, beating Scotland, crushing Holland, even winning a penalty shoot-out! – and the country responded.

In fact, two decades later, we can look back at that tournament as a paean to English footballing fun, before the days of Beckham effigies, of metatarsals, of Iain Duncan-Smith team-talks, of squashing Lampard and Gerrard into a 4-4-2, of Rooney berating the England fans, of as much charm and joie de vivre as an EastEnders funeral.

Winning would be great, of course. But so would sneaking into Donald Trump’s bedroom at night and shaving his hair off. So, let’s be realistic and just settle for having fun

Finally, 20 years on, history may repeat itself. Hodgson has suffered a gunboat of criticism since it was announced that he wasn’t Harry Redknapp, but he is building an England team with youth, pace and creativity. It is a side capable of having fun, a side able to switch from counter-attacking to possession football depending on the opposition, a side with players to get you off your seat (and not only in order to bark abuse at them).

There were already glimpses of this in Brazil last year, but an over-reliance on playing 4-2-3-1 to accommodate a long-creaking Steven Gerrard in a holding role that Italy and Uruguay ruthlessly exposed held England back. But in winning 10 out 10 qualifying games for Euro 2016, space was used intelligently, angles were created, the players looked comfortable on the ball and Hodgson was happy to trust his attacking players.

In the friendlies against Spain, France and Germany, we may get a true picture of just how much the manager has genuinely shaken off his natural conservatism and donned the shades, bought himself a leather jacket and started smoking roll-ups. For England to remind themselves and the nation that tournaments don’t have to be an exercise in ennui and introspection, there needs to be no harnesses strapped to Sterling, Barkley, Kane, Wilshere, Sturridge, Lallana, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Let them play, and we may have ourselves a team to relish.

Everyone has their quibbles over selections. Jonjo Shelvey, a man who appears to have been made in the image of what an alien might think a human looks like, is far too one-footed to play the holding role at international level, while Kieran Gibbs and Kyle Walker are world-class runners-in-straight-lines, but not really very good at much else. And, well, we all know Jonny Howson should be bossing that midfield, right? (And, really, no one outside of Norfolk cares about the third-choice goalkeeping spot. In the mid-1990s I used to try and tell everyone that Mansun were better than Kula Shaker and Sleeper, but they all just ignored me because, rightly, they just gave a shit about Blur and Oasis. It is exactly like that with the John Ruddy argument. It is irrelevant.)

No one actually expects England to win the thing next year. That would be crazy talk. Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling, John Stones and Nathaniel Clyne may form a slickly commanding back four for many years to come, but it’s still too early (and too injured) to think quality opposition will be stifled by them at Euro 2016. There is no bona fide English holding midfielder, which doesn’t do the callow defence many favours, and although the team is stacked full of potential No.10s and wide front-men, only the forever injured Daniel Sturridge can be classed as a truly gifted No.9 (but wouldn’t it be lovely if Wayne Rooney morphed back into the player he was at Euro 2004).

Winning would be great, of course. But so would sneaking into Donald Trump’s bedroom at night and shaving his hair off. So, let’s be realistic and just settle for having fun. After 20 years of watching England ruining big tournaments by regressing into a state of anaphylactic shock, at Euro 2016 we may finally get to see a likeable team playing entertaining, intelligent football without being sniggered at by neutrals. And we can all be happy with that, can’t we?

You can follow Dan Brigham on twitter at @dan_brigham