England managers usually have honeymoon periods. Sven-Goran Eriksson certainly had a Blair-esque love affair with the country after he replaced Kevin Keegan in 2001 and Fabio Capello cantered through qualifying with deceptive ease. Things are a bit different now. The Italian’s departure – and the dearth of options left to his successor even on the brink of a major tournament – might have checked our ambition ahead of the trip to Ukraine and Poland in a few weeks time, but their has still been plenty of criticism of Roy Hodgson.
To those who might not have studied Hodgson’s career, the new man’s methods might take a little bit of getting used to. But the cutaways to the touchline of Roy side stroking his chin alongside trusted lieutenant Ray Lewington immediately put a smile on the face of those of us who were treated to three fairly extraordinary years at Fulham. Not that there was anything out of the ordinary from England in Oslo this evening. They were professional, workmanlike and disciplined – even if newly-installed captain Steven Gerrard did stray the wrong side of the line with an ill-timed lunge that ended Tom Hogli’s evening.
There was a sense of early adventure that might have surprised those hacks who think they’ve got Hodgson worked out already. England’s swift break for the game’s early goal also vindicated a few of the manager’s selections. The much-maligned Andy Carroll, unfairly stereotyped as the battering ram centre forward to whom English sides pathetically punted the ball to in times of strife, slipped an intelligent pass through for the rampant Ashley Young, who skipped away from Brede Hangeland, and then steered a shot into the far corner. Young made something fairly difficult look so simple and he was elusive and energetic providing the kind of movement needed to trouble a usually sure-footed Norwegian defence.
In case anybody is in any doubt as to the calibre of England’s hosts, who have been their nemesis a few too many times in recent years, Norway have defeated France, Portugal and the Czech Republic recently and this was their first defeat in the Ullevaal Stadion for two years. Egil Olsen’s charges certainly improved after the break with John Arne Riise regularly galloping down the left flank in the kind of fashion that we saw at Craven Cottage towards the close of the domestic season. But for one terrific reaction stop by Rob Green, who also had tipped Markus Henriksen’s effort around the post in the first period, there might have been an unhappy sting in the tail.
But England stood firm with the familiar comfort shape adopted by most of Hodgson’s sides making it almost impossible to penetrate a well-drilled defence. Parker and Barry formed the shield in front of what must be England’s second choice back four, although you couldn’t fault any of them. Leighton Baines got forward regularly from left back, whilst Phil Jones was quietly efficient on the other flank. Out wide, Stewart Downing and James Milner might not set too many pulses racing but their defensive coverage meant Norway had little joy of their won down the flanks. The hosts’ frustration was summed up as we entered injury time when Mohammed Abdellaoui shot impetuously wide from all of 30 yards.
England were steady rather than spectacular, but Hodgson showed commendable imagination with his substitutions, sending on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for his senior debut and offering Jordan Henderson a chance to deputise for Gareth Barry. This was England’s first victory over Norway in more than two decades and Hodgson became the first England coach to win there since Sir Alf Ramsay in 1966. Not a bad beginning, by any means.