There isn’t much Roy Hodgson hasn’t seen or done in football. Walking out in the Donbass Arena as England coach for his first competitive game tonight might be his proudest moment as a manager, but the recently-installed national boss won’t lack experience, preparation or a game plan as the Three Lions seek to win a European Championship opener for the first time in seven attempts. Stopping a French side unbeaten in 21 games will hold few fears for Hodgson, who relishes a challenge and often leads unfancied outfits to successes built on organisation and clever use of the football.
Much of the talk in a frantic few weeks since Hodgson took the reigns from Fabio Capello – perhaps picking the worst hospital ball since Stuart Pearce tried to find David Seaman with a weak backpass five seconds in Bologna in 1993 – has been based around what England can do at the finals. The limitations of English football, laid bare by the fact that Hodgson’s squad is the only one that doesn’t include a member playing outside of their domestic, and the manager’s candour mean that there is a rare realism about the nation’s chances heading into a major finals. England’s stock might have fallen since Capello’s early romp through World Cup qualifying was followed by the definition of anti-climax in South Africa, but the new coach’s verisimilitude shouldn’t be mistaken for running up the white flag.
Hodgson has form in taking teams further than people expect. He took Switzerland, who hadn’t qualified for an international championships since the sixties, to the last sixteen of the World Cup in 1994 and led them to the Euro ’96. He came agonisingly close to taking Finland to their first finals, lifting to them to a record-high of 33rd in FIFA’s international rankings back in 2007. His feats as a club manager were celebrated across the continent, having won eight league titles, long before his compatriots belated recognised his talents when Hodgson returned home to revitalise relegation-haunted Fulham – who he led to the most of unexpected of European finals – before guiding West Brom, who themselves were a lingering close to the drop, to their highest league finish for three decades.
Those who have only seen Hodgson’s England through the prism of two testing warm-up fixtures in Oslo and against a talented Belgian side at Wembley might mutter about negativity and parking the bus. The armchair critics, as well as the respected football journalists who should know better, would do well to remember that the victory over Norway was England’s first in two decades and the last English coach to win in Oslo was a certain Sir Alf Ramsay in 1966. The narrowness of the subsequent defeat of Belgium worried more than a few, but given Hodgson places such a premium on shape and defensive organisation he would have been derived as much satisfaction from the clean sheet as the encouraging link-up play between Ashley Young, who looks reborn in the number ten role, and Danny Welbeck that created such a well-taken winner.
Hodgson has attracted brickbats and frankly baffling allegations for some of his selections but given that the template he has built in almost four decades of management has included a demand for his wide players to work it shouldn’t come as a surprise any more. In the same way as Ramsay spent the build-up to 1966 evangelising to his detractors about the merits of playing without wingers, Hodgson could have led a enlightening tactical seminar on what he wants from his wide men should the assembled press have focused on what mattered rather than who isn’t in Krakow. The instructions he will have passed onto James Milner and Stewart Downing, wide midfielders picked for their work rate rather than their explosive impact in the final third, will have centred around the need to limit the amount of roaming Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri are allowed to do infield.
Back in February 2010, Hodgson took an unheralded English side to the Donetsk, then the home of the reigning UEFA Cup champions, and successfully stifled the Samba-style passing of the Ukrainian side, whose midfield followed a Brazilian beat. Having been outplayed in a bewildering first twenty five minutes of the first leg at Craven Cottage, Hodgson’s Fulham charges learnt their lesson and ceded both space and possession effectively in a disciplined defensive performance that laid down a marker in the competition. What’s more – they cancelled out Shakhtar’s valuable away goal with an early one of their own from Brede Hangeland. The training ground drills on shape, essentially gaming scenarios that would be repeated when the first whistle blew, were repeated until boredom faded and memory took over at Motspur Park. It’s something the 2012 England vintage have had to absorb since coming together a few weeks ago in Manchester but Hodgson and his number two, Ray Lewington, will have the memory of that special night they sunk Shakhtar to carry into the Donbass Arena this evening.
England’s fate won’t be decided by tonight’s tough examination by a French side who have finally put their own South African shenanigans behind them under Laurent Blanc but by three tight group games. Succeeding in tournament football is dependent on defences keeping it tight and forwards finishing their chances. Fulham fans used to claim that Hodgson set his sides up not to get beat: aiming for catenaccio away from home – influenced by his four years in Italy and a slightly more ambitious 1-0 at Craven Cottage. They weren’t far off and his England side certainly won’t be as open as their predecessors, but memories of the Bloemfontein drubbing by Germany should convince the sceptics that isn’t the worst thing in the world.