Why a dose of reality might be just what England need

First published in Sport The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

FOURTEEN days to go, and it is hard to remember a build up to a major tournament involving England that felt like this.

Where are the plastic flags fluttering from the aerials of cars? Where are the replica England tops with the name of the nation's latest talisman on the back? Where are the bullish predictions proclaiming that we're about to end however many years of hurt it is this time?

Conspicuous only by their absence. But rather than bemoaning a lack of jingoistic excitement ahead of the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, perhaps we should be embracing an uncharacteristic acceptance of the lie of the land.

For once, England's players will not be burdened by the weight of a nation's unrealistic ambitions on their shoulders. If there is an expectation this time around, it is that England will fall flat on their face. Might humility prove to be our greatest asset?

In recent tournaments, there is no doubt that a succession of England sides have struggled to cope with the pressure of delivering a level of success that was deemed to be within their compass.

In Germany six years ago, Sven-Goran Eriksson was only too eager to talk up his team's chances, yet they stumbled their way through a group containing Paraguay, Sweden and Trinidad & Tobago courtesy of two uninspiring victories and a draw.

They edged out Ecuador via a David Beckham free-kick at the second-round stage, a victory that ramped up the expectancy levels even higher ahead of a quarter-final with Portugal.

And we all know what happened there. Wayne Rooney lost his head, petulantly kicking out at Cristiano Ronaldo when he grew tired of chasing shadows as a lone striker, Eriksson did not have an alternative game plan to unlock the Portuguese defence, and Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher lived up to their national stereotype from the penalty spot.

The general consensus afterwards was that a last-eight spot was pretty much what England deserved, yet by the next World Cup in South Africa, they were potential winners once again.

Never mind that Steve McClaren's side had been unable to even qualify for Euro 2008, this was the last hurrah for the golden generation. Surely it was written in the stars?

Well it was if the stars had mapped out a dreadful group phase, featuring draws with the United States and Algeria and a fraught win over Slovenia, and a derisory second-round performance that ended with England being humiliated at the hands of Germany.

Again, a number of England's leading performers appeared to freeze like rabbits in the headlights.

Rooney in particular was almost too bad to be true, miscontrolling balls left, right and centre, losing his rag with his team-mates and the television cameras and barely even registering a shot on target in the whole of the competition.

He wasn't the only one of course. John Terry was all over the place against Germany, his mind perhaps wandering to the press conference in which he appeared to undermine Fabio Capello's authority by spelling out in no uncertain terms what England had to do to succeed. "I'm here to win it for England," said Terry by way of justification.

Throughout the tournament, there was a powerful sense of frustration among the players that they were unable to live up to the demands that were made of them.

No player should travel to a major tournament thinking they are unable to win it, but the pressure-cooker environment that gradually boiled over in South Africa was clearly of no benefit to anyone.

Hopefully, we will not see the same this time around. The external pressures are less evident, and within the camp, there appears to be a more realistic assessment of England's chances despite a reasonably favourable draw.

When Roy Hodgson was asked whether England could win Euro 2012 at his introductory press conference, he claimed they had a one in 16 chance and pointed to Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2002 as examples of countries who had confounded gloomy predictions. Hardly a triumphal approach.

Perhaps all of this will go out of the window if England trounce Norway tomorrow. Maybe then we'll see pundits queuing up to proclaim Roy's boys as future champions.

For now though, let's revel in a bit of harsh realism. After all, we've tried everything else.

**

CHELSEA'S Champions League victory has been portrayed in some quarters as a bad result for football. Having shut up shop against Barcelona in the semi-finals, Roberto Di Matteo's side adopted an equally defensive mindset as they beat Bayern Munich in the final.

But why should we belittle their displays of fantastic organisation, supreme commitment and sensational tackling?

If it was that easy to shut out Barcelona and Bayern Munich, everyone would do it. The fact that so many sides have tried and failed underlines the extent of Chelsea's achievements. In my eyes, they are worthy European champions.

**

AND sticking with Chelsea, it was fitting that Didier Drogba's final act for the club was to score the winning goal in the penalty-shoot out.

He has his faults, not least an annoying propensity to fall over as if shot at the slightest of contact, but he has been one of the leading strikers in English football for the best part of a decade and has illuminated many a game with his strength, awareness and talent.

Ironically, the best display I ever saw him give came before he joined Chelsea, in Marseille's UEFA Cup semi-final second leg with Newcastle.

He scored both goals in the Stade Velodrome that night and was the very epitome of the word 'unplayable'. English football will be that little bit less exciting without him.

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