Yes, this is the LONG and mostly rather earnest football post that I need to get off my chest. Non-sports fan should ignore this.
[But anyone as football-mad as me could drop over to my parallel blog, The Barstool, where I'm hosting an ongoing discussion forum about the current European Championship.]
I really believe England have a decent chance of at least making a respectable impression on this tournament, and perhaps, perhaps... going all the way.
In '96, we had a better team, and, with the help of home advantage, got a good run going and came tantalisingly close to putting out eventual winners Germany in the semi-final. But I don't think our team then was that much better, and outside of the first-choice eleven the squad may have been every bit as thin as our current one. Moreover, there were so many doubts about the form or fitness of key players and the overall balance of the side (would we get the best out of Anderton playing him out wide, would McManaman's showboating ever provide a useful end-product [answer: NO], would Gascoigne perform at all - and stay out of trouble??) that there wasn't really any great confidence in the team's prospects going into the tournament; hopes, yes, there's always hope - but no real expectation of success. Similarly in the '86 and '90 World Cups we sent out decent teams, but, with our miserable record in international football since 1970, we didn't ever seriously think we might be good enough to win the competition.
Nope, this is the first time in my lifetime that I genuinely feel as though we could win. I don't think we have a great chance, we're certainly not anybody's favourite tip for the title, but there is for once a real possibility that we could prevail.
And this is not just wishful thinking, the fond self-delusion of the ever-optimistic fan. I have been ruthlessly realistic - even pessimistic - in my assessment of England's prospects in the past. I have definite reasons for feeling so comparatively bullish about the current tournament.
They are as follows (in no particular order... although there's probably a declining order of magnitude, with the most significant factor coming at the top of the list):
Lampard getting injured
I have nothing against Frank, and I would, on balance, have preferred him to be available to give us more cover in the squad. But this has been one of England's key problems for nearly a decade: Lampard is deemed to be too good, too dangerous a player to be used only as a substitute; so we have repeatedly shoehorned him into the side, even though he manifestly doesn't gel with Steven Gerrard. They're too similar in style of play (both liking to press forward to link with the strikers, both making runs into the box to grab goals themselves, both capable of spreading the play with very accurate long diagonal balls) and, even more so, in their on-pitch persona (both like to be the dominating influence in the midfield, the capo carismatico who sets the pattern of play and inspires those around him). There's usually only room for one such player in the central midfield.
The foolhardy attempt to accommodate them both has led to playing Gerrard out of position, wide on the right or the left, or in behind a lone striker (a role in which he can be dangerous, but it's not his best position). Tough as it is to do, we really had to make a decision to play just one of them, and relegate the other to the bench. No England manager has had the balls to do that; and Roy Hodgson might not have done, had the decision not been made for him by the hand of Fate.
I never saw it as such a difficult choice to make, though it would have been difficult to implement in the face of pressure from the public and the media (and from Lampard and his Chelsea teammates, I would imagine). Since his explosive arrival on the international scene in the 2004 Euros, Frank has never really made that much of a contribution to England, has rarely looked anything like as influential as he has been for his club. Gerrard, for me, is a better tackler, a better long passer, and a more galvanizing presence in the team (and he's about as good on finishing too; he just doesn't push into the box quite as much as Frank). But he's never enjoyed the 'space' - either physically or mentally/emotionally - to show the best of his club form when required to play alongside Lampard, even if he was allowed to line up in central midfield. Great player though Lampard is, the England team immediately becomes better without him. It's not about picking the best players, it's about picking the players who work together best as a unit.
A proper balance in midfield
The addiction to playing both Gerrard and Lampard has usually led also to the omission of a holding midfielder. Steve and Frank, though they both have a good workrate and good positional sense and will hustle to try to win the ball back, are neither of them true holding midfielders; they're not content to sit deep the whole time, they don't have the bone-crunching tackles that can intimidate an opposing team, and they're not unselfish enough to concentrate their efforts primarily on winning back possession while delegating most of the creative duties to others.
Every great team needs an unassuming grafter like that to help his defenders smother opposition attacks and to ensure a good supply of the ball for the more creative midfield players. I think the big key to our near-successes in '86 and '96 (more even than the Beardsley-Lineker and Sheringham-Shearer strike partnerships, though they were also a huge plus) was the pairing of terrier-like Peter Reid with the majestic Glenn Hoddle and of the bludgeoning Paul Ince with the mercurial Paul Gascoigne. And where would Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters have been in 1966 without the ankle-biting Nobby Stiles to keep giving them the ball? The value of the midfield 'hard man' seemed to be forgotten for a while in the '70s and '80s (perhaps because we didn't have any suitable candidates for the role?); and then it may have been discredited rather when it was adopted again in earnest by the miserably inept Graham Taylor in the early '90s (the suspicion was that he was stocking his squad with tenacious journeymen simply because he didn't trust flair players; the likes of Carlton Palmer, unfortunately, were just not formidable enough to fill the boots of Nobby Stiles).
Now, at last, we've once more got a proper holding midfielder in Scott Parker. I know he's got his detractors, many complain of his lack of flair. No, he may not win any games for us singlehandedly with a moment of creative genius; but we will, mark my words, win many more games with him playing than without him.
For the first time in ages we've got some decent width in the side too, guys who actually specialise in playing down the flanks rather than displaced central midfielders. Yes, I fret that the likes of Downing and Milner are not really international class and are unlikely to unlock a game for us (though young Oxlade-Chamberlain might), but they give balance and shape to the team, and their solid work ethic will help keep us in matches, help us hang on to a lead (even if it doesn't help us take the lead).
The shadow of Beckham receding
OK, he was gone at the last World Cup, but only just: there was still some speculation till quite late in the day that he might get one last call-up for the tournament, and he was still hanging out with the squad in South Africa. There was still a sense that this was a team that had been built around him, and was having to learn for the first time to do without him. But, frankly, we always had done without him. Becks played most of his best stuff for England in qualifying matches; at the major tournaments he always seemed to be injured, or coming back from injury. And our insistence on playing him when he wasn't fully match-fit hobbled the side. Even if he had been at the peak of his powers for us in '02 and '04 and '06, I'm not sure that having such a dominant mega-star was good for the England team as a whole: too much was allowed to depend on Beckham, other players didn't find the room to stamp their own personality on the team; and we developed an inferiority complex, convincing ourselves that we couldn't possibly win without him.
It wasn't nearly as bad as the Keegan era, when the obsession with trying to build a side that suited Mighty Mouse's idiosyncrasies led to the exclusion of several arguably even better players, most notably Glenn Hoddle and Trevor Francis (it was not a coincidence that we failed to qualify for either the World Cup or the Euros in the 1970s). But it was pretty bad. Great player though Beckham was, we achieved nothing during the period of his ascendancy. I feel that the post-Beckham era holds much more promise.
Missing the first two games of this tournament might just possibly be the best thing that could have happened for Wayne, for England, for all of us - better even than Frank Lampard's injury. It's given him more time to recover from any possible niggling knocks and strains of the kind that tend to accumulate towards the season's end, and also from the physical and mental weariness that naturally accompany the end of a long, hard (and this year ultimately unsuccessful) championship campaign. It's allowed - forced - the rest of the team to discover what they are capable of without him. And it's spared him the frustration (confidence-sapping, form-weakening, temper-cranking frustration) of having to play in the opening game or two, when the tactical approach is likely to be more cagey, the nerves rawer, and the team not yet functioning smoothly together... and hence our Wayne would be feeling under more pressure to perform, but not getting much service to enable him to do so. Hopefully, he's now fit and raring to go; and his eagerness to get involved after being kept on the leash for two games could push aside any of the big occasion nerves that may have dogged him in the past.
A blend of youth and experience
Gerrard, Terry, Cole, and Parker might be playing their last tournament for England, certainly their last European Championship. Lescott and Jagielka, finally getting a chance in central defence after years of impressive service for their clubs, are both now 29. There are a few other players who've been gradually establishing themselves in the squad over the last few years and are now in their mid-twenties - Milner, Downing, and Ashley Young (who's a bit older than I'd thought). And Wayne Rooney, who's been around forever, is still not yet 27: he should now be in his prime. Most of the rest of the squad is pretty young. Some might worry that perhaps it's a bit too young and untried (I have my doubts as to whether Phil Jones and Martin Kelly can yet be ready for international football, but they're only along as emergency cover, and with any luck they won't be needed); but, overall, I think there's a better balance in this squad than we've seen for a long time.
A non-embarassing manager
It's long been fashionable to sneer at Roy Hodgson, seemingly just because he's so unassuming, such an apparently nice and down-to-earth bloke. Well, there are persistent quibbles about his record as well: he's never achieved much with a big club, and the majority of his 36-year management career has been outside of the UK. However, he has had notable successes: kick-starting the revival of Inter Milan's fortunes in the '90s, converting Fulham from relegation strugglers into an upper half of the Premiership side, and most recently saving West Brom from the drop. He's also had previous experience of international management (not something that any other candidates for the job could claim) with Switzerland and Finland. It might well be said that the keynote of his CV has been making the best of limited resources - which is exactly the skill set the England manager needs. He's always struck me as articulate and shrewd; and I'm disappointed he didn't get the job 10 years ago.
In fact, I think he's the first England manager in my lifetime who's really inspired confidence in me. We've had far too many clearly unsuitable appointments: impossibly mild-mannered and dithery Ron Greenwood, who seemed incapable of making any tough decisions (he even rotated his goalkeepers, for gawd's sake!), long-ball guru Graham Taylor (an effective lower division manager, all at sea on the international stage), religious loony Glenn Hoddle (a sublime player, but a complete whackjob), all-heart-no-brain Kevin Keegan (possibly the only person to retire from any job ever admitting it was beyond him?), and overpromoted backroom boy Steve McLaren (a decent technical coach, but of limited tactical perspicacity). And even the ones who were up to the job were horribly flawed: Alf Ramsey was allowed to rest on his 1966 laurels for too long; Don Revie rather too readily abandoned national duty for the lure of the petro-dollar; Terry Venables was a stereotypical Cockney spiv whose dodgy business dealings were clearly going to derail his managerial career sooner or later; Sven-Goran Eriksson was dogged by tales of his philandering; and the gruff arrogance (and ultra-conservative tactics) of Fabio Capello alienated just about everyone - press, fans, and players. Even Sir Bobby Robson, our most successful manager of the modern era, wasn't that trusted or admired while he was actually in the job: our 1990 World Cup campaign got off to a very shaky start; he had been pressured by the media into calling up Gascoigne (who he seemed to feel was too unreliable), was pressured (by his players, it was rumoured) into changing his formation mid-tournament, and was widely ridiculed for bringing along the blunt instrument Steve Bull as a never-to-be-used backup for Gary Lineker. It's the legend of our heroic failure in the semi-final against Germany that has retrospectively given rise to such a rosy-tinted assessment of his tenure.
Whatever Roy Hodgson's limitations may be (and every manager has some), I believe he's the best manager we've had in a very long time, and quite possibly the best ever.
An imposing goalkeeper
Frankly, I never felt that Peter Shilton or David Seaman were amongst the world's very best keepers; but they were agile shot-stoppers and they did command respect between the sticks. We have had an agonising wait to find a worthy successor to them. England were never going to be in contention for a trophy when we had to turn to a closing-in-on-retirement and never-quite-good-enough David "Calamity" James to pull on the gloves for us. But Joe Hart is the business. He has been stupendous in the Premiership for the last three years. And he seems to emanate confidence... even when he has made a mistake. I hope I'm not going to jinx him with this praise: he did give cause for anxiety with a couple of jittery moments early on against the French on Monday; and harsher critics have berated him for failing to save Samir Nasri's zinging shot. But I'm still going to come out and say Joe Hart is one of the best keepers I've ever seen play for England. He already bears comparison with Shilton and Seaman, and could go on to prove himself even better than them. I don't think he's yet at the level of of Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon - who are out-of-this-world good - but he has the potential to become so in a few more years. I think he could be vying with Germany's Manuel Neuer for the accolade of the third best keeper in the tournament. A winning team needs a very good goalkeeper as its foundation; and Joe Hart is a very good goalkeeper.
A new star in the making
We might see great things from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Ashley Young or Theo Walcott, but my major hope for this tournament is young Danny Welbeck. OK, he's not the unstoppable goal machine that Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen were, even as teenagers; but with his strength and his tireless support play he perhaps offers a broader package of assets to the team overall. And he does score some fabulous goals as well. He looked very, very dangerous for Manchester Utd on occasions last season, and his superb strike in our last friendly against Belgium encourages me to believe that he could do the same for England over the coming fortnight.
I'm not sure that he's yet developed that much of an understanding with Rooney, but it could be, should be a substantial further advantage to have a striking pair from the same club. Another of our problems over the past 8 years has been that we've never been able to find an effective partner for Rooney. If that problem were to be solved, we could start winning things...
Who should we fear?
NO-ONE. That's not to say there aren't formidable teams to overcome, teams who on paper look to have much more flair, and much more strength in depth in their squads than us. But their 'superiority' is not overwhelming: we should respect them, not fear them.
The Irish, Greeks, Swedes, and Czechs are pretty hopeless. Poland and Ukraine wouldn't get anywhere without the home advantage. Denmark and Russia have shown some quality, but not nearly enough to go all the way. Holland and Portugal have shown themselves to be desperately disappointing. France and Italy have a lot of good players, but they haven't had long enough to rebuild their squads, perfect new patterns of play, and, above all, restore confidence after their absolutely dismal showings in the World Cup two years ago. Croatia are the 'wild card' (disgracefully underrated by the bookies!); they're very good, but not as good as us; and they will struggle to qualify out of their group ahead of Spain or Italy.
Spain and Germany are deservedly the tournament favourites. They have built up an aura of invincibility over the past half dozen years. However, they do have some problems, some potential vulnerabilities.
Spain have lost a number of key players: Marco Senna, David Villa, Carles Puyol, Joan Capdevilla. Their star striker has had one of the most miserable runs of bad form in footballing history (which might not necessarily be laid to rest by a couple of goals against an AWOL Irish defence). And I've often felt that their successes have been achieved despite rather because of Vicente Del Bosque's leadership: he seems to struggle to pick the best lineup from among his overabundance of talented midfielders, to pick his best striker, or to pick a formation that will work well for the people he's picked; and his latest experiment of trying to play without a striker at all just seemed completely bonkers. If he picks a striker from now on, and it's Fernando Torres, and Torres comes back into form - then his reputation could be spectacularly vindicated. But Spain looked very, very ordinary for much of the game against Italy; for all of their pretty football, they made very few scoring chances.
Germany also haven't yet looked as dangerous as they did at the last World Cup: Ozil, Podolski, and Muller all looking quite muted thus far. It's a struggle for them to replace Miroslav Klose, who has been their principal goalscorer for a decade. Mario Gomez seems to be finding his form; but he's under an awful lot of pressure. And there doesn't seem to be much cover in the squad for that position. The Germans are also having to rebuild their central defence. And there's a danger that the squad overall may now be a bit too young: of the current starters, only Lahm, Schweinsteiger, and Podolski are over 26; most of the squad players are under 23.
Spain and Germany are going to be very dangerous opponents (as might Italy, France, and Croatia be); but no-one else in this tournament is. And the Big Two (or the Big Five) are not by any means unbeatable. We have nothing to fear.
We are one of six teams in serious contention this year. And we might just pull it off.