Some people call it always looking on the bright side; others deem it clutching at straws. Whatever way you look at it, in a place that specialises in grim weather and sporting heartbreak it is important to try and accentuate the positives. Cometh the break from Saturday afternoons with Jeff Stelling, cometh clashes against San Marino and Estonia for England to negotiate. With the European Championship ravaged by Michel Platini’s twisted fantasies and England’s qualification surely a formality (famous last words), what is there to get excited about it?
The more cynical will note how the squad is nearly devoid of star quality, but the optimists will counter that by pointing out how the squad is nearly devoid of star quality. If a Roy Hodgson team cannot excite sufficiently to get you on the edge of the seat, hopefully it can at least perform assertively and pragmatically enough to get you to lay back, crack open a beverage and savour a comfortable victory. Certainly his new squad offers an element of consistency, hinting at the construction of a nucleus for the next major tournament cycle. The 2-0 stroll on Swiss soil was as impressive as it was surprising. If England can consolidate and build upon those foundations whilst their bright attacking sparks continue to learn to gel, then even romps against Europe’s far-from-finest should provide some sort of interesting spectacle.
Of course, taking a lot of pleasure from a victory against San Marino is akin to deriving enjoyment from beating a five year-old at a game of Scrabble. Although speaking from experience, I can shamelessly confirm that it is surprisingly healthy for one’s self-esteem. A victory in Estonia is a slightly bigger scalp, but the most crucial element of this international break is for England to deliver in tactical awareness and team chemistry. From the growth of Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson to the emergence of Fabian Delph and Danny Welbeck, there is sufficient intrigue to force people to look up from their pints every now and then.
The progression of ‘Dat Guy Welbz’ is particularly interesting. In a short space of time Welbeck has progressed from being derided as a Manchester United misfit to being hailed as the heir to Thierry Henry, a transformation that Optimus Prime himself would be proud of. His performance against Switzerland exorcised many a demon that has haunted his England career, the scapegoated striker previously so often a square peg in a round hole. One moment of ineptitude can be immortalised on social media in Vine form, perpetuating the myth that he is just not good at this football lark. In all honesty, Danny Welbeck is not the Holy Grail. But he is no mug either. Look at Daniel Sturridge, and look at how he has cut a frustrating figure in recent England games. Speculative shots and delayed passes from the Liverpool man too frequently stilted an otherwise fluid build-up. Maybe these are the games where Welbeck stamps his mark on the England team, or maybe Sturridge impresses again for Liverpool and earns his place back. Either way it will be an exciting battle for supremacy, one that Wayne Rooney will watch in fear for his starting place.
The eventual call-up of Nathaniel Clyne is another reason for joy, or if not joy then at least a mild smile. Many a tortured soul has been praying for an end to seeing Glen Johnson in and around the right-back position in England attire. These next two fixtures are tough for Clyne to impress in, with any accomplished performance tempered by the vastly inferior opposition. But if Hodgson persists with a narrow 4-4-2 diamond then Clyne’s marauding tendencies from full-back will be imperative. The injury to John Stones is a blow, but it seems that the England defence is slowly regenerating with the help of some young talent.
So there you go. There are some reasons to actually pay attention to 180 minutes of watching England trying to play football, with a good chunk of those minutes presumably consisting of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka exchanging passes. The nation might not be gripped by the prospect of these games; certainly Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge will be too busy at work with their Andros Townsend voodoo dolls to tune in. On a more downbeat note, the Townsend call-up is a source of disappointment. A couple of dazzling performances in pivotal games seem to have bought him an England career for life, because there is certainly nothing in his recent club outings that make him worthy for inclusion. Mainly because there have barely been any recent club outings, making it on to a Premier League pitch this season for around a paltry 60 minutes. That is enough time to watch an episode of Gossip Girl, then spend a good quarter of an hour wondering why you just watched an episode of Gossip Girl. But if the Tottenham winger can seize his chance, then credit to both Andros and Roy.
So settle down to what will almost certainly not be classics, but further steps on the journey to possible greatness. And if you are not drooling at the prospect of navigating qualification, just remember that England could easily reach the knockout stages of the European Championship by failing to win a single game yet making it through as one of the best third-placed teams in the group stages. Happy days. Roll on 2016.
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