How wrong was Roy? How great were Wales? How dismally inept were the Russians?
Whatever the dubious selections in England’s pedestrian draw against the unambitious Slovaks, their problems were surely created at their first dull draw against a Russian team which the Welsh took to the cleaners.
On that first occasion, I felt that Roy, an old friend who I still think should have been given the England role as long ago as 1994, when he piloted a modest Swiss team to the World Cup finals in America, made serious mistakes both in the first and the third of England’s qualifying group matches.
As the Welsh showed so brilliantly and pitilessly, the ageing, ponderous Russian defence was simply there to be taken. But England, though they had so much of the play, simply didn’t take it. Indeed for all their pressure and possession, they failed to score a single goal from open play and did so only from the inspiring Dyer’s free kick.
Little really worked, yet Roy stuck stubbornly to his ill-chosen formation and when it came to bring on subs, still kept Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge on the bench throughout. This though poor Raheem Sterling had looked so ineffectual; though goodness knows he hasn’t deserved the cruel mockery he has suffered on the internet.
By an irony, the very day England failed so dismally to beat the modest Slovaks it became known that a string of major clubs were anxious to buy Andros Townsend from Newcastle United. Especially in that match against Slovakia, natural wingers in England’s team were conspicuous by their absence, though as a second choice right back Nathanial Clyne made supreme efforts to compensate for lack of a flank attacker on the right.
Excellent though he was for much of the game, the fact is that only a true winger can do what remains the most damaging feat in the game, to beat the opposing defender on the outside as David Beckham never could, get to the byline and turn the ball back into the valuable goal mouth.
With Slovakia massing in defence, the ideal answer was to outwit them in that way on the flanks but there was no one there to do so. When I asked Roy after the stuttering display against a Ronaldo-less Portugal at Wembley, why Townsend – who had done so well for him when previously picked – was omitted, he could merely reply that he could take only 23 players. One of them was James Milner whom he inexplicably brought on as a late substitute against Russia implying that all he wanted to do was to protect his slender one nil lead.
Yet the Russian defence with its ponderous centre backs was surely there to be taken as the gallant Welsh so abundantly proved. Instead one of those slow centre backs was able to squeeze an embarrassing equaliser in injury time against England.
That surely is where the trouble began, with Roy keeping his best attackers on the bench, while sticking to a struggling and ineffectual Sterling and a clearly weary Harry Kane. Wales, uninspired that day even in the shape of talismanic Gareth Bale, whose free kick should certainly have been saved by a goalkeeper in Joe Hart who has looked vulnerable, even though he has publicly denied that England had not struggled in the Welsh match.
Even as grand a former goalkeeper as David Seaman has praised Hodgson for the substitutions he so belatedly made at half-time when he finally bought Vardy and Sturridge on, when in fact he should surely have had both of them on from the beginning; not to mention using them against Russia.
Certainly he was mistaken in not taking the game against Slovakia more seriously. Wayne Rooney in his first impressive tournament since the Euros in Portugal long ago, was plainly a major influence in an unaccustomed midfield role, and there was no way that Jack Wilshere, so sadly short of match practice, so grievously prone to serious injury was going to have the same influence.
And Wales? Comparisons are indeed odious not least when some critics say that England have far more talent to call upon than Wales. But the Welsh whole has been greater than the parts since the good old days of Ted Robbins, that doughty Secretary and unofficial team manager, avant les lettres as the French say. Meaning that time after time, not least in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden when they really shouldn’t have been there at all, they rise triumphantly above themselves, modest players becoming heroes for an afternoon.
It’s surely what they do on the day that counts, and against the sluggish, pedestrian Russians they did it superbly, even if it’s fair to say that they have only two truly outstanding players in the formidable Gareth Bale and the excellent Aaron Ramsey.
To be fair they faced a Russian team which simply fell apart, leaving huge gaps in defence, and threatening only once in the whole game. It was good to see the back of them though to be fair they showed none of the brutal aggression of their thuggish, brutal fans in Paris, mercifully not to be seen again in Toulouse.
It is still worrying to think that Russia will be able to stage the next World Cup. Note that the thuggery of their hooligans was actually defended by a senior Minister. Yes Russia bought that World Cup, but what about Germany, South Africa and above all putrescent little Qatar?
The election to the FIFA presidency of Gianni Infantino, a pompous mediocrity, gives scant hope for the future