Hodgson did fine with what he had

England head coach Roy Hodgson instructs striker Wayne Rooney during their Euro 2012 quarterfinal...

England head coach Roy Hodgson instructs striker Wayne Rooney during their Euro 2012 quarterfinal match against Italy at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, June 24, 2012. (NIGEL RODDIS/Reuters)

JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:19 PM ET

KIEV - Where do we start -- again -- on the latest breakdown in England's ability to compete seriously against grown-up soccer nations?

As always there is a dismaying range of options, including the fiasco of Wayne Rooney, who was welcomed at Euro 2012 as a saviour when it soon became clear he was really a half-fit parody of a world-class performer who had quite brainlessly damaged both his and his team's chances of making a significant impact on this tournament by getting himself banned from the first two games.

We could dwell on the ludicrous delay of the Football Association in appointing Fabio Capello's successor, Roy Hodgson, who has handled himself and his thinly stretched squad creditably here these past few weeks despite having scant time to prepare.

The coach with the second least time to shape his team was Ukraine's Oleg Blokhin, who had more than a year to remind his players that no one could challenge his authority.

But then these are just details in a wide and chronic malaise.

We can rage about the grotesque imbalance between the money-dripping Premier League's boasting that it is the best in the world while supplying the national team with a pitifully slim stock of adequate players.

But the truth is England just cannot cut it at the highest level. When great players come along, in the fashion of Paul Gascoigne or Rooney, the English are clueless about the right kind of competitive discipline to impose.

This brings us to still another withering statement about England's long decline from the front rank of soccer nations. It is to a question posed by an elderly Italian on a tram carrying him away from the Olympic Stadium -- not the one in Ukraine but back home in Rome. It was 35 years ago and the day another England team had been pushed a little further off the road to the World Cup in Argentina in 1978 by an Italian team that had looked -- as the latest one did here Sunday in a quarterfinal -- embarrassingly superior.

"What," the old Italian asked, "has happened to the English football player? I have always thought of him as a god since as a young man I saw England beat my country 4-0 in Turin in 1948. Italy had a great tradition -- already two World Cups -- but we could not live with England on that day. (The English) were on another level. Where have such players gone?"

The question had a fresh poignancy Sunday when Andrea Pirlo operated in another dimension to those of his England counterparts Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker.

Gerrard has had a good tournament by his own uneven standards, led with some passion, but here Pirlo was a master and Gerrard might have been just another guileless pupil.

Each of the four semifinalists this week will parade players on top of their careers and their talent. We will see the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Andreas Iniesta, Mesut Ozil and Pirlo -- and what would England have had to offer in the unlikely event of it surviving the shootout against Italy? It would have been a malfunctioning Rooney.

The old Italian touched a sore that shows no sign of healing when he invoked the names of those England players who were so unplayable all those years ago in Turin. To remind ourselves that whatever problems England has today they are hardly genetic, recall some of the names: Frank Swift, Neil Franklin, Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, Stan Mortensen and Tom Finney. That year they also beat Portugal 10-0.

So if it isn't the genes, what is it, this collapse of a culture that was once the envy of the world?

Partly it has to do with the lost years that came with the FA coaching dictatorship of Charles Hughes, an ex-schoolteacher who patronized the professionals and offered the theory of POMO -- position of maximum opportunity.

This was based on his theory the Brazilians had gone wrong. They were not sufficiently direct. A requirement of POMO was the long ball -- midfielders wore yellow bibs and one instruction was to hit the front men and "miss the Canaries."

On Sunday, a canary called Andrea Pirlo sang a sweet and haunting song that mocked so much of the recent history of English soccer.

Hodgson has been criticized for his limited ambition tactically, yet what was he supposed to do with the resources at his disposal?

There was certainly a price to pay for suggesting that England moved past Ukraine and its brilliant young prospects Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andrei Yarmolenko with a measure of luck that went beyond the failure to grant Ukraine its "goal." And in all three of its group games England at one stage or another was quite seriously outplayed.

Hodgson's heaviest critics say he displayed insufficient adventure. The other view, the one you have to believe comes from the vantage point of reality, is that he made the best of what he had.

Perhaps he might have invested a little more in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, one young Englishman plainly equipped with the right level of drive and swagger, and shown a little more patience with Danny Welbeck, another who might just have the required quality, but overall his campaign was marked by a willingness to treat every situation on its own merits.

It was an act of desperation throwing in Andy Carroll against Italy, but the big man had been an effective roughhouse specialist against a fragile Swedish central defence.

When Hodgson's appointment was announced by FA chairman David Bernstein you would not have grasped that the national team had been pitched into another crisis.

The FA got the only man it had wanted and systems were in place that would guarantee the future strength of the team.

That conviction presumably was still in place when Bernstein sat next to UEFA president Michel Platini in order to welcome the brave new world of England.

It was one that might just have survived the first wave of Italian passing. Yes, of course, it could have been worse. A less resilient England might have been disposed of long before the treacheries -- and sheer failure of nerve -- of another penalty shootout.

So maybe England fans should give thanks for a more serious disaster avoided -- even as they weep again for all the old ground that seems so irretrievably lost.

James Lawton writes for The Independent in the UK


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