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June 25, 2012 / ultrafox1963

The final stand of England’s old guard

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At half past midnight Kiev time, former West Ham midfielder Alessandro Diamante coolly despatched the spot-kick which sent Italy to the semi-final of Euro 2012 and signalled yet another English failure in a major international tournament.

The millions of England supporters avidly following the game on TV were left to reflect once more on their side’s weakness in penalty shootouts. But in truth, only the negativity and wastefulness of their opponents had enabled the contest to reach that stage.

Italy controlled the midfield for long spells, exploiting the advantages in technique and passing skills their players, among others, have enjoyed against English counterparts for some time. However, to the surprise of the ex-professionals observing the game as media analysts, they also benefited from higher fitness levels and greater physical reserves. In the second hour of the game, many England players were effectively running on empty.

Some sections of the England fanbase sought to blame manager Roy Hodgson for his side’s shortcomings. Yet he did as well as any manager could have done with the resources available to him.

Several key players, especially in midfield, were unavailable through injury. Their absence was particularly keenly felt last night. The ageing central midfield duo of Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker performed valiantly throughout the tournament, but the Italy clash proved to be a game too far for them both. Hodgson’s introduction of the unproven Jordan Henderson as Parker’s eventual replacement only exposed and emphasised the chronic lack of depth within the squad.

Although the manager was quick to praise the contributions from his squad in the aftermath of last night’s exit, he will already be turning his mind towards the next big challenge – qualification for the 2014 World Cup. With a group containing both Euro 2012 co-hosts Poland and Ukraine, and only one automatic spot up for grabs, this is far from the shoe-in some observers may complacently assume.

Hodgson has a tough task in rebuilding the side. In addition to Gerrard and Parker, John Terry and Ashley Cole have also shown notable signs of decline in recent months. The old guard of serial tournament failures will need to be eased out during the coming months.

Meanwhile Wayne Rooney, clearly nowhere near fit on his return to the team following suspension, once again failed to meet the expectations set by his media cheerleaders.

As with others before him (most notably Paul Gascoigne) Rooney is in danger of allowing lifestyle issues, as well as a notoriously-suspect temperament, to undermine his natural talent. Until and unless he finds the will to resolve those issues, he will continue to be a peripheral figure on the biggest stages of the international game.

There are capable young replacements ready to step up within the next two years – Gary Cahill, Kyle Walker and Chris Smalling in defence, together with Tom Cleverley, Jack Wilshere and Jack Rodwell in midfield. In attack, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott showed encouraging signs of promise during the group stage and could develop into formidable performers in the years ahead.

But there are also long-term structural problems within the English game that will severely restrict the pool of talent available to Hodgson. The domination of the Premier League by owners and managers from overseas ensures that most leading clubs are either indifferent or overtly hostile to the interests of the national side.

Meanwhile the FA is finally introducing long-overdue reforms to the game at schools/youth level to give technical skills the priority they enjoy elsewhere in Europe. However the effects of these changes are unlikely to be felt at senior level for at least another decade.

It may take longer than the time-span at Hodgson’s disposal before England can emerge from the group of major tournament also-rans.

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