England begin quest to recapture public interest with Norway friendly
As the Football Association struggles to sell tickets for England's friendly with Norway on Wednesday, it perhaps could have done with Roy Hodgson being a rather better salesman. An optimistic estimate suggests 40,000 fans will be at Wembley, a glass-half-empty statement of disinterest in an unpopular national team.
"No," Hodgson replied simply on Tuesday when asked whether Wednesday would see him giving anyone their international debut, though it is doubtful there would be a late rush if new call-ups Fabian Delph and Danny Rose were to be given the nod after Jack Colback's injury denied a nation the first glimpse of its "Ginger Pirlo," as the manager had earlier referred to the Newcastle man.
Just when the Premier League is beginning to catch alight and fans are enthusing about new signings freshly arrived on deadline day, along come boring old England to deflate the balloon.
"There is a lot of anticipation," Hodgson said, doing his best to give off positive vibes at his Tuesday news conference at The Grove Hotel on the outskirts of Watford. "The players have only been together since Sunday evening, but we seemed to have crammed an awful lot in during those training sessions. I get the feeling the players can't wait to kick off this campaign. The players are ready to go."
Such animation is clearly not shared by the English paying public. There seems no significant hook on which to hang this match beyond it being a public training exercise. This might have been a homecoming parade, but England's performance at the World Cup singularly failed to win over the nation. Perhaps only the clinically optimistic would have expected total victory in Brazil, but the campaign's collapse within five days was still a bitter disappointment.
Defeat against Uruguay was almost a greatest hits package of England tournament failures: The ball was treated like a burning potato, and parity after Wayne Rooney's equaliser was surrendered by comedic, negligent defending. The third, goalless fixture in Belo Horizonte against Costa Rica, meanwhile, may be one of the most forgettable matches in England's history, the ignored conclusion to a derided trilogy.
Hodgson retained his position almost certainly by dint of there being no credible candidate to replace him. The England media pack's knives have been kept blunt by there being no people's champion to call for, but the incumbent faces a potential Waterloo in Switzerland on Monday when they play the first competitive match of what feels an in-between era.
Qualification for Euro 2016 looks a shoo-in, with 24 teams set to play in France in the convolution of a previously tight and tough tournament, but facing the most difficult fixture of qualifying first up may not be welcomed by a manager who is probably only a poor result away from serious vilification. He takes his team to Basel while having to seek a new formula from a distinct lack of experienced hands.
Though apathy greets the Norway match, Hodgson views it as crucial to his preparations for taking on the country he took to the 1994 World Cup. Centurions Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have stepped aside, so the flourishing of youth is the note Hodgson is seeking to trumpet.
"We want two good results, starting tomorrow night, to get that feel-good factor back," he said. "It will be a young team, for sure, with some very interesting young talents and players of enormous potential."
A problem for Hodgson is that the brave new world ticket is one he went some way to cashing in during the failed Brazil mission. His championing of Raheem Sterling -- and subsequent jilting of Rooney to the flank -- really worked only in the first half against Italy in Manaus. The Liverpool teenager faded in the heat, just as senior teammates did.
Monday saw Jordan Henderson leap to the defence of his club colleague as the pair spoke together to the media. "I didn't think he had a bad game,'' said the Liverpool midfielder, who is certain to start in a reimagined midfield unit.
"He was a 19-year-old playing in the World Cup, the biggest stage. Raheem was our best player against Italy and even in the Uruguay game, when he got the ball he tried to be positive, to take players on and get crosses in. I thought he was outstanding.''
Sterling was less convinced in himself, saying: "I didn't perform to the best I could've done in the second game."
New captain Rooney, who spoke alongside Hodgson on Tuesday, shared that sentiment of seeking renewal.
"We have to put the summer behind us," the Manchester United man said. "We were all disappointed. We went into the tournament with high hopes and were expecting better than we produced, but we have to move on."
Hodgson's demand for results was pertinent to his own position, as otherwise, back-page lampoonery and root-vegetable metaphors are less than a week away. At a time when the English public's previously voracious appetite for the national team is turning bilious, a vision of bright beginnings is required.