England’s inability to convert penalties has become a national phobia, writes John Anderson, but Roy Hodgson’s men leave Poland and Ukraine without the usual media lynch mob waiting at home.
(Captain Steven Gerrard hides his face following England’s exit from Euro 2012. Picture: Reuters)
Turin 90, Wembley 96, France 98, Lisbon 2004, Gelsenkirchen 2006. England’s highway to hell in penalty shoot-outs now has a new signpost, Kiev 2012, and the names of Young and Cole are added to the litany of white-shirted men whose nerve failed them 12 yards from goal and for whom the pizza advert beckons.
England’s inability to convert penalties when it matters has gone from an aberration to a phobia. One-third of the kicks taken in shoot-outs have gone unconverted, and the Euro 96 quarterfinal against Spain remains our only success at this nerve wracking discipline in seven attempts. No fewer than 48 nations have superior records in penalties to ours, including Thailand, Burkina Faso, Panama, Kuwait, Zambia and Mali.
And yet this latest dead-ball debacle somehow seems less gut wrenching, less tragic, less downright unfair than those that have gone before. Whereas often in the past we have felt robbed of a shot at tournament glory after a heroic 120 minutes, there are no such emotions now. The reality is that England were hammered 0-0 by a vastly superior side and victory in the shoot-out would have felt like larceny on a grand scale. Blood, sweat and toil can only take you so far.
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In Andrea Pirlo Italy had a midfield maestro conducting his orchestra with precision and panache; by comparison, the commendable but leaden-footed efforts of Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker resembled a covers band at the local working men’s club.
(Ashley Cole walks away after his penalty was saved. Ashley Young also failed in the shoot-out. Picture: Reuters)
But whereas Fabio Capello was rightly castigated for our failure in the World Cup two years ago, there are no “Chickens In Kiev” headlines splashed across the back pages and no media lynch mob demanding Roy Hodgson’s head. In a sense the England manager couldn’t lose; having inherited the job just weeks before the finals, he took England as far as most people expected and, in the current landscape of European football, to a realistic representation of their place in the pecking order.
Now that we have all learned to curb our pre-tournament expectations, it is time to exercise similar good sense in the wake of another painful exit and there are many positives to be drawn from this campaign. The manager himself has, in a very short space of time, created a harmonious camp, free of the factions which undermined our World Cup campaign and got the big calls right.
Roy Hodgson has fashioned a motivated and resilient team who may lack flair but are very hard to beat.
No-one is talking about Rio Ferdinand anymore, Gerrard has revelled in the mantle of captaincy and key in-play decisions such as Theo Walcott’s introduction against Sweden worked well. It is hardly Hodgson’s fault that successive generations of English players have grown up with inferior technique to those in Spain, Germany and Holland, although he has the chance to help change that when the St George’s Park centre of excellence opens in August.
In the short term he has fashioned a motivated and resilient team who may lack flair but are very hard to beat; let’s not forget that, discounting penalties, we are yet to lose in six games under his aegis and have kept clean sheets in four of them.
I have now witnessed at first hand five of England’s six penalty shoot-out failures at major tournaments but never with less pain and despair. As I left the media tribune to do the post-match interviews, a music-loving colleague smiled wryly and quoted the Smiths song Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before. Two years ago it would have been Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now but let’s hope that with a new manager a new spirit, a new production line and a new qualification campaign around the corner that There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.
John Anderson is in Poland and Ukraine as England correspondent for talkSPORT and can be followed on Twitter @GreatFaceRadio.