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Early Doors

I didn’t want to go. I’d spent the last six weeks explaining why England have a great player problem, why England expect nothing and generally dismissing the tournament because it wasn’t available to me as a FanPass subscriber to Sky Sports. There was no good reason, no simple way, no chance in hell that I was going to watch their opener against Russia at 7am on a Sunday morning.

As the days flicked by though, it began. The gentle gnawing flow of thoughts. I’d not missed an England opener in tournament football for twenty years. Actually, looking at it, why would I want to go? The overwhelming chances were that it’d be a draw. England have won two opening games since ‘96, against Tunisia in ‘98 and Paraguay in ‘06. Why would I want to go.

At 05:45, slipping out of bed, dressing in the lounge and closing the door as silently as possible is no mean feat for someone with the grace and poise of a Great Dane. Nevertheless, by 6am I had picked up my mate and was heading into town for the game at the Fox sports bar down at the viaduct. As we wandered down in the mix of street and sunlight, there was a queue outside. Momentary panic – how popular was this? Relief though, they hadn’t opened yet. Then the disappointment, the bar didn’t open until 8am. No special dispensation, unlike the Rugby World Cup last year.

Ordering coffees, before realising we could be drinking Red Bull, led to instant overcaffienation. The crowd was overwhelmingly decked out in England shirts, from ‘66 to the 2016 Nike horrible shirt. For some, it was obvious that Saturday night hadn’t yet ended, for others Sunday just wasn’t ready to start. Bleary eyes all round.

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To the game. The anthem was blurted out, the in bar attempts hopeless at keeping up with the on screen version. The tables were set out in long rows, like school. We’d managed to bag the ones at the front, joined by a Kiwi in an England shirt and a quiet chap who, it turned out, was Russian.

England pushed on early. There were warning signs about the formation’s unbalanced nature with Danny Rose uncertain about whether he should be going beyond Raheem Sterling, and Harry Kane kept dropping back into midfield instead of playing up against the Russian defence. Talk pre-game was of their ageing legs, and how England would overrun them. And at times we did.

Alli had the first chance, a quarterbacked ball from Rooney nodded back by Lallana – who was further forward than Kane. But he was always over it and the volley was awkward and wide. Lallana was involved in the second, although he won’t want to see his shot straight at Akinfeev again, after the lungbusting Walker had played him in. Neither will he want to see him screw it wide after being left alone for enough time to place the ball. Oh dear.

In the bar, the sight of Kane taking corners drew groans. Six of them, with Chris Smalling’s header to show for it. It seems curious that Kane is England’s best dead ball player. I mean, Henry used take them for Arsenal but Harry’s a long way from Thierry in lots of ways.

Thierry Henry 2008

“Hey Bobby, what’s French for STOP TAKING CORNERS”

The Russians dug in and kept to their game plan. Long balls up to their strikers, attempting the overload in midfield. Their best chance came from a header, straight at Hart who palmed it down and collected.

Alli was busy and creative, managing to dodge and skip past three players before dinking the ball for Rooney to tee up and volley. Again, Akinfeev saved it. By half time, England could have been three nil up. They weren’t though, and that was a problem. The bar wasn’t open for another ten minutes. That was also a problem.

The queue for the bar was three deep, on the screen were wide shots of the Stade Velodrome. The bloke next to me, smart dressed and shaven headed, nodded his head at it, “Wish I was there”.

“Yeah” I said “It’s the only thing that would make me go back – I’d love to be able to go”

“I wouldn’t go back. The country’s been taken over by lefty cunts. We’ve got to stand our ground against them”

Right. I found somewhere else to stand.

The second half kicked off with the loudest cheer from the crowd so far. The bar was open! A couple of bottles of Emerson Pilsner and back to the table.

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They were lovely.

A word for Eric Dier here. It is immensely satisfying to see a defensive midfielder who can play defensive midfield. It’s a position that many have tried, but few could do. His interceptions were timely, he shuttled across to fill in for full backs going forward and he strode forward when necessary. He may be the first to do the job properly since Nicky Butt.

Eric Dier organising the England midfield (22695677047)

My friend Bevan isn’t the biggest soccer fan, but even he noticed the shift in Russian play in the second half. They were much more attack minded, stringing passes together but using the long ball well to supply their onrushing midfielders. Joe Hart was at full stretch after a placed shot looked on-target, he got nowhere near it but it bounced just past the post.

“Whatever the Russian coach said at half time has worked”

Then Rooney had the moment. Rose had finally got free down the left. His cross was good, but Lallana – playing as a striker alongside Kane – stepped over it and the defenders clipped it clear. Rooney, edge of the box, had time for the shot. Igor Akinfeev pulled off a world class save, one handed down to his right, pushing the ball onto the bar. The rebound put Lallana offside and the flag went up.

Just under twenty minutes left. England had wasted a free kick earlier, Rooney shooting over. On the edge of the box, Kane ran over the box and Eric Dier thundered an unstoppable shot through Akinfeev and into the net. Everyone rose to their feet, wobbling on their bar stools, and bellowed in triumph. The Russian to the right of us let his head rest on the table. A chant of ‘ENG-ER-LAND’ broke out.

The problem with scoring is the problem with not scoring. If you’re not winning, it’s nervous. If you are winning, but have had a lot of pressure to soak up, you’re nervous. Basically, the tension ratcheted up even though we were winning. That’s because it’s England. It’s never easy, it’s rarely fun.

Ninety minutes. Three minutes added. Rooney had been hooked for Wilshere. Sterling for Milner. Harry Kane was very lonely up front.

Ninety two minutes. England had sat back. Milner didn’t stick closely to his man. The cross was towards the far post. Danny Rose, all 5ft 8 of him, was up against the captain and defender, 6ft 2, Vasili Berezutski. The header, back across the goal, saw Joe Hart seemingly immobile. Chris Smalling had ball watched and played everyone onside. The ball was in the net before Denis Glushakov reached it. The appeal for offside was futile.

The Russian lad cheered the goal and then looked askance, worried about the response from the overwhelmingly English crowd. There wasn’t one. It wasn’t that sort of atmosphere. Instead there were cries of ‘FOR FUCKS SAKE’ and ‘SMALLING YOU MUPPET;, with little thought of the pockets of celebrating Russians among us.

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Bugger.

England lacked sharpness, a common problem under Hodgson. Playing Kane as a solo striker, with Lallana, Sterling, Alli, Rooney all behind him, at times appeared to make the midfield both congested and lightweight. It certainly didn’t see Kane well supplied. Kyle Walker, who was impressive at right back, spent most of his time playing on the right of midfield.

Rooney’s new found quarterback role saw Gerrardesque passes, except they usually reached their destination. But the brightest England attacking lineup in a while looked uncoordinated. The best chances, outside of Rooney forcing a wondersave from Akinfeev, fell to Lallana. He screwed one wide and fired the other one at the keeper. The new Frank Lampard? Perhaps.

There’s changes to be made, but the bright spots were Walker marauding down the right and Dier cleaning up in midfield. As a hopeless defensive romantic, watching a holding midfielder tackle someone from behind, clean them out and get away with the ball is always satisfying.

At full time the Russian lad leant across his friend and shook my hand, saying “We didn’t deserve that”, with a big smile.

They didn’t. But they got it. Can’t argue with that. Final score, 1 – 1.

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John Palethorpe

John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.

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