England’s victory over France will not live long in the memory, although the circumstances surrounding the match inevitably will.
The England-France match at Wembley was a moving, memorable occasion, even if the bizarre attempt to get the English crowd to sing the anthem of the Marseillaise was saved only by the French supporters who attended.
I speak and understand French but those verses, however moving the splendid music, are in their prolixity and endemic aggression, beyond me.
The last word arguably belonged to the excellent French goalkeeper – and Tottenham’s Higo Lloris: “We had a lack of aggression and concentration. It was more about solidarity. Life’s still going on.”
How could it have been otherwise so soon after the trauma of the brutal and horrific massacres in Paris?
England did well enough to win with some promising performances by newcomers but it would be as unwise to eulogise the team and its immediate prospects as it would be to write off the French, who remember, had just beaten Germany in dramatic circumstances in Paris.
Though they were largely in charge of the game there was something curiously lopsided about the England attack: it was virtually playing til the 68th minute arrival of Adam Lallana, with no outside right. You might have thought Lucas Digne, the French left-back would have relished the chance to overlap. Other opponents might be less forgiving.
The importance of Wayne Rooney, absent for the most part from the pallid and renunciatory show in Spain the previous Friday night, was very clear. An all round, versatile and intelligent performance was capped by his superb volleyed goal, so much worthier of establishing his overall England record than the couple of penalties he put away recently. Though, it should be noted, the French defence was conspicuous by its absence when he scored.
Dele Alli also took his goal in spectacular style and is clearly a precocious talent who will do much for the attacking midfield. But I was puzzled to read Jamie Redknapp suggesting that the display of another Tottenham player, Eric Dier, in front of the defence, placed the role of Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere in doubt. In this instance, comparisons are not only odious but also daft.
Wilshere, as he showed last season with those two glorious face-saving goals in Slovenia, is essentially a constructive, a midfielder by instinct and ability.
Raheem Sterling showed pace and enterprise on the left and I was surprised to see him described as operating on the right, though he appeared there now and again.
As for Rooney, nominally at least in a left flank position, he in fact went wherever he influentially pleased and indeed it was from the right that he volleyed his impressive goal.
England still have Daniel Sturridge to return, while it was a pity that Leicester’s remarkable late developer, Jamie Vardy, was unable to appear in either of the games, not least because Roy Hodgson, after mildly rebuking him for declaring that he wanted to play through the middle for England than out on the left wing, where he had been controversially used so far, was prepared to grant Vardy his wish. Such dynamism deserved its preferred chance.
Both Irish teams surpassed themselves in qualifying and the achievement of Michael O’Neill of raising his Northern Ireland team from what until the qualifying had started, seemed the dead, was beyond praise. A manager who had been largely written off – like his team – inspired them, despite the limitations of his selections, to surpass itself.
Shades of that great Welsh figure of long ago, Ted Robbins, an international manager avant la lettre as the French say, (before it was known), who galvanised teams of largely obscure players into remarkable contestants.
Only five of O’Neill’s 40 available players figure in the Premier League. The bulk of the team which topped its qualifying group, were involved in a wretched World Cup campaign which even saw defeat in tiny Luxembourg.
“If I lose one,” he candidly says of his players, “where does the replacement come from?”
A financial expert, O’Neill shrewdly analysed statistics on his players and handled them accordingly. Manager previously of humble Brechin City and Dublin’s Shamrock Rovers, he surpassed himself in working a minor miracle.
Once a Newcastle United, Dundee United and Hibernian player of moderate achievements, he knows how to console and motivate those of his men who can’t get regular first team football with their clubs. Like the giant striker Kyle Lafferty, whose frequent goals did so much to enable his team to qualify and lead the group, yet who isn’t a first choice for Norwich City.
The other O’Neill, Martin, a higher profile ex-player and manager has revived the republic of Ireland, albeit with the help of players who qualify on the basis of their antecedents. But with Ireland, it was ever thus.