Euro 2012: #4 It wasn’t pretty but we won the group

England 1-0 Ukraine – 19/6/12, 7.45pm 

“We’ve grown in strength. I think today once again the players showed an incredible spirit, incredible desire. We played a real away match with a capital A” [Roy Hodgson] 

“They’ve not had much luck going for them, even going back to Maradona’s hand of God and all that, the penalty shoot-out in 1990. I just feel that all the players are fit, they’re very happy as a group, they’re singing from the same song sheet, there’s no great talk of ego and everybody wants to do well for a coach they like and respect, most importantly. Optimistic” said Sky Sports’ number one commentator Martin Tyler in the build-up on Sky Sports News. The nation shared Tyler’s optimism ahead of the final game against Ukraine. All we needed was a point to go through. We might even win the group! Things were looking oh, so bright pre-match.

Unlike other tournaments and probably other teams, I never got the sense that this England squad or us as fans were arrogant about qualifying. After all it would be typical England to be in such a great position and mess it up late on. For reference see Phil Neville’s last-minute foul against Romania to send us crashing out of Euro 2000 via a penalty. All we needed to do was not lose; simple. We didn’t have to rely on someone to do us a favour necessarily, getting through to the knockout round was in our own hands.

The team news this time was not so dramatic because we all knew Wayne Rooney was now available for selection after a two-match ban and we all knew he would surely go straight into the side. He did. Goal-scorer Carroll was the unlucky man to miss out. He can’t feel too hard done by though, it’s Wayne Rooney for goodness sake. He is one of the genuine world-class stars England has. Other than that the team, and tactics, were unchanged from the starting XI of the Swedish game.

The most important thing is that we won. It wasn’t pretty but we won. Therefore we qualify for the quarter finals. The pleasant surprise was that the Swedes did us a favour and beat France, meaning that we top the group. An outstanding achievement for Roy’s men considering how derided they were and how little preparation as a unit the current staff have had together. England qualified from the group stages unbeaten and in great shape. On paper everything looks fantastic.

The reality of the Ukraine game is somewhat different. I watched this game in the glorious surroundings of Wahoo on West Street; the place formerly known as Walkabout. I have watched several England games there; some good, some awful, but tonight’s was something else. I watched Theo Walcott bag a hat-trick in a qualifier against Croatia there, I was there two years ago when England crashed out of the World Cup against Germany with the Lampard ‘goal’ that wasn’t given. One extreme to the other. This time the game was extremely tense against Ukraine. We were all in a positive mood ahead of it. On ITV Roy Keane and Jamie Carragher couldn’t see anything but an England win. Professional worrier Adrian Chiles wasn’t so confident; he was anxious over the prospect of playing World and European Champions Spain in the quarter finals and wanted England to go all out to win the group. We agreed. Keano was more concerned about doing your own job, England must win and the rest of the group will “sort itself out”. Wise words from a man growing into a very decent pundit.

The match took place in Ukraine of course, so the fans were outnumbered by something like 10,000 to one. It’s the quiz show William G. Stewart wanted to host, but had to settle for 15 to 1 in the end. The National Anthem was belted out by every England man, both on the pitch and in the crowds. It was fantastic to see and something Roy the Redeemer seems to have demanded from his players. It shows passion, pride and belief; words which may be the strapline of the Nationwide building society but also apply here. England started well in the first two group games. Against Ukraine it was all a bit too tense and a little flat. There were very few chances in the first half and in truth it was the ‘home’ side which dominated possession. I pointed out during the game, as I like to see myself as a bit of a defensive expert, that it was fine for Ukraine to have all this possession and try to put England under pressure because we were coping with it very well. Roy’s England are an excellent defensive unit and this sort of pressure is a light warm-up if we did dare to dream and faced Spain. Bring them on!

Half time was a bit of a relief because it meant we could visit the toilets and get another drink. Not at the same time though that would be disgusting. And tangy. A bit like Carling. The ITV studio were critical of England at half time. I think we all felt we could be doing better and should be going out to win this game to give us the best chance of winning the group. The return of Wayne Rooney didn’t seem to liven things up, if anything he looked rusty and a bit short of practice. Having not played for five weeks perhaps we should have expected this.

Nothing would have dampened my belief that England would win this game. Just a few minutes after the break and that man Rooney popped up and proved me right! He scored possibly the easiest goal he will ever score, but similarly one of the most important. It was surprisingly his first tournament goal since his first tournament back in 2004. He needed this goal, England needed this goal. I thought we might push on from there and close the game down with a killer second goal but it didn’t turn out that way.

After a middling, tricky 61 minutes something extraordinary happened. Something which may provide the turning point for England at major tournament football. Something which hasn’t happened since 1966. Ukraine scored. They broke through the England defence and put the ball over the goal-line. Nothing too extraordinary about that but, and like Nicki Minaj it’s a big but, the goal wasn’t given. It crossed the line but the goal wasn’t given. Despite having a referee, two linesmen and a further assistant standing next to each goal none of them gave it and it was officially a great clearance off the line from John Terry. Replays proved categorically that it did cross the line. We got that little bit of luck after all those years of hurt. Immediately we can all feel that little bit better about Lampard’s ghost goal of 2010, as it went in our favour this time round and football HAS evened itself out! Is this our year?

The worst thing about that incident is that the UEFA and FIFA anti-England conspiracy theory rears its ugly head again and is another piece of evidence in its favour. Sepp Blatter immediately said that goal-line technology is now an “absolute necessity.” Fuck off Sepp, where was this statement two years ago? Where was the sympathy then or in 1986 when Maradona punched the ball into the goal? Or when Sol Campbell’s header was ruled out for nothing in 2004? Or previously in 1998? Where was our support from football’s governing body? It was none-existent. It’s their own fault for not introducing technology years ago when every fan would welcome it. England one, FIFA nil.

The rest of the game was a bit of a blur as it proved very tense and nervy to watch. England had a couple of chances, Ukraine had a couple and should have scored but the final whistle went and we cheered like we hadn’t cheered before. England had won the game and were through to the quarter finals! Bring on  Spain we thought. However Sweden did us a huge favour and beat the French two-nil. Vilified in Friday’s game, ‘Zlats’ Ibrahimovic scored one of the goals of the tournament and it meant that, although France still went through, we topped the group!

So Italy provide the next obstacle on Roy’s path to redeeming the nation’s pride and bringing home the European Championships trophy for the very first time. Italy looked a bit cagey against Ireland in the last game but they too are unbeaten. They drew the first two games one all and put two past the Irish, averaging two goals a game so far. We average more so we are bound to win, right? I think we’re in for another tight tussle which may even go past the ninety minutes. I can’t wait for Sunday’s match. I think we might just do it.

About Mark O'MEARA
I am Mark O'MEARA.

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