Euro 2012: #5 The inevitable defeat on penalties

England 0-0 Italy (AET, 2-4 on pens) – 24/6/12, 7.45pm 

“You can’t really, unfortunately, practice. You can’t reproduce the tired legs. You can’t reproduce the pressure. You can’t reproduce the feeling of nervous tension. They stood up to it better than we did” [Roy Hodgson] 

“Most realistic expectations already having been met, England now has the chance to fulfil some dreams by clearing the hurdle that has most often claimed them in the past,” Jon Champion opened his ITV highlights commentary. But ultimately we lost in the quarter-finals on penalties. Again. A bloody penalty shoot-out. ‘Why always penalties?’ as a Mario Balotelli-style shirt might say. What is wrong with English footballers and taking penalties on the international stage? Why have we only won once in ten shoot-outs? Ashley’s Young and Cole are added to the long list of England penalty missers including Messrs Carragher, Beckham, Batty, Ince, Southgate, Pearce, Waddle et al. It’s a list which just keeps growing and shows very little sign of ending. Unfortunately our European adventure did. I was absolutely gutted, which is probably why it’s taken a full week to bring myself to write this. 

Today is the day of the Euro final. Whilst I didn’t think England could be in it, I did start to wonder if this time might be our time. Perhaps the new duo of Hodgson and Neville, the Redeemer and the Screamer, lulled me into a false sense of optimism after four really poor years. After avoiding Spain to play Italy I did feel confident that we could this time go one step further and reach the semis for the first time since ’96. There were many similarities between then and now but unfortunately the most damning similarity was crashing out on penalties both times. We all thought the Italy game was going to be close but I didn’t think it would go all the way and I wasn’t really prepared for penalties. Maybe a sneaky one-nil, maybe an extra time winner, but not the unrivalled agony of the shoot-out. Sky Sports News’ Iain Dowie on the other hand did predict it. He’s done quite well on the prediction front this tournament and should be in the money. 

Cash-strapped BBC certainly aren’t, or at least want to portray themselves as cost-cutting, and have decided to base their studio back home for the tournament so far. It was a refreshing change then for them to dig out their passports and fly over to cover this match from within the stadium from this point onwards. The final four games were all to be shown on BBC One; the plan was for three of those to feature England. They were slightly confident, I was slightly confident, the England set up seemed slightly confident. So near yet so very far. 

Roy Hodgson did mention in his pre-match presser the possibility of pens and that they had been practising. You can practise all you want, in theory taking a penalty is a simple task compared to dribbling past three defenders and scoring in the top corner, but there is something that gets to the players which just causes them to lose their cool and either blast high, in Ashley Young’s case, or place it poorly, like Ashley Cole. The unchanged line-up meant both of these players were on from the start so perhaps tiredness, physically and mentally, might have been a factor. Substitute Theo Walcott was slightly fresher and he was apparently the scheduled fifth taker, maybe he should have gone earlier. 

Before the agony of the conclusion there was the, well, agony of the ninety minutes. The first half was decent, England were playing quite well, particularly in the first fifteen. After that though it just seemed Italy had more control and possession of the ball and were definitely more dangerous. They bombarded the England goal and struck the post twice. We were holding on to the clean sheet desperately. If it was a boxing match the referee might have been tempted to call it off. If it was a tennis match no amount of cries of “Come on Tim!” would have been able to help. If it was a curling match… well anything could have happened because the scoring for that’s all over the place. But it was a football match and you know that it doesn’t matter how much possession or shots on goal the opposition has, if they don’t score you won’t lose. England had a couple of chances too. The last of the ninety was an overhead effort from Rooney where, like BBC commentator Guy Mowbray said, if he’d have shinned it rather than connected with the boot it might have been on target. It’s about those little moments of fortune which change the course of the game and, ultimately, the path through the tournament. 

No goals scored by either team meant we were going to extra time. The worst possible news for all non-sport fans, the schedules were going to change! Aaah! The news wouldn’t be shown at ten, what a disgrace. It’s not like there’s a 24 hour news channel to update you all day every day on how shit the World can be sometimes and how corrupt politicians are. I have no sympathy for people who moan when live events overrun. Of course on this occasion I too would rather the news was on at ten because it would have meant we would be spared the horror of penalties. 

Extra time came and went quicker than a Katie Price relationship and in truth it was all too tense and excruciating to recall. I once again returned to Wahoo in West Street, packed to the rafters and brimming with emotion, and had a prime spot right at the front to the left of the giant screen. We got a good leaning point by the DJ booth, thankfully vacated for the night apart from the odd rousing football song pre-match and half-time, and stocked up on enough pints to last through the extra half hour without having to wade past the hundreds packed inside. I have never sung the National Anthem so loud or even been so agitated during a match before. Perhaps I wanted to win this game more than any before because it would be so great for the Redeemer and for us. Also it would set up a mouth-watering semi-final line-up with two big international derbies; Spain v Portugal and England v Germany. Too exciting to think about and unfortunately too much to become a reality. 

Extra time was dominated by the Italians but again failed to score. They did put the ball in the back of the net but thankfully the linesman was alert and correctly called it offside. I couldn’t believe my luck. I thought it really was all going our way and there was no way we were going to lose now. It was written in the stars. Seemingly though the person writing in those stars was dyslexic and got it wrong. To penalties it was. I wasn’t sure if I could watch. I was with Harty and Ciaran. Harty couldn’t watch. Ciaran just about could. The players all stood on the half-way line, shoulder to shoulder, arms linked. We did the same. It’s the default shoot-out position. It is in football anyway, they have a different meaning to that sentence in America I believe. 

The penalties started so well; Gerrard and Rooney both scored and they sent their second penalty wide. Advantage England after two. The Italians went first and levelled it at two-all before Young stepped up. He’s had a terrible tournament and was extremely fortunate to have played in all four games so far. He was even more fortunate to last the duration of this. His luck ran out though and smashed his penalty against the bar. Gutting. It was all level again and could go either way. They scored again to put the pressure on Cole. His soft penalty was more like a pass to the goalkeeper’s left; it was a comfortable save. It all meant that if Alessandro Diamanti scored Italy would go through. We were therefore all on Diamanti watch. He did score. Italy went through. It was another traditional, inevitable, penalty shoot-out disaster for England. What a sad, sad way to exit what’s been such a bright tournament. It hurt more than if we lost four-nil. 

I’ll save the reflection and analysis of England for the tournament review blog coming soon but the pundits all seemed to agree that something is seriously wrong the English football in the wider sense than the twenty-three man squad. The Premier League is overrun by foreign stars, pushing our ones to the sidelines. The grass-roots set up is aggression over flair, win over playing well, hard work over talent. The same things are being said now as they were sixteen years ago but very little’s changed in between. The long-term future needs sorting. 

As for the short-term I was pleased with England’s display in this tournament. We were unfancied, some even doubting if we’d get out of the group. Anything after would be a bonus. It’s a fourth quarter-final exit in five tournaments and we still haven’t made a final since 1966. What Bobby Moore and Alan Ball have made of this England side we’ll sadly never know. I’m sure they weren’t fancied back then but they clawed their way through. They didn’t have to face penalties. We need to do more in the actual match time to win rather than go all the way past extra time. Because the more you play dangerously, in a shoot-out you’re going to get shot down. That we did once more, and we now wait two more years to even think about achieving that most impossible of dreams; lifting a trophy on the international stage and being the best. The World Cup champions in Brazil in 2014; are we nuts? 

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

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