It was all too easy to find jarring contrast between England’s opening match at the Euros and that of Wales. In the 75th minute in Bordeaux the red and white-clad tribe burst into wonderful song and the spine-tingling rendition of the Welsh anthem is soon inspiring the team to the winning goal. Meanwhile, if you were plugged into social media at the same time, something hideous may have presented itself.
Footage of a Marseille street torn up by hooliganism. Sirens blaring, smoke billowing, bottles flying, yobs on the run. A local man who’s been shopping holds up his hands in despair. And out of the fug a thug lunges at him and with a savage punch to the side of the head knocks him to the ground unconscious.
If you thought that Rooney was being selected on reputation – and many did – then Saturday night dispelled that
The violence disfigured the city, the opening of the tournament, the match and any reasoned assessment of England’s performance. This was a huge pity for these young players, for while it confirmed that an old problem hadn’t really gone away – it was lurking up an alleyway biding its time – this was new England on the pitch, and pretty entertaining they were, too.
It is true that the some familiar English issues presented themselves by the end – lack of concentration, absence of cool composure – but before being pegged back in injury-time by Russia they had played with a brightness and, above all, a boldness which we rarely get from England in tournament football, and which some thought they’d never see under Roy Hodgson.
So it’s kind of ironic that, just as they’ve presented their best European face to the other nations – in a football sense, I mean, not a political one, and showing nearly as much flair as France – they must now prepare for a very British encounter against Wales.
Wayne Rooney fired crossfield passes that were the equal of Paul Pogba’s in the hosts’ win over Romania. Dele Alli wasn’t Dimitri Payet but maybe no one else in the whole competition will be – the latter can be its biggest star. The Spurs kid, though, had a fine match and very few of England’s relentless attacks in the first half did not involve him. And that’s something else we must remember about this team: its tender years. No country has a younger squad, which may ultimately cost England in these Euros, but bodes well for the future.
England have tried going with older teams, so-called golden generation teams and teams which fancied themselves enough to secure book deals for the story of their tournament before a ball had been kicked. Look where these guys got them. Now, with the 20-year-old Alli, the 22-year-old Eric Dier, pictured, and Harry Kane, also 22 – none of whom gives the impression they would be willing to defer to the superstardom of a David Beckham-type – offer hope.
Rooney is the most famous name in this team. But if you thought he was being selected on reputation – and many did – then Saturday night dispelled that. If you thought he wouldn’t have the wit or discipline to play deep midfield, he dispelled that view as well. That said, he would probably have put away at least a couple of those missed chances if played further forward.
Adam Lallana lacked the finisher’s instinct. Raheem Sterling’s final ball was often poor. Kane wasn’t his sharpest and why was he charged with taking the corners? Can England really afford to leave out their cleverest striker (Daniel Sturridge) as well as their fastest (Jamie Vardy)? This wasn’t a perfect performance but there was much to commend it and this team want their next match to come around very quickly.
So do Wales. Making their return to tournament football after an absence of 58 years, they not only sounded great but looked great. Their retro red shirts almost seemed to turn orange just before kick-off, as if the players were about to explode with desire. By the end they looked quite knackered, having given a lot to weather Slovakia’s revival and find a way to win. But they’ll be ready for England. Gareth Bale has already spoken witheringly about how the English always big themselves up going into tournaments.
In this team, the likes of perpetual-motion Johnathan Williams don’t defer to the superstar Bale. The Real Madrid man was pretty energetic himself, front and back. While Wales beat Slovakia with a goal from a player without a club, Hal Robson-Kanu, the chances of defeating England surely rest with Bale. And he’ll surely have noted how the right-footed Chris Smalling didn’t like the Russians running down his left side and would hope to exploit that avenue better than they did.
Wales versus England inevitably stirs memories of the Davies boyos Ron and Wyn ganging up on big Jack Charlton, but Bale and Alli will make for a very modern contest on Thursday. Let’s hope for a cracking game and quieter streets.