Still, the winter break is back and next qualifying campaign we’ll be good and ready. Who are we playing again? Slovakia. You mean Marek Hamsik’s Slovakia, the team of one of this summer’s bright and shiny and endlessly progressive star turns? Oh, and England. More of them in a bit.
Go on, admit it, you were hoping the tournament would fail. You wanted the big, fat, waddling, everyone-gets-a-prize Euros to topple over and not be able to get back up, so bloated had they become with egotistical greed dressed up as right-on inclusiveness, as teams with one fortunate win to their name moved sheepishly into the next phase causing you to wonder if real, edgy competition was ever going to start.
You wanted to be able to shout, as you jumped down from your crate: “Ha! We didn’t want to be there anyway!”
Except… wouldn’t it be fun? Didn’t that great wall of bopping humanity after Northern Ireland’s victory over Ukraine, yawning stands crammed with delirious Ulstermen, look fantastic? They’ve stolen our clothes, indeed I noticed at least one wearing Adidas Sambas and dirty-white towelling-style hosiery. That’s the classic look which Scots took from the vendors of Glasgow’s Argyle Street (“Erra socks, three pairs for a pound, erra lighters, erra chewing gum…”) right round Planet Football.
Is all of Belfast in France? It looks that way. Every inhabitant of Tirana too. I’m keeping a close watch on Albania, tournament debutants like the Irish, because I’ve long been fascinated by this mysterious land of Norman Wisdom fanatics. Any country which mobs Norm and is largely indifferent to the cult of David Beckham, visiting on the same day, cannot be all bad, even if their prime minister once chose to deal with an irksome cabinet member by shooting him.
Maybe Albania is not so mysterious anymore, now that everyone everywhere seems to slurp horribly milky coffee as they fiddle with their hand-held devices, but I’m still actively collecting the reminisces of the Hibernian team which played FC Besa in 1972. This was a trip of soup that moved and municipal transport which didn’t, of the gloomiest amenities and impromptu blasts of the Albanian anthem during the tie in the old Cup-Winners’ Cup in a vain attempt to inspire a comeback from a 7-1 first-leg defeat.
You don’t have to be an old-school Commie to know that collectives (teams) invariably win tournaments rather than amalgams of individuals or sides where it’s all about the super-duper-star and the other ten are mere fluffers. This is what Sweden look like, yet again, and you wonder if they’ll keep turning up at tournaments after Zlatan Ibrahimovic has officially retired and just stick a statue of him up front. If you were terribly cynical you might say this is Sweden now.
This is also what Portugal look like, yet again, and unfortunately Cristiano Ronaldo’s frustrations got the better of him against Iceland and he was graceless in drawing with yet another crew of Euro newbies. Looking like he was about to blub, he was in serious need of a hug from that Moroccan-Dutch professional kickboxer buddy of his.
The guys off the covers of the Euro 2016 sticker-books and supplements haven’t had the most ripping of starts. Apart from Cristiano and Zlat, Kyle Lafferty was dropped after Northern Ireland’s opening defeat and Harry Kane was hooked at half-time against Wales. I’ve got a doubler of Harry – anyone want it? He may not begin another game for England.
I suppose it’s a credit to the competition first-timers that they can get under Ronaldo’s glistening, orangey skin and cause the English team to celebrate as wildly as they did in victory over Wales. And doubtless Joe Hart’s willingness to run the length of the pitch to be – geddit – head and shoulders above his team-mates as the huddle’s most relieved man will be viewed by Uefa as proof that the expanded formula for these Euros is working.
England’s passion had been questioned, which in retrospect, maybe wasn’t such a smart move by Gareth Bale & Co. Footballers are footballers and they pin such quotes to dressing-room walls, study them like they were cave paintings of searing enlightenment and shout: “Ugh!” When the Welsh couldn’t get the ball to Bale they were completely stymied, but when England were failing with Kane and Raheem Sterling, Roy Hodgson was able to replace those two with their most talented striker and the Premier League’s Player of the Year.
Has the serially-cautious Hodgson suddenly turned into a crazy gambler, now betting on which of his squad comes down first for breakfast and what he hears first from his Rice Krispies – snap, crackle or pop? Could Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy end up winning it for England? Other teams should be more wary of Sturridge’s drifting moves and dancing feet and Vardy’s jet-propelled running and killer eye for goal. But that clunky defence, not yet properly tested, soon will be.
Northern Ireland won’t win it and Albania won’t win it, the enlarged Euros inviting more of the wee teams but making another Denmark less likely. I just wish we were part of the debate, even as cannon-fodder. I’d love us to be battered with the golf ball-sized hailstones which temporarily halted the Northern Ireland-Ukraine game – to be bamboozled by Dimitri Payet, a new star, and bewitched by an old one like Andres Iniesta, still shiningly serene, still searching for the perfect two-yard dinked pass.
So, waiting for England and Slovakia and hoping they either become decadent with success or disillusioned by failure, we must get our kicks where we can – in Northern Ireland’s made-in-the-SPFL goal courtesy of Josh Magennis and Niall McGinn and words not often uttered around these parts: “Hey, wasn’t that a great decision by Willie Collum?”