Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

James Lawton: Momentum with 'lucky' Roy Hodgson and England

DONETSK, UKRAINE - JUNE 19: In this handout image provided by UEFA, Manager Roy Hodgson of England talks to the media after the UEFA EURO 2012 Group D match between Ukraine and England on June 19, 2012 in Donetsk, Ukraine. (Photo by Handout/UEFA via Getty Images)

England conceded a goal that was as authentic as the one they were denied in the World Cup two years ago and they suffered a night of searing pressure from a Ukrainian team who had been told by their legendary coach Oleg Blokhin to play with greater freedom than they had ever felt before.

They did it with blistering football that stretched through a night of roaring passion and often fine skill but they couldn't beat England.



Long before the end you had to suspect that nothing could. Maybe they have made some weird arrangement with fate. Maybe the new manager Roy Hodgson has a trick, an insight that is releasing England on the international stage and one that he can reveal later at his leisure and in some improbable triumph.



For the moment, maybe he should just offer his thanks that some mysterious force, including maybe his own good judgement, allowed him to escape from something that should always be known as the siege of Donetsk.



The great Blokhin said his players had nothing to lose, England were a fantastic team who might well reach the final and if the worst happened he was sure his players would not be lined up against the wall and shot. That was easy for the old hero of the Soviet Union, once voted European Player of the Year, to say. Some of his players did not seem quite so sure.



Alarmingly for England this concern was expressed most brilliantly by two of Ukraine's youngest – and most creative – players, Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko.



No one appeared to have told them either that this wasn't one of the biggest nights in the nation's and their own lives or that it was really the time Wayne Rooney unveiled his world-class quality after missing the first two Group games through suspension.



They were sensational – and so were Ukraine as Blokhin, the man who brought such strength and spirit to the Dynamo Kiev team, roared them on from the touchline, yelling orders to maintain pressure on the English.



This they did quite relentlessly as Rooney struggled desperately to get into the game, most starkly when he made a horrible mess of a cross from Ashley Young.



Rooney, more than anything, looked as you might have expected after his paucity of match action. For most of the first half he was obliged to watch as Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko stretched England quite relentlessly – and were driven on both by their coach and veteran captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk.



John Terry, as discomforted as any of his team-mates by the sustained assault, had to block a shot from Marko Devic, Joe Hart dived to his right when Yarmolenko slightly underhit the ball after finding clear space in front of England's goal, and at one critical point Scott Parker found himself trampled under the weight of the Ukrainian attack.



It was certainly not quite what Rooney had in mind when he returned to the team trailing the promise that England had the talent and the wit to go all the way and win their first major title in 46 years. Yet if he was experiencing an ordeal of Ukrainian fire, there was a sense, though a rather desperate one at times, that his team might just be one counter-attack from deliverance – or at least some lifting of the pressure on their need to avoid defeat and elimination.



When the chance came it was maybe, in all the circumstances, inevitable that it should fall to Rooney just three minutes after the break – and was almost a formality when goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov failed abjectly to stifle a cross from Steven Gerrard. Rooney nodded home the bouncing ball and reacted as might a man who had just stepped out of a brief spell in prison.



England, though, were scarcely in the clear and depended hugely for their continued well-being on the negligence of Hungarian additional linesman Istvan Vad, who refused to recognise a Ukrainian goal only marginally less legitimate than the one taken away so outrageously from Frank Lampard in Bloemfontein two years ago.



Devic believed he had the ball over the line before Terry hacked it away – and within seconds, of course, so did the rest of the world.



Ukraine refused to believe that if you played some brilliant football, if you kept cutting through your opponents, you would not get some kind of reward. They kept pushing England to their limits, Blokhin kept screaming into the night. The old hero Andriy Shevchenko came on to add his weight to the fight and Rooney came off, a goal to his name but his claims that England can win this tournament perhaps under some sharp review.



It could happen because, of course, anything can in football. If you doubt this you should simply rerun the most sweeping of the action – and then note that it is England who move on to meet Italy in Kiev in Sunday's quarter-final.



After this, you wouldn't put much anything past the extraordinary momentum – and maybe the strange alchemy – of Roy Hodgson's regime. One that might – who knows – be in the process of breaking all the rules.