I started off last night feeling very Belgian indeed. In terms of produce suitable for in-game consumption this is entirely sensible. The Belgians have strong beer, excellent chocolate and moules frites with mayonnaise. The Welsh have overcooked lamb, leaks and despair. But there was another, altogether more valid, reason.; ninety nine percent of Welshmen would have been supporting Belgium if it was us against them instead.
That support of the Belgies didn’t last ninety minutes though. It turned in to sheer admiration of the success of a squad that contains some very familiar players indeed. Goal number three was scored by Sam Vokes. Remember him? The loan player that couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo whilst in the stripes? The striker that literally no one wanted back at the end of his spell? Him. True, he went back to Burnley and the Ginger Dalek turned him in to a decent player and regular scorer but, while he was here, did anyone think he’d be scoring a winning goal in the quarter finals of the Euros?
Then there’s Hal Robson Kanu. The sort of player who would be genuinely greeted with our hilarious chant of “Who?” as he was substituted at The Amex. A sort of professional Mr Nobody. An also played, an afterthought. “Was Robson Kanu playing for Reading yesterday?” “Not sure.” Yesterday he scored perhaps one of the best goals I’ve seen at international level. A Cruyff turn that beat the whole Belgian defence, ironic because, in their absence, the Belgians have played the role of Holland to perfection in this tournament.
And England? England were already at home with their feet up / on a flight to Ayia Napa / chasing tail with a shisha pipe in their hand.
A quick look down the respective squad lists is enough to make you cry. Yes Wales have Bale and Ramsey, and both have been excellent in this tournament, but let’s dig a little deeper (and I will return to that theme of one or two star players at the end).
In goal (and this genuinely makes me cry) is Wayne Hennessey of Crystal Palace, a man who’s had what one could call a bit of a mixed season. Compare that to England who possess a man who plays for just about the richest side in the Premier League, a man so famous he dominates a dandruff commercial, a man who started even though he probably wasn’t the best keeper in the England squad, never mind the tournament. A man who had a full on nightmare, costing us two separate goals, including the one that sent us home.
England certainly weren’t the best at the back in this tournament but you would still take the Premier League calibre of our defenders over Chris Gunter, another man who huffed and puffed for an average Reading side, this season just gone. On the flip side, and to be entirely fair, I would play Ashley Williams before almost any of the current England squad. The man’s a monster.
But it’s up front where you see just where England squandered their riches. Vardy and Kane were coming off the season of their lives. They spent August to May terrifying Premier League defences and, while tired (and in Kane’s case quite possibly over played), they must have been brimming with confidence. What did Roy do? Had one of them leading the line between two wide non-wingers (and taking corners) and the other collecting splinters in his arse.
Yes, on paper you would take Kane and Vardy over Robson Kanu and Vokes every day and twice on Sunday but last night was the clearest example yet of why football should never be “played on paper” (or more accurately, never predicted purely based on the personnel on the field).
The difference, firstly, is the managers. I spent most of the campaign (even when people were saying England were playing well and just needed a bit of luck) pointing out how very average Roy Hodgson is as a manager. If anything I over estimated him. This is not a man suited to tournament football or big teams. He is suited to getting Sweden and Switzerland to qualify for a tournament, for keeping West Brom mid table. Not for winning the league with Liverpool or taking England to tournament glory. He makes bad players average but good players average too (I nicked that from a newspaper clipping my mate sent me but it’s 100% true).
His formations were baffling (again while many fans were defending him in the group stages it seems the players themselves were utterly banjaxed by his tactics and selections). His use of Kane to take corners and non-wingers out wide was exactly the reason we looked threatening without ever scoring. You need to be in the right place at the right time to score. Kane was anywhere but in the box, Rooney was too deep and Vardy on the bench.
Compare that to Chris Coleman. The man is different mustard. That, last night, is one of the most together displays of team work I’ve seen since – let’s think – since we were beating QPR and Fulham at home. That infamous video of the Wales boys celebrating our defeat to Iceland had far more bearing on my decision to feel Belgian than their beers or chocolates but it showed a togetherness and team spirit that has persisted and looks like it could go all the way. While Iceland were playing Austria to determine our opponents in the second round, Roy was off sightseeing. You get the impression that the players were tucked away in individual hotel rooms watching FIFA videos on their iPads.
But credit too, to Bale and Ramsey. It would be easy for the team to be them plus nine but they have played their part in this great side that Coleman has assembled and it is for this reason that I will be supporting them in the semi. Yes, it feels wrong. Not quite like supporting Palace but maybe a bit like cheering on Pompey or Orient. Certainly like being all pally with someone that’s just laughed at you in the street. However, they are playing Portugal, a side with not just one but two massive bellends in the starting eleven, a side who have got to the semis without winning a single game in ninety minutes, a walking and running travesty. I’d probably support Scotland or Germany against Portugal at the moment (he choked). It’s Bale v Ronaldo but there’s no doubt which of those two has conducted himself with more humility this tournament (and yes, I’m aware of Bale’s pre-match antics before their game with us).
But more than that I want the team to beat the individuals. To see spirit and togetherness win out. I need to believe in that because I’ve just seen how far that can take you in a whole Championship season and I want to see the same again in the next. Coleman has fashioned something with Wales very similar to what Hughton has fashioned with us and it would be nice to see it succeed. It would make my half Welsh, flip-flopping mate and my all Welsh, old school Cardiff and Wales mate unbearable for a couple of weeks but it wouldn’t half give me heart for the season to come. Right now Sheffield Wednesday are splashing the cash for next season and Newcastle seem to be linked with everyone, but we perhaps need to remember that Hodgson was the best paid manager in the tournament, and look at what he produced.