LONDON – England has a new opponent — England.
The country, that is.
In the wake of a cameo appearance at the World Cup in Brazil, it was business as usual in the utterly forgettable friendly against Norway on Wednesday.
No one expected an exhibition of total football or a master class of tactical genius. But two shots on target in 90 minutes, one of those Wayne Rooney’s decisive penalty, against the team ranked 53rd in the world did not give the paying spectators or those watching on television any increased confidence for Monday’s first Euro 2016 qualifier away to Switzerland.
In its last 192 minutes of play against Uruguay (the final 12 minutes), Costa Rica and Norway, England has managed a total of three shots on target.
There is a pessimism, indifference and apathy toward the England team I have not experienced for a long time. The public’s patience has been tested to breaking point.
When England returned from an underachieving 2010 World Cup in South Africa its next game was a Wembley friendly against Hungary which attracted a crowd of 72,024.
For the visit of Norway, 40,181 were at the national stadium, almost half that for the corresponding fixture four years ago.
Queens Park Rangers manager Harry Redknapp organized four VIP tickets for England vs. Norway for a charity auction. Pre-match wining and dining, best seats, complimentary drinks . . . there was not a single bid.
England supporters have lost such faith in England and few would be surprised if it lost in Basel on Monday to a country which has beaten it only three times in 22 meetings.
Worse, many would not be particularly bothered.
Roy Hodgson was a lone siren voice in saying he was “quite pleased” with England’s display against Norway. Had Joe Hart not made two stunning saves, England could have been staring a hugely embarrassing defeat in the face.
There were no injuries. Everton defender John Stones made a comfortable first start. Man of the match Raheem Sterling — or Raheem Shaquille Sterling to give him his full name — the Liverpool forward who has eight caps, is now England’s best player.
The back four of Stones, Phil Jones, Gary Cahill and Leighton Baines lack the solidarity, understanding and cohesion needed at this level.
The central midfield partnership of Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere will be over-run by decent opposition.
In two years, Hodgson has failed to gel Rooney and Dean Sturridge, who continue to look as if they are playing together for the first time. The chemistry between the pair remains a frustrating work in progress.
Rooney represents, at the same time, the main hope for England and the biggest conundrum. His penalty against Norway was his 41st goal for England and put him eight behind Bobby Charlton on the all-time list. The new captain has been his country’s most reliable striker, yet his performances are far less convincing than his statistics.
The Manchester United player finds it difficult to operate with a partner and England’s attack looked far livelier when Rooney was replaced by Arsenal new boy Danny Welbeck for the final 20 minutes.
Welbeck and Sturridge combined much more productively than Rooney and Sturridge, but having given Rooney the armband, Hodgson is hardly likely to drop him for the first competitive fixture of the season.
Against Norway, Rooney was a largely peripheral figure, but how can you drop your leading scorer?
The problem Hodgson has is that Rooney’s best position continues to be an ongoing and unsolved dilemma, despite his goal return. If Rooney is moved deeper behind Welbeck and Sturridge, that means the outstanding Sterling could not operate as the No. 10, a role which Hodgson hinted he could fill against Switzerland.
“Sterling can consider playing through the middle,” said the manager. “It’s a good to have those options. We changed the system quite radically in the last 25 minutes (against Norway) and that worked well.”
Where would that leave Rooney?
Playing even further back in a 4-3-1-2 formation?
Rooney has always been the first or second line of attack, never the third.
Hodgson, the arch pragmatist, will set his side up for a draw in Basel. “We might be Norway in Switzerland,” he said. “We might be pushed back and can’t attack or dominate for long periods.”
The manager, who has been given a gentle ride by the media even during the World Cup debacle, is showing signs of intolerance and tetchiness with negative press questioning, though Hodgson can hardly expect upbeat interviews after an unconvincing first win in six games.
The impression is the majority of players endure rather than enjoy playing for England. They know there is public indifference toward the team and they have to win back the confidence of the nation after too many disappointments and false dawns. It does not make for the happiest of working environments.
UEFA’s change of format for the qualifying stage of Euro 2016 does not help any wind-change. From eight groups of six and one of five, the winners and runnersup plus the best third-place side will qualify. The eight remaining third-place countries will contest playoffs to determine the last four qualifiers for the 24-nation finals.
This makes it non-competitive and almost impossible for any leading of middle class country to fail. Apart from Switzerland, England plays Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino, and it is difficult to see too many “sold out” notices outside Wembley for the visit of such limited and opposition who are hardly box office draws.
At least in one respect the manager and public are singing from the same song-sheet. “England may continue to play in front of small crowds during their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign,” said Hodgson. “We’ll find it hard to bring attendances back to very high levels because the opponents we’re playing won’t excite the public.”
Yet if England played with the excitement, the passion and the fluency that could reasonably be expected from some of the best players in the Premier League the support and interest would return. The real worry is that the team Hodgson selected against Norway was just about the best he could.
Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard have retired from international football, though Cole was prematurely forced out by Hodgson, who preferred Baines as his left-back.
Defeat in Switzerland would change very little. Public optimism is so low a loss would hardly be a shock. The Football Association remains behind Hodgson, possibly because of a lack of feasible successors.
Switzerland showed at the World Cup the progress they have made, losing a little unfortunately to eventual finalist Argentina 1-0 after extra-time in the second round.
New coach Vladimir Petkovic, born in Bosnia but a naturalized Swiss, has some fine young players coming through from their successful junior sides.
Xherdan Shaqiri, known as the Alpine Messi, was ineffective in the first two games in Brazil, but silenced his critics with a hat trick against Honduras. His ability to change games is significant to Switzerland’s fortunes and will be a key factor on Monday.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.