And a nation can breathe easily once again – for now at least.
Prior to the game, parallels with both the World Cup in 1986 and 1990 had been made given the sticky start England had made in this years tournament. Both in Mexico (1986) and Italy (1990), England had stuttered out of the gate before victory in their final group game ensured progression to the knock out stages where momentum built and took them on before suffering heartbreaking losses to Argentina (in the quarter-finals of Mexico ’86) and West Germany (on penalties at Italia’90).
So far in South Africa, there have been injury problems (Rio Ferdinand), no clear choice of goalkeeper (Robert Green cast aside after his slip against the USA), a very public critique of the manager (John Terry) and a pair of performances (Slovenia and USA) that left an awful lot to be desired.
Against the backdrop of unrest and uncertainty though, England – as they are somehow able to do at World Cup time – found a way to come through. A change of personnel (if not necessarily tactics) and approach good enough to overcome a plucky, if limited Slovenia side.
And perhaps with the footballing gods looking down, Landon Donavan’s last gasp goal on the stroke of the final whistle in the England game meant the USA leapfrogged England to top Group C and bring old foes Germany and Argentina (possible quarter final opponents) onto the horizon. Incidentally, not only did the goal ensure the USA avoided, cruelly, an early exit, but winning the group sees them with a favourable route through the remainder of the tournament.
Looking back at Mexico ’86, England started off poorly, going down 1-0 to Portugal in their opening game before a miserable 0-0 draw against Morocco also saw captain Bryan Robson go off with a shoulder injury after just four minutes and Ray Wilkins later sent off. The final group game, against Poland, meant only a win by two goals would suffice. It also meant a reshuffled line-up with Peter Reid and Steve Hodge coming into midfield and Peter Beardsley replacing Mark Hateley in attack.
The result however was never really in doubt as a Gary Lineker hat-trick in the first thirty minutes blew the Poles away and saw England progress in second place.
The last sixteen then saw the Lineker-Beardsley combination in full effect as Paraguay were swept aside 3-0 before England fell to both the infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal and later one of the all time great World Cup goals from Diego Maradona as they were defeated 2-1 by Argentina.
Four years later in Italy, England once again started poorly. Opening up with a pair of draws against the Republic of Ireland and Holland, the player’s lobbied manager Bobby Robson hard for a switch in formation. Heeding their pleas, England altered their approach and despite a nervy performance in their last group game, a header from Mark Wright secured a 1-0 victory over Egypt and progression as group winners.
Bolstered by this, England suddenly found their stride and momentum (not to mention a shade of luck) as a goal from David Platt in the final minute of extra time saw them progress at the expense of Belgium, whilst a back and forth game in the quarter-finals against Cameroon required two penalties to go through by a 3-2 margin. Old enemies West Germany were waiting in the semi-final, having moved through the tournament much slicker and with greater ease than England, but the teams could not be separated at the end of an enthralling encounter that ended 1-1 but the German’s held their nerve to win the penalty shoot-out.
Fast forward to 2010 then and parallels can clearly be drawn. Perhaps no side has to deal with the weight of such anticipation from media and public alike, with the squad and the every movement placed under such scrutiny.
At times, the squad appeared unable to cope with the expectations. Form and experience gained at club level seemed to count for little with the added pressures of the Three Lions.
The performance against Slovenia, whilst not sensational, was both an improvement and will have clearly garnered a squad, who, if nothing else are desperate to perform. And whilst finishing second sees England forced to navigate a trickier path, a backs to the wall situation often draws out the English strengths where passion and pride are often found in greater abundance than technique and ability.
If England had to face any opponent in a ‘do or die’ game then Germany would perhaps be the perfect fit. This German squad possess the technical abilities of the German sides of the past, but has a more youthful and cosmopolitan look, a plus point on one hand but they are without question a less experienced and imposing side than England and have not entirely convinced after their impressive opening to the tournament where Australia were dismantled 4-0.
Like the sides of tournaments past, England, when it mattered, managed to pull themselves through a sticky patch. Momentum and timing can be a very funny thing in the world of sports. Given the history between England and Germany, there is no telling just what a win over them could mean to this England side. Suddenly the doubts and apprehension would be blown away. The injuries, lack of form and in fighting all long forgotten as a galvanised squad strides forward.
Just like the tournaments past.