KIEV, UKRAINE - JUNE 24: Mario Balotelli of Italy and Ashley Cole of England challenge forthe ball during the UEFA EURO 2012 quarter final match between England and Italy at The Olympic Stadium on June 24, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
England have gone out. And it's quiet. Too quiet ...
As England tournament exits go, this must be among the calmest in recent memory. The 2010 World Cup was a bitter departure, footballing humiliation laced with snipe, recrimination, and mutterings about goalline technology. 2006 was perhaps less embarrassing on the pitch, but Wayne Rooney's decision to indulge in a moment of incautious studbanter in Ricardo Carvalho's personal space, and Cristiano Ronaldo's subsequent, heinous wink, ensured that a suitably hysterical tone accompanied England on their way. Even Euro 2004, which was at least a hopeful exit after Rooney's terrifying emergence onto the national stage, had its own serving of ensuing nuttiness, as the British tabloids decided that the best way of dealing with Sol Campbell's disallowed winner was to publish the personal details of referee Urs Meier. Death threats and police protection duly followed.
This time, nothing of the sort. No root vegetables, no donkeys, no scapegoats. A curious calm lies across the nation, a calm born of the dominant (though not unanimous, as we'll get to later) sense that this time England, though ultimately well-beaten, have "exceeded expectations".
Before the tournament started, Alan Shearer took some stick for suggesting that low expectations might help England. What he meant was that it might directly assist the players in playing better, which isn't completely ludicrous -- it's not as though pressure isn't a thing, after all -- but probably isn't going to make up for everything else. However, like a short-sighted man chatting up a postbox, he may have accidentally hit on something. A nation that doesn't expect can never be disappointed. If it didn't make England any better, at least it made their not being particularly good more palatable.
Expectations colour reality. The mundane march of events, of things happening -- one after another after another, on and on without end -- is contextualised and characterised in part by what was anticipated. A quarter-final spot for a team with no expectation of getting out of the group is a fantastic achievement; for the same team, with different expectations, the semi-final might constitute a failure. Just ask Ally MacLeod. And there are other expectations of football teams that go beyond the simple measures of progress and results: style, perhaps, or good conduct, or that vague yet palpable sense that a flying one has been given.
The immediate reasons for the low expectations of England are well-trodden, but to quickly recap: the sudden resignation of Fabio Capello and the timescale for locating his replacement; the reported fissures in the squad stemming from the pending court case against John Terry; the litany of injuries that denied Hodgson the services of, among others, Jack Wilshere, Gareth Barry, Kyle Walker, Frank Lampard, and Gary Cahill; the climate created by the cries of knicker-twisted horror that arose from various of the commentariat at the appointment of Not Harry Redknapp; and Wayne Rooney's two-game suspension. To this can perhaps be added a vague national weariness with certain of the now-waning personalities of the pyrite generation, and of course the naturally cautious, careful nature of Hodgson himself, a man who, if passed a tub and asked to give it a thump, would carefully examine it from all angles, smile wistfully, then pop it in his bag to hold tomorrow's sandwiches.
Such an approach is one of the concerns that exercise many of the Hodge-sceptics -- hello, Anfield! SB Nation calling -- who not only see him as being roughly to football what a wet tea-towel is to a chip pan, but discern a cynicism in that dampening tendency. The suggestion is that by seeking to lower the expectations of England, Hodgson is also lowering the expectations of himself. That if the nation is depressed enough, then the 'achievement' of mediocrity becomes acceptable, even laudable. That aiming low is the refuge of a coward with no idea how to aim high.
That last point is at heart a question of taste, and even if accepted, doesn't negate the less than favourable circumstances. It does, though, affect how the football that England played -- largely defensive and reactive, at times anodyne and stultifying -- should be assessed: was this a man making the best of a bad hand, or was this a statement of the opposite of intent? Was this Hodgson making do, or was this all he can do?
(As an irrelevant aside, it's sort-of possible to discern, in the three group games, the traces of each of Hodgson's last three club jobs. Against France, we saw two disciplined, tight, well-drilled banks of four squeeze the life out of the game, pinching a goal from a set piece while restricting technically superior opponents to shots from distance. One of them went in, yes, but that's the risk you take. That's the Hodgson we all expected, and that's the West Bromwich Albion manager that the FA appointed. Then, against Sweden, switching leads and surprisingly pell-mell entertainment brought to mind Fulham's bonkers run to the UEFA Cup final, before finally, in the first half against the Ukraine, a lifeless, lightless slog straight out of that long strange Anfield autumn.)
It's far too early to tell, of course, and the most important thing that Hodgson has had very little of is time. International seasons are two years and thirty-odd games long; Hodgson has had two months and six. Whether he has it about him to make the changes that England require -- the stylistic and selectorial ones are within his ambit; the institutional and cultural ones, not so much -- is a mystery, and will remain so for a good while yet. Perhaps the reason England exceeded expectations in the eyes of so many is not that those expectations were traditionally low -- 'we are rubbish and will lose' -- but more that nobody really had any coherent footballing expectations at all.
Anything could have happened, for nobody really knew what Anglohodgeball was. (We still don't, though doubtless we all have our suspicions.) In such circumstances, expectations are naturally either tangential -- 'don't humiliate yourselves', perhaps, or 'try not to inspire any effigies' -- or hopelessly vague. So getting just about far enough, though not in any great style, along with seeming to care, with a few of the kids looking like they've got something about them, and with nobody getting sent off for stamping on anybody's testicles looks, if not like much of a success, then not much like a failure either. At heart, and in a funny sort of way, England's Euro 2012 barely existed at all.
Still, expectations are tricksy, blowsy things. They pitch and yaw at the mercy of hype-swells, mood-currents, and the crashing breakers of circumstance. One moment they're becalmed in a flat and dispiriting stillness, the next soaring ahead of a hot, strong wind; if they're grievously holed beneath the waterline today, by tomorrow they might have gone completely overboard. And when you start with expectations as low as this, the very fact of exceeding them means that they will already be growing. Optimism, by its very nature, doesn't remain cautious for long.