Peter Worthington has had an amazing life. And his obituary, which he wrote himself, certainly has an arresting opening line.
England once again were knocked out of Euro 2012 on penalties but can hold their heads high. The defeat, or victory, depending on your allegiance, was not down to a moment of hot headedness or injustice, as has so often been the case in English footballing history. This time it was down to two crucial moments; a substitution and a penalty.
Before any diagnosis for the defeat is made I think it is necessary to state that I was pleased with the desire shown by our players and the quality exhibited in periods throughout the tournament. We came, once more, within a penalty shootout of progressing to the semi-final and with that exceeded the expectations of many. Despite this, yesterday’s defeat highlighted how we are still not good enough and how without major changes to our game we will continue to fall short in major matches.
After England’s opening 1-1 draw with France I heard a comment from Scott Parker which worried me. In response to a question asking him what drives the players on, the midfielder replied, “a fear of failure.” It seems to me that it is this which in no small part led to our desperate exit. While perhaps not the most obvious comparison to make I feel an appropriate one is Goran Ivaneŝević’s Wimbledon victory in 2001. As the Croatian progressed through the tournament his post match interviews were dominated with bold statements in which he implied that it was his "destiny" to win. Compare this with the English attitude of being terrified to fail and the pieces start to fall into place.
I mention Parker’s comment, as it is crucial when considering what I have highlighted as the first key moment in yesterday’s quarterfinal. On sixty minutes the Italians had resumed their relentless attack on the English goal and something had to be done. England manager Roy Hodgson made the decision to bring Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott on in order to present the opposition with a different challenge. The latter change, which saw Milner make way for Walcott, was obvious. The Manchester City winger had been as industrious as ever but lacked quality in the pass on several occasions. Additionally, Walcott had come on against the Swedes in the group and transformed the game. The main question however surrounds the other change. No doubt Carroll had to come on having had an excellent tournament, but in place of whom? Here we saw Parker’s “fear of failure” personified. Hodgson opted to withdraw Danny Welbeck who had in many people’s eyes been our country’s best player instead of the out of sorts Wayne Rooney. There is no doubt that on his day Rooney is our best player and is regarded throughout the game as “world class”, however it did not take an expert in football to observe he was not coming up with the goods on this occasion. Whether this was down to a lack of match fitness (Rooney had only played once since the end of the Premier League season) or an absence of desire it was obvious that Rooney was not playing the match-winning role he was capable of. Welbeck on the other hand was performing well. I highlight this substitution because, as the game continued into the latter stages and then into extra time, Rooney became more and more anonymous. Roy Hodgson kept Rooney on because of a fear of failure. He was worried how the crowd would react to Rooney’s departure and he did not want to risk missing one moment of class from Rooney, which could have won the game. This cautious approach essentially contributed to the defeat. Had Welbeck stayed on the pitch he would perhaps have offered more dynamism alongside Carroll than an ever-tiring Rooney. The striker did convert his penalty but many would argue Welbeck could have done the same. While of course at this stage it is all ifs and buts, an act of bravery from Hodgson such as subbing Rooney off would have been what was needed at that stage of the competition. One act of decisiveness and determination is enough to win a game as we witnessed with my second key moment.
Andrea Pirlo was, even to a footballing novice, the best player on that pitch. His elegance and calmness in possession rivals even that of the great Spanish midfield. At times his distribution was majestic. As the game progressed he began to take more and more of a hold of it and it was only down to titanic defending and striker mistakes that England’s clean sheet remained unblemished.
As the final seconds ticked over and the game went to penalties, my natural reaction was to believe that the English players would once more bottle it, as is traditional. And yet when Riccardo Montolivo missed Italy’s second penalty and England had emphatically finished their first two I foolishly allowed myself to believe.
Step up Mr Pirlo with his experience, guile and grace. Never before have I seen a whole shoot-out and a match of such importance won by one spot-kick. His goal took the bravery that Hodgson could not muster and sent messages to both teams. Firstly to his own he said, “Everyone calm down, it is easy, you just need to relax, we will get through this” and to England he said, “Don’t even bother, look at what we can do, I hardly tried. Do you dare match me?” His conversion meant the subsequent Italian penalties were scored with ease and confidence. More importantly from an England point of view however it meant Ashley Young had a big decision to make. Does he accept Pirlo’s challenge or does he submit to a “fear of failure”? It was the fear that took hold and in an attempt to make sure of the goal Young drove the ball as hard as he could into a very Italian looking crossbar. Ashley Cole suffered a similar fate, not only troubled by Pirlo’s class but also Young’s previous failure.
Later Pirlo said that his penalty was intended to intimidate the chosen English spot-kick takers. It worked and then some. His delicious chip, which saw Hart helplessly stranded, ensured his teams progression to the semi-final.
Our Euro 2012 campaign was curtailed by an act of genius and bravery. England as a football team must eradicate their “fear of failure” and adopt an attitude of fearlessness so that England the nation can finally experience the joy of victory. Of course there are those like Nicklas Bendter whose self-confidence does not correspond with their footballing capabilities, but when this attitude is matched with genuine class success becomes natural. It works; ask Andrea Pirlo.