You join me in Oslo (well, alright you actually join me in Scobie’s Irish Bar in Barcelona in front of the big screen with my laptop looking like a right twonk) where we are about to find out how England are going to play under new manager Roy Hodgson.
The noises before the match had hardly been optimistic. Hodgson had claimed, “You’ve got to believe England have a future” which implies after the recent debacles the FA actually contemplated just jacking it in and stopping playing football altogether. Those of us who watched England’s performances in South Africa did fleetingly wonder if that had already happened. Steven Gerrard, the newly appointed captain, perhaps on the grounds that he has at least got his court case out of the way, admitted he’d heard whispers that people were saying this group of players was the weakest England had ever assembled. I don’t know what Gerrard’s definition of a whisper is because the things I’ve been hearing have been loud enough to start avalanches in the Austrian Tyrol.
Not only that the team were below full strength with Rooney and the Chelsea players rested after efforts in the Champions League Final – what John Terry needed resting for remains a mystery – just how tiring can it be to put your shin pads on and shamelessly shove yourself in front of the cameras?
Nevertheless there were causes for optimism. England always win the first game under a new manager. Obviously they only do this so they can let everybody down later but still. Furthermore, Norway were not the strongest opposition - unlike Spain and the like they can at least be relied upon to let England have a go of the ball every now and then. And last of all, in giving Stewart Downing a place in the squad, Hodgson had demonstrated he retains a sense of humour.
The new manager had decided to go for a 4-4-1-1 system presumably to stop England getting overrun in midfield as has often happened in the past. But the risk was that alone up front the occasionally lumbering Carroll would get isolated and England would resort to hoofing aimless long balls up in his direction.
In the run-up to the game Hodgson had stressed three things to his new charges – they should be difficult to beat, play at a fast tempo and keep possession better. The whistle blew and we were about to find out if they’d been listening.
England started brightly. Inside five minutes no less a figure than Stewart Downing had created a very presentable chance for Andy Carroll. This will have come as some as a big surprise to all watching Liverpool fans who didn't know he did stuff like that. Fortunately normality was restored when Carroll headed it decisively wide reassuring all watching Liverpool fans that the world hadn't gone totally crazy.
However, a goal wasn't long in coming, The seemingly shambolic Norwegian defence allowed Ashley Young way too much space on the edge of the area. He feinted to shoot. Hangeland, the Norwegian centre half not only bought his dummy he bought the extended warranty as well. Young was through on goal and he coolly slotted home.
England had a platform to build on. Unsurprisingly they chose not to. Instead Norway nearly hit back direct from a corner striking a post with Rob Green hopelessly stranded in his six yard box.
As the half developed most worrying for England was the performance of the central midfield partnership. Gerrard and Parker are both likely to be first choices and neither were particularly effective. It was Gerrard especially whose woeful performance most caught the eye – misplacing countless passes, miscontrolling balls and finally committing a foul that could well have got him sent off in a competitive game. England headed for the interval in the lead but they couldn't have been happy.
Hodgson’s first team talk seemed to have an effect at the start of the second period. England forced a free kick on the edge of the penalty area from which Leighton Baines drew a sharp low save from the Norwegian goalkeeper. It proved to be a false dawn.
Norway now took control of the game and though they lacked the cutting edge to fashion a clear goal-scoring opportunity they were clearly the better side throughout the second half. What was more worrying for England fans was that the Norwegians also seemed to have more desire even though they won’t be going to Poland or the Ukraine unless their travel agent messes up their holiday bookings. As the half wore on England just about held their shape but as so often they couldn’t hold on to the ball.
An American in a loud shirt walking into the bar looked at the screen and claimed “This isn’t football!” He didn’t know how right he was.
As so often with international friendlies the game had now become simply an opportunity for the man who holds substitutions board up to exercise his arm.
However when Jordan Henderson was introduced it was hard not to suspect that Roy Hodgson was not now using the game as an opportunity for revenge on his previous employers in Liverpool by demonstrating to the world just how woeful his successor’s transfer market purchases have been. If Charlie Adam wasn’t Scottish I believe he’d have been on as well just to ram the point home.
And so the game fizzled out to a 1-0 England win. And doubtless it will be claimed that it is “something to build on.” But it was awfully dispiriting to watch. England had yet again shown that magical ability to somehow make a victory feel like a defeat.