Slow Motion Disintegration
It took about as long for Roy Hodgson’s whole world to fall apart as it did for David Cameron’s. The evening began full of false promise and hubristic talk of the tougher challenges ahead. The early Rooney penalty seemed to confirm that there was nothing to worry about, just like those fake exit polls showing Remain comfortably ahead. The betting markets tightened. Then, in rapid succession, came the double blow: it was 12 minutes from Sigurdsson’s equaliser to Sigthorsson’s second; 16 minutes from the result in Newcastle showing the two sides neck and neck to the result from Sunderland showing Leave alarmingly ahead.
Now, suddenly, it was clear this wouldn’t be a smooth passage at all. Still, it was early and there was time to turn it around. The next period of play was a search for reassurance, looking for signs of familiar strength. There were the briefest flickers, nothing more. Then it started to become clear that it would take someone or something dramatic to save the day: Vardy came on, the results from London began to come in. But it wasn’t enough; in the end, nowhere near enough.
As on the night of the referendum, the TV commentators were talking about the possibility of a turnaround long after most viewers knew the game was up. The final minutes, before the result was called, were an agony of slow motion disintegration. But taken as a whole, it had happened frighteningly quickly. Hodgson, like Cameron, began the evening contemplating the prospect of a dignified retirement in a few years time, perhaps even a heroic one. A couple of hours later his life’s work was in ruins. He knew he had no choice but to resign. He also knew the stain on his reputation would be indelible. Pundits who had spent weeks speculating on the possibility of a European triumph were now casting around for historical analogies to convey the scale of the disaster. Just as Cameron would be bracketed with Lord North, the prime minister who lost America, Hodgson would be bracketed with Walter Winterbottom, the manager who lost to America at the 1950 World Cup. The only question was whether this was worse.
Unlike Cameron’s, Hodgson’s humiliation had to be played out in full public view. Imagine if there had been a camera inside the Downing Street bunker in the early hours of last Friday morning. What would we have seen? Did Cameron look as scared and bemused as Hodgson did during the second half? Did Cameron too keep glancing forlornly at his watch in the hope that some unexpected answer might lie there? Or did he go wild with rage, as Hodgson would surely have done if the cameras hadn’t been on him? Cameron also had the advantage of a few hours to compose himself before he delivered his resignation statement, which allowed him to inject some real emotion and dignity into it. Hodgson had only minutes and ended up reading out some corporate platitudes. People will find it hard to forgive him for that. But he was almost certainly still in shock. At a human level, it should be possible to find some sympathy for both men.
Other prominent figures will also find it very difficult to recover their reputations. Hodgson’s unloved but respected lieutenant Gary Neville had a horrible night and a horrible campaign. Like George Osborne, Neville still has the possibility to resurrect his career but he will never inspire the same respect for his supposed technical knowledge. He has been exposed and there may be no coming back from that.
Wayne Rooney too looks like a man whose decade-long battle to earn the public’s affection will prove to have been wholly futile. Those last 85 minutes on the pitch, plus the final five on the bench, will tell the real story: Rooney was never more than a flat-track bully, and he couldn’t even perform on a flat-track when it really mattered.
The younger players will have other chances to show what they can do and some of them may yet succeed in moving on from this night of shame. Already they will be thinking about the succession and jockeying for position. The list of runners and riders for the top job is pretty dispiriting: Southgate, Allardyce, Rogers; May, Fox, Hunt. Is that really all we’ve got?
This tournament has thrown up an embarrassment of riches when it comes to analogies between sport and politics. It’s hard to know where to stop. The underdogs, with their blond figurehead and tribal support, have pulled off a major shock. But do they really have a plan for dealing with the French and the Germans? Spain, like England, are in trouble, unable to throw off the shackles of the recent past. Italy are back in the game and may be on the rise, led by their dynamic, dark-haired young boss. France look increasingly fragile. Germany are still motoring on and may yet come out on top. Even Belgium are once again at the heart of the European project. But having said all that, I’ve been casting around for something at this tournament to compare with what Corbyn is doing to the Labour Party. I can’t find anything.