Slow Motion Disintegration

David Runciman

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.


  • 28 June 2016 at 10:08am
    CasaCaliente says:
    Presumably the England team and supporters now feel they weren't properly informed about the consequences of letting in goals.

  • 28 June 2016 at 10:08am
    James Alexander says:
    Maybe compare the PLP trashing of Corbyn to footie followers trashing of Hodgson? Equally sad.

    • 30 June 2016 at 5:03pm
      gary morgan says: @ James Alexander
      But why did so many not know what Labour's stance on the EU was? I have seem many laud Corbyn for being truthfully understated; but you cannot afford to 'lose' the dressing room and Corbyn has to take some of the blame for this.
      Unless Labour's purists want ages in the wilderness in Bennite sanctimony. There were too many Socialist Workers' placards at the Westminster show of support for Corbyn two days ago. Since when was Labour Trotskyist? The murderer at Kronstadt later completely outmanoeuvered by Stalin. No his followers are not what Labour needs, nor in Tony Cliff's heyday in the 1970's i.e. Romantic but Wrong are poor company, as deadly as Blairites. Marxist parties aren't in our tradition, which is Christian Socialist and Fabian.
      Gary Morgan.

  • 28 June 2016 at 11:27am
    David Timoney says:
    The parallel for Corbyn would be a principled if spiky manager who has publicly fallen out with some of his squad on occasion (let's assume the PLP are the players), and has a history of antagonism and even downright defiance towards the establishment, but is still respected by the team's fans.

    If we include assistant managers in the mix, surely that's Roy Keane.

  • 28 June 2016 at 5:44pm
    Alex de Waal says:
    English football supporters, with their St. George's flags, are one step ahead of the Leave campaigners who celebrated on Friday waving the Union Jack. In a few years, their flag will be the St. George's Pennant. Their party will have to be renamed the Former UK Independence Party.

  • 28 June 2016 at 6:10pm
    JWA says:
    How precisely is Corbyn 'doing' something to the Labour Party. The people doing the 'doing' are people like Margaret Hodge - who got smashed in her constituency - and Hilary Benn - who if you want a parallel - is basically the political Jordi Cruyff.

  • 28 June 2016 at 8:15pm
    ianbrowne says:
    I think it was Peter Clarke who explained his membership of the SDP as arising from a desire to try once more the policies that failed before. I see Gareth Southgate is in your list of potential managers. He seems to be a very decent person, and a likable one too. Perhaps he represents the SDP approach to football. And perhaps there culd be a realligenment in English politics, with

  • 29 June 2016 at 6:14pm
    tcoskeran says:
    A further analogy between the EU referendum and Euro 2016 suggests itself. A recurring feature of English football and politics is the belief that the English simply have to turn up to get the result they want. Throw in some easy charm, an occasional dash of nationalist tub-thumping, combined with a few dismissive remarks to those who express any thoughts about the possibility of defeat and the job is done.

    Cameron fell foul of this tendency when he assured 27 other EU leaders that as he was “a winner” the referendum would be won. Playing Iceland was the same. After all, only one of their squad played in the English Premiership so how could England's moneyed Premiership players lose.

    But despite these recent highly visible demonstrations of where such hubris leads us, we now have English Leave politicians assuring us that any deal struck to govern Britain's post-referendum relations with the EU will give Britain exactly what it wants. EU leaders will be convinced both by the unstoppable logic of arguments honed during the referendum campaign and the winning ways of our next Prime Minister.

    This begins to look like another underestimation of an opponent's strengths and should worry the nation. Defeat in this upcoming tie will be of far greater long-term consequence than even Roy Hodgson and his team's failure to overcome Iceland.

    Let us hope our new leaders learn quickly that the gilded arguments that entranced many of their fellow English citizens during the referendum is no more likely to deliver a successful outcome to the coming negotiations with the EU than the enormous salaries paid to English Premiership footballers have produced a triumph at Euro 2016.

    As a postscript, we should remember that Walter Winterbottom remained in post as England's football “manager” for another 12 years after the calamitous1950 defeat to the United States that David Runciman mentions. And this later period of his tenure included what many saw as the national humiliation of Hungary thrashing England at Wembley in 1953 at a time when English football considered itself invincible, at least at home. Roy Hodgson's and David Cameron's speedy exits confirm we do things differently now..

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