Too often, England arrive at major tournaments and play with the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Frequently, England has had good teams. But the combined failures of countless tournaments past – along with the doubt and self-loathing that those failures have installed in the national psyche – have often proven too much to overcome.
England knows it’s eventually expected to disappoint. It’s all the team really knows.
And Thursday afternoon’s tilt against Wales seemed to be falling into a familiar pattern.
With the pressure very much on after failing to beat Russia on Saturday, Roy Hodgson’s team went behind in the first half as Joe Hart misplayed a 40-yard free kick from Gareth Bale.
England labored. They struggled. At a point, it wasn’t inconceivable that they were in danger of going out of the tournament entirely.
But Hodgson fought. He sent on Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge at halftime and then tossed on Marcus Rashford late, using all five forwards he brought to France in the game to try to rescue his team – and perhaps – his own England career.
His team followed in the fight. Vardy poached an equalizer midway through the second half, and then, with time ticking away, Sturridge popped through the box to stuff home England’s latest-ever European Championship goal and win the game in the 92nd minute.
In eleven previous attempts, England had never won a game at a major tournament when trailing at halftime. This might have been a group stage game against Wales, but this was a genuinely cathartic moment.
Earlier this week, Italy stole the show with a performance against Belgium that ended with Gigi Buffon racing the length of the field to celebrate Graziano Pelle’s stoppage time strike.
Italy were rightly hailed for their togetherness after that display – and after hearing Bale state in the buildup to this match that Wales have more “pride” than England does, the scenes of Hart charging 110 yards to join a pileup containing assistant coach Gary Neville was telling in its own right.
This wasn’t a great performance by any means – though Wales is no joke defensively – but all the blood and thunder in Sturridge’s winner made up with England’s display lacked stylistically.
England, more than most teams, needs positive moments. We’re used to this team folding when the lights shine brightest. Saturday’s game against Russia was evidence that, despite their promise, this tournament might be more of the same. Now though, there’s evidence to the contrary.
This is a good team. We’re not making it up. England was the only team on the continent to win all ten of its qualifying games en route to the finals – and since qualifying ended, with the introduction of players like Dele Alli, Eric Dier, and Jamie Vardy, they’ve only gotten better.
Were this qualifying, there’s little doubt that England would have stomped Russia on Saturday and stomped Wales today. But at a major tournament, it’s that much harder for this team.
Wales will be fine. Gareth Bale’s upbeat post-match comments – “We still feel strong. We still feel happy. This tournament isn’t over, and we’re still in the thick of it” – suggests that his team won’t falter mentally. A result against the Russians will see them through.
Perhaps also, the scales evened out fairly. Wales offered next to nothing going forward, and might not really have deserved to win their first game against Slovakia – while England certainly deserved to beat Russia, even if they didn’t deserve three points in Lens.
And now that they’ve won a game at a major tournament for the first time in four years, England should have nothing to fear.
Defensively, they’re amongst the best teams in the tournament. Going forward, while raw, they’re oozing with talent. If England can be strong mentally, this won’t be their last victory in France.
You could see it in that scintillating first half against Russia. England, full of players who had never played and never failed at a major tournament before, played terrific, positive football.
But they tightened down the stretch against Russia, and they came out tight against the Welsh. That’s why this comeback was so important. It could be a reminder that in this sport, the only thing more addictive than losing is winning.
Euro 2016 has thrilled thus far. We’ve seen drama at every turn. An England run, though, could make the landscape of the tournament even richer.
For the longest time on Thursday, it looked like that run was going to end before it really got started. But Hodgson, Vardy, and Sturridge turned what looked like another impending collapse into a jumping off point.
This time around, it might not be so easy to write England off.
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