By the time England trudged off the pitch in Podgorica, the clouds of smoke that surrounded Roy Hodgson were sinisterly reminiscing of the doubts that had afflicted his players’ performances in the second half, engulfing their minds and blocking their legs.
As the Montenegro players celebrated like they had just qualified for the World Cup – and looking at the group table they might well have taken a huge step towards it – England were left to reflect on yet another game in which they failed to impose themselves, mentally as well as technically, as they couldn’t build on an early lead.
Roy Hodgson’s optimism is admirable as it is misplaced for the England manager refused to rue a result that leaves England two points behind the leaders in Group H.
“To have won the game we would have had to play in the second half as we did in the first,” said Hodgson, trying to depict any competitive team’s basic requirement as an extraordinary, barely achievable feat.
The start had been surprisingly positive for England, Wayne Rooney returning to Podgorica 17 months after his sending off and banishing his demons with a delightful chip that crashed against the post, before heading Steven Gerrard’s corner in to silence the locals as England controlled the first half with ease.
In the ITV studio, where faces were considerably gloomier than they had been during the training session masquerade as game against San Marino, at half-time Roy Keane stressed the importance of getting a second goal, to kill the game off.
England, though, in predictable yet spectacular fashion, imploded. Joe Hart was forced to produce a couple of excellent saves as Montenegro piled pressure on England, roared on by a fanatical crowd whose excitement had been whipped by a man on a megaphone whose voice was a combination of The Cookie Monster, Conan the Barbarian and Oscar the Grouch with a sprinkle of Tom Waits.
The gravelly-voiced man’s efforts paid off as England finally buckled under pressure and conceded 15 minutes from time, with Roy Hodgson decisive only in his indecision to not introduce subs that could have halted the tide.
Montenegro is undoubtedly a tricky place to visit, but Branko Brnovic’s men are hardly world beaters, rather the sort of team that, with all due respect, England should be looking at dispatching with ease.
Therein lies the problem, though. Perhaps England have set their expectations too high all along, with their eyes firmly set on the final stage of the World Cup they have treated the qualifying campaign without the required focus.
Of course, despite yesterday’s result, England are still capable to turn things around, particularly as they will face Montenegro at Wembley in September, but last night’s draw spelt a message that not many seemed to have picked on: England are not good enough to threaten the top teams.
In his post-match analysis, Roy Keane put it ever so delicately:
“That is where England let you down, you don’t get a complete performance and they don’t have that killer instinct. We saw that in the game. I’d love to know what happened at half-time as they were shocking in terms of concentration. You kill the game off by getting a second and third goal, that is what the top teams do. I can’t believe how bad England were in the second half.”
Roy Hodgson’s men are good enough to rack up cricket scores against the likes of Moldova and San Marino, but they’re a mid-table team compared to league leaders such as Germany, Spain and Argentina.
And while we are talking about cricket, Gerrard & Co. could definitely learn a lesson or two from Andy Flower’s men in terms of mental strength and focus, which they displayed abundantly on day 5 of the test against New Zealand.
Great teams thrive when under pressure and England aren’t a great team. If they were they wouldn’t crumble with the same regularity with which the Megaphone Man boomed out threats last night.
Replacing the band with a man bellowing obscenities down the PA system at Wembley might not ensure a ticket for Brazil, but it would at least put some verve into Roy Hodgson’s men.