The European picture

With home advantage, we can still expect France to make a strong challenge when the European finals take place there next year.

England's Eric Dier could make it tough for Jack Wilshere to regain his place, says former international Jamie Redknapp.   -  REUTERS

Ireland’s Jon Walters is enjoying a splendid late spell in his career.   -  AP

England’s winning match against France was a memorable and moving occasion, a stadium which expressed its sorrow and support for the French after the horrific massacres in Paris. How far it should be taken as a valid statement on the prowess of either team is another matter. Hugo Lloris, the able French goalkeeper, was mighty honest to say that his team showed no aggression and no concentration.

How could it possibly have been otherwise? As for England, a young team with bright new players, it compensated notably for the drab, renunciatory, passive display in Alicante against a Spain side given far more respect and initiative than they merited.

With home advantage, we can still expect France to make a strong challenge when the European finals take place there next year. And they very nearly scored when a delightful flick by Paul Pogba, bizarrely used only as a second-half substitute, sent Anthony Martial clear only for Jack Butland, another second-half substitute, to make a resilient point blank save.

Butland could well be challenging Joe Hart for his position. In Alicante it was Hart’s botched clearance which led to a Spanish goal and he has had his erratic moments in the Manchester City goal. The 6 ft 4 in, 24-year-old Butland has had to wait a long time to establish himself even with his current club Stoke City. Yet, he looked an impressive, good and gifted Britain goalkeeper in the British Olympic tournament.

 

There were other pleasing features of the game for Roy Hodgson, who, having mysteriously left Wayne Rooney out of the Spanish game, restored him as a notional left-flanker, though it looked more as if he had a roving commission and it was from the right that he volleyed his spectacular goal.

Equally spectacular was the fierce drive with which he gave England their first goal by the 19-year-old Dele Alli who had joined Tottenham from modest Milton Keynes only this season; he plainly has the big match temperament. So has the 21-year-old Everton centre-back John Stone, a badly needed reinforcement in that position.

But it was surprising to see former international Jamie Redknapp’s opinion that Eric Dier, making his debut in front of the England back four in a defensive role, had done so well that Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, when at last he returns from yet another injury, may find it hard to regain his place. Comparisons are odious we know and this one is ludicrous. Wilshere, when he plays, is very much the brains of the outfit, essentially a creative inside-forward, and late last season, it was only his two splendidly struck goals which saved England from embarrassment in Slovenia.

The French, when in the right frame of mind, have potentially everything they need save — shades of their 1998 World Cup winning team — a valid centre-forward. It should, of course, be Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, but he has obscurely been accused in Spain of blackmail and we await developments (the latest is that he has been suspended by the French Federation).

Note, though, that days before their appearance at Wembley, the French, in a Stade Francais threatened by suicide bombers, had accounted for a German team who seem to have lost their way. Talent abounds in the shape of such as Ozil, Muller and Kroos but in the qualifying group stages, the gallant Irish drew with them in Gelsenkirchen and went on to beat them in Dublin.

Neither Irish team can be expected to make a real challenge in France but each have surpassed themselves by qualifying against such heavy odds. Northern Ireland have been something of a minor miracle in the image of their remarkable manager Michael O’Neill, a football alchemist, making gold out of seeing dross. Prior to the European qualifying games, Northern Ireland had seemed to be on their knees, in O’Neill’s own words. In the World Cup qualifiers, they had even had the humiliation of losing to little Luxembourg. “It was like self harm,” he bitterly remembers. “It really was. You do the preparation and then look back and just think, Christ I don’t know what else to do.” But in the event he emphatically did.

He couldn't do much to change the personnel; only some 40 players are available to him. Seven of the doomed World Cup group held their places in the side. They included a towering striker in Kyle Lafferty who scored essential goals en route to France but cannot command a place with moderate Norwich City. There’s a full-back from Fleetwood town, till recently a non-league side, a goalkeeper from Hamilton Academicals, Scottish also-rans.

“I thought that half of their careers at international level might be over,” admits O’Neill, once a journeyman footballer who drifted from Newcastle United to lesser clubs. “If I had younger players to go for, then I might have changed it. But I didn’t have any replacements… So instead of replacing them I got those seven players in and told them they had to drive it, the culture and the attitude.” And drive it they did.

What a contrast with the Northern Ireland team who surged their way at Italy’s expense to the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, a team graced by that elegant captain Danny Blanchflower and his lieutenant, Jimmy McIlroy, at inside-forward. That team had stars. This one has modest players who excelled themselves.

O’Neill, once a successful financial analyst, student of statistics, showed his team where they had been failing in the last 20 minutes. “I looked at our discipline. This time our discipline was the best in the group. But we also had to change our perception of ourselves as a team. For example, we got the fewest free kicks of any team in Europe in that campaign. We were basically too honest.” He revitalised Lafferty who’d so often been substituted at club level. “His discipline was horrendous.” Lafferty changed; for his country.

So Northern Ireland battled through a group which included formidable Romania while the other O’Neil, Martin, a far more celebrated figure both as a player and a manager, took the Republic of Ireland to the play-offs and there eliminated formidable Bosnia. The first goal in the Dublin return game came from a dubious penalty by Birkenhead (Liverpool) born Jon Walters but he scored a fine volley later on. “There have been a number of fantastic performances,” said Martin O’Neil, “and fantastic performers as well, and Walters has topped the lot. He’s been sensational, easily our player of the competition.” Now 32 years old, Walters is enjoying a splendid late spell in his career; Yet Stoke City were willing to let him go at the end of the season.