It was probably inevitable, when Roy Hodgson took his seat in the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, that he would be asked about the last time England were in Saint-Étienne and all the drama that attached itself to the team’s exit from the 1998 World Cup. Wayne Rooney was 12 at the time – “I watched it at my nan’s,” he recalled – but the England captain had vivid memories of Michael Owen’s slalom through Argentina’s defence, David Beckham’s red card and, finally, the confirmation from 12 yards that David Batty could never be considered a natural penalty-taker.
What is often forgotten about that ordeal, however, is that England suffered that night as a consequence of not winning their group and that, perhaps, is the most pertinent point when Hodgson’s new-look team take on Slovakia in the same stadium on Monday, with potentially half a dozen changes to their starting line-up.
Glenn Hoddle’s side had lost to Romania in the group stages of France 98. Romania won the group, England finished as runners-up and that meant Argentina were the opposition in the first knockout round. A similar danger applies to Euro 2016 bearing in mind the potential ramifications if England cannot beat Slovakia and that is why it represents such a gamble on Hodgson’s part if he goes ahead with his plan to give six players – Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge, Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson, Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand – their first starts of the tournament.
Does Rooney really need to be rested? Hodgson apparently thinks so judging by his discussions behind the scenes. Eric Dier suddenly faces being the only Tottenham Hotspur player in the side, with Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose all expected to be left out. Barring a late change of mind, Raheem Sterling will be the sixth player to stand down. It is a level of change few can have anticipated but in keeping with Hodgson’s recent tendency to consider bold, unexpected decisions.
When the manager spoke to a huddle of football writers earlier in the day he had made it clear it was a tricky balancing act. “Had we not needed to win, I don’t think there would be anyone saying we should not be making changes. But as it is, I have to think a lot more carefully. We have to win and I don’t want to be accused of not taking the game seriously enough.”
He is not, however, showing an enormous amount of restraint and the risk is considerable bearing in mind the team that finishes top of Group B will secure what, in theory, should be a more straightforward assignment in the first knockout stage. That tie would take place in Paris, only 25 miles from England’s base in Chantilly, but the most important detail is that it would be against one of the third-placed qualifiers.
However, if England finish second they will head to Nice to face the Group F runners-up and, beyond that, the strong possibility of a quarter-final against France. Hodgson will like to think his new-look team are still capable of beating Slovakia but it is not difficult to imagine the criticism that will come his way if the gamble backfires. In that case Portugal could be the next opponents and, though Cristiano Ronaldo has had a difficult time so far, it is worth keeping in mind that the people writing him off should make absolutely sure his coffin is properly nailed down before dancing on it. Hodgson, one imagines, would rather leave it for another side to find out.
His thinking appears to be that the Spurs players could do with a night off given the way Mauricio Pochettino’s team ended the season and the fact, for example, that Kane has played 65 times in a year. Vardy and Sturridge plainly deserve to play after their scoring contributions as half-time substitutes against Wales and the manager says Wilshere has looked “really sharp” in training.
Yet it is not so easy understanding why Rooney, playing so well in his new midfield role, needs to be rested (England’s next game would not be until Saturday at the earliest) and it is worth keeping in mind Slovakia beat Spain in qualifying and were impudent enough to win 3-1 when Germany invited them to Augsburg for a friendly a few weeks ago. “We certainly think Slovakia are very dangerous going forward,” Hodgson said. “I don’t want to single anyone out but [Marek] Hamsik does need singling out because he is an exceptional player. They certainly have people who can really hurt you in that respect.”
England’s scouting reports have shown Jan Kozak’s team are not so accomplished in defence and once again Hodgson is putting out an attack-minded team in which the full-backs will be encouraged to play with a sense of adventure. Dier will be the only midfielder with a conservative brief whereas Wilshere and Henderson will have the licence to roam forward in support of Vardy and Sturridge.
Sturridge’s stoppage-time winner against Wales has also made sure England go into this game without the kind of anxiety that would have engulfed them had that match finished in a second successive 1-1 draw. “It was doom and gloom after Russia and euphoria after Wales,” Hodgson said.
“It’s a strange game, football. Our performance against Russia was better, in all aspects, as I didn’t think our first-half performance against Wales was good enough. We didn’t move the ball as quickly or create as many opportunities, until we corrected it at half-time.”
Four days on Hodgson is hoping his team can continue where they left off against Wales. Yet the thought does also occur that Slovakia, harbouring their own chances of winning Group B, might be lifted when they see the team he has picked.