Early Doors

England expects as Roy’s apprenticeship ends

If Roy Hodgson was still in any doubt as to the magnitude of the task in front of him as England manager then it surely would have been extinguished had he picked up a copy of this morning's Times to see 'Gerrard: We Can Win World Cup' emblazoned across the back page.

Now, this statement is almost certainly not true. Were the finals being played in northern Europe, England even, then Hodgson's side would still only be rank outsiders at best. The fact they are taking place in Brazil suggests it will be all but impossible to mount a serious challenge. Spain are the only European team to win the World Cup outside the continent, and they are actually good at football.

In fairness to Gerrard, he answered the question put to him with all the experience and wariness of a man who has suffered disappointment after disappointment on the international stage. However, as England captain he would probably provoke a major incident if he did not at least allude to the possibility of success, which is exactly what he did.

"When I speak I'm realistic and honest," Gerrard said. "At the moment we're not one of the favourites to win the World Cup. But that doesn't mean you stop believing, working hard to improve, try and learn from the mistakes you've made at previous tournaments.

"This team has every chance to improve and get better in the next few years, with players coming through and those players with the experience already. We have to have that faith and keep believing. You never stop believing in football. Miracles do happen."

A balanced, thoughtful statement that gets filtered into a bold declaration of intent by the time it reaches the back page. But this is what England do. Despite all evidence to the contrary, and despite players and coaches themselves now urging an element of caution, triumph is demanded, expectation raised beyond any logical level, critical thinking surrendered in favour of blind optimism, miracles anticipated.

Gerrard didn't say England can win the World Cup with any degree of certainty whatsoever, yet that will probably not stop plenty of people picking up The Times and thinking: 'You know what? Maybe we can just win this thing!'

Euro 2012 was a notable exception to the rule. A chaotic build-up ensured that no one expected England to have much of a say, and so it proved. For Hodgson, Poland and Ukraine was a free pass, a dummy tournament no one expected him to win.

As such, the negative tactics employed - ceding possession, backing off, those famous two banks of four - were indulged. This was a horribly unprepared side trying to do what they could just to stay alive in the competition. There was something noble about it, even if an abject failure to get anywhere near Andrea Pirlo made for a frustrating quarter-final defeat to Italy.

But the time for cutting England some slack is probably over. Friday's first World Cup qualifier against Moldova represents the start of a campaign that is every inch Hodgson's and once again those expectation levels are creeping up. The free ride is over, now the real business begins, and woe betide England's boss if Moldova manage to sneak a draw in Chisnau.

Early Doors estimates Hodgson has now been in the job just about long enough for the critics to expect him to have created a fluid, passing side, as though the past 50 years of English football never happened.

There has been some progress - a move away from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 in the recent friendly win over Italy was very encouraging - but ultimately Hodgson still finds himself in charge of a nation with deep-rooted structural and cultural deficiencies that have prevented it from being a real force in the international game.

ED doesn't have space to list them all, but safe to say they all manifest themselves in an inability to hold onto the ball. Hodgson has no hope of addressing this rather key flaw in the short term, but unreasonably he probably will be expected to, and if Chisinau plays host to a stuttering performance then patience is likely to be in short supply.

In truth, it can't be long until the usual recriminations start and people wonder why England can't play like Spain. In lieu of any proper analysis, fingers will once again point to the easy target: the manager.

If all this sounds like spurious doom-mongering from a tetchy ED this Friday morning, then consider this: England's history of failure and subsequent self-loathing is a long one. From manager to manager since Alf Ramsey - aside perhaps from Bobby Robson and Terry Venables whose semi-finals spared them a ritual disembowelling - it has proved the impossible job.

After a fleeting apprenticeship over the summer, Hodgson's crack at it really begins now.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "In October, I release a statement which publicly questions my happiness at Old Trafford. Am I better off elsewhere? Everyone makes a fuss. There are discussions inside United to sort out the issue, people outside United chuck their opinions around, but the thing is, nobody really knows what's going on in my life. None of them understand where I am in my career. They don't know where my head's at. The only person who really knows what's going on in there is me, but even I'm not sure what I want." - Wayne Rooney sheds some light onto the events of September 2010 when he publicly questioned Manchester United's ambition and said he wanted to leave the club.

FOREIGN VIEW: Well, at least 50 per cent foreign view anyway... It would be remiss of ED not to mention a quite astonishing transfer that occurred late last night as Tottenham's lesser-spotted winger David Bentley joined FC Rostov on loan until January. Bentley - purchased for £15 million from Blackburn in 2008 - will hope to resurrect his career with a spell in Russia having his stock plummet in England for years.

COMING UP: Live football! The European World Cup qualifiers get underway this evening and we are covering four matches: Russia v Northern Ireland (4pm), Kazakhstan v Republic of Ireland (5pm), Wales v Belgium (7.45pm) and Moldova v England (7.45pm).

We also reveal the result of our Goal of the Week competition, while Jim White files his latest blog for us at lunch.