Thursday, March 31, 2016

Amid the gloom we all stood up and cheered

Johan Cruyff.
A DISMAL MATCH AND A RAINY NIGHT BUT WEMBLEY SALUTED A STAR

It was a miserable day in London.

The warm-up to the England v Netherlands (1:2) friendly on Tuesday was anything but warm.

Tuesday in England's capital was rather a tale of relentless and at times heavy rain joined by chilling breezes, the sort of dark day where the corners of your jeans get cloyingly damp, the traffic shrieks as the lights flare through the mist and the motor noise bounces off the puddles.

Having ruefully given up on trying to enjoy what nature has served you up, you escape the prison by seeking solace in guilt-free ale and fish and chips.

'No wet, no cold' was the pre-war slogan for the London Underground, and how attractive the Tube seemed that grey and washed-out afternoon. Forget football, the weather was the winner.

I stepped out of the tunnels at Baker Street and pelted by rain, stared across the roaring highway of Marylebone Road, one of the capital's most fume-filled and angry, to The Globe, the traditional pre-Wembley pint stop.

Groups of England fans had packed it out as usual and the overspill were huddled outside like refugees, with their flags tied to the barriers and laddish chants wailing then dying in the wind. Many seemed to be from West Ham.

That was quite a big club for England's fan base, which usually gives a platform to the small and provincial sides whose supporters will otherwise never enjoy hosting foreign opposition or taking that thrill ride of the overseas match trip.

Their flags arrive like medieval standards brought to a royal joust - there is noble Darlington, steadfast Rotherham, proud Plymouth and resolute Crewe.

I had planned to walk to the Sherlock Holmes statue to meet my Dutch friend, a long-exiled Ajax fan who used to work at their old and sadly missed De Meer stadium in Johan Cruyff's old neighbourhood, but had married an English girl who prefered the South Downs to Zuid Holland to raise their family.

Bruno's faith in the Netherlands was so low after Oranje had stunningly failed to make it to the 24-team Euro 2016 finals and his belief in England's prowess so bolstered after that staggeringly sleek win over Germany in Berlin three days earlier, that he had confidently slapped a £2 bet on England to win 5-0 at 80-1. 160 quid hier Ik kom.

Happily I saw him heading my way as I left the station, already drenched, so I did not have to linger further amid the monsoon.

England v Netherlands.Streaming up Bobby Moore Way, the hordes of colour and glimmering lights of Wembley Stadium ahead raised the spirits of a sea of drowned rats somewhat. What a view that is from the steps of the tube station. The arena might not have a visual focus, but it does have a lovely symmetry as you look up the avenue. They will have closed the roof we surmised, so it won't be a wash-out of skidding and splashing footballers.

Johan Cruyff, the Dutch master to beat them all, had just died of course and his name and face beamed out over the video screen outside Wembley. 14 minutes in, the interior screens projected the same, and an 83,000 crowd stood up and applauded. Some England fans even sang his name. 'He's one of a kind' - that was nice. Would that England had produced such a game-changing and influential player as him.

Coupled with an impeccably observed minute's silence for the victims of Brussels at the start, that clapping was a grand affirmation of football fans' integrity in the face of the greater issues of life. Time was I used to hate watching England at Wembley because of a poisonous atmosphere, so we have made progress there, off the field at least.

Cruyff was truly a football genius and iconoclast as player and coach. His finest hour was even in defeat. Holland's 1974 heroic failure to win the World Cup handed the winners a Phyrric victory: No-one recalls with misty eyes the dogged Germans who were hit by a hurricane from the kick-off but fought back to win the ultimate prize 2-1.

People instead remember the revolutionary losers who scored before their opponents had ven touched the ball and who brought the stagnating game a head-spinning new idea - total football, a formation that had no static shape, as well as the crowd-wowing Cruyff turn, an simple yet amazing trick imitated by kids and adults ever after.

He turned the logic of battle on its head. Winning was not as big as impressing.

The Dutch master had died only last week so the previously scheduled England v the Netherlands was also an accidentally apposite tribute to the man who played with his brain in his boots.

For it was at Wembley where Cruyff had actually won his greatest honours - the European Cup as a player with Ajax and then as a manager with Barcelona, where his legacy is still a step ahead of the football world as we speak.

He never played or coached in England - that was our loss and our fault - he was too good for us and our neanderthal game, alas. There was once a rumour he would manage Arsenal as he was available after Bruce Rioch was sacked and his son Jordi was playing in Manchester, but a rumour it remained.

Arsene Wenger, in his own way perhaps a disciple of the Dutch and Cruyff with his love of multi-functional footballers, got the job instead and cultivated his legacy in London.

At least the death of Cruyff, an event I never thought could happen to a superhero, might have explained the dark and dismal weather: You would like the sun to be gloriously shining when it is time for a funeral and a final send-off but here the sky was crying too.

England actually played more patient possession football than the Dutch at first and ended up with two-thirds of possession by the end, which seemed a curious reversal of type.

England v Netherlands, Wembley Stadium.By the end they had fallen flat right after a magnificent result just as they had done in 1996 when their amazing 4-1 mauling of the Netherlands was followed by a dismal 0-0 slugfest with Spain, the three lions only advancing to the Euro '96 semi-final on penalties after a Spanish goal was wrongly disallowed.

Bruno was sure the Oranje would be squashed, so breathed a sigh of relief when Jamie Vardy netted for England four minutes before half-time. I kept telling him we only have one good result every ten years, but he would not listen.

By the time Holland went 2-1 up and England's attack seemed stunted, we both concurred he should revert to type and cheer his homeland. The Dutch needed the support that night.

There was only a small gathering of away fans high in the north-west corner when usually there is a sea of orange.

The only brass band you could hear was England's. Morale has never been lower after the Euro 2016 failure, Bruno assured me.

Like England, the Netherlands' support is drawn largely from their provinces and as such are traditionally nicknamed 'farmers' by fans of urban Ajax.

The game itself was a damp squib, almost literally. The roof had been left open so the field was wet and slippy, not least when John Stones, the first English centre half in memory with mellifluous feet, lost said footing and thereby teed up the opposition for their first goal.

Both Dutch strikes left bitter tastes in English mouths - the first because Danny Rose probably had no intent to handle the ball in the penalty area, and the second because Phil Jagielka was certainly pushed over by the raiding Janssen.

England's defence at Euro 2016 is anyone's guess. At least the attack has options but its failure to reproduce at length the wonderful, complex moves which worked so well against Germany, is confounding.

Who Roy Hodgson will pick up front is unclear as well. Jamie Vardy is clearly the striker most in form but is he a natural impact sub instead of a starter? Will Daniel Sturridge ever catch fire or will Wayne Rooney play at all with Harry Kane so sharp? National teams change quickly.

Only two years ago it seemed fast flanking raids was Hodgson's choice but now Andros Townsend, the most outstanding player in Brazil 2014 qualifying, is out of the picture, Aaron Lennon's superb shows for Everton are going unrecognised while wing men Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott, previous certs, are also only touch and go for selection.

What is clear is that league leaders Leicester and Tottenham are populating the national side. Spurs had five on the field by the final whistle. Delle Alli has shown flashes of greatness already while Eric Dier and Danny Drinkwater are suddenly England starters.

Hodgson has lost goalkeeper Jack Butland to injury so has another worry if Joe Hart or Fraser Forster succumb again from now until June. So despite beating the world champions, you are only as good as your last game and England look rather confused.

England v Netherlands, Wembley Stadium.The Netherlands had a chink of light however and, having won despite little expectation, went home happy. Danny Blind is still two World Cup qualifying games from the sack, Bruno assured me. He will have slept soundly at least, but before he knows it the road to Russia 2018 will have started and the (cheese?) knives will be sharpened again.

It was a drab game best forgotten which silenced a hitherto expectant audience for most of the night. The pitch was too wet, the night too cold and the hosts unable to get wind in their sails to get the crowd going. I was glad for it all to be over and to be able to get back to a warm home in Surrey.

If Holland's victory gave the Dutch and Johan up above a reason to smile, I think we English can all accept the loss with grace.

Bruno texted to say he was the only content person on his train home to Kent, despite the loss of £2. The last game we watched together was another Dutch victory over England at Wembley as well.

See you next time mate, England and Holland.

Tot ziens Johan.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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