I should admit first off that, for the first time since 1970 *gulp* I missed watching an England tournament match on TV.
The reason, involving Ascot races, three drunken women and a traffic queue in which I travelled ¾‘s of a mile in 100 minutes, is something I’d rather not recount here, but take it that if you look up ‘Mad’ in an online dictionary, the picture of a wet hen will probably have been replaced by a photo of me at 9pm last night.
Still, from adversity comes opportunity, and I gained a useful insight on how a match comes across on radio when compared to a later highlights package, and also how damnably pessimistic BBC Radio Five Lives’ commentators are. If I’d been able to get to a phone I would have even considered ringing 606 (For non-UK readers: This is a live football phone-in show for the terminally stupid) and this, believe me, would have marked a nadir in my life from which I may never have recovered.
The upshot of all this though is that, remarkably, England’s 1-0 win over Ukraine and the surprising 2-0 capitulation of France to Sweden means England top Group D and face a quarter-final match-up with Italy. Common opinion is that we ‘dodged’ Spain – an opportunity now afforded Group runners-up France – but I’m of the opinion that the Champions are looking off-colour and due a defeat, although I’m not sure if les bleus can deliver it on last night’s form.
Ukraine and Sweden go home, although the Swedes in particular will look at the two leads they held against Ukraine and, more importantly, England and wonder if things might have been so different.
Onto the match though, where England beat a host nation for the first time in a generation with a Wayne Rooney header from a foot out. A cross from – who else? – the excellent man of the Match Steven Gerrard, that eluded everyone including the Ukrainian keeper Pyatov, who merely tipped the ball on to the waiting head of England's returning hero.
That goal, just three minutes after half-time, settled England, who had looked vulnerable to excellent play in the first half from a spirited Ukraine intent on taking a home nation to the quarter-finals. Nevertheless, listening to the play on the radio and seeing it in highlight form later on, only served to emphasise that, whatever the limitations of England’s play are, they actually looked more likely to score than the hosts. Such is Joe Hart’s growing stature as a goal-keeper, you can virtually eliminate any speculative shot from outside the area as a chance, even if it is on-target, and in front of him Lescott and Terry formed a formidable barrier.
Sure Ukraine attacked on both flanks and looked comfortable taking the English defence on and, as in previous games, white shirted defenders were forced to throw their bodies in front of shots occasionally but, for all their invention and pressure, Ukraine could only point to one or two half chances and while BBC commentators continue to bemoan the fact that we don’t retain the ball for long enough, the fact remains that England are extremely good at soaking up pressure and taking the few chances presented to them. Play to your strengths, I say.
True the situation may have been different had the injured Shevchenko been able to make more than the late token appearance he actually made, but the fact remains the best opportunity of the first half fell to a ring rusty Wayne Rooney on 27 minutes, when the Manchester United striker only had to make a clean contact with Ashley Young's cross to score. But Rooney seemed to misjudge the cross and his far-post header – more of a hair weave graze really - sailed wide of keeper Andriy Pyatov's goal.
At the other end Devic was behind most Ukraine attacks and Scott Parker had to block a goal-bound sho,t while Devic again started the move that ended with Andriy Yarmolenko forcing a low save out of Joe Hart. Ashley Young gave the ball away just before half-time but Oleh Gusev could only shoot over, while Yarmolenko’s dribble was stopped at the last by the impressive Joleon Lescott. The major talking point in terms of Ukraine chances though will undoubtedly be the ‘goal’ scored by Devic just after the hour, after Hart superbly parried the player’s shot only for the ball to bounce towards England’s unguarded goal. John Terry running back hooked the ball of the line. That is, the line that wasn’t painted a yard into the goalmouth... instant replays showing the ball had more than crossed the generally accepted goal line.
Naturally, this brought forth a stream of invective from the radio pundits asking exactly what the extra referees introduced to stand on the line were actually doing. Now, most fans know, of course, that the job of the extra ref’s is to imitate the three wise monkeys and see, hear and speak of nothing at all. But, as not seeing the incident brought up pictures of the ball bouncing in clean ground as Frank Lampard’s ‘goal’ did in Bloemfontein against Germany, two years ago, I was quite interested to see the incident later on TV.
Now I’m not in mind to defend the extra ref - standing as he was six feet away and facing the goal post on his right. But as Terry hooked the ball while in mid-air, it’s my feeling that, with the netting in view and the speed of the ball followed by the human eye, it may just prove too difficult to ascertain if the ball has really crossed or not. It would be interesting to actually ask the official what he thought he saw or didn’t.
Cue the clamour for goal-line technology but, once again, I have to ask the obvious question. If the BBC knew the ball crossed due to VT / TV play-back’s within 10 seconds of the incident, why are we trialling some gizmo software when we have the technology already in place?
“UEFA – FIFA meet John Logie Baird,”
“Mr Baird? These dumb executives dressed as Ostriches represent 21st Century football... by the way Sir, did you think it was over?”
As Devic’s ‘goal’ came minutes after Artem Milevskiy had sent a header wide when he should have done better, the cumulative effect was to suggest that this England team were having a tad more luck than some of those sent from these shores. Certainly there was more of a sense now that England had done enough, and when news travelled through that elsewhere, the Swedes had doubled their earlier lead over France, the air of acceptance seemed to transmit itself from pitch to grandstand and, though they continued to press and Shevchenko was introduced, Ukraine sensed their opportunity had been lost.
As before, it was England who came closest again when Ashley Cole nearly marked his 97th cap with a goal, Pyatov recovering from a poor attempt to deal with a cross.
When the whistle blew and England had confirmed their continuance as group leaders, players, coaching staff and fans celebrated on a job well done. Of course, over at the BBC, experts confirmed that we shouldn’t, in fact, have taken any points at all from any of our games but, other than that, it was a good evening to be an England supporter.... even if you were trapped in a car with snoring women and the smell of stale champagne and vomit.