Sick as a parrot but hope is up ahead

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2012, 12:00am


So the wheels finally came off the England caravan. Granted, Roy Hodgson's jury-rigged team lasted much longer than expected, but to the experienced mechanic the prognosis was all too clear miles back down the tarmac, and the outcome - a shuddering halt at the penalty shootout buffers - was inevitable.

Besides, had they beaten Italy on penalties, which they did not deserve, they would have been savaged in Warsaw by the Germans, suffering the ultimate humiliation. Not that this acts as any consolation. It was ghastly watching another excruciating exit.

The ghosts of Gareth Southgate, Chris Waddle and David Batty walked across my wrinkled forehead and kicked a piece of Kiev turf into my crestfallen face. No matter the age of the supporter, nor this new era where low expectation is the new hope, you never get used to a crucial penalty striking a crossbar or a weak side-footed effort collected or parried by the keeper.

Still, the party was fun while it lasted and the sudden invasion of over 6,000 English fans awoke sleepy Kiev to the bizarre spectacle of grown male adults dancing to iconic British music, throwing beer over themselves and their fellow supporters, displaying bodies that should be banned from public exhibition and generally acting the boisterous, good-natured and worse-for-wear clowns gargling a repertoire of easy to remember, catchy terrace songs.

Good on the Ukrainians for keeping the policing low key. The fan zone was extended to compensate for the extra thousands who took advantage of their Sunday rest to lap up the atmosphere. Vocal Polish, Russians, Swedish and even some Swiss fans turned out in their face paint of choice and fancy dress.

The dancing, singing English fools became a special attraction for Ukrainians, some of whom came with their children to point out the citizens of that crazy wind and rain swept island located far to the west and over the open sea. Even an all-female drum band failed to attract attention away from the buffoons.

There have been no English fans arrested, though I imagine the day-long drinking session under the hot Kiev sun, the mad last-minute dash for flights and then the crushing disappointment will guarantee some idiots will feel the arm of the Ukraine law enforcement agencies by the time the sun pokes its sobering rays over the eastern European horizon.

The English certainly know how to get the party started, and for a while I kept crossing the white line and finding myself in fan territory, hoping and believing that this mediocre English side could go all the way, like Greece in 2004, and that the barmy army would be at the end of the roads and there to meet me at the remaining venues ahead.

But as I watched England's attacking play and their breakdowns on the final pass, I knew instantly I had witnessed far, far better football in the stadiums dotted elsewhere in Poland and Ukraine. The Germans would have connected those passes into the penalty box the English failed to complete. The Spanish would have kept possession and dazzled more and the Portuguese would have risen to the occasion. The Italians, well, the Azzurri are riding their luck but they are expert big-tournament performers.

And Marchisio, De Rossi, Montolivo and Pirlo are all a notch higher in the finesse league than the likes of Gerrard and Parker. You can't fault the clever English defending and the heroics of Terry and Lescott. But Carroll was missing in action, to be frank. Walcott failed to make an impact and Rooney failed to emulate Ronaldo and claim the tournament as a platform on which to shine and give his global fan base something to celebrate.

The English media are out in force, expressing resignation all round and accepting quietly that England are inferior to more advanced football nations, if truth be told. Still, this English foreign adventure will be memorable for the lack of hype and jingoistic headlines and bloated greatness.

The English are pretending they did better than expected but no one is fooled by the brave faces and stiffened upper lips. It hurts just as bad now as it did in 1990, 1996 and the other penalty shootouts - too many to list.

There is little more to do than retreat to my Land Rover, pore over the road maps by torch light and plot the best way back to Warsaw and the semi-finals. The Euro 2012 road just got a bit longer and lonelier. That said, Hodgson's expected overhaul and fine-tuning of his younger players ahead of Brazil in two years' time makes the heart tick, as does the prospect of Spain v Portugal tomorrow night. And then there is more German might to admire, with envy.