By Henry Winter, Football Correspondent
Joking around: England coach Roy Hodgson shares a light-hearted moment with Ashley Cole during a training session at the Hutnik stadium in Krakow Photo: REUTERS
Hodgson’s reverie arose as he responded to the reminder that triumph in these utterly compelling European Championships would be worth €23 million (£18.5 million) to the Football Association. “It’s the last thing on the players’ minds,’’ replied Hodgson. “It would mean a lot more to us as footballers if we win it, in terms of when we retire from football in many years hence. It would be nice to see a medal hanging round our necks.”
The image of a coach weighed down with gold is inevitable on a weekend of countless “Italian Job” headlines. England versus Italy in Kiev on Sunday could go either way, and Hodgson said it was 50-50, although he also observed he was not planning for penalties as “I anticipate England winning the game in 90 minutes”.
Hodgson was talking in genteel Krakow, sitting in a vaulted chamber of an ancient city-centre hotel, a world away from the cauldron of a thousand challenges that will be the Olympic Stadium in Kiev where England’s mettle will be tested by Andrea Pirlo, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli.
These glittering Euros are about the glory, about the football but the slot-machine payouts are unavoidable. The FA is already guaranteed £6.5 million for qualifying and £2 million for group-stage results. Victory over Italy would generate another £1.6 million with £2.4 million on offer in the semi-final and £6 million for winning the final.
One step at a time, Roy. England have never overcome a major footballing nation in a knockout game outside Wembley. Hodgson must play the ghostbuster again, building on firsts such as defeating Sweden in a tournament and a host in Ukraine.
A gauntlet is thrown down in front of every new England manager, a test to their nerve and nous. Hodgson guided the team well through Group D but the examination of English capabilities now intensifies.
“I’m not going to add to the pressure on players by saying: Oh, and by the way, you can be 'historic’,’’ said Hodgson. “Let’s just win the game. If it came off, it would be a) fantastic because we’ll be in a semi-final, and b) it would give us a bit of an extra glow. It would put one of those nasty statistics for a team of England’s stature to rest. It would be a great step forward.
''I came across it quite a lot at my time at West Bromwich: 'we’ve never won here in 30 years, we’ve never finished above Aston Villa, we’ve never won at Stoke’. I was lucky enough to put some of those hoodoos to bed.”
Under Hodgson, West Brom prevailed at Liverpool for the first time in 45 years, won at Stoke for first time in 30 years and finished above Villa for first time in 33 years.
But this is England, William Shakespeare’s Perfidious Albion, not Frank Skinner’s Perfect Albion. This is a land where a frailty from 12 yards has proved costly in five out of six shoot-outs over the past painful 22 years. The only consolation is that Italy are hardly the dukes of dead-ball denouements. If it does go to penalties, it could turn into a day-nighter.
England have a plane on standby on Monday to whisk them home but Hodgson was not even contemplating a return to Blighty. He was not even thinking about his penalty-takers such was his belief that England would find a way past Gianluigi Buffon in normal time, let alone extra time.
The expectation is that Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole, John Terry and Joe Hart would be his famous/infamous five, with James Milner, Ashley Young and Glen Johnson next up. It depends on who is on the field. He could bring Leighton Baines on in the 119th minute. So many variables.
Too many for Hodgson. “I don’t anticipate the game going to a shoot-out. I’m an optimist. I anticipate us winning the game in 90 minutes. I don’t really understand the obsession with it. Shoot-outs are a hazard. It’s got nothing really to do with ability. I’ve seen Roberto Baggio miss penalties, Zico miss penalties, I’ve seen David Beckham miss penalties. From about half-time in extra-time, I’m sure Ray Lewington and Gary Neville will be working feverishly to work out who we’ve got and which sort of order.’’
On the eve of such a momentous event, Hodgson exuded calm because he trusted in his “good quality players, recognised worldwide, who would get into a lot of top European teams’’. Leaning forward, like a chairman addressing his board before announcing record profits, Hodgson declared: “I’d be surprised if any of our players go on to the field feeling inferior.”
England expect to be unchanged, a view borne out by training at Hutnik on Thursday. The front six which started against Ukraine took on the back four (with Phil Jagielka filling in for Joleon Lescott, although Hodgson stressed the Manchester City centre-back would be fine to partner Terry on Sunday).
Scott Parker and Gerrard alternated drilling low balls through to Rooney and passing wide for Milner and Young. England also did a session with the two full-backs, Johnson and Cole, overlapping. Andy Carroll, an awkward spectator, watched from behind the goal as Danny Welbeck darted around in front of Rooney. “He’s impressed me,” mused Hodgson of Welbeck.
His team sorted, England’s manager has devised a game-plan to ensnare vaunted opposition. Knowing that Pirlo conducts the Azzurri orchestra, Hodgson will deploy a three-man unit to break the midfielder’s baton. Rooney will drop back, Milner and Young tuck in, so squeezing the space around Pirlo.
Hodgson says he knows Pirlo quite well, having worked with him at Inter Milan in 1999. “We’ll make certain the wide players won’t get too wide to leave big gaps to the side of our central midfield players [Gerrard and Parker], and make certain one of the two front players will drop a bit deeper to avoid the two central ones being dragged forward.”
Midfield is going to be one almighty congestion zone, Hyde Park Corner meets Via Veneto at rush hour. “The particular challenge with Italy is in midfield where they have a lot of very gifted and experienced players. They’re basically a central team. We’re going to have to be careful we don’t get outnumbered in that area. They’re dangerous up front, with proven goalscorers in Cassano, Antonio Di Natale and Balotelli.’’
Would he tell his players to wind up Balotelli? “I’m too much the purist coach to go along that line.” Good. Let’s focus on fair play, on English strengths, on the enduring passion for the Three Lions. Hodgson knows the nation is watching, 20 million+ tuning in as well as 5,000+ merry souls out here.
“Like the rest of the country, we dream as well,” he said. “We don’t want to go out.’’ Hodgson dares to dream, to dream of gold.