Hodgson must change circus-clown image
Victory will turn 'Three Lions' into contenders, and help Hodgson win over a jaded nation
REPORTING FROM LONDON
SLOVAKIA v ENGLAND
(Tomorrow, 2.50am, Singtel TV Ch 142 & StarHub TV Ch 220 - Eleven EURO)
At Heathrow Airport, a Euro 2016 TV show played to empty chairs.
Yesterday's back pages were dominated by "Eddie's Boys", after England humiliated Australia's rugby team Down Under.
Other news focused on football's fools and their flares, the hysterical and the hypocritical closing one eye to the on-going violence in France.
And then, finally, England got round to discussing England.
The Three Lions have yet to seep into the national psyche and understandably so. Only a victory against Slovakia will change that.
Roy Hodgson's mediocre men face their biggest game in four years, with a legitimate chance of topping Group B and securing an easier passage through the knockout stages.
But the nation's mood is surprisingly modest in its ambitions. There's not a St George's flag to be found fluttering from a house or pub window and water-cooler talk mostly involves Croatian and Russia thugs.
Too many years of hurt have taken their toll.
In an interesting repeat of history, the Three Lions' most successful tournaments were also low on expectations until the knockout stages.
In 1966, Sir Alf Ramsey's "wingless wonders" initially made a paint-drying contest look like a New Year's Eve fireworks display.
At Italia '90 and Euro '96, there was widespread uncertainty. Tactical tweaks were required before England discovered a coherent, winning formula.
Hodgson finds himself in an identical position.
A nation's hopes are slightly muffled. Both on the pitch and across the country, the Lions are yet to roar. It's not an issue of talent, but one of trust.
Both the media and the masses are still reluctant to hand their dreams over to the dithering one. Hodgson needs a match-wnning performance against the Slovaks to convince a sceptical crowd.
England stories and conversations here focus almost exclusively on Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge. It's no longer about their playing attributes, but what they represent.
Together, they define risk; a quality that allowed Sir Bobby Robson to introduce Mark Wright as a sweeper at Italia '90 and convinced Terry Venables to go with a 'Christmas tree' to accommodate both Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham.
Even Ramsey rejected conventional wingers in favour of Alan Ball, who played in a role that resembled today's inverted wide men.
Vardy and Sturridge, if they start against Slovakia, will represent the boldest statement of intent from Hodgson; a belated acknowledgement that he's willing to adapt, to mount a serious trophy charge.
Most of all, a reformed line-up shows that Hodgson can finally watch without prejudice. He can react to what he sees rather than what his cautious temperament wants.
Despite the presence of Marek Hamsik, a beacon of flamboyant brilliance, the Slovaks will fear the inclusion of Vardy and Sturridge.
Vardy comes with pace. Sturridge is a jack in the box who brings surprise.
In a tournament light on intrigue so far, the Liverpool striker remains an enigma. He's hard to second-guess and difficult to defend against.
Sturridge gives the impression that he isn't entirely sure what's coming next from him in the penalty box, so club-mate Martin Skrtel should be equally clueless.
More than that, however, a positive, attacking line-up featuring Vardy and Sturridge wakes a sceptical nation.
It's a case of twice bitten, thrice shy of Hodgson.
After Euro 2012, the World Cup in Brazil and the opening two games in France, England's manager engendered a sense of pessimism that is almost un-English.
Superficially, at least, that's a good thing. England's traditional tendency to over-inflate expectations and engage in parochial, almost imperialistic chest-beating gets tedious.
In its extreme form, it looks a lot like the sunburnt drunks goading the locals in Marseille (and one desperately hopes they don't put in another appearance).
On the other hand, the vast majority bring the party, the colour and the humour. From Saint-Etienne to Singapore, no tournament is quite the same without England.
So a positive, adventurous, attack-minded victory over Slovakia would change the mood considerably, both within Euro 2016 and without.
Finishing top of Group B sets up a last-16 clash against a third-placed team, which then opens up a comparatively easier path to the next stage.
In other words, England have a priceless opportunity to make life far less complicated than it needs to be.
Like a circus, England have for too long been a pride of Lions led by a bumbling clown. Hodgson can change that against Slovakia.
If he's successful, a jaded nation will slowly begin to take their chances seriously. So will their opponents.
But the road to glory can only begin with Hodgson's redemption.
We’ve got players who can come on and change games, which happened in the Wales game. We have good-quality players who can score goals and it’s important to get them the chances to do that.
— England manager Roy Hodgson
4 things Hodgson must do
1 Slovakia game needs proper gambles
Suddenly, Roy Hodgson's decision-making is bold, insightful, profound and game-changing. Just a minute before the final whistle of the England-Wales game, he was a dithering, dogmatic buffoon; a dinosaur facing a meteor shower of abuse.
But he's not the Messiah, he's a very lucky manager.
A cautious, tentative Hodgson ruined two tournaments and threatens to prematurely end a third, whereas a panicky Hodgson forced him to make the kind of decisions that only he perceives as risky (other coaches wouldn't).
England need this jittery, excitable Hodgson against Slovakia, not the human statue from the first game and a half.
2 Forget reputations, form favours Vardy
Alf Ramsey's conundrum with his strikers in the 1966 World Cup saw Spurs man Jimmy Greaves dropped in favour of West Ham's Geoff Hurst, despite the former's pedigree and overall reputation.
Hodgson's dilemma isn't anywhere near as complicated.
Fortune favours the form guide. Harry Kane looks a shattered husk in comparison to his former, sprightlier self in a Tottenham jersey. He requires urgent rest, before perhaps returning in the knockout stages. Leicester City's Vardy needed just 11 minutes to prove why he's the only Englishman that Slovakia's Martin Skrtel would genuinely fear.
3 It takes two
Daniel Sturridge's goal against Wales typified the striker's enigmatic, and occasionally exasperating, qualities. The Liverpool striker is blessed with an athletic beauty, a real aesthetic treat in full flight. He might be England's most gifted forward, but also the most distant.
Hodgson needs only to harness his strengths against Slovakia.
Let him play how he lives. Let him wander, slightly aloof and above the fray. Against Wales, Sturridge (above) drifted where he pleased, leaving Chris Coleman genuinely perplexed. His introduction created uncertainty, causing much discomfort in the Welsh defence. He set up one and scored the other and should start against Slovakia.
4 Rooney and Alli don't click
In the final minutes of the England-Wales game, when any semblance of organisation and structure had given way to a typically British madcap free-for-all, like a midweek Swansea-Stoke clash, Alli found space.
He had freedom to probe and punish. He escaped his straitjacket on the right wing and resumed his Tottenham duties when no one was looking.
Until then, he had a problem with his captain. For much of the game, Wayne Rooney evoked memories of David Beckham at his most indulgent; the omnipresent, swashbuckling, heart-on-sleeve, socks-round-ankles Beckham ingrained in the English psyche.
It's a performance for the cameras, rather than the purists. Rooney (above) was everywhere, picking up possession in front of the back four and spraying passes, but this wasn't Andres Iniesta's kind of distribution.
It was the bullish, busy English variety that dominates attention but not the game. Against Slovakia, Alli would ideally play in Rooney's position, ahead of club teammate Eric Dier. But that's a risk probably beyond the born-again gambler in the dugout.
- NEIL HUMPHREYS