On Sunday night, Sam Allardyce began his England reign with victory – just like the eight England managers before him.
It was, just about, job done. But Allardyce should no more be praised for a last-gasp victory over 10 men than he should be castigated for his inability to erase every flaw and scar from England’s painful Euro 2016 campaign in his first handful of days with the players.
As when kicking off the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign with victory in Switzerland, England have taken three points from, on paper, their most difficult game of the group with confidence at a low ebb.But this is what England do well. They qualify for major tournaments. They won 10 games from 10 ahead of the Euros and it is now seven years and 30 games since they lost a qualifier – and that a 1-0 defeat to Ukraine with a place at the 2010 World Cup already secured. Qualification should again be a formality, and the time for judgement will come when Allardyce – with all his years of experience in day-to-day club management – leads England to the World Cup in Russia. That’s why he’s in the job: to solve England’s perennial stagefright at major tournaments. If he contrives to not even reach the World Cup, then it becomes moot. Especially if he uses an umbrella.
That the sequel to England’s drab Euro 2016 draw with Slovakia played out so similarly to the first instalment should, in truth, be no surprise. Slovakia were hardly likely to tinker with a successful formula, while an England side still smarting from their humiliation in France was hardly likely to instantly play with swagger regardless of the manager’s identity. Under the arch-pragmatist Allardyce, who had rightly if uninspiringly suggested pre-match that a draw would be a perfectly acceptable result, another attritional contest was all but inevitable.
It would have been nice to see more from England, who needed a reduction in their opponents’ numbers and the introduction of Dele Alli to lift their level above soporific, but it was no shock that we didn’t.
With Slovakia so desperately limited in ambition, though, one holding midfielder was surely sufficient for England. In Eric Dier, England had their man. Indeed, so little did Slovakia offer that John Stones spent much of the evening playing pretty much alongside Dier.
Surprising, therefore, that Wayne Rooney decided that the best position for him to adopt was slightly to the left of Dier and that Allardyce was apparently happy with this state of affairs. It was a double victory for silliness.
With the disappointing Harry Kane utterly isolated and England crying out for some invention and guile in the number-10 role – eventually supplied by Alli – Allardyce admitted he was surprised at how deep Rooney dropped. Yet the England manager lacked the will and, apparently, the authority to alter Rooney’s position.
“Today Wayne played wherever he wanted to. He was brilliant and controlled midfield. I can’t stop Wayne playing there,” Allardyce said after the game.
“I think that he holds a lot more experience at international football than me as an international manager. Yes he played a bit deeper than he does at United, but Wayne’s comfortable, when I talk to him, about the position.
“This is the most decorated outfield player in England. He’s won everything at Man United, more or less, and at Champions League and domestic level.
“Using his experience with a team, and playing as a team member, it’s not for me to say where he’s going to play.”
It’s worth repeating that last bit, because it’s an astonishing abdication of responsibility. “It’s not for me to say where he’s going to play.”
It really is, Sam. You are the England manager. It literally is specifically for you to say where – and, ever more pertinently, if – Wayne Rooney plays for England.
England’s win was laboured, hard-fought, and neither convincing nor inspiring. But it was significant. This was only one match, but it was one where England began the process, a process they go through every two years, of putting the summer’s disappointment behind them. The result was far more important than the performance.
But what Allardyce said after the match could ultimately mean so much. We don’t know yet whether Allardyce will be succeed or fail as England manager – but if he is to succeed then he must surely find a solution to the Rooney conundrum. And the first steps towards solving the problem are accepting that the problem exists, and that he is the man who must solve it.