Roy Hodgson’s England have, at long last, a moment to savour on the international stage.
The ‘Battle of Britain’, Group B’s biggest game – call it what you will, the match with Wales was one that England simply could not afford to lose. Their coach’s boldness ensured that they didn’t.
All the mind-games and the pre-match posturing this week seemed to be coming from Real Madrid star Gareth Bale, questioning England’s passion and, more pertinently, their abilities.
Hodgson certainly seemed to be riled by the remarks, and the sight of Bale celebrating in front of the Three Lions’ supporters would not have sat well with him, either.
Bale’s blistering free-kick was palmed into the net by Joe Hart. Only Ronaldinho and Zinedine Zidane had previously scored direct free-kicks against England in major tournaments this century and having done the same against Slovakia to help put his country on the brink of the last 16, Bale deserved such illustrious company.
Chris Coleman’s side seemed happy to sit deep and defend for much of the game – unsurprising, given that they topped the group after the first round – and England largely played into their hands with turgid build-up and a ‘shape’ that looked about as far from their favoured diamond as is possible by the end of the second half.
This time, however, England had their heroes. If there was a sense that it just had to be Bale for the Welsh, it felt rather the same for Vardy. The title character in the Premier League’s greatest-ever story needed just 11 minutes into his major international tournament debut to net the equaliser, steering the ball past Wayne Hennessey after Ashley Williams had inadvertently headed the ball into his path.
The decision to take Daniel Sturridge to France raised eyebrows among many, but Hodgson was insistent that the extra firepower would come in handy. Sturridge, after all, remains the best natural finisher in this squad. A cool head and a calm finish past Hennessey with just a few seconds left on the clock proved as much.
Inescapable question marks remain: Hodgson’s men dominated the ball but precision in attack was too often lacking. Vardy, Sturridge, Wayne Rooney and Marcus Rashford all finished the match in a mis-shapen forward line, with all suggestions of a ‘diamond’ firmly out of the window.
England’s coaches can at least take heart from seeing a bold, attacking change pay off, even if throwing on centre-forwards with a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ mindset is unlikely to strike fear into Spain, France or Germany.
But if the tactics are still a cause for concern, England’s spirit certainly isn’t.