What is there to be said about the Ukraine, which sits like an unsightly, radioactive cowpat in the centre of Europe? The name, it seems, translates literally as “Our country”, which is of very little help to the postman (“Our street”? “Our house”?) and doubtless accounts for their traditional import deficit. Ironic, also, since for all but five of the hundreds of years since they slithered into being in the shadow of the Urals, it has not been “their” country at all, but the property of everyone from the Russians to the Mongols to the Germans – any passing power that fancied having a canter on the nation, essentially. They are peculiarly disposed to famine, suffering them on a once a decade basis at one point in the recent past (1922 and 1932), much of this due to their baffling refusal to take on board such English traditions as High Tea, which staves off the hunger pangs that can occur between luncheon and the evening dinner gong. But what can be said of a country which regards cabbage as a breakfast dish, rather than a comestible to be patiently awaited until the evening? Small wonder these mass outbreaks of periodic peckishness set in.
Ukraine is said to have enjoyed its Golden Age in the 11th century which represents a crass but typical error – peaking too early rather than getting going from about the 13th or 14th century onwards and steadily improving, as has been the English way. This was evident in the way this fixture panned out tonight, more of which in due course. For a long time, its history consisted of one leather-faced ethnic horde running at another across the Steppes brandishing scythes, for no other apparent reason than to make the centuries pass more quickly. And so, in a tide of blood and Borscht they did, till recent times which culminated in Chernobyl, which, I believe it is now commonly accepted, was caused by locals attempting to fire up the reactor on pig’s droppings.
There was controversy leading into the game, owing to some trifling attempt on behalf of the local
Grand Poobah to tame a troublesome shrew. No doubt this provided perfectly adequate excuse for Mr Cameron to give this benighted republic of war crime fugitives and green-glowing, two-headed crones arguing over who gets to wear the scarf a wide berth. Better a country supper in Oxfordshire than a breakfast of cabbage in an asbestos-infested hotel in which the Geiger counter functions dually as an alarm clock.
There had been debate also as to whether to rest key players for the quarter final – perhaps simply make do with Joe Hart. One could imagine him easily dealing with all that the Ukrainians lobbed at him, indeed even capping a fine, gum-chewing performance by bouncing a lofted clearance off the head of a Ukrainian in the 89th minute, then going up the other end, lofting the resulting corner high into the box than trotting into the six yard area as it descended to head home. If anyone believed he could do such a thing, Joe Hart does. This would enable the other ten players to have day off, take in the local sights and attractions such as the National Grain Barn, the Fungi Decontamination Farm and the Kiev Otter Abbatoir.
The National Anthems were the measure of the disparity of our two nations – the English, who had the tactical sense to postion themselves discreetly behind France in order to avoid being occupied by the Soviets; the Ukrainians, who, in their bovine inertia and insensibility, did not. Our own was roared with customary exuberance, as if to stress to God that the Queen be saved – not parried over the bar, not fisted away, but saved, saved, dear Lord, with both hands. The Ukrainians, by contrast, intoned their own in a manner that reminded of the drowning throes of drunken Volga boatmen.
The game began at a cracking pelt, with the Ukrainians showing defensive naivety by leaving their own half almost entirely unoccupied for the first ten or 15 minutes. There were worries that John Terry might be embarrassed by the Ukrainian frontline but these were unfounded – it has become clear over this past year or so that John Terry is incapable of embarrassment. There were other performances that glowed harder than a fish in a Ukrainian canal – James Milner, for instance, was a much-needed credit to the Yorkshire race, occupying whatever space in which he found himself 100%. Had England chosen to play with any sort of midfield, as opposed to Scott Parker, one wonders how it might have been personified. The ultimate English player must have elements of Lampard (who made his usual contribution this evening), the similar “ard” quality of a Gerrard, and, of course, the non-stressed, syllabic “y” of a Terry or a Rooney. We have a name, then, for such a player, the epitome of England: Lardy.
There had been concerns about racialism in the Ukraine and so it proved – the racialism of the worst sort, that directed against the white English, we, who as Kipling put it, carry the Burden and are therefore the least deserving of pillory. Hence, every time English players like Rooney, Gerrard and Milner retained possession of the ball, boos rang out – though for some reason, they never lasted long. Hoardings around the ground called for “RESPECT”, and this, as English victims of racialism is all we ask – respect for our achievements in home plumbing, current-based cake recipes and for teaching a large, dusky portion of the world how to play cricket, asking nothing in return, save for sole rights to their mineral deposits in perpetuity. Cameras at the game selectively picked out Ukrainians who looked almost human – smiling, comely women, excited small boys, family groups – but we know that the vast, unseen majority in the stands were a seething mass of vile, hirsute trolls and wolf mutants, forest dwellers and fire-fearers who feast on the blood of travelling English bible salesmen. England did well to keep their composure.
Come the second half, and England were swiftly into the lead, as Rooney made good advantage of his hairpiece to head home the winning goal. A lesser man would have settled for a draw, for male pattern baldness – not Mr Rooney. Theo Walcott entered the field, and England players indulged in the game of “Let’s Not Pass To Theo”, uncannily similar to that played by myself and a few other fellows at boarding school in the 1870s, at the expense of one Theo Charmleigh-Watts, when playing footer in the quad. There is always one such boy. Unfortunately, the character- building tendencies our game instilled in him were never realised, as he hanged himself by his own evening shirt in 1899. Ashley Young and Danny Wellbeck certainly contributed a great deal more than “Fuck” and “All” between them. Two years ago, a clear goal for Frank Lampard unspotted by the referee made for the unarguable case for goalline technology. Tonight, a similar incident involving John Terry convinced that such technology would represent a gross breach of ancient footballing traditions which have abided, unmolested since international football began in 1872.
Tonight’s victory should make Roy Hodgson feel proud – proud, as kitman and “down to earth” “bloke” to have the privilege of washing and handwringing the shorts and undershorts of men like John Terry and Ashley Cole. One has the strange feeling that, like Paul the Octopus, he is beginning to take on the properties of a lucky talisman, that in some way he is making some sort of difference. No doubt, in due course, the feeling will pass . . .