England boss Hodgson out to lift burden of history
Euro 2012: Kiev
Roy Hodgson confessed to feeling the weight of history when England's Euro 2012 campaign began. It is a burden he has carried with increasing comfort throughout the last three weeks in Poland and Ukraine.
And the 64-year-old manager was receiving regular reminders of England's past failings - "nasty statistics" as he called them - as he stood in Kiev's Olympic Stadium, venue for Sunday's quarter-final with Italy.
England go in search of their first major trophy since the 1966 World Cup having become regular fallers at this hurdle, undermined by an inability to beat football's superpowers in the knockout stages.
Hodgson must change that pattern over the next week, with an increasingly ominous Germany lying in wait even if England can overcome Italy to extend a campaign that has been conducted almost under the radar.
And yet as small groups of England fans gathered late on Saturday near the banks of the Dnieper river that sweeps through Kiev, the optimism that accompanied Hodgson's squad through a draw with France and wins against Sweden and Ukraine continued its upward curve.
Hodgson himself is revelling in the experience. He took part in what is becoming the customary pre-match stadium walkabout with his players, looking relaxed in sunglasses before giving a reminder that England have a manager with a cosmopolitan touch by answering questions from the Italian media fluently in their native tongue.
How he and his players - and indeed England's supporters - would love to return to this exciting, edgy, undulating city next Sunday to contest their first major final since 1966 and move the agenda away from hard-luck stories.
England must overcome two formidable obstacles if they are to come back to Kiev. And the manager's past as coach of Inter Milan makes him well aware of the threat presented by Cesare Prandelli's side, and by Manchester City's Mario Balotelli, who made an unscheduled media appearance shortly after Hodgson.
Manager and captain have forged a mutual understanding for the national side. Photo: Reuters
Hodgson swept aside unflattering remarks likening England to Italy teams of the past, the obvious subtext of which was that his team was not in the entertainment business at Euro 2012. He was impressively dismissive of the notion.
There is plenty Hodgson admires about Italy, however, and he said: "We have similar qualities such as technical prowess and we have quality players. What they have over us is that they have produced those qualities to win a major tournament.
"One of the Italian qualities is finding a way to win even when, at times, they have looked anything but winners. Take the 1982 World Cup in Spain when, up until the last couple of games, they looked anything other than winners and yet ended up taking the cup home. That was because their players seemed to find a way to get the job done when it's necessary."
Hodgson added: "What we have got to try and do is break the hoodoo. Italy have been lucky enough to break the hoodoo a lot more recently than we have been able to do - 1966 is a long time ago whereas they can lay claim to a lot more recent successes."
Hodgson's confidence in his squad is obvious, with a unity of spirit and tactical organisation that has seen England exceed some expectations by topping their group.
A greater test awaits in Kiev on Sunday but Hodgson knows what he has at his disposal and is happy with it. He said: "I've found out that the players have got tremendous resilience and a tremendous appetite for playing for their country, and that they are very much together.
"We have seen in training sessions and around the hotel that there is a very good interaction among the players. I think that the players are ready for Sunday night. There is a lot of pressure on them but there is a lot of pressure on the Italians as well.
"So far we have succeeded in showing those qualities and now we have to show those qualities again in a game which is that little bit bigger than the three we've played up to now."
Both Hodgson and captain Steven Gerrard have stressed the closeness of the entire England party - and one man perceived by some as a potentially disruptive influence has played his full part on and off the field.
Chelsea's John Terry may have been stripped of England's captaincy, but here he has buried himself in the heart of the squad after being reduced to the ranks once more.
Hodgson said: "John Terry has been very good off the field as well as on it. As a coach you have to be very careful taking on board these rumours, these fears, these suggestions. It is important you choose the players you think are the right players.
"You work with them and you get the experience for yourself. I can only talk about John Terry in the four or five weeks I have been working with him and he has been excellent in every respect.
"He's been a top-class professional, he's been excellent around the place and he's done a good job helping me and my coaching staff get our messages across to the other players. He is also one that cottoned on very quickly to what we want to do."
Gerrard echoed the sentiments, saying: "The reason we're doing so well is that everybody is pulling in the right direction and leading by example. John Terry has been a big part of that. His performances have been superb and we are going to need him against Italy, that's for sure."
If England's squad can pull together one more time they can dream about that return to Kiev, erasing disappointments of the past and creating a new chapter in their history.