For Roy Hodgson, it was a desperate and ignominious way to end his four years as England manager. Whatever else happened in that time, his period in charge will probably always be remembered for the full-on humiliation that accompanied this defeat and the knowledge it will rank among the more infamous results in the history of the national team.
How can it not when the suffering comes against a country with a population roughly the size of Croydon and absolutely no history of tournament football? What heroes Iceland were: brave, organised, superb. They have established themselves as the greatest story of Euro 2016 and it feels almost like a trick of the imagination that it is only four years since they were ranked 133rd in the world. Yet that will not reduce the embarrassment for England, their departing manager and a set of players who chronically under-performed after Wayne Rooney’s early penalty.
Iceland played with courage, skill and togetherness. England, in stark contrast, dramatically lost their way once their lead had been wiped out and Hodgson must know now there is no way his contract will be renewed. England will have another manager for the next World Cup, Hodgson’s reign will be defined by a result comparable to losing to the United States in the 1950 World Cup and the now-familiar inquest will begin about what it wrong with football in the country that likes to think it invented the sport.
The bottom line for England is that no team can defend this generously and expect to get away with it. England’s back four has been a legitimate source of concern for some time and it was startling to see the way they capitulated at the back when the team had made such an encouraging start.
Iceland’s first goal came from precisely the kind of long-throw routine that had apparently been uppermost in England’s thoughts during their training sessions. The second was another reminder that the modern-day England side simply do not have the outstanding centre-backs of previous tournaments and, once again, it was a personal ordeal for the increasingly accident-prone Joe Hart.
Hart may bellow the words to the national anthem with more vigour, possibly, than anyone else in the tournament, but in the rather more important issues for a national team goalkeeper he has become a danger to his own side. Hart’s mistake for Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s goal was not quite as wretched as the one that saw Gareth Bale’s free-kick squirm past him in the Wales match but, to put it kindly, it was another shot he should have kept out. His carelessness is becoming a recurring theme and, just like the Bale goal, this was another one where he dived to his left and let the ball beat him despite getting his gloves to it.
All of which felt nothing short of remarkable bearing in mind only three minutes had elapsed when Daniel Sturridge’s curling pass sent Raheem Sterling running into the penalty area and Iceland’s goalkeeper, Hannes Halldorsson, brought him down for a clear penalty. Rooney aimed the penalty, low and hard, to the goalkeeper’s right and at that stage England’s followers might have been lulled into thinking their team would win with something to spare.
Instead, the equaliser arrived within two minutes and was bordering on tragicomedy given that it was the first time Aron Gunnarsson had hurled in the ball from the touchline. England, Hodgson had told us, knew all about this trick and would be drilled to guard against it. Yet it was difficult to see any hard evidence. One Icelandic centre-half flicked the ball on, the second ran in and applied the final touch. Rooney had been beaten by Kari Arnason for the first header but Kyle Walker was even more culpable in the way he failed to cover Ragnar Sigurdsson’s run into the six-yard area.
Iceland’s second goal followed in the 18th minute and, in fairness to Hart, he was not the only one to blame. Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling both stood off as Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Sigthorsson exchanged passes in the front of the area. Sigthorsson moved in between them both, took aim with his right foot and watched the ball sneak into the bottom corner.
England were rattled and, by half-time, they were starting to look a little desperate. Rooney could be seen slashing wildly at a volley that needed control, Dele Alli had resorted to diving to try to win a penalty and the first boos arrived when the whistle sounded for the interval. England were still threatening to get behind their opponents but Iceland did not simply retreat when they had the lead. They gave everything to hold on but, when they had the chance to break forward, this tough, obdurate side advanced with confidence. Ten minutes into the second half, there was almost a second goal for Ragnar Sigurdsson, this time with an overhead kick. Hart kept that out but it must have been alarming for Hodgson that for long passages his players had two-thirds of the ball without managing to look the better side.
One moment summed it up midway through the second half. England had a free-kick 40 yards out and Harry Kane insisted on shooting from an almost implausible distance, aiming his effort harmlessly wide. Again, there was voluble dissent from the England fans packed behind their goal. Kane had looked well short of his best, in keeping with how he has played throughout the tournament.
By that stage Hodgson had brought on Jamie Vardy in place of the largely ineffectual Sterling. Jack Wilshere had come on at half-time for Eric Dier, who might have been suffering an ankle injury. England certainly had the attacking personnel to save themselves but Rooney, Sturridge and particularly Kane had a wretched night. Marcus Rashford was brought on and Cahill finished the game playing in attack. None of it worked and England, with their supporters singing ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’, will never live it down.