Half-time in Port Elizabeth and it’s parallel universe time again. Remember the movie Sliding Doors, when Gwyneth Paltrow’s life split in two when she missed her train? On RTE, Gwynnie’s England might have held a half-time lead over Slovenia but the carriage doors had slammed firmly in their faces.

A stickler for punctuality, Eamon Dunphy was pulling out of the station. “England haven’t done all that much since the goal. They don’t look themselves, they look uptight.   It will be scramble over the line job against a very poor side.” Conductor Whelan agreed: “They didn’t kick on. I think they got worse after the goal.”

Unfortunately for tardy Gwyn, her life quickly unravelled and so too it seems has Wayne Rooney’s. “Things are not right. How do you reduce Rooney to a shivering wreck?” Eamo felt that fear factor had replaced X-Factor as the pulse of a once-great nation. “Don’t forget what happened Robert Green; his life is over, in a certain kind of way.”

Over on the BBC, meanwhile, parallel England had slipped comfortably through the sliding doors and were already cruising through the part of the movie where Gwyneth gets a foxy new haircut, a fancy fella and all is well with the world.

“England excellent since they scored the goal,” beamed Hansen. “Much more comfortable; passing with pace, passing with purpose,” creosoted Shearer. Impatient Lineker was already fast-forwarding to see the ending. “The result of the USA game, of course, only makes a difference to who wins the group – which would be an easier path to the semi-finals.”

Earlier in Montrose, we’d had the familiar pre-match warm-up. The usual 20 minutes dissection of how poor England are; no fluency, no coherence, no playmakers, no pressing, no plan, was the thrust of the Giles-Whelan-Dunphy thesis. Followed, naturally, by a firm assertion that England would almost certainly win. Better the devil you know.

Shearer and co had been bullish too but you sensed nerves. Brian Blessed was unleashed to deliver a rousing call to arms for “Fabio, England and St George.” You had a feeling this tape hadn’t been due in the machine for at least another week.

Ray Houghton’s biggest worry was what the red rag might do to John Bull. “Teams wearing red tend to be more aggressive,” suggested Gok Hamilton. “Yeah, its something they have to look out for, they need to keep their discipline.”

As a tense evening wore on, the smell of fear from a nearby gantry may have become ever more palpable, as Lawro developed more prosaic concerns: “Watching England is sometimes a cure for constipation.” “This is unbearable,” yelped Guy Mowbray beside him at one point, hopefully in response to another Rooney miss.

His “Jermaine Defoe is not a big-game player,” might have uncuffed one hostage to fortune, but Eamo’s vision of a scramble over the line duly materialised as England players lined up to take it in the corners.

They were nearly there. “It’s beginning to sound like a night at the Proms,” marvelled George as “Britain, Britain never shall be slaves,” rang out, a sensitive nod to their hosts.

At the whistle, it was Gabby Logan who took over from Paltrow, throwing a few handy ones to Fabio and foxy enough to impress Gilesy. “She seemed to be a very attractive girl. Maybe that’s why she’s doing the interviews.”

“They played with freedom?” suggested Gabby. “Yes, I prayed for freedom,” countered Fabio, eyeing the press box nervously. “Very, very, very good,” claimed Lawro, adjectival diarrhoea his latest problem.

Studiously detached analysts as they claim to be,  Eamo and Gilesy will forget now how pleased they were after Romania in \’90 despite Gheorghe  Hagi and his 200 shots. “We think it’s bloody great, Bill.”

So perhaps  Shearer and co had earned a moment’s celebration.

“Much better. More spring in their step. Passed it better, created chances. Big positives. Much, much better.”

Sadly, fortunes hadn’t improved for RTE Gwyn. “Scraped through really,” sniffed Gilesy. “The England performance was absolutely, incredibly bad,” smirked Eamon.

Of course anyone who made it all the way through Sliding Doors may recall that foxy, train-catching Gwyneth eventually met a premature Waterloo, while her miserable alter-ego lived happily ever after – or at least long after poor Rob Green.

Dunphy, unlike Lineker, is happy to let the story unfold. “Let’s keep this soap opera going.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner

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