After a dramatic fortnight for England's domestic and European champions Roy Hodgson's first match in charge of the national team, against Norway on Saturday night, presents an intriguing compound of familiar themes. Not only is it Hodgson's debut, it is also the first pre-tournament warm-up and the latest instalment of a Norse saga in which England have been frustrated and twice humiliated in the past five meetings.
England's first five games against Norway were routs. They scored 24 goals, four of them by Jimmy Greaves on a trip to the Ullevaal Stadion on the eve of the 1966 World Cup, and conceded only two, but all that changed in September 1981 when Ron Greenwood's helter-skelter qualification campaign for the Spain World Cup hurtled down the most precipitous dip.
The 2-1 defeat has been entirely overshadowed by the priceless euphoria of Norwegian radio's Bjorge Lillelien and his ecstatic and idiosyncratic audit of the vanquished: Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana and Maggie Thatcher. This was no mere conquest, it was "a hell of a beating" in which "the birthcountry of fighters" had been whacked in the earthy vernacular common to "the boxing bars around Madison Square Garden".
There was no mention there of Greenwood but that did not save him from the derision of the post-match verdicts. At the age of 59, five years younger than Hodgson is for his first game, and in an era when naked ageism was not such a taboo, he was mocked for his tactical incoherence and, much to his ire, his pasty, grandfatherly knees while conducting training sessions in his shorts.
That Norway side contained only five professionals and the goalkeeper Tore Antonsen, Oslo's chief telephone engineer who was playing his first international in six years, kept England out with a series of saves in the second half. Afterwards Age Hareide, the centre-half who subsequently joined Manchester City, defined England's habitual problem. "It was easy to mark a man," he said. "They played the same style all the time."
Bryan Robson had given England the lead, his tenacity enabling him to score while falling to the turf as he was to repeat against Holland in Düsseldorf seven years later, but the away side's early dominance gradually ebbed away. Roger Albertsen was credited with the equaliser from Tom Lund's cross though the provider had a valid claim that his centre, deflected by Mick Mills, had crossed the line before the midfielder applied the last touch. When Terry McDermott's clumsy attempt to clear the ball failed and set up Hallvar Thoresen to put Norway ahead, the travelling supporters jeered with the same disgust with which they had greeted the discovery of the price of a pint in Oslo before kick-off.
Steve Coppell, so vital to Greenwood's strategy, was injured and at home. "I watched the debacle on television with almost tears of frustration," he said. Although one Sunday paper pictured every England player with a cross through his face and said it was time to discard everyone and begin again, the defeat was not fatal. Switzerland's victory over Romania gave England yet another chance to make their first World Cup in 12 years and Paul Mariner scored in a 1-0 win over Hungary in the final group game at Wembley that ultimately masked a similarly pedestrian performance.
Graham Taylor was not so fortunate. After salvaging a 1-1 draw in Poland in May 1993, England needed to win in Oslo four days later to save them from the unwelcome prospect of requiring victory over Holland in Rotterdam. Obsessed by the aerial threat of Jostein Flo, Taylor rejigged his team, detailing Gary Pallister to man-mark him which left huge gaps through which Lars Bohinen and Jan-Aage Fjortoft sprang up with the relentless energy of whack-a-moles.
The manager's inability to explain his tactics to his players, captured so conclusively in the documentary The Impossible Job, when the substitute Nigel Clough looked thoroughly befuddled by his instructions, deservedly ended with England being outclassed. The chant which started long before the final whistle – "We're so bad it's unbelievable" – was generous compared with Taylor's evisceration the following morning. "Norse manure" summed up the Sun's choleric scorn.
Having understandably pleaded to be cut some slack, Hodgson should enjoy more tolerance than either Greenwood or Taylor had to endure when meeting Norway. No England manager has been defeated in his first game since France beat Alf Ramsey's side 5-2 in 1963 and Don Revie, Terry Venables, Kevin Keegan, Sven-Goran Erikkson and even Steve McClaren were all feted for stopping the rot after impressive results on debut.
And while performances in pre-tournament friendlies generally set the tone for what follows – never more so than Bryan Robson's hushed-up shoulder dislocation against Mexico in 1986 and Gary Lineker's missed penalty in his final game at Wembley against Brazil in 1992 – the abject draw with Tunisia in 1990 and the pre-dentist's chair laboured victory over Hong Kong in 1996 eventually proved misleading.
For Hodgson, the danger during his honeymoon period lies in the perception that his was a marriage of convenience, devoid of romance and one where the bride's mother is pining for a more vivacious son-in-law. A first win over Norway for 32 years will be a valuable weapon in his charm offensive.