Donetsk’s Donbass Arena, located in a city founded on the coal and steel industry and surrounded by an ugly archipelago of slag heaps, boasts unexpectedly palatial grounds. Bright green grass carpets the stadium’s hinterland, with beds of flowers adding hue and the tinkling of a waterfall providing pleasant background sound.
From certain angles, were it not for the football fans milling around and the steel ring of security embracing the stadium, you could be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled across a health spa, or a miniature Kew Gardens. Financed by the billions of resident oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, it is a relative ocean of sparkling tranquillity in a city that is otherwise rather rough around the edges.
As such, it is an unfittingly serene venue in which to hold England’s first Euro 2012 game following a build-up that has been stressful in the extreme. Yet after taking a short stroll from England’s team hotel across the Donbass Arena gardens to conduct his pre-match press conference on Sunday, it appeared this atmosphere of calm had also enveloped the nation’s manager on the eve of the biggest game of his career.
Roy Hodgson has managed Inter and Fulham in European finals, he has taken Switzerland to the World Cup, but surely none of these experiences will compare to the pressure placed on him when England emerge from the tunnel at 4.55pm this evening and prepare to face historic rivals France. It is the first step in a journey that will define his reputation in an industry that he has devoted his working life to; it will help shape the process by which he will be remembered as a Graham Taylor or a Terry Venables. To even invoke Alf Ramsey’s name here would of course be ridiculous.
But if Hodgson is feeling the weight of history on his shoulders, he certainly did not show it on Sunday. After a rather rocky first few weeks in the job, he appeared far more at ease in front of a packed room covered in Shakhtar Donetsk's orange and black livery, even engaging in some verbal sparring with the foreign press.
It was a jocular French journalist who at the very end of the press conference chose to remind Hodgson of the long legacy of English failure at major tournaments. “As French people we are always afraid of the English team,” he said, “but in the end they don’t always do so well, so is England a great football nation or not?”
“How far do you want me to go back in time?” Hodgson said in reply. “1966” the French reporter shot back.
“I can go back further than that,” Hodgson countered. “We started football in the 1860s and 1870s and during the centuries I don’t think we could ever be accused of not being a serious, top football nation. The fact that it is 1966 since we won a major tournament, we are all very much aware of. You didn’t actually need to remind me. It has crossed my mind on one or two occasions, but how good we are as a nation will always be decided on the field of play.”
It will, and worryingly England’s preparations for their latest date with destiny have been chaotic to say the least. When a list of the problems afflicting the squad was read to Hodgson – injuries, Wayne Rooney’s suspension, a lack of time to prepare – he joked: “I suppose apart from that things are looking quite good really!
“It has been an intensive three weeks, but a three weeks in which I feel I have been accepted by the group and feel comfortable in my position, which I suppose is somewhat unusual as when you come into a new job you need time but the players have made it very easy for me to get my feet under the table very early.”
Having travelled 840 miles from their training camp in Krakow, a change in scenery appears to have had a mildly restorative effect on England. Gone were tricky questions about Rio Ferdinand as Hodgson cut an extremely comfortable figure alongside a relaxed Steven Gerrard.
Even when questioned about that eternal English obsession, the weather, with temperatures expected to push the mid-30s in Donetsk on Monday, Hodgson kept his cool. “It does get hot in England from time to time, and as Steven [Gerrard] rightly said the heat is a factor for all the teams who will play here in Ukraine.
“The bottom line is that whenever conditions are being discussed they are the same for both teams. It is very important we don’t put too much emphasis on conditions. Our emphasis has purely got to be on our play and how we can play.”
While the oppressive sunshine might not make Donetsk a spiritual cousin of Britain, there are some unexpected links that draw two very different cultures together. Twinned with Sheffield – another steel city and former industrial powerhouse – Donetsk was actually founded by a Welshman named John Hughes in 1869 and was originally named Hughesovka.
Just hundreds of metres from the Donbass Arena is one of the city’s more popular haunts, a venue named ‘Liverpool’ which functions as a hotel, a canteen and what is dubiously described as an ‘art restaurant’.
A huge banner across the entrance bears the legend ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, while ‘I Am The Walrus’ pumps out of a PA system next to a life-size model of The Beatles. In its somewhat excessive love for all things Scouse, the multi-purpose venue rivals Hodgson, who ensured Liverpool had the biggest contingent of players in his final Euro 2012 squad despite their poor season in the Premier League.
Inside the canteen, ropey Union Jacks cover the walls in what appears to be a particularly low-rent, and late, Jubilee party. Outside, a red phone box sits incongruously on a dusty street. But while a distinct lack of any England fans here seems curious at first glance, it is symptomatic of the city as a whole.
Even when taking a wander through the streets of Donetsk at night, past numerous buildings caked in neon strip lighting and city-centre fountains that in any other tournament would be filled by empty cans of lager, discarded England flags and probably a few inebriated fans in Crusader uniforms, England supporters were strangely conspicuous by their absence.
That is save for the designated official venue for England supporters: the Golden Lion pub, which during the Ireland v Croatia game on Sunday night was filled by fans who lamentably decided to repeatedly chant about the IRA and World War II. For a regular viewer of the England side this comes as no surprise, and at least a shortage of the worst kind of England fans has spared Donetsk their retrograde attitudes to politics and history.
Like many of their supporters, England’s senior side have opted not to base themselves in Donetsk but UEFA’s schedule takes them back to the eastern city on June 19 for their final group game against Ukraine. If they come second in Group D, then a possible quarter-final and semi-final will also be held at the Donbass Arena.
Donetsk may be unlovable in some respects, and England fans appear to be staying away in droves, but Hodgson and his players will surely be content to gaze across those sculpted gardens that mark the way from their hotel to the stadium a few more times yet.