There have only been three moments in my lifetime when football has made my cry.
One was when Alan Curblishley announced his resignation as Charlton manager before the final home game of the 2005/06 season, followed by another less than a year later – a 4-0 win over relegation rivals West Ham that convinced me the Addicks would survive the drop from the Premier League during our first season of the post-Curblishey era. Eventually, they did not.
The remaining moment though, was perhaps the only time I’ve felt a truly uncontrollable, emotional connection with an England national team that has otherwise spectacularly underwhelmed for the entirety of my lifetime. Aged seven and staying up far past my bedtime, David Batty’s spot kick straight down the throat of Argentina goalkeeper David Roa to eliminate England from the 1998 World Cup immediately provoked an explosion of tears.
I wept all the way through the post-match analysis, I wept as my father carried me to bed, I wept as I fell asleep and I was still weeping when I came down for breakfast the next morning. I was offered ice cream, a pocket money raise, a trip to the cinema and anything else my parents could think of to stop the gruesome fingernails-down-a-blackboard kind of noise only a sobbing child can make, but for the next few days the tears intermittently flowed. Heart-broken, one brief reminder of England’s plight in France would instantly set me off again.
Looking back now at England’s history, at both what the Three Lions endured previously and after that moment, it was an obvious overreaction. Disappointment is part of the parcel with supporting England and probably always will be; even when your heroes don’t exactly let you down, they never quite meet your estimations either. But there was also legitimate cause for my particularly severe sense of sorrow.
Perhaps most directly, what should have been Sol Campbell’s 81st-minute winner was wrongly ruled out for an apparent impediment on Roa by Alan Shearer – the kind of impediment that was completely acceptable in the Premier League during that time but wasn’t under the watch of Danish referee Kim Nielson.
That, combined with the equally controversial decision to hand David Beckham a straight red card just one minute into the first half for a petulant swipe at Diego Simeone, inevitably created a feeling of injustice – a term I couldn’t accurately define at the age of 7, but nonetheless understood and became instinctively aware of. England, at least through the perspective of my incredibly partisan, incredibly juvenile, incredibly naïve eyes, had been robbed of deserved glory.
But more than simply a controversial act from an official costing England so dearly in the knockout stages of a major tournament, a recurring theme throughout the last two decades, my heartbreak owed equally to an incredible act as well – Michael Owen’s marvellous solo goal. Twisting, turning and obliterating defenders before effortlessly slotting the ball past the goalkeeper in a similar way Diego Maradona had done to England twelve years previous, I had never seen a goal quite like that from an English player before.
It created an unprecedented, euphoric high that I inevitably had to come down from. As frequenters of the Acid House scene in the 1990s will tell you, sometimes in that process there are indeed tears involved. Even at the age of seven, however, I also realised the incredible hope that goal generated, a level of faith that continued for the near two hours between the strike that exploded Owen onto the world stage and Batty’s ill-fated penalty kick, even more so as England battled away with ten men.
Following an era in which English football remained suspiciously rudimental, Owen’s goal – one of four which makes him Liverpool’s record holder for most World Cup goals while at the club – was so unique it felt like a truly transformative moment. I couldn’t have known that so accurately at the time, but I was nonetheless aware it was like nothing I’d quite seen before and I could sense the feeling it created amongst my family – particularly my dad – watching alongside me.
Of course, much of that owes to Glenn Hoddle, to his belief in the expansive theories of the game and to his ambitiousness in setting out a side that included David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Darren Anderton, Alan Shearer and a young Owen – whose starting berth over Shearer’s tried and trusted partner Teddy Sheringham and Les Ferdinand certainly didn’t convince everybody at the time.
England weren’t just getting the right results at the World Cup, winning two of their three group games, but they were doing it with style as well. Even excluding Owen’s goal, the Argentina defeat included some moments of genuine offensive brilliance.
And while expectations might not be so high this time around – another factor in despair pouring so relentlessly out of my youthful eyes was the genuine nationwide belief that England could come home with the 1998 trophy – there are curious comparisons to be made. Gareth Southgate, a member of England’s 1998 squad, may be a more pragmatic coach than Hoddle, but he’s carried on a Hoddle project that never fully kicked off in embracing three at the back.
That system, best described as 3-1-4-2, has furthermore created a way of playing which defies much of the direct, often agricultural laboriousness we’ve come to expect from England too. The roaming No.8s push forward to make something of a four-man attack, and for the first time in living memory English defenders are being selected more on their technical ability and capacity to play out of the back than any old-school ruggedness they offer inside England’s own box.
It’s an ambitious and revolutionary way of thinking for a footballing nation that has for so long seen four-man defences as the only legitimate option, that has so perpetually struggled to play exciting football for the last two decades, that has so constantly tried to simply get all the best players on the pitch regardless of whether they’re the right fit for England’s system, or indeed physically fit enough to play.
Equally crucially, the squad is composed of young and brave players, players who can bring the same fearless mentality Owen took to France 1998, daring to turn the tournament on its head. Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and even Jesse Lingard all have the potential to replicate Owen’s impact and give England fans temporary belief of something truly special taking place.
Inexperience may cost them eventually, but perhaps for a couple of hours, perhaps for a half, perhaps for only a handful of minutes, they can make England fans dream again. A fair bit older, a little bit wiser and a significant dose more cynical, I’m hopeful the inevitable extinguishing of that hope this summer – most likely by another refereeing decision followed by a penalty shootout – won’t reduce me to tears this time around.