The general consensus is that Gareth Southgate’s England have a license to play without fear at this World Cup, free from the suffocating pressure, hype and expectation that is usually prevalent when the Three Lions head to a major tournament.
If this consensus is correct – and you only have to while away an hour or two on Twitter to know there is at least some substance to it – then unquestionably this can only be a good thing and more so will be hugely beneficial to a squad that boasts less international caps than any of its predecessors.
Because what it amounts to is a group of largely inexperienced players embarking on the biggest sporting challenge of their lives thus far backed by a nation that collectively feels a combination of apathy, realism, healthily restrained optimism, a large dollop of goodwill, and fatalism. And what that amounts to is a situation where England need only avoid defeats to Tunisia and Panama to come home to a friendly pat on the back.
There are a hundred or so former England stars who would snap a hand off to have had such a luxury.
To my mind there are two distinct reasons for the above – a healthy state of affairs born from unhealthy origins – and the first of those reasons relates to us, the great English public, and how we perceive our national team. It is a relationship that has immeasurably soured in recent years and frankly through little fault of our own. It is a relationship that lends itself to an extended analogy of a, well, relationship.
Throughout the eighties we were in the first flush of love; we were smitten and genuinely believed that our sweetheart was the most beautiful girl in the world, on the inside and out. The other girls had moustaches and talked funny. They would sleep around. Our lass would never do that. At least our lass was honest as the day was long.
After a period of fighting we decided to settle down and we proposed in 1990, realising this would be forever. By now love-blindness had progressed to an acceptance of each other’s flaws. So she roared out a fart from time to time and fell asleep after a sniff of wine? So we got too carried away on occasion and still deluded ourselves that no other couple was as perfect? Nobody’s perfect.
Throughout the 2000s, as the ‘Golden Generation’ failed us time and again, we were repeatedly told by others of our good fortune. “You’ve got a good one there”. Only now distance had set in and a staleness that meant we were quite glad of the times we were apart. There was disillusionment too; a lot of that.
Worse yet the other girls no longer looked so plain. Now they were stunning and our eye couldn’t help but roam at the sexy senoritas and German girls who could speak five languages. During Sven-Goran Eriksson’s time in charge our other half began to wear socks to bed. Under Fabio Capello she turned sullen and began to complain, seemingly constantly, about us leaving marks on the coasters.
Four years ago the marriage ran aground. Four years ago just hearing her breathe through her nose was enough to make our skin crawl.
And now, post-divorce we are dating again. Only casually. A series of flings really that sometimes end with a nice kiss and a swapping of numbers. It’s fun but from our perspective we’re not expecting much to come of it nor do we really want anything to come of it because we’re protecting a seriously broken heart.
If that somewhat clumsy and very possibly sexist analogy covers the gradual breakdown in trust and erosion of love that has taken place following one penalty exit and underwhelming showing after another then it has to be said that the results and early departures only tell half the tale. Because the players too must stand up and be accounted for when an assessment is taken as to why right now the public have never been more detached from its national side.
Since 1990 – Paul Gascoigne, Gary Lineker, Chris Waddle and all – the England national side has been largely stocked by a litany of wrong ‘uns, immensely dislikeable individuals that it was almost impossible to root for.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury I give you John Terry, arguably the most odious pantomime villain to disgrace a modern football pitch. Ahead of him Steven ‘Stevie G’ Gerrard and Frank ‘Lamps’ Lampard were revered by their club fan-bases but usually flattered to deceive in England colours because these two ‘world class’ midfielders couldn’t solve a puzzle where the answer was simple – when one goes, the other stays. It’s not hard lads!
Further ahead of them Michael Owen – who Liam Gallagher famously said looked like ‘trainee CID’ – hunted down personal glory alongside the bafflingly over-hyped Wayne ‘Wazza’ Rooney who the media adored to such an extent they would have us believe he was Pele and Eusebio rolled into one. Throw in Ashley ‘Cashley’ Cole, ‘Mr Man U’ Gary Neville, and a whole cornucopia of United and Liverpool players regularly picked due to the club they represented (but here’s mainly looking at you Phil Neville, Wes Brown, and David ‘Calamity’ James) and for two decades it was very hard to feel connected to a roll-call of egotistical players of huge self-importance.
Here’s a daft example that equally gets to the nub of the issue. Imagine getting into a lift and Paul Scholes or Gerrard is standing there. You attempt to strike up a conversation. Would you feel like you were being engaged one-to-one like a fellow human being? Or would they be closed, reserved, even resentful that you’ve been disrespectful enough to talk to them without fawning?
Now imagine doing the same with Harry Kane or Raheem Sterling. Hell, let’s add Jordan Pickford, or Kyle Walker, or Danny Rose, or Jesse Lingard, or John Stones, or Eric Dier: guys who have the same stature as those that swaggered around before them but don’t carry themselves as demi-gods.
This matters. It really does. We do not only support England but the lads behind the badge.
And we can state with utter certainty that this is the most likeable, relatable, England squad we’ve had for quite some time.
Which is why, among the apathy that has built up from several previous let-downs, there is a large dollop of goodwill accompanying the team as they prepare to take on Tunisia on Monday. It matters a lot but how far that takes them, who knows?
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