Following the England team is the essence of what it means to be a football supporter. So much attention is given to something which often provides no satisfaction in return. It’s a rough and rocky relationship which always survives through the years.
I’m the same as everyone else. You get to this stage with the World Cup a few days away and you almost forget the endless disappointment. I’m prepared for more because it’s a long, long time since England did anything of note at a major international tournament but you can’t avoid that little pang of hope. It’s the hope that sucks you back in.
There’s not much point in starting a discussion about whether England can win the tournament. Leave that to Brazil or Germany, the countries who do it time and again and start as favourites in Russia. With England it’s all about impact. It’s about being a player in the competition rather than making up the numbers. Take nothing away from the process of qualifying but the entire qualification campaign is a warm-up for the real deal. And too often England come home from international tournaments without making a splash.
The best runs in my lifetime – Italia 90 and Euro 96 – felt, and still feel, like big cultural moments. So many World Cups and European Championships blend into one from an English perspective because, in the fog of mediocrity, it’s hard to remember who did what and whether any of it meant anything. But in those two years you felt some genuine empathy with the way it ended for England, knowing that a kick or a tiny fraction here or there would have made all the difference.
That creates its own frustration but when the dust settles you can be philosophical about it. That’s football and that’s the way it goes. But far too often what happens with England is they fly home with their tails between their legs, in the midst of ranting about players who aren’t good enough, the coach who’s in charge of them and the horrible realisation that we’re miles behind the best. Quite honestly, we’ve been miles behind for many years now and it’s asking a lot for the gap to close significantly in Russia. But I do think there are good enough players in this England squad for the team to compete.
What I’d like to see first and foremost is the players finding some real joy in playing for England. That’s not a criticism of them and it’s not to suggest that they lack pride or commitment in what they do but, over the years, it’s seemed that being an England international is a fairly joyless experience, or far less joyful than it should be.
England caps are something you aspire to. I was an Under-21 international and I’d have loved to have got a crack at senior level. But, as I said at the start, there’s a strange imbalance where, for all the focus on how important the national team is, playing for England and following England isn’t that rewarding.
To put it bluntly, as an England player you live a life of constantly letting millions of people down. International football reinforces the stereotype of overpaid sportsmen not doing the business.
There’s also the attention that comes with it versus the payback you get. Take Raheem Sterling. To me, the weirdest thing about the gun tattoo on his leg was that he’d had it for nine months before anyone noticed or took an interest. There might be a debate to be had about the sense of it but his explanation seemed genuine to me, and I very much take his point: if this wasn’t a big deal last year then why is it a big deal now?
The answer is because in the the regular season, all eyes were on other things at Manchester City. They were running away with the Premier League, playing like a dream and making an irrelevance of all off-field matters. Pep Guardiola was the man. Now the focus is narrower and sharper and in the pregnant pause before the World Cup starts, attention strays.
Perhaps it was reasonable to ask the question of why Sterling chose that tattoo. What wasn’t needed was the onslaught of criticism that came with it.
But that’s football and that’s playing for England. It can be tough to deal with and the fact remains that in this country, club football is dominant. I was fascinated a while back to hear Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Steven Gerrard all saying that they didn’t socialise much on England duty because club rivalries kept them apart.
Subconsciously, and although they were on the same side, they didn’t want to mix.
That might sound strange but given their day-to-day jobs, it’s understandable and quite natural. It’s also a problem for a head coach who wants his team to gel and grow. I might be wrong but this current group look more relaxed and comfortable than that.
I’m not saying they’re all the best of friends because footballers never are but the right mood in the camp is what you need as a starting point (and when I say the right mood, I don’t just mean the manager saying so. I mean the atmosphere actually clicking).
Ultimately, if they’re going to come home in credit then the last eight is the lowest benchmark and despite how unfancied England are, I’d like to think that the squad believe they can go farther than that.
As a profession, football is life-changing for these guys – the wages, the profiles, the lifestyle that comes with it – but nothing alters your stock like success at an international tournament.
Look at the names and faces who turned out to bury a World Cup winner, Ray Wilson, last week. That’s the sporting immortality you’re playing for.