Hello. Perhaps the best way to sum up the past 15 years of English hubris is to recall Steve McClaren’s commentary for Sky Sports News in the moments before Iceland took the lead against Roy’s boys at Euro 2016. Even now it’s one of the great television moments. It had it all: the misplaced confidence, the swaggering ignorance, the dismissive attitude towards foreigners, the inevitable sucker punch, all hope and joy disappearing as McClaren watches the ball slither under Joe Hart’s desperate dive. He hadn’t seen it coming. The response, Steve said, had been perfect. “The only thing that they have got is the big boy up front,” he reassured viewers. “Sigurdsson… Sigthorsson …” Sharp intake of breath. A groan. A goal. Tell us what’s happened, Steve. Oh Steve. Poor Steve. If you watch it in slow motion, you can actually pinpoint the second when his heart rips in half.
It was the culmination of so much nonsense and hype. It was the breaking point, the nadir. For years England had gone into tournaments with an unappealing sense of superiority, never learning their lesson, and the truth is it was probably always masking nerves and a debilitating inferiority complex. The Golden Generation went into the 2006 World Cup assuming they only had to turn up to be given the trophy, in 2010 we had the E-A-S-Y headline from the Sun, 2014 delivered the spectacle of the team leaving Brazil before they’d finished taking their anti-malaria tablets and Euro 2016 was all about Roy Hodgson enjoying a lovely boat trip down the Seine the day before the Iceland defeat. Honestly, some of the discourse in France two years ago was utterly absurd. There were people who genuinely thought that Wazziesta played well in midfield. Seriously. No joke.
Something had to change. England couldn’t carry on like that and, happily, the good news is that the delusions of grandeur have been replaced by a more realistic attitude under the likeable Gareth Southgate. There’s been no pomp, no ceremony, no jingoistic tub-thumping – instead, England have dropped the comical self-regard and look all the better for it. A more relaxed outlook has allowed everyone to loosen up, while Southgate’s decisiveness in making some difficult and at times ruthless calls has earned him the squad’s respect. England might not be one of the favourites but at least they appear to know what they’re doing.
Of course, that’s easy to say before they’ve got their tournament underway. While England have warmed up with promising victories over Costa Rica and Nigeria, the outlook could look less rosy later. Opening games aren’t easy – England have won five of 26 at major tournaments – and Tunisia aren’t to be taken lightly. The north Africans are likely to be organised and difficult to break down but Southgate has gone to great lengths to point out that they’re capable of playing some nifty football. They were impressive in a 1-0 defeat to Spain and a 2-2 draw with Portugal before the tournament and will back themselves to get a result here.
But with Belgium expected to rule Group G, England need a good start in Volgograd and while this is the era of self-deprecation, they don’t want to go too far. There are, remember, reasons for optimism about their chances of leaving an impression on an open tournament. There might be concerns about the defence, a lack of creativity and a youthful side’s inexperience, but this is also a team with a clear tactical plan, pace, skill and of the best strikers in the world in Harry Kane. I’ll stop there, otherwise I’ll say something like ENGLAND EXPECTS or LET’S WIN IT FOR MEGHAN. There’s no need to revert to the age of entitlement. Leave the cockiness at the door, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Kick-off: 7pm BST, 9pm in Volgograd.
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