England v itself


LIKE a middle-aged woman on Tinder who’s been through decades of heartbreak, England arrived in Russia with low expectations and their emotions guarded.

Since England last lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in 1966, the national team has endured 50 years of hurt on the world stage, including some excruciating penalty shoot-out losses.

Even at the World Cup in 2006 when they had the “golden generation” in their ranks – Beckham, Scholes, Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney – the Three Lions limped out at the quarter final stage.

It seems being an England supporter has become an exercise in sadomasochism.

But could this be about to change in Russia? Do England fans dare to dream again?

The Poms won their opening two group matches, securing a place in the last 16 with their biggest ever World Cup victory – a jingoistic 6-1 thumping of Panama.

Optimism is beginning to filter through Wellington’s ranks again.

But will it be déjà vu when they reach the quarter finals; collapsing to the ground, draped in the Union Jack, to the strains of Elgar, after another agonising defeat?

That thought must be lingering in the back of every supporters’ mind.

Maybe this half-century malaise goes beyond players, tactics and groin strains.

Maybe it goes right to the heart of Britain’s national psyche?

A psyche best described by author Martin Amis.

He noted that in an American novel if a man met a woman he fancied at a swimming pool, he would brazenly stride over and ask her out.

In an English novel the next 30 pages would be about the man agonising over whether he should give her a call or not.

In crucial moments does the English subconscious whisper; “We’re going to blow this, old chap”, instead of roaring; “I’m gonna win”?

Historically the English have been an introspective bunch; a trait moulded by assiduous drizzle forcing people indoors to ruminate.

It’s no accident that some of the world best bands hail from rain-sodden Manchester and Liverpool, where teenagers spent years in their bedroom practising guitar and fine-tuning their angst.

The English press hasn’t helped the national team’s cause either. Decades of hype and a level of media scrutiny normally reserved for NATO war criminals has heaped inordinate pressure on players’ shoulders.

By the time they get to the World Cup they are already wetting their pants about misplacing a five-yard pass.

That scrutiny reached its preposterous nadir in the build up to the 2002 World Cup, when Fleet Street went completely berserk over David Beckham injuring his metatarsal.

The media coverage was akin to a civilisation-ending meteor strike.

And when things do start to go wrong, the tabloids round on their victim like blood-thirsty hounds in a fox hunt.

In 1993 The Sun’s front page featured a picture of Graham Taylor’s face superimposed onto a turnip after he resigned as England manager.

He had been nicknamed “Turnip Taylor” by the newspaper  after England’s defeat to Sweden at the European Championships a year earlier, and the media successfully campaigned for him to go.

It was cruel nickname that would stay with him until his death in January last year.

Some commentators argue that England’s malaise transcends sport and the country has been in free-fall since the fall of the British Empire in the first half of the 20th century.

• The Sun’s front page after Graham Taylor resigned as England manager in 1993.

“We [England] lead the world in decline,” Amis told Newsnight in 2012.

“…We rose earlier than any other country, with the exception of Holland, perhaps.

“We had our revolution a century before the French and the Americans.

“We were further along, and we’re further along in decline.”

Rabbit hole

Maybe I’m going down a Freudian rabbit hole and it’s as simple as other countries have better players than England. Who really knows.

But with expectations low and a fresh approach from new manager Gareth Southgate, maybe, just maybe, England can do it this time and bring the World Cup back to the hallowed shores of Blighty.

At the time of going to print on Wednesday (June 27), The Three Lions were due to play their final group match against Belgium on Friday at 2am.


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