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There is nothing more quintessentially
English than high expectations ahead
of a major football tournament.
Except, perhaps, the ability to deliver
new variations of failure at every turn. Not since their semi-final appearance
at the 1990 World Cup in Italy have
England really punched above their
expected weight. They followed that
with a winless group exit at Euro '92
and qualification misery for USA ’94 and a new trend was set. The ‘Golden
Generation’ were perennial quarter-
finalists but always found penalties,
red cards or broken metatarsals – or
all three – in their path. No amount of St George’s banners,
car flags or painted faces has been
enough to will the team on to success.
Countless summers in which the front
pages have been caked in hype over
England’s potential to finally end their wait for a trophy have ended with the
same spaces being occupied with
referees’ phone numbers or
recriminations towards a player or a
manager. Yet even since the likes of David
Beckham, Michael Owen, Rio
Ferdinand and John Terry have left the
international scene and dreams of
hardware have fallen by the wayside,
England have still found ways to sell themselves short. Torn apart by Germany in 2010, a
complete non-performance against
Italy in 2012, out after two games at
the 2014 World Cup and humbled by
Iceland in 2016. The list of
disappointments has somehow become more frustrating of late
despite the general realisation around
the country that there would be no tilt
for the main prize. So as Gareth Southgate prepares to
send his England side into battle in
Russia this month, the question on
most England fans’ minds is exactly
how their side are going to let them
down this time around. Failure to get out of an advantageous Group G,
perhaps? Defeat to World Cup
debutants Panama, maybe? Whatever
it is, there is a general feeling that they
will somehow find a way to shoot
themselves in the foot. Or will they? It is fair to say that Southgate’s
squad fly out with almost
nobody believing they can
trouble any of the major nations
taking part this summer. Instead
the tournament is seen as a learning opportunity for what is
a very inexperienced group of
players at international level.
Not since 1962 have an England
side gone into a World Cup with
fewer cumulative caps, and to the majority of informed eyes
there is a lack of nous in the 23
who head to Russia. But Frank Lampard, a veteran
of three World Cups between
2006 and 2014, tells that the lowered expectations could
actually allow the players more
freedom to express themselves. Goal “I am hopeful about England’s
chances. I think expectancy
levels are slightly less and that
is probably a good thing for the
squad,” explains the 106-cap
midfielder. “They have a good team in terms of youth,
particularly in attacking areas. “England have some good
players who are playing very
well for their clubs in the
Premier League. I just hope it
can come together. Southgate is
working very hard with the squad. We can certainly beat
teams on our day. It is about
getting momentum at the
tournament. I expect us to get
through our group and then we
will see how far we can go.” Former England striker Gary
Lineker, who netted 10 goals in
their 1986 and 1990 quests, is
hopeful that the emphasis on
youth will help to pave the way
for success in future tournaments, with players like
Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Trent
Alexander-Arnold likely to
benefit from the experience in
the longer term. “We are on the cusp of being a
very, very good international
side. It’s probably, realistically,
a bit too soon. If we got to the
quarter-final, that would be a
great achievement with what we’ve got,” Lineker tells . Goal “But looking behind it, looking in
four years’ time, then we are
going to be super-competitive.
But I think this is a great
opportunity to bring in the likes
of Loftus-Cheek, Alexander- Arnold, terrific young players
who have performed really well
this season. And just give them
a go. What do England have to
lose?” While there are many players
for whom their very inclusion is
a bonus, there remains a degree
of expectation and reliance on
some individuals. Newly-
appointed captain Harry Kane now has enough Champions
League appearances and
international caps under his belt
to suggest he can turn in a
significant improvement on his
underwhelming Euro 2016 showing, which was
remembered more for his
corner-taking than his finishing. With Tottenham he has
achieved four straight seasons
of 20-plus Premier League
goals, bagging a total of 135 in
all competitions over that
stretch. If he is to make the leap from potential England great to
bona fide star, these are a big
few weeks for Kane. Lampard adds: “The World Cup
is the time for new leaders to
come out. Jordan Henderson
was showing leadership at
Liverpool in their run to the
Champions League final, Kane in his performances and stature
in the game is a leader. So I
think there are players who are
already leaders and will become
leaders. And tournaments like
the World Cup are moments when you have to stand up a
little bit. I’d like to think England
are not short on leaders.” Southgate does indeed have a
growing core with at least some
tournament experience. Beyond
Kane and Henderson there are
also the likes of Gary Cahill,
Kyle Walker, Phil Jones, Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Raheem
Sterling who have all been away
with England before and have
been performing at the top level
with their clubs for a lengthy
period of time. To call the squad completely
raw would be an exaggeration,
and there has to be a belief that
such accomplished players can
stand up at crucial moments
along the way. While the manager may not have a
multitude of options in every
position as some of his
contemporaries have, he at
least has something to build his
side around. Among the players counting
themselves somewhere
between first-choice and first-
timer is Marcus Rashford, who
could do with a stand-out spell
in Russia following a difficult 2017-18 campaign with
Manchester United. And Rio
Ferdinand backs the 20-year-
old, who has netted in various
debuts for club and country, to
perform under the spotlight. “It could potentially be a
breakthrough tournament for
Rashford. I don’t see him
starting the first game for
England, but I can see him
having an impact at some point in the tournament,” Ferdinand
explains to . “And I would love that to be the case,
because he is a young kid who
works hard on his game, is very
switched on and very
concentrated on improving
himself as a footballer. And I think that deserves an element
of luck and opportunity.” Goal As ever though, there are
simply no guarantees with
England. None of their squad
have had a truly great
international tournament
experience to turn to in the difficult moments to come. Gary
Cahill is their only player with
more than 40 caps for his
country but hasn’t been a
Chelsea regular, let alone a
permanent England pick, over the past 12 months. Meanwhile,
their three goalkeepers head
into the finals with a combined
180 minutes of competitive
international football between
them, all of which being accounted for by Jack Butland
call-ups in dead-rubber
qualifying fixtures. And that’s not to mention their
rookie head coach. Southgate
himself was not the primary
choice for the role, with Sam
Allardyce’s ignominious early
departure after one game in 2016 forcing the under-21 boss
to make the step up. Since then
he has done a reasonable job of
adapting his plans to fit the
players at his disposal but still
finds himself having to round out some square pegs for round
holes. He would have loved some of
his favoured players to have
played more football of late. The
very fact he called up Joe Hart,
a 75-cap veteran of three major
tournaments, for the March friendlies suggested that he was
hoping for the West Ham United
loanee to peak at the right time.
And while he eventually had to
admit defeat in that case, John
Stones has made the cut despite having found first-team
football difficult to come by at
Manchester City. Ferdinand can see why
Southgate has made that call,
though. “Stones has the potential to
become world class. I think he
has the platform to get there at
Manchester City,” the 81-cap
defender adds. “It would be
great if he can have a fantastic World Cup to set him off on a
run on that. He has all of the
fundamental basic things on the
ball to be a great. “It is about balancing that out
with defensive responsibility,
defensive nous, and creating or
having that instinct as a
defender. If he can get all of that
jigsaw put together, you have the foundations of a top player.” It is all about hoping that players
step up to the fore. Hope. That’s
the buzzword for this England
side as they arrive in Russia.
There remains an element of
expectation in that opening clashes with Tunisia and
Panama should return at least
four points, but beyond that
hope remains the over-riding
feeling for England fans. Belgium, their final Group G
opponents, have exactly the
type of mix of talent and
experience that has had England
fans expecting good things in
tournaments past. And beyond the group stage it’s nothing
more than a crapshoot for
Southgate and his players. Lampard, like many supporters
of the Three Lions, is looking at
Euro 2020, the next World Cup
and maybe even the
tournaments beyond that as the
real opportunities for English success. “Everyone is doing the same
now with their youth setup and I
think England were late to the
party,” he says. “The Spanish,
French and Germans have had
their academies for years and now England have that as well.
And you are seeing the benefits
with underage teams winning
tournaments. But competition
remains high across the board. “But we have talented groups of
youngsters coming through in
groups, which is great because
it allows them to form
relationships as they grow up.
And hopefully we can have success again at major
tournaments in the next five to
10 years.” After the misplaced expectation
of the late 1990s and early
2000s and the bumbling
mediocrity of the last decade,
2018 is all about the hope. The
hope that England just don’t embarrass themselves this
time. And maybe they could
even inject some belief for the
years to come. That would be