Why there is hope in this England side like never before

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Television screens flickered with sadness across a frozen, dumbfounded nation. Stalled. Stagnant. Trapped in a whirlpool of despair. Hearts and minds conflicted relentlessly by chronic irrationality and benign concession to the damning truth. England had been knocked out. It wasn’t coming home this year.

With the contemptuous flick of a switch, the tortuous lights were off, Sam Matterface was duly silenced, and a period of withdrawn mourning began. Nowadays, such a repeated practice dares to become a ritual. It had happened again. It was always meant to happen again.

We have all been here before, of course. Hopes crushed, and dreams shattered. Why do we bother? Defeatism is at least predictable. But something makes us yearn for more. That ambition is fused to our spirits. It is human. It is ours. Yet, that does not make the pain any easier to bear. Nevertheless, it does add a blessed hint of comfortable familiarity to the sorrowful scene.

The media reports are effortlessly predictable; the social media apologies are prewritten and processed more than a 14 pence packet of bargain bin meat; the post-match interviews and news conferences are all unfailingly the same. Nothing can release you from that excruciating pain. It must be endured.

Years have come and gone in anticipation of this occasion, this destined moment in time where the course of fate could go differently. Then, it all falls into a void of collapsing failure. Maybe next time, whenever that is.

The story of the match and World Cup campaign has been told countless times already by various media outlets. It need not be regurgitated here. No one wants to read that. Not really. In essence, hopes had risen, as had confidence in a youthful, brilliant, heart-warming side. England expected. England fell short, somehow, again. Chronic.

This tournament and its empty suitcase carried by Declan Rice is far from the be all and end all for England

It is easy to call the match against France a robbery in the desert. One need barely initiate a thought to point their finger towards Harry Kane’s ill-missed penalty, the referee’s questionable decisions, Les Bleus’ unsporting rough play, mockery and more to suggest that this occasion was a stitch-up of the highest calibre.

Such conspiracies have been devised for past English knockouts, and they will inevitably come about in future. Everything in this bedevilled land of hope and no glory is heartache and misfortune. There is no point ruing over spilled and distasteful milk.

This piece may seem melodramatic; however, it is time the nation viewed these events from a wider, more complete, and optimistic perspective. The frustrating quarter-final defeat to France must be seen in its rightful place, in the arc of development set up by years of gruelling graft at St. George’s Park.

Despite the corporate targets of Greg Dyke and his well-suited posse, this tournament and its empty suitcase carried by Declan Rice is far from the be all and end all for England. A project is underway, and its loud rumblings are cause for sanguinity.

The spectres of tournaments past

Paul Gascoigne was crying, his tears displayed for millions to see. He had just received the booking that would spell the end for his magnificent World Cup at Italia 1990. That blistering yellow card meant he had no chance of appearing in the final, if England were to defeat West Germany.

Such sobbing eyes proved futile by the end of the night. The Three Lions crashed out 4-3 on penalties to Franz Beckanbauer’s side, who would go on to lift the trophy. Nonetheless, this had been their best performance at a major tournament since the golden year of 1966. The horizon seemed to be glossy with hope abundant. England expected. England was to be disappointed.

A drab group stage knockout followed at Euro 1992, whilst qualification was left wanting for the 1994 World Cup in the USA. The less said about these tournaments, the better.

Then came the era of the Baddiel and Skinner song Three Lions. It was Euro 1996. It was on home soil. It was to be our year. Alan Shearer, Tony Adams, Gazza and co. led the way daringly, triumphantly. Surely it would happen? It was bound to. This was England, the home of football. No one could stop us on our day.

But they did – those brothers in white and black. Die Mannschaft came to break English hearts once again on their march to glory. The young lions were slain, with Gareth Southgate’s missed penalty ensuring the nation’s hope bearers fell short at the semi-final hurdle on yet another occasion. Sound familiar? Fate can often be a cruel companion. With that in mind, it may be best to skirt over France 1998. David Beckham will undoubtedly be grateful.

Up rocked the noughties and the eruption of toxic press mania. WAGs, booze and controversy dominated the front and back pages of the United Kingdom as England’s shiny new golden generation became the best route to a quick and easy buck – photos first, football second.

England expected. But, then again, this was England

 However, on the pitch a new dawn beckoned. Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard – the list is seemingly endless and rolls off the well-versed tongue. Years of promise would almost certainly be fulfilled. It was unthinkable – absurd, even – to suggest otherwise. England expected. But, then again, this was England.

2002: a devastating but pessimistically anticipated quarter-final defeat at the hands of Ronaldinho’s chip and dip. 2004: Rooney’s crushing injury and another penalty shootout defeat sees England sent packing by new rivals Portugal. 2006: déjà vu digs its gripping claws into the Three Lions as a winking Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal triumph on penalties. Euro 2008: Umbrellas, Steve McClaren and bags of anger as qualification becomes a back page buzzword. 2010: The Germans are at it again as England lose their Round of 16 fixture 4-1 in South Africa.

This doesn’t paint a pretty picture, does it? Nor did losing to a Panenka-crazed Andrea Pirlo at Euro 2012, being knocked out of the group stages at Brazil 2014 or suffering a cataclysmic defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016. Chronic.

Nonetheless, hope dies hard – and not in the Bruce Willis sense. In the background, the FA had started spinning its money-making wheels with a masterplan designed to finally exploit the world-renowned academy programmes across the country. St George’s Park was born, and with it a dream for better.

A core component of this epiphanic belief was the board member’s favourite son they never had, moulded in the form of the type of man they would love to see their daughter bring home one day. He thinks logically, does not overreact, suppresses his most extreme emotions, and functions in a sober fashion. Fortunately for England, next along the managerial production line was Gareth Southgate, waistcoat included.

A mission, therefore, had been commissioned by those at the top. Russia 2018 was to be the first building block. However, what came was mightily unexpected. England did not expect, but it came extremely close to doing so.

The Three Lions climbed their Everest – or thereabouts – as they reached the semi-final stage for the first time since that dreadful night in Turin. It had taken 28 years for the cobwebs to finally be blown away, and how.

Southgate was beginning to construct an exorcistical reputation, as the spectres of tournaments past scattered before his feet

A young side broke through the glass ceilings of disappointment and distant dreaming to produce England’s first victory on penalties in the knockout stages of a major tournament and fell only to an experienced Croatia team in Moscow.

Southgate was beginning to construct an exorcistical reputation, as the spectres of tournaments past scattered before his feet.

Next on the checklist was Euro 2020, with a set number of fixtures on home turf in the form of the new and dazzling Wembley. According to Dyke’s premonitions of 2013, this was to be our arrival at the semi-final stage. How wrong he was. England expected, slightly. Teasing heartbreak was to be the result as Italy beat the Three Lions on penalties in their first major tournament final since 1966. Chronic.

Now, we stand here today after another quarter-final defeat to current World Champions France, accompanied by Le Roi, Kylian Mbappé, the tricky Antoine Griezmann, and everyone’s favourite eye pleasing assassin, Olivier Giroud.

So, what’s different? The disappointment feels the same, and we are no closer to glory. On paper, such suggestions are correct. However, the sentiment has changed. A cultural revolution has occurred under our noses. This England side is, despite the doubts, protestations and complaints, remarkably different to those haunting figures of the past.

No longer are we plagued by media controversy. No longer are egos allowed to dominate camps and pitches. No longer are we dependent on one player or poster boy. A family has been built under Southgate. That is something to be treasured. That is something from which to grasp onto hope, if only quietly. The spell has been broken somewhat.

Lion cubs

Another cause for hope rests with the youthful legs of the current and potential England squad. Standing at 48 days younger than Sir Alf Ramsey’s 1966 World Cup winning group, the 2022 crop possessed an average age of 26 years and 153 days. Kyle Walker, at 32 years of age, was the oldest player on the plane to Qatar.

One need not look far to recognise the sheer potential of this team. There are, of course, the likes of Jude Bellingham (19), Bukayo Saka (21), Phil Foden (21), Declan Rice (23), Mason Mount (23), Trent Alexander-Arnold (24), and Conor Gallagher (22) all yet to reach their prime years as players, all yet to show their best in an England jersey. This tournament was merely the silver stage of their progress. The foundations have been laid for a generation of success, with the bell yet to toll on their time.

Furthermore, a wealth of hope can also be discovered in those not currently in the squad. Arsenal’s rising star, Emile Smith-Rowe is only 22 years old, whilst others on the periphery include Marc Guehi (22), Reece James (23), Jadon Sancho (22), Harvey Elliott (18), Jacob Ramsey (21) and a multitude more.

Pictured: The upcoming generation of England stars have already tasted World Cup success at youth level. (Image: Joegoauk Goa via Flickr)

Admittedly, not all will make the mark. Such heady climes are simply not meant for some. However, the football factory that is the academy system of England’s finest football clubs ensures that such talents will today never run short. They are, in the modern era, carefully crafted in Cobham, Sheffield, Kirkby, Hale End, and places such as the Academy of Light. Such programmes are regarded by many as fool proof and glory safe.

Thus, the devastation in the desert was merely part of the plan, not its conclusion. It is a point of progress, not poverty. The experience gained by individuals like Bellingham and more is invaluable and a point of high satisfaction. They will learn in heaps from the tale of Qatar. They will return to these stages without daunting fear of the unknown and hold an expectation to make it their own.

As for those who did not make the notoriously exclusive plane to the desert, a hunger is being instilled elsewhere. One need only cast a glance at the Under 17 World Cup winning squad from 2017 to see that there are those not currently in the squad who are more than capable of playing a part.

Tournaments such as those may have an artificial aura about them, but it is nevertheless a setting of a specific mantra. Players fortunate enough to engage with this system are being indoctrinated for success. A new generation is coming, if not already here. The evolution is starting from the bottom.

A well-trodden path

International football is an odd thing. There are no transfers (bar Diego Costa), with teams usually consisting of a mish mash of stars and studs in a desperate attempt to construct a respectable squad for football’s biggest stage. Thus, the production of a well-thought-out unit accompanied by a grand masterplan is a rarity at most. International managers make teams, not dreams. That is the status quo, anyway.

However, upon poring over the tales of the last decade’s World Cup winners, a matter of distinction comes to light: their squads have been cut from a different cloth to their contemporary rivals. They have, in essence, been designed, crafted, moulded or whatever else a thesaurus can throw at you, for success. There have been no accidents. Such is not permitted in the modern era.

Take Germany, for example. Die Mannschaft. The party spoilers. Every opponent’s worst nightmare up until 2018. In the summer of 2002, after a World Cup Final defeat to the one leg of the ‘original’ Ronaldo, DFB – the governing body of German football – introduced its “Talent Development Programme” which would cover the nation with 390 bases to ensure no gem was to be left unturned.

In 2007, this project was advanced after a hopeful but ultimately disappointing home World Cup. A specific education concentrating on the technical development of young players was incorporated into the regime. Professional clubs, with roughly 65 focusing on each base, were lapping up the talent. A football factory was in full effect.

Pictured: Germany were crowned champions at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. (Image: Felix Ozeray via Flickr)

Soon enough, elite talent was being churned out at an alarmingly efficient rate. As a result, Germany’s national teams proffered on an immense scale. The likes of Thomas Mueller, Mesut Oezil, Sami Khedira and Manuel Neuer arrived on the scene, with each making it into Joachim Low’s rebranded 2010 World Cup squad. They would reach the semi-finals and lose 1-0 to the indomitable Spain.

Nevertheless, the signs were encouraging with further young players passing the programme. The 2014 World Cup would see the previous cohort hit new heights on the pitch, with Mario Goetze, Matthias Ginter, and Julian Draxler complementing the carefully selected side. Regal displays against Portugal, France, and that historic 7-1 smashing of hosts Brazil culminated in a magical 1-0 victory over Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the final. Germany pronounced themselves World Champions a mere 12 years after the introduction of their development programme.

One may ask what relevance this has to England’s defeat against France. Well, here’s a clue.

In 2012, a £105m investment by the FA helped to create the “home of England”, St George’s Park. Alongside this came a programme for the ages, copied from other supposedly elite European counterparts in an attempt to replicate their sustained success on the pitch. Training was to be standardised and centralised as a brave new world came to the fore. The youth teams were to become a mirror image of the senior side. Ultimately, football was to come home.

This masterplan is still ongoing, ten years later. It has produced the likes of Foden, Bellingham, Saka and more. The team you saw on the dry pitches of Qatar are part of this vision, and the project is far from over. We may have been disappointed on this occasion, but more is still to come.

Admittedly, the clock is ticking for this vibrant generation of slick superstars and all this hype might suddenly come to haunt the nation all over again. Pessimism is contagious on these streets and expectation is chronic, after all.

Nonetheless, if Germany’s story is anything to go on, those trophies might soon arrive. So, don’t lose hope just yet. The lions look set to roar somewhere down the line.

Featured image: Ben Sutherland via Flickr

One thought on “Why there is hope in this England side like never before

  • Interesting article. Despite not reaching as far in Qatar as Russia, England were actually closer to winning the trophy in 2022 in my opinion.

    I guess a few rambling random points I would make;

    1) I’d take issue with the supposed youthfulness of this squad. England were roughly in the middle of the pack for this tournament, in terms of young teams to watch in the future, Spain & USA were very inexperienced. For the record here is the approximate age of 21st century male FIFA World Cup winners; Brazil (27), Italy (29), Spain (27), Germany (27), France (26) & Argentina (28). So this England squad of around 26 arguably should have been peaking now in Qatar.

    I’m sceptical important duo of Jordan Henderson & Raheem Sterling will appear at another World Cup. Will Captain Kane still be around? Worse still, England may need to rebuild a completely new defence. As you say Kyle Walker is 32, as is his fellow right back Kieran Trippier. After Ben White returned home, the four remaining central defenders were Harry Maguire, John Stones, Eric Dier & Conor Coady. Stones is the youngest of that quartet, and he’ll be 32 at the next World Cup. Luke Shaw is a similar age and given his physical history, I doubt he’ll still playing at International level in his thirties either. Pickford should make it, goalkeepers generally mature later, however Joe Hart for example earnt his last cap at the age of 30.

    That said I take your point that Pickford, Ramsdale, Reece James, Alexander-Arnold, Chilwell, Guehi, Rice, Bellingham, Gallagher, Mount, Foden, Saka are a cadre with potential. I fear non-football related issues such as the North American climate could pose a thread to their chances however. Assuming England qualify of course, they did not the last time this continent hosted the World Cup in 1994 and four times Champion (also runner up in 1994) Italy absence in consecutive global tournaments means England should not take their presence for granted. If they are to finally lift a major trophy, 2028 is probably more realistic, particularly if given home advantage. As you said, clock is ticking for that generation.

    2) You reference Les Bleus ‘unsporting rough play, mockery’. Be that as it may, they’ve made 4/7 of the last World Cup finals. The team that stopped them retaining their title, Argentina, had far worse conduct during the tournament. I thought they were odious against Netherlands and their goalkeepers antics in the final typified them.

    However they are now triple Champions and I think you’ve got to learn from winners. Unless you’re satisfied with taking home the Fair Play award instead! I remember thinking the Chiellini choke on Bukayo Saka would be condemned, instead it became a meme from rival fans. A Brazilian friend of mine said he thought English players are too much like gentleman to compete against South American teams, something to consider.

    3) The FA’s money-making wheels are a bit overstated. Some people believe incorrectly that they get access to the Premier League broadcasting revenue. I’m glad they did eventually end up building St George’s Park though, Arsène Wenger said he couldn’t believe any big football nation would not have such a facility. The late Gérard Houllier who was involved with early days of Clairefontaine also supported SGP.

    Problem is, as journalist Sam Wallace has confirmed, SGP is not directly comparable to Clairefontaine. Actually to my knowledge the FA were keen to also copy the German youth development system you describe. Premier League disagreed and designed the EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan) instead. And you are probably right to describe this academy programme as world-renowned. Last year marked a decade of EPPP and almost two billion (£1.94B) has been spend in this period. That’s more than any other European top flight according to a 2020 report by UEFA. If you’re interested in the other top ten, google an article titled ‘UEFA report highlights Premier League clubs top academy spends with €6.1m a year’.

    You rightly mentioned the academies of Cobham, Sheffield, Kirkby, Hale End & Sunderland. I’ve heard the best option in this country is probably Etihad Campus. A delegation from Borussia Dortmund visited and stated that it was superior to any alternative in Germany. Leicester have a new first class facility at Seagrave for example. Strong rumours that Newcastle will be building a state of the art training ground also.

    This expenditure is partly why I dislike the proposed (ESL) European Super League. Many journalists believe a big motivating factor behind that concept was frustration at higher broadcasting revenue received by the Premier League and an attempt to divert those funds in their direction. If the status quo remains then we’re going to eventually find out whether there is a correlation between investing such huge sums into infrastructure and the success of a national team. Vincent Kompany predicted it eventually would a few years ago.

    4) Your point about no longer being plagued by media controversy and egos does seem to be true. I just wonder when Southgate leaves if those deficiencies shall return.

    As for him creating an exorcistical reputation, I’m still waiting for England to eliminate a big football nation in a knock out match without home advantage!

    Anyway thanks again for your interesting article, nice to see some optimism. 2022 should still go down as a great year for English football anyway, what the women achieved under Wiegman was wonderful.

    Reply

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