England’s two best colour TV-era performances at international tournaments have been glorious failures set against the backdrop of low expectations among players, fans and media.
In the lead-up to Italia 90, the red-tops spent weeks panning Bobby Robson and his charges. Consequently, few in Blighty foresaw the ensuing Gazza-led run to the semi-finals and a cruel loss to West Germany. It remains England’s finest World Cup display since 1966.
Then, in the aftermath of failure to qualify for USA 1994, football ‘came home’ with Euro 1996, when El Tel inspired his team to another last-four defeat to the Germans. Since then, England haven’t gone past the quarter-finals in 10 tournament attempts.
As a result, it’s not particularly controversial or enlightening to suggest that winning things is not something to which the overwhelming majority of Three Lions supporters are accustomed. 82% of the population weren’t even born, never mind consciously aware of, the last time the team actually won a trophy.
The strange sense of entitlement that nevertheless persisted in many quarters has largely dissipated in recent times, despite sporadic attempts by the lunatic fringe of the media to bring about its return. So it was that Gareth Southgate’s men went into Russia 2018 with something of a free pass: exit with a whimper and no-one will be surprised; play well en route to another semi and this side is in parade-through-bunting-clad-streets territory.
And yet, having defeated Tunisia, criticism appears relatively widespread despite the hysterical chest-beating from giddy BBC hosts. Admittedly, it was a pretty modest performance from England, but there were encouraging signs, notably the opening 20-ish minutes. In previous years, under previous management, that match would have ended in a 1-1 draw.
So why are there hundreds, nay thousands, of outspoken, negative comments blasting around social media in the aftermath of a perfectly acceptable display?
“Saying something is rubbish gets more traction than saying something was quite enjoyable but neither brilliant nor awful,” wrote John Nicholson for Football 365, discussing the issue. Anyone who’s spent more than ten seconds on Twitter will recognise this phenomenon. We’re all guilty of bowing to it.
Yet there’s something deeper going on here. For some, it’s necessary to insulate against disappointment by trying to convince themselves they’re not achingly desperate for the cathartic relief of tangible success. That’s why England fans who have never known their team to be anything other than a shambolic let-down feel obliged to wrap up warmly in the comforting embrace of extreme prejudice against 23 decent footballers doing their best to win matches.
That’s pretty understandable. English fans aren’t the only ones wracked by fear. But in this instance it’s astonishingly wasteful.
How often do England teams look like they’re capable of performing above expectations at a tournament? How often do England teams blessedly free of ‘characters’ like John Terry come around? How often does it look like England’s passage to the quarter-finals is fairly straightforward?
It’s a rare occasion indeed when the stars begin to align and England fans are presented with the opportunity to get behind a pleasant and potentially very good team. Beggars can be choosers, but it’s probably not the best policy. With Germany, Brazil and France unconvincing so far, this is a chance for England to seize the limelight, one they may not have again for quite some time.
There’s no need to row in behind the slightly ludicrous “it’s coming home” brigade, but equally there’s no point being picky. It’s nonsensical to bang on about the standard of this side when you support a team that’s won five World Cup knockout matches in the last 50 years.
So, if you’re English, enjoy it for f*ck sake! You’ll regret choosing to be miserable during an England World Cup run.