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17th Jun 2018

Why England fans should have hope going into the 2018 World Cup

Football might not be coming home, but something feels different this time

Reuben Pinder

Gareth Southgate, the whole of England is with you

Supporting England means going through the same emotional cycle every two years. It begins with reluctantly viewing the qualifiers out of obligation. It then progresses to the downplaying of any victory by complaining about our playing style.

Next arrives the naive optimism that the team might win a tournament, before it all comes crashing down to rock bottom after a humiliating exit.

Every single time.

But for the first time in a long time, something genuinely feels different.

It’s a strange type of optimism floating around right now, not borne from the assumption that having top level players automatically entitles you to a trophy, as has been the case at past tournaments. This optimism that I, and many others, are feeling is borne from the vast changes we’ve seen in the England set-up since Gareth Southgate’s reign began.

There were numerous problems facing the England side when he took over: the toxic relationship between the overly demanding fans and the players, frozen by the fear of failure; phasing out a legendary captain in Wayne Rooney; the identity vacuum on the pitch; and a constant battle between ambition and managing expectations.

During his time in charge of the national team, Southgate has hardly put a foot wrong. There were those times when he played Eric Dier and Jake Livermore together in front of three central defenders, but he stopped doing that, because he realised it was too negative.

This is encouraging. He has developed a tactical system and stuck to it, even if it means benching some attacking talent. Having the conviction to do that is encouraging. It’s all very encouraging.

The way he speaks with the media has been a breath of fresh air, too. When the topic of racism in Russia came up, Southgate’s insistence that “we’ve got to get our own house in order” was a pleasant surprise. Can you imagine any of the last few England managers having the balls to make that admission, despite the inevitable backlash from Brexit Britain? No, you can’t. Bravo Gareth.

And while it’s wonderful that Southgate has made all of these positive changes, he didn’t really have much of a choice. Iceland was the nadir. Never (in my lifetime) had an England team so visibly frozen under the pressure and suffered from such severe performance anxiety.

That mental collapse didn’t just happen though, it was a result of the culture we had all contributed to developing. That sense of entitlement to victory, one that is so now ingrained in the English psyche, had been one of the biggest contributors to our failings since 1996.

And it won’t have gone away completely, but hearing the players speak of a more relaxed, harmonious dressing room is an indicator that things are starting to change. You can’t guarantee that the travelling fans in Russia won’t turn on the team the first time Raheem Sterling loses the ball, but you would hope that the positive performances we have seen recently mean that happens less often, and in return the fans get right behind the team, as they should do anyway.

Also, let’s not forget some of the quality in the squad. There are average players: Trippier, Cahill, Young. But there is also Harry Kane, one of the best number 9s on the planet. There’s Raheem Sterling, Pep Guardiola’s personal project who’s coming off the back of his best goalscoring season ever. Dele Alli. Marcus Rashford. Kyle Walker. These are genuinely excellent footballers.

But even if they get knocked out in the second round, which is entirely plausible, it’s not the end of the world. No England fan should expect to win the tournament – that’s not really what football fandom is about. It’s about having hope, knowing that something great could happen. As the cliché goes, it’s the hope that kills you. But it’s also the hope that lifts you. It’s the hope that keeps you coming back for more.