World cup fever is fully kicking in and there’s optimism in the air.
Yet, because of previous, we’re reluctant to get carried away, so the nation is split, between the believers and the non-believers and we find ourselves missing the opportunity to actually just enjoy the moment.
For the first time in 22 years (if you enjoyed Euro 96) or 28 years (if you preferred Italia 90), we have a plan, we have system and more importantly and more crucial than ever before, we have unproven hungry players, that want to show what they’ve got!
The Golden Generation was golden because they’d already made it in real terms; Playing for their country wasn’t going to affect their status in their club team, it wouldn’t affect their income and it certainly wasn’t going to affect their already superstar status.
Let’s look through Southgate’s current crop. In short, it’s the least experienced of all 32 nations, with only 465 caps before the Tunisia game. Compare that to the old guard, players between 2000 and 2016 including Rooney, Beckham and Gerrard etc down to Hart, amassed a staggering 969 caps between just 10 of them.
It’s not only caps, some of Gareth’s squad aren’t even penned on their club team sheets come Saturday afternoon, and most are only just establishing themselves as first team players. Jordan Pickford has so far led the perfect apprenticeship, he’s gone out on loan to learn and he’s worn every number 1 international jersey, from the u16’s to the seniors. He’s had one season in the premier league, he’s hungry to learn and performing on this stage means everything to him. Butland has 8 caps and Pope has 1, highlighting Southgates’ reluctance to select a Supreme number 1.
Across the backline, we have no JT’s, no Rio Ferdinand’s and we have no players over 69 caps, the out of favour Gary Cahill being the most experienced of Southgate’s young guns. In fact, Rose (injury hit and suffering), Maguire (unproven), Trippier (unproven), Jones (In and Out), Young (irrelevant), Alexander-Arnold (unproven) which leaves just Walker who’s had a successful season as an attacking full back, being asked to occupy a new position, not yet tested against the elite of the competition. In summary, we have a rear guard with everything to prove and nothing to lose.
Across the middle of the park, we have the ever unpopular Henderson (despite two good performances), the uninspiring Dier, the nearly man Delph, the promising loanee Loftus-Cheek and a promising 25 year old united boy who actually only has 84 appearances under his belt in nearly 8 seasons at Old Trafford – great goal though Jesse!
On to the ammunition, which since Shearer has never been the same. Rooney might well retire and hold the record until ‘Arry gets there, but he never got close to hitting the dizzy heights of 96, which if it wasn’t for an outstretched leg, would have seen the golden boot winner have the chance to bring it home on home soil once more.
We have a John Barnes like figure in Raheem Sterling who is coming in for unfair criticism after a most improved season under Pepe, and who has visibly taught the 23 year old how to play on the half turn to utilise his speed, and not with his back to goal exposing his touch, which isn’t his strongest asset.
Elsewhere, we have a promising yet sometimes petulant Dele Alli, who seems to have one of those faces who escapes critics, without ever setting world alight. Granted he is young and has potential, but I’m not quite sure the hype matches the performances or indeed results of the club where he is so highly regarded.
In Welbeck and Vardy, Southgate has taken two excellent professionals, both capable of coming on for plan B, to nick one when needed. Slightly different in stature and style, they both have an eye for goal, with Welbeck being the country’s highest current scorer before a ball was kicked in Russia.
Now, there’s no getting away from our final two, in Rashford, we have a fearless young lion, eager to play and terrorises defenders, regardless of age or reputation. His injury is untimely and may see the grounded young man watching more than playing, but fate has a funny way of intervening, and discounting him having an impact in this tournament would be very foolish.
Last but not least, our talisman, scored in every game as captain, a leader of men, a level headed man who at early assessment appears to be revelling in the challenge. I for one was unsure that giving our best player extra responsibilities would be beneficial (Just let the guy practice what he does, not spending 5 minutes before a game swapping rosettes), but what do I know? That said, we have only beaten Tunisia and Panama, let’s not book the bus just yet!
So why now? Why is there a quiet optimism, an apparent confidence in players far from board in camp, like previous tournaments?
This is no fluke; In December 2014, the England DNA was launched outlining a playing and coaching philosophy for England teams and a vision of the future England senior international.
As the new found philosophy was quietly being rolled out, Southgate had already started his journey, when in 2013, he took charge of the under 21’s, and whilst not memorably successful on the pitch, came in for praise off it, with many claiming his selfless approach, was just what the national game needed.
2017 saw an unprecedented level of success, but not in one team, in every youth team, from the under 17’s to the under 21’s, winning trophies and beating the worlds elite with confidence and style.
So, when 2018 came, the nation had a quietly confident feeling. Not one of expectation, but excitement and optimism, one that has more and more people believing and living the current moment.
For once we have hungry players, who’s future’s aren’t certain or mapped out, they’re not at the peak of their earning capabilities or ‘undroppable’.
Let’s look forward to Thursday and enjoy the fact we’re through and progressing.
Because that’s what the DNA set out to achieve. Ensure consistency and connection between all age groups and make progress as a nation.
Enjoy the rest of the tournament.