The general feeling of expectation surrounding England in the 2018 World Cup appears to be lower than at any time in recent memory, and by recent memory I am talking the last 50 years.
The main reason for such low expectations is not the lack of a world-class manager or a squad of inferior quality, but the cumulative experience of our hopes being dashed in every World Cup since 1966, bar Italia 1990, when England lost so agonisingly on penalties to Germany in the semi-finals and came so close to fulfilling the nation’s dreams.
The most disappointing, to my mind, was probably the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when the so-called ‘golden generation’ featuring Sol Campbell, John Terry, David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen fell at the quarter-final stage against Portugal after Rooney was sent off, and from that moment on our performances in major tournaments have progressively declined, to the point where apathy and gloom have set deep into the souls of England fans.
However, there are good reasons to believe that England may do better than expected this time around. They are:
Low expectations. It might seem obvious, but when expectations are low, the chances of exceeding them are that much higher. As an example, losing to a team of Iceland’s standing would no longer come as the shock it did in the 2016 European Championships, while beating a team of Belgium’s quality would be a surprise. Low, or realistic, expectations from fans and the media also equals less pressure on the players’ shoulders. There is no doubt that England’s players have wilted under that pressure in the past.
The Tottenham factor. Whether you love or loathe Tottenham, it is always an advantage to have a group of players from a single team and, depending on the team that manager Gareth Southgate sends out, there could be as many as five Spurs players on the field of play.
Raheem Sterling. The young lad gets a rough press for some reason. It is unfair and unnecessary and masks the fact that he is an exceptional talent. Every World Cup throws up an unexpected sensation and Sterling has the tools, both talent-wise and mentally, to embrace the biggest stage in world football. There is no doubt he has flourished under Pep Guardiola, and if he can show the sublime skills that he has produced for Man City this season then the world is his oyster. Sterling has what it takes to be world-class and the stage is set for him to show what he really can do.
Gareth Southgate. He may not have the experience of a Roy Hodgson or the pedigree of a Glenn Hoddle and there may be question marks over his tactics, however, Southgate transmits a calm assurance that seems to rub off on the players. He is understated and he may just surprise a few people in this World Cup.
The squad is not that bad. Yes, that is correct, England does have some exceptional talent. Kane is a prolific scorer. Alli on his day is sublime. Sterling has the ability to set the world alight. Trippier, Rose and Walker know how to fly down the wings. Stones has simply got better and better under Guardiola. Maguire is underrated. Dier and Henderson can be pedestrian but can also pick out a pass or hit a thunderbolt. There are others who could easily come in and stun us all. No, this may not be the best squad that has ever left England’s shores but the talent is there and it is good enough to surprise us all.