It all promised so much. A team that over the last decade has contained Michael Owen, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney who combined, had amassed an incredible haul of titles and trophies with their respective clubs.
England had fortunately been blessed with a hugely talented group of individuals breaking onto the scene within the same era. An elusive ‘Golden Generation’.
The last Golden Generation arguably had been an immensely talented France team that included the likes of Didier Deschamps, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and of course, the mercurial Zinedine Zidane. They had broker their World Cup hoodoo, lifting the trophy for the first time on home soil in 1998. Two years later, they followed it up by securing the European Championship too.
Meanwhile, the most recent Golden Generation has been a footballing revelation; Spain’s masterful tiki-taka has led them to an unprecedented three consecutive international trophies, being named the 2008 and 2012 European Champions either side of their primary World Cup triumph in South Africa 2010. Yet England’s Golden Generation is history, both in that we all know how miserable it was and we all know it’s now over. The greatest opportunity England had had since Bobby Moore et al lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy at Wembley in 1966. We had blown it. It had all promised so much but, ultimately, delivered so little.
It is no surprise then that national optimism is at an all time low. Having failed to even qualify for Euro 2008 – ‘Wally in a Brolly’ and all – goal line technology, or the lack of, surely can’t detract from the dismantling at the hands of Germany in South Africa at the last World Cup before a lacklustre display at the Euros two years ago. When the going gets tough, these once brave and proud Three Lions go into hiding. If we couldn’t do it when possessing a Golden Generation, what hope do we have now?
As the World Cup finals edge ever closer following the culmination of the club calendar, enthusiasm will begin to creep into our minds and our hearts: can we begin to dream? Yet the pessimists will come out in force. ‘We’ll be lucky to get out of our group’ will be the main criticism having been drawn against a solid Italian outfit that knocked us out of the last international tournament and a Uruguay team that always seem to save their best form for tournament football and are spearheaded by the awesome Luis Suarez (you might have heard of him) and Edinson Cavani (you might have heard of him, too).
If, somehow, we miraculously pull through, not even a penalty shoot out will eventually send us packing, with England most likely to face either Spain or Brazil if we reach the quarter finals.
But don’t let the pessimists curb your enthusiasm or try to reduce the pride you feel and the passion you display when you sit down to watch England kick off their World Cup campaign against Italy on June 12th in Manaus. We have many reasons to feel optimistic about our chances this time around…
Low expectations mean less pressure:
Expectation is low amongst England fans – so could this in fact be beneficial? The pressure has been insurmountable over the last decade as so many world class Englishman, fighting for both domestic and European recognition, have been expected to replicate their club form and dominate the world stage. On paper, at least, we appeared more than capable of beating the big boys and finally achieving international success, or at least posing a genuine challenge. And as each finals have come and gone, the pressure has mounted: ‘We must do it this time; time is running out on this Golden Generation’. Eventually, when it all came crashing down on that wet night against Croatia, it appeared we finally realised we weren’t going to win a tournament any time soon.
Pressure remained for 2010 under Capello’s stewardship, whilst the furore around the Italian’s departure and Hodgson’s late announcement at least kept us interested and provided 2012 with something of the unexpected ‘anything can happen’ mould. The pressure however has now declined along with our expectations, and the players could benefit from the effects of that pressure burdens them with. The weight of the world has been lifted off of their shoulders. With no one back home expecting them to lift the trophy – the bookies have us as eighth favourites behind Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Spain, Belgium, France and Italy in that order – they may be able to play with less fear and greater freedom.
Without the critical reception in the eye of failure, England has the opportunity to prove us all wrong with nothing really to lose if they do fail.
Tough group ensures England hit the ground running:
With the way the World Cup is seeded, too often the ‘big’ nations are place into groups they are expected to breeze through, meaning complacency can creep in and they are not well prepared when they turn up to face the bigger threats in the competition. In 2010, England were matched with Slovenia, Algeria and the USA: all games we realistically should have won comfortably. Instead, we entered the tournament in the wrong mindset and complacency was rife, resulting in a narrow escape through the group: we all know what happened next.
Facing the Italians in the first group game ensures England will need to hit the ground running.
They cannot afford to make the same mistakes against a better team who will punish them. Likewise, England will need to keep up this level of alertness in their second game against Uruguay; we have all too often witnessed the magic Luis Suarez is capable of this season, whilst it would be naïve to forget about Edinson Cavani. That leaves Costa Rica, which could then become a must win. With all due respect to the Central American nation, Italy and Uruguay will have expected to triumph over them in their first two games – and England will surely need to follow suit, meaning they cannot afford to take their foot off the gas.
Such a difficult group stage will hopefully mean they are far greater prepared for whoever the competition throws at them next. If the heat of Brazil doesn’t cause too great a burnout of the players, England can be mentally prepared and already performing at the high level needed to succeed whilst other teams may be shocked at the difficulty in rising through the gears after an easier group stage. Our intensity could just catch them off guard.
A fantastic season for so many players at club level:
England players have always seemingly performed better for their clubs than their country – this was both the making and the downfall of the Golden Generation. Yet this campaign has truly been spectacular for so many of the squad: Joe Hart has recovered from his early season blip to prove why he should be considered one of the best in the world currently; Gary Cahill has matured into the country’s best central defender; Leighton Baines has continued to gain plaudits as possibly the world’s best left back; Ross Barkley has broken through to become England’s most technically talented prospect since Paul Gascoigne; Wayne Rooney has been the only player who has earned more praise than criticism at Old Trafford this season with some inspired displays; and the Liverpool quintet of Glen Johnson, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling have all excelled in their incredible but ultimately failed push for the title.
With so many players performing so admirably throughout the course of the season their corm can only raise the level that England perform at as they look to finish an already stellar season in even more style.
There’s lots of young and hungry talent emerging:
Following on from a Golden Generation was always going to be difficult and several years ago the confidence in the immediate future of the national team could not have been lower. With less and less Englishmen breaking in to Premier League squads, often replaced by generally cheaper foreign talent, and with apparently no stars breaking through the ranks, the future looked mediocre at best.
Yet suddenly, the England pool is filled with talented youngsters who could even go on to emulate the Golden Generation. In the likes of Barkley, Henderson, Sterling, Sturridge, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Luke Shaw, England have a fantastic selection of young prospects who have already lit up the Premier League and look set to remain in the England set up for many years to come.
However, we can even push on further than this World Cup and on to future tournaments. The likes of Andros Townsend, Jon Flanagan, John Stones, Tom Ince, Wilfried Zaha and Ravel Morrison have all displayed their raw talent and could become certainties for future World Cup squads if they can build on their exciting promise. I know we’ve heard it too often before, but this team has great potential; far more than the pessimists realise.
Lots of competition for places:
At times it could be argued that the Golden Generation were guaranteed a place in the squad simply because of their name or status. Perhaps the most obvious example of this was attempting to accommodate both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard into the team – the latter of which was even stuck out wide on the left at one point. Not wanting to get into arguments of whether Gerrard and Lampard can play alongside each other, it nonetheless emphasises that perhaps there were times when certain players didn’t need to worry about their names being omitted from the team sheet, and thus didn’t value the England shirt so highly as they should’ve done. Surely, for example, Rio Ferdinand would’ve felt the need to impress Sir Alex Ferguson was more important than the Three Lions manager.
However, with much of the old guard gone, competition for places is rife: look no further than at left back, where one of the best of the last decade has been beaten to the plane by the fantastic Baines and exciting Shaw. Meanwhile, this season alone we’ve seen three players stake serious claims to make a position on the wing their own: Townsend, Sterling and Adam Lallana, the former of which has been unfortunately ruled out through injury – have thus far answered all questions that have been asked of them. That’s not even mentioning Oxlade Chamberlain, whilst Theo Walcott will surely have a say once he recovers from his cruciate ligament injury.
No player in this squad is guaranteed a place in the starting XI. A few are quite close to the ‘untouchable’ status – it would be a huge shock if either Gerrard or Rooney were omitted from the team sheet – but it genuinely feels as though anyone could quite easily be replaced. Hopefully this will bring back value to the shirt, with players passionate about representing their country and fighting the competition to earn their position on the team sheet.
We have a proven goalscorer alongside Rooney:
Not since Owen’s career went off the rails though injury have we had such a dangerous strike partner to ease the burden on talisman Wayne Rooney. It was always known that Daniel Sturridge has great talent, but he has been in phenomenal goalscoring form since switching Stamford Bridge for Anfield eighteen months ago. Of course, it has helped that he has had a certain Uruguayan alongside him, but it would be unfair to not give Sturridge his own share of the limelight; indeed, one of his most prolific periods of the season was when the Uruguayan was missing.
With Sturridge the focal point of England’s attack, we have a natural, pacy, skilful goalscorer that will allow Rooney to drop in behind and cause problems as both a creative force and a goalscorer himself. Opposition teams will no long have to simply nullify the obvious threat of Rooney – they will need to stop the somewhat unknown Sturridge who was unable to showcase his talents in European competition this year.
Admittedly, he still needs to prove it at international level, but if his Liverpool form is anything to go by, Sturridge will be a very dangerous weapon for England, and may even help Rooney break his international competition goal duck.
There’s a good core of Liverpool players:
Okay; this point may be clutching at straws somewhat, but hear me out. Having formed such a solid partnership throughout the course of the Premier League season, Gerrard and Henderson’s understanding could be vital. Knowing exactly how you teammates play can provide a massive edge in competition, and this will not only help them to dominate the central areas of the pitch, but ensure that they, along with Sterling, provide lots of ammunition for Daniel Sturridge. It may not seem like much, but these players can have greater confidence playing the ball forward knowing that their teammate will be there. Football is a game of fine margins, and this could just be the difference between a goal and a missed opportunity.
We just might win a penalty shoot out:
Ultimately, England’s tournament failures have always appeared to boil down to one terrible occurrence: we can’t take penalties. For one reason or another, when the final whistle blows at the end of 120 gruelling minutes, our hearts sink as the inevitable happens: ‘England knocked out. On penalties. Again’.
But could it be that finally we have several genuinely competent penalty takers? In Baines and Rickie Lambert we have two of the best English spot-kick takers in a decade, whilst Gerrard has had plenty of practice this season and Rooney is generally competent from the spot.
When the pressure rises, we can for once have confidence emerging from a penalty shootout in triumph and not despair.
We have a secret weapon:
We have several players who could spring a surprise on the world stage this summer, but our biggest secret weapon is in fact not a player but someone who will be watching from the sidelines: Dr Steve Peters. Dr Peters is a sports psychologist who has been widely praised for the success of our national cycling teams that have seen the likes of Victoria Pendleton and Sir Chris Hot dominate at both the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, whilst former Snooker World Champion Ronnie O’Sullivan also accredits him for his success at returning to the top of his game.
This season, he has worked at Liverpool, where their narrowly missed out on the title having finished seventh the season before he arrived. Coincidence? The players he has worked with don’t seem to think so, with Gerrard thankful for his new lease on life despite his age and Sterling’s praise in his breakout season with such excellent consistency.
Like I said earlier: football is a game of fine margins. Some may think it’s absurd, that it won’t help at all. But maybe the players will begin find that tiny bit more in their game and penalty shootouts, mentally and physically, that they can win it.
England fans: it’s gonna be one hell of a summer.
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