They say it’s always darkest before the dawn. If that’s true then England must be well overdue that first ray of sunshine after what seems to have been an eternity of night.
The famous wait for a major trophy now stands at 48 years and counting. By the time the European Championships role around in 2016 it will have been exactly half of a century since England lifted the World Cup for the only time in the competition's history.
Naturally the list of reasons documenting the cause of the Three Lions’ failings over the years is long and well rehearsed. The excuses appear to have become a staple in the life of England fans, and the acknowledgment of the national football team’s woes has been around for so long that it’s now more accepted as an inevitable fact rather than a genuine cause for frustration.
Despite the endless streams of justification though one fact remains; England have never been good enough to win a World Cup or European Championship. They’ve come close for sure, and the passionate support from those bearing the flags of St. George hasn’t waned one bit until very recently, but they’ve never been truly on the same level as most of world football’s other national superpowers.
The end of an era
To compile the feeling of despair currently gripping the nation, summed up perfectly by the record low attendance at Wembley last week, which was a poultry 40,181, the end of an era has been deftly ushered in following the first-round exit in Brazil this summer. The respective retirements of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard mark a definitive end to the ‘golden generation’ of the noughties, which was birthed upon the formation of a team said to be capable of dominating world football.
The aforementioned pair, joined the likes of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Ashley Cole, were tipped to finally shake off the underachieving tag England have accumulated. The domestic form and shared honours of the host of world-class players certainly paved the way for widespread optimism, but it wasn’t to be.
The last three remnants of the era which failed to deliver on the international stage all announced their retirements this year, with Lampard's decision to announce he was hanging up his boots for England last month coming after Gerrard’s only four week previous and Cole’s following his omission from Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad.
Passing of the mantle
And so the mantle is now passed over to a Wayne Rooney-led setup which starts its qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 tonight against Switzerland. The criticisms of the side, who find themselves 20th in the FIFA World Ranking, behind the likes of Bosnia, Mexico and the USA, have been plentiful, and the narrow 1-0 victory over Norway last Wednesday did little to allay fears that the team are ill-equipped to mix it with the best out there.
Yet despite the qualms over the lack of inspiration in the England squad there remains frequent glimmers of hope which point to positivity. First of all there’s the lack of pressure to perform. The emphasis on winning has long surrounded the England camp and rarely has it been healthy or beneficial.
Then there’s the obvious bonuses which come with taking an approach centered around youth, which Hodgson appears to be implementing. The average age of the squad against Norway was close to 24 and that, though highlighting a possible lack of experience at the highest level, creates a degree of pleasant expectancy for the future.
In contrast the squad Fabio Capello took to South Africa in 2010 had an average age of 29, further reinforcing the idea that the England team of today is very much hovering above a blank canvas of opportunity.
The star players
In the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Phil Jones, Jon Stones and Jordan Henderson Hodgson has players who have the potential to be world-class if moulded correctly at club level. Then there’s Raheem Sterling; a player of untold promise who has established himself as a leading Premier League talent well before his 20th birthday.
Indeed this crop of players have the backing of plenty of individuals whose opinions carry substantial weight. Rio Ferdinand, in a recent interview with the BBC, made it clear that he felt the attacking capabilities of the side were as potent as ever, and stated that as long as Hodgson sets his team up right there’s no reason why it can’t go on to achieve great things.
“Look at the 'golden generation'. Why didn't they succeed? Partly it was down to us - but maybe we weren't set up the right way,” the ex-England skipper said.
"I wouldn't want to play against that England squad. I'm excited about the frontline - young, hungry talents who should flourish within a system."
The project moving forward
As with all great footballing projects England aren’t going to realise the incredible potential of their current team overnight, and the results probably aren’t going to be witnessed during the forthcoming Euro campaign. First up is a Xherdan Shaqiri-inspired Switzerland side tonight, which promises to be a far more difficult fixture to navigate than Norway were.
Though the Swiss were humiliated by France in their second World Cup fixture this summer they rallied soon after, and it took a last minute goal courtesy of a Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria partnership to knock them out in the second-round. To assume that England will bowl them over as they look to establish an early lead in Group E is every bit as dangerous as it is foolish.
Yet the match in Basel presents Hodgson’s side with the perfect opportunity to give their many doubters genuine food for thought.
A positive away result against arguably the hardest opposition England will face in the group will go some way to re-installing a lot of the belief which was lost by the tepid displays in Brazil, and the outcome can be used as a barometer to discern what fans can expect to see in the months to come.
The dawn breaking of the dawn
You get the sense that it’s going to be a long road to redemption for England, and one that will likely go downhill further before it begins its ascension. In Hodgson however they have a manager who has proven that he is ready to place his trust in the next generation of players, and pick on form as opposed to reputation, which could be a key to success previous managers have neglected.
The general consensus is that the supporters of the Three Lions will have to wait a fair while for that first ray of sunshine to come. Upon closer inspection it could be argued that it’s already slowly burning within the folds of the young squad.