Nostalgia comes easy in international week. The march towards the World Cup in Russia next summer continues in Malta followed by the visit of Slovakia to Wembley. England’s qualification already looks a formality, sitting pretty at the top of Group F as they do.
But then qualification has rarely been the problem. England are unbeaten in this campaign, as they were in 2014 when Roy Hodgson’s team topped group H. In Brazil they didn’t win a game. This was followed in the European Championships by the disastrous defeat to Iceland in the last 16.
It wasn’t always like this, which is part of the problem for the present England squad. As football’s mother country, the place where the rules were hatched in a London pub 154 years ago, as former winners, and as purveyors of the most powerful football economy on earth, England are assailed on all sides by expectation generators.
In a brilliantly evocative interview broadcast by the BBC, former England captain and radio summariser Jimmy Armfield told how he always falls victim to a sense of optimism when the team sets sail for a major tournament. It comes with the territory and a shared history to which he made a fine contribution.
Had he not been injured shortly before the tournament Armfield would have been the right fullback in the England team that won the World Cup at Wembley in 1966. He was in the team that played so well in Chile four years earlier, a group that he genuinely believed would bring the Jules Rimet trophy home.
Armfield also drew our attention to the fate of England in 1958 and how different it might have been at the World Cup in Sweden had the likes of Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Eddie Colman and Roger Byrne not been among the 21 who lost their lives in the Munich air disaster as Manchester United journeyed home from a European Cup tie in Belgrade.
Armfield was brought up on the deeds of Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews, with whom he played for five seasons at Blackpool. As a young coach, he took Leeds United to the European Cup Final in 1972, where the English champions were unfortunate to lose 2-0 to the Bayern Munich of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller.
This rich tapestry of footballing memories is vividly recalled and with it, we begin to understand the central position of English football in the world game, which informs us still when it comes to major tournaments. Despite the evidence to the contrary, we can’t seem to give up on the idea that, not only do we have a real chance, but that this is necessarily so.
And then reality yanks us momentarily out of our complacency. And with every passing failure the hand wringing over the quality of English talent, the lack of opportunity in the Premier League for young English players cut off at the knee by the import of global superstars, gains in intensity.
Yet, and here we go again with that indefatigable optimism, cast your eyes about this present squad and it is not without its strengths. Imagine, as his mates do in their downtime in transfer deadline week, how much it would take to prise Harry Kane from Tottenham?
Similarly, it would take a lot more than the £5m Spurs paid to MK Dons two years ago to shift Kane’s team-mate at club and country, Dele Alli, from north London. Likewise Marcus Rashford, Eric Dier, Raheem Sterling would command the same kind of mad fees we have seen flying about the game in August.
The gathering of the squad at St George’s Park this past week was met with more general positivity as Gareth Southgate continues to imbue in this group a sense of proportion, putting into perspective the post-1966 period while at the same time impressing on the players the opportunity they have to change the script.
Kane, in particular, has digested this theme, but he is also aware that at 24 years old, this is a time for doing as much as talking, for delivering on the pitch the qualities we know are there on paper.
“The biggest [thing] is playing tournament football. Ability wise I don’t think we’re far off. But it’s producing on that big stage,” Kane said.
“We talk about it a lot. It’s something that we’ve got to change. There’s nothing I can say in words that can change that. We’ve just got to try and prove that on the pitch. We will do all we can, work hard together and hopefully it will come together at the right time. At the end of the day, we’ve not won anything for a long time. We’ve had some good teams in the past but we’ve still won nothing.
“From our point of view, we’re in a situation where we’ve got to try and win something and that would be one of the biggest achievements in English history. The teams in the past have found it difficult. We’ve found it difficult in recent years but we have to somehow change that around and see what happens next summer.”
Kane reflects on an efficient display at home against Spain, a more expansive and controlled performance in Germany, where England gave their most convincing performance under Southgate despite losing to Lukas Podolski’s valedictory rocket, and the 3-2 defeat against ten-men of France.
England’s flat, featureless display in Paris was not representative of what this group can do argues Kane, coming as it did at the end of a long campaign.
“At the end of the day we only lost 3-2. I know they were down to 10 men for the majority of the second half. I don’t think we’re that far away. We’re a little bit behind at the minute. France are an extremely good team with a lot of good players to choose from but so are we,” he said.
“The most important thing for us now is to qualify for the World Cup and we can do that by winning the next two games. If that’s done and dusted then we can really start preparing. Our friendlies are always against top teams so we can see where we are at. France was a good experience for us. They were in the final of the Euros a couple of years ago. I wouldn’t say the gap is massive but we can work on that.”
Among the positive developments since England last convened is the continued development of Rashford as a striker of real menace, and the re-emergence of his United team-mate, Phil Jones, as a centre-half of genuine world class under Jose Mourinho.
And to think at the end of last season Jones was labouring with injury and contending with a manager who questioned his commitment and desire. At that point some believed Jones was on his way out of Old Trafford yet here he is having steered United to the top of the league with three victories and as many clean sheets, and looking the player Sir Alex Ferguson thought he was when he splashed £17m on the Blackburn teenager six years ago.
At 25, Jones is, like Kane, approaching his peak, and, after a period at United when his versatility hurt him, is now benefitting from consistency of selection in his best position where he does not feel he needs to go for every ball to prove his commitment or justify his place in the team.
“I've just become more experienced as a player as I've got older. You need to be sensible on the pitch and sometimes I don't need to go for balls I would have done five or six years ago. It's just experience and having a better understanding of the game and who is around you.
“Playing in midfield is a different ball game. You have to be on the half turn all the time, have a different picture in your head of what is behind and in front of you. Playing at right-back is different again. When I was switching around in my early stages people underestimated how difficult it was just to go from playing centre midfield to right-back to centre-back to right-back to centre midfield. It's not easy, especially at a big club, but I did it and think I'm seeing the benefits now.”
England conclude the qualification process in a month with a home match against Slovenia and a final engagement in Lithuania, by which time the process ought to be academic. Then the dreaming starts.
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