‘So many jokes, so many sneers. But all those oh so nears wear you down, through the years.’
That has been how it has felt to be an England fan ever since 1966. And those words written by Baddiel and Skinner 25 years ago have still held their power, because that has continued to be the theme of England’s tournament participation. Every time it comes around, we start to think maybe, just maybe this could be our year. Only to have that hope dashed to the rocks. That was the case in 1996, where England came with about 10 millimetres of going through to the final, only to lose on penalties. They wouldn’t reach a semi-final until 2018 in Russia, where they again fell short, in extra-time on that occasion. Now, I’m exceedingly lucky when it comes to club football in that I support Chelsea. A team that has won trophies nearly every single year that I have been watching them. Which is nearly 20 (I went to my first game in January 2003 and really started paying attention at the start of that season.) Watching England therefore began to take very much a back seat. If I was able to, I would watch the game when it was on, but I never put too much into it. I’ve written on this blog before about how I had lost interest in the England team’s fixtures. When it came time for tournaments, I would watch with more interest, but not with any expectations. I just watched for the event itself.
I actually got more enjoyment from Scotland qualifiying for the Euros, because that was just so unexpected. Scotland had made it to a major tournament once in my lifetime and that was when I was two so I couldn’t exactly remember it. England qualifying is par for the course so there was nothing to really get off your seat about there. I had also seen England go out of tournaments before at every stage but the final, so I didn’t think there would be much to get excited about this time. However, Southgate has proven he is the right man to be in charge of the England team. He not only has been brave enough to stick by his decisions, he’s stuck by players who may not have been many pundits or fans starting line-ups at the start of the tournament. I don’t think anyone is going to question his judgement now. And while some may disagree, he has also backed his players in their continuing to take the knee and show their commitment to removing racism from the game and society. He’s not looked to create some new trailblazing tactic, but he is more than comfortable switching the system and the personnel around to fit the situation. So don’t be too surprised if Southgate does make changes for Sunday’s game.
If you had asked my dad in about 1985 whether he thought Chelsea would ever win the European Cup (as it was called then), he would have probably laughed and said ‘no way’. He didn’t even think they would ever win the First Division or the Premier League. If you had asked me in 2016, after England had just embarrassed themselves going out of Euro 2016 to Iceland, I would have also said ‘no way.’ I just didn’t see it happening. I was content to watch England reach major tournaments and go out in the knockout rounds. I could just watch the tournament around them and be happy with that. But there was something bubbling under the surface. The players that were developing in the years after that awful exit have come through. Let’s not forget that England won the Under-17s and Under-20s World Cups in 2017. The cores of those squads are now in the senior squad. They have the right man in charge, a man who is able to bring them together to pull for one cause, show them what it means to represent their country, and has brought them to the brink of writing a new history for a footballing nation that has often flattered to deceive. Do I think we can beat Italy? I think we have a chance. We can’t get ahead of ourselves, and start celebrating before anything has happened. But like in 2018, England have surpassed expectations, and restored pride in the national side.
I won’t say it’s coming home yet.
‘I know that was then, but it could be again…’