Football: It's coming home
We all remember the heights of last summer. A summer best depicted by Kieran Trippier’s free-kick against Croatia going on loop set to the immortal soundtrack of David Badeel and Frank Skinner’s ‘Three Lions’. Back then, the song was an in-joke that merely served to bind the country back together again, whilst also winding up every other nation in the world, who had this bizarre sense that we all thought we could win. Eight months on and that piece of delightful English irony seems to be having more than just a grain of truth.
Since that fateful night at the Luzhniki, where Perisic and Mandzukic spoiled our Dark Fruits fuelled party, things did not go back to the normal trend of boredom and failure, that has been the England national football team for far too much of its history. In the brand-new UEFA Nation’s League, we had our revenge on the cursed Croats and danced on the grave of that most recent of footballing dynasties in the shape of the Spanish. These successes have set-up a real chance of success this summer, where the Dutch, Portuguese, and Swiss stand in our way of glory in a senior international tournament for the first time in over fifty years. Even more recently, England scored five goals in back-to-back games for the first time in over thirty years to see off the Czech Republic and Montenegro as England take their first commanding steps towards the Euros in 2020. These may be games that a team like England should be winning with ease, but it is precisely because England did what they should be doing that is the remarkable thing. Anyone who has followed the team for any length of time knows that just because England should win a game, does not mean that they will and certainly not that they will do it with any semblance of style. It was the manner of the victories that is being lauded, as the dynamic and quick attacking play proved too much for our two opponents.
The first ray of sunshine has got to be Raheem Sterling. The man who spent most of 2018 being covered by the wrong kind of journalists and alongside Eric Dier being the only member of that squad to come out of Russia without an enhanced reputation. Since then the Manchester City winger has netted six times for the Three Lions, including a brace in Betis for England to win in Spain and a fabulous hat-trick against the Czech Republic, and single-handedly put The Sun out of business. In Sterling, England have a true key man, who is undeniably one of the best players in the world at this time. My sincerest thank you to Pep Guardiola.
It is not merely this on-field results that have me believing in the England team for the first time I can remember, but everything happening around the national team. The notable success of the youth teams gave us some hope of a bright future, but sceptical that any of them would end up playing regular first-team football for their clubs. Two years later and two of the u17 World Champions are already in the full England squad, and playing well for that matter. Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi both thrived on their first international starts in our most recent qualifiers, both lacking the deer in the headlights look that you might expect of a pair of teenagers playing in their first competitive internationals.
The amount of talent that isn’t yet in the England squad might be the most promising of all these signs. Nothing has given me more satisfaction this international break than looking at the u21 squad announcement. Before the alterations due to various withdrawals, there were many players in that squad with genuine first-team experience, as well as being bursting with young talent. Angus Gunn, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Tom Davies, James Maddison, Ryan Sessegnon, Demarai Gray, and Reiss Nelson have all player regular first-team football in one of Europe’s top five leagues this season. This even excludes the talented youngsters waiting to break through, such as Phil Foden, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ademola Lookman, and Kyle Walker-Peters to name but a few players who look set to have large futures in within the game.
Euro 2020 might come slightly too soon for England’s youthful lions – the French side will likely still have the edge for that tournament with Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, and Killian Mbappe out for revenge for defeat on home soil four years ago. But by the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, who knows what our team will look like and how good this crop might have become. But I think we should take this time to revel in the fact that for the first time in a long time, the future looks bright for English football. It is important not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but we are seeing signs of a potential era of English dominance in international football, and that summer of 2018 was not a blissful false dawn, but the start of something much greater.