Every two years the fear is obvious. A sense of trepidation engulfs the England team in a way that few other sides experience.
It can be seen through the way the ball is shifted to a teammate a fraction quicker than at club level, the passes more often than not to the safest option. It can be justified by the way the media come down on their preferred scapegoat. Risks are rarely taken as the fear of failure is too great. Risks that could provide the moment of magic that the side is in desperate need of.
All of England’s performances in major tournaments in the last 20 years are characterised by this. Obviously not the only reason for the failures, but an underlying theme. The issue is ridding the players of this palpable dread. Despite the immense pressures that the same players are subjected to at club level, very few players seem to be immune from the fear that consumes the national team at tournament time.
One option is a siege mentality. An ‘us versus them’ position that can gel the side together against a common cause (usually the media). Bobby Robson employed this during Italia ’90 following extensive criticism of the team after a dismal showing in the previous European Championships, to considerable effect.
However the slight indifference combined with cautious optimism that surrounds the England team at present doesn’t usually provide the right conditions to adopt one. The Sun’s needless and racially motivated attack on Raheem Sterling recently provided Gareth Southgate with a perfect opportunity to aggressively fire back and rally the team around Sterling’s unwarranted persecution. Unfortunately Southgate’s usual calm and statesman-like instincts took over, and a relatively mild mannered and measured response was issued.
There does exist a certain breed of player though that is not affected by this condition that envelops the rest of the squad. A player rising up the ranks too quickly to acclimatise to the added burden of not just a city’s but a country’s expectations on his shoulders.
The step up to international football is just another rung of the ladder, and there isn’t time for the reality to fully sink in. Obvious examples are Michael Owen in 1998, Wayne Rooney in 2004, and even the 4 minutes that Marcus Rashford played at Euro 2016. In general their professional career’s had yet to experience any real setbacks, and their belief and optimism had yet to be contaminated with the rest of the team’s dread. The expectance of many future tournaments, along with not yet realising the ceiling of their ability led to performances packed with flair and brilliance.
Consider Owen’s own words on that goal against Argentina. The fearlessness and confidence in his own ability is obvious.:
I remember looking up and there was only one guy that I needed to beat and I had a run on him so he had no chance. It looked so easy to me and I clipped it in….I was ready to go, didn’t have any fear of the opposition and I just felt convinced I would score, as that’s what I always did.
Undoubtedly Owen and Rooney possessed genuine talent, and went on to have illustrious and successful careers. It wasn’t Owen’s mentality alone that raced through the centre of the Argentinian defence in Saint-Étienne in the summer of 1998. However this brilliance on their tournament debuts represented the peak of their international careers. The expectations both players had made for themselves were never truly fulfilled.
This leaves the question of who could be England’s Owen ’98™ in Russia? Players fitting the criteria of young, exciting and genuinely talented with their career’s on an undisputed upward trajectory seem to understandably be in short supply. This perhaps explains the yearning for the inclusion of Ryan Sessegnon or Jadon Sancho when the squad was named, largely based on a few six-second clips on Twitter.
It’s difficult to get excited about this England team. It’s predominantly the same group that fared so dismally in France two years ago. In fact the only attacking player in the squad left untainted by the events of two years ago is Jesse Lingard, who doesn’t seem to have the devil or guile required to garner the excitement of the nation.
Southgate appears to have been given a free pass by the media in regard to this tournament, with hope of ultimate success at its lowest for a decade. Although this has resulted, somewhat ironically, in ‘low expectations’ being cited as a reason why England can go on to overachieve this summer. Early indications for this team seem to be positive, and media outlets so far have only reported a harmonious and spirited squad.
A media day on Tuesday resulted in all 23 players being interviewed simultaneously, and described by Mark Chapman as ‘approachable, open, funny, confident and hugely likeable.’ Encouraging signs, but past evidence points to this all vanishing after the 0-0 draw with Tunisia.