England’s World Cup odysseys since triumphing for the only time on home soil in 1966 have largely ended in deep anti-climax and the odd near-miss but this sorry saga has never usually stopped a nation buying into tired hype surrounding the national team.
After so many disappointments, though, perhaps a more refreshing sense of realism surrounds the hopes of Gareth Southgate’s young squad in Russia. It will travel in hope but few in England harbour great expectations any more.
The captain will be Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane, whose goal-scoring record puts him close to the world-class category, and other potential diamonds include Spurs midfielder Dele Alli, Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford and stylish Manchester City centre back John Stones.
Yet England’s hopes may rest on the swift development of youthful talent that Southgate is blooding – and 2018 may well prove too soon for them.
Of course, following the success of England’s juniors in the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups this year, it is tempting to believe the seniors, who have reached just one World Cup semi-final since 1966, may be inspired to follow suit.
Yet talents like another Spurs’ starlet Harry Winks and Crystal Palace’s Chelsea loanee Ruben Loftus-Cheek, given their heads by Southgate following an efficient, unbeaten but uninspiring qualification campaign, have much to learn.
Nonetheless, many England supporters, fed up of so much under-achieving mediocrity would gladly give Southgate a free pass to take a more daring approach with the youngsters and fail gloriously rather than see another turgid, tame exit.
When he unleashed the young guns recently against Brazil and Germany, the goalless draws may have meant little in friendlies bereft of so many key players but it was a welcome step forward. In truth, though, Southgate’s still feels like a Pot 2 squad.
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