WORLD CUP COLUMN: England already a vast improvement on some previous World Cups

Here's a statement which might surprise you, depending on whether your World Cup glass regarding the England national team is half full or half empty.

Tuesday, 19th June 2018, 2:55 pm
Updated Tuesday, 19th June 2018, 4:58 pm
Harry Kane celebrates scoring England's winner last night

I enjoyed last night’s game.

Seriously, I did. And I can’t quite get my head around the social media comments I’ve read slagging the team off. ‘Same old England’, some of them said.

I don’t think so. Compared to some matches I’ve seen in my lifetime, last night was a veritable feast of excitement.

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Remember these? England 1 USA 1 and England 0 Algeria 0 at the 2010 World Cup? There was more goalmouth action in the first 20 minutes last night than in both those games put together.

Remember these? England 0 Portugal 1 and England 0 Morocco 0 at the 1986 World Cup? The red top tabloids were having a field day at our expense, yet all we remember now is the Hand of God and an unlucky quarter final exit to the eventual winners.

Remember these? England 1 Republic of Ireland 1 and England 1 Egypt 0 at the 1990 World Cup. Exercises in tedium, yet a fortnight later we were in the semi finals.

Remember these? England 1 Paraguay 0 at the 2006 World Cup. An own goal gave us the three points in a forgettable encounter. Then we beat Trinidad & Tobago 2-0, with both goals coming late on. That was hardly a thriller either.

Remember this one? England 0 Costa Rica 0. You should do - it was only four years ago and provided Roy Hodgson’s England with our only point of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

In comparison, last night England could easily have scored four or five against a nation ranked No 21 in the world by FIFA (one place higher than Iceland, and remember what happened when we last played them!). And that’s without taking into account the two penalties we should have been awarded for the rugby tackles on Harry Kane. They were inexplicable decisions, especially taking into account the lesser contact which had given Tunisia their spot kick.

I repeat, without stretching the boundaries of credibility, England could have had a hatful last night. Ok, we didn’t, but we won - which is more than Germany, Argentina and Brazil had managed against supposedly ‘inferior’ opposition.

I am well aware many people expect England to beat Tunisia at football. After all, I am one of them. But I’m not naïve as to expect England to win these games by five or six goals. History tells us we don’t. We never have. In some way, we are pining for a golden era which has never existed. But get this - we could have scored five or six last night. And don’t get me started on the fact we scored an injury time winner. Not every team that wins late on is automatically ‘lucky’. We were unlucky not to win convincingly against a side happy to defend in depth, and happy to waste time and try to disrupt the game; we weren’t ‘lucky’ to get the three points, not at all.

Ok, one swallow has never a summer made and I’m not about to stick a tenner on the World Cup coming home. There are obvious question marks about this England team. Raheem Sterling, a stand-out performer in a wonderful Manchester City side, was again ineffectual while I’m certainly not the only one wondering how Ashley Young deserves his place. At the back, there were a few indecisive moments which better teams would no doubt have capitalised on. But then again, against better teams we might not have missed a couple of absolute sitters and Jesse Lingard’s shot would either have rebounded straight back to him off the post, presenting an open goal, or it would have deflected in off the defender’s outstretched leg.

Who knows? No point focussing only on the negatives, when in actual fact there were quite a few positives.

Harder hurdles will obviously be put in our way, even if Panama - our next opponents on Sunday - are not one of them. Another victory there, though, and we’re through to the knock-out stages. The hard work will certainly start there, but we always knew that. Look, since Italia 1990, England have only won two World Cup finals knock-out stage games - one in 2002 and the other in 2006. Two wins in 28 years. That is not a great record, but that is our recent history on the biggest stage of them all and we have to accept it.

We would all like to take big steps towards improving, but small steps are more realistic. And with the England national team, realism needs to count. Last night I witnessed some small steps and I was encouraged. Some might say it doesn’t take much to get my encouragement levels up, and they might be right. But I remember World Cup dross against the USA, against Algeria, against Morocco, against the Republic of Ireland. Compared to that lot, Russia 2018 has given us a lot more to be encouraged about ...