WORLD CUP COLUMN: Thirty six years on, when WILL we get it right?

England manager Gareth Southgate
England manager Gareth Southgate
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I can still remember the first England game I ever watched at a World Cup finals tournament.

It was wonderful - we scored in the first minute thanks to our goalscoring midfielder and went on to win 3-1. One of the two teams on show that day in Bilbao, Spain, was dreadfully unlucky not to actually go on and reach the final, but within two years had been crowned champions of Europe for the first time - thanks to their goalscoring midfielder.

Of course it was France, the losers on June 16, 1982, who were cruelly denied a place in the World Cup final that year (losing on penalties to Germany). And of course it was France who in 1984 were European Championship winners. And the goalscoring midfielder was Michel Platini, not Bryan Robson. In fact, Robson wasn’t even at Euro 84 - England hadn’t even qualified for the finals!

And so, unknowingly, it had begun - my lifetime of the England international football team briefly raising hopes, only for them to be extinguished shortly after.

In 1982 we won all three of our group games, but then were eliminated after two 0-0 draws. Back home, without losing (and in fact having only conceded one goal in five matches). Fast forward to Italia 90, and Bobby Robson’s men were agonisingly close to making the World Cup final. Yet four years later we didn’t even reach the World Cup finals.

Bryan Robson scored after just 27 seconds against the French in Espana 82. Though we conceded an equaliser before half-time, second half goals from Robson again and future Pompey striker Paul Mariner gave Ron Greenwood’s side victory.

‘We’re on our way, we are Ron’s 22, hear the roar, from the red, white and blue.’ They were the opening lines of the England World Cup song ‘This Time (‘We’ll Get It Right) as belted out by the players. ‘This time, more than any other time, this time, We’re going to find a way, Find a way to get away, This time, getting it all together.’ But we didn’t find a way. We didn’t find a way to get past West Germany in the second group stage (0-0) and we didn’t find a way to get past Spain either (0-0).

We haven’t found a way in the subsequent 36 years either, have we?

There have been some memorable exits, as well as some ignominious ones. Losing to the Germans on penalties in Italia 90 still hurts, all these years on. And who knows what could have happened in France 98 had Sol Campbell’s late header against Argentina not been disallowed? Or if David Beckham hadn’t been sent off? And who knows what could have happened in 2006 had Wayne Rooney not been red-carded against Portugal?

Ifs, buts and maybes - the global language of the football supporter at all levels of Pele’s beautiful game. It was ever thus, and it will forever be the case - even if VAR either reverses or confirms some of the more controversial refereeing decisions.

In recent times, England have had our so-called Golden Generation. Beckham, Rooney, Lampard, Gerrard - all won over 100 caps for their country but none of them ever got near a major international tournament final. Numerous managers have tried - the former England star (Hoddle), the successful foreign coach (Eriksson, Capello) and the highly experienced veteran manager (Hodgson). All with the same end result.

We got fed up with the same players always being picked, whoever the manager might have been. Give youth a chance, the call often went out. Now, in 2018, those who made that call have got their wish. And tonight, against Tunisia, we will get our first glimpse of whether Gareth Southgate’s bravery will be rewarded on the biggest stage of them all.

Southgate has selected one of the most inexperienced squads that England have ever taken to a World Cup finals, but he should be praised for that. He hasn’t got a Gazza or a Lineker or a Shilton as Bobby Robson had in 1990, and he hasn’t got a Shearer or an Owen or a Scholes like Hoddle had in 1998, and he hasn’t got a Beckham or a Ferdinand as Eriksson had in 2002, and he hasn’t got a Rooney that Eriksson had in 2006 and Capello had in 2010, and he hasn’t got a Gerrard or a Lampard that Hodgson had in 2014.

But what he has got is a squad brimming with the exuberance of youth. He’s got some pace, and in Harry Kane he’s got one of Europe’s best goalscorers over the last few years. That probably won’t be enough to make the last four, but we don’t expect that.

There are no huge expectations hanging over Southgate and his squad. Not this time. Not this year. We know Germany, France, Spain and Brazil, to name but four of the biggest hitters, have vastly more international experience than we do and a host of stars who have done it on the biggest stages. Perhaps that will help us? There’s nothing wrong with hope, and there’s nothing wrong with high expectations, but a dose of healthy realism never goes amiss.

I realise that now, of course. I didn’t realise that back in 1982 when I sat down to watch England at the World Cup finals for the first time - and then jumped up again 27 seconds after the game kicked off. I couldn’t have realised it. I was too young, too naïve.

It’s also amazing to think that back in 1982 we had won the World Cup 16 years earlier. That’s the equivalent now of England having won it in 2002, which doesn’t seem that long ago, does it? Back then, in 1982, England conquering the world was still fairly fresh in the minds of those who had lived through the glories of July 30, 1966. Not now it isn’t. Fifty two years of hurt, and all that.

Let me take you back to Turin, July 1990. The semi finals of the World Cup. England cruelly beaten on penalties, yes, but we could be proud of being English, we could be proud of our national team again.

That is all I ask for from this year’s Chosen Ones. That they make me proud to support the England football team. Not all football fans expect their team to win cups and titles all the time, but we do need to have our hope that brighter days lie ahead and we do like to feel proud of our teams. With this England team there is hope. Now we wait anxiously to see if can give us some pride as well.

Over to you, Harry and co ...