Please, let us start enjoying watching England again
A sense of anticipation ahead of a major competition should surely be the right of any football fan.
It’s not much to ask but it’s a sensation England fans have long since forgotten as patriotic fervour has evolved into indifference and finally downright national cynicism through the years.
Which makes the pragmatic air surrounding both the Three Lions camp and supporters’ expectations as the World Cup kicks off, a breath of fresh air as ice-cool as a Siberian wind.
The hysteria which has for so long followed the national football team around ahead of major tournaments is at last being seen as the vacuous drivel it is.
On these pages last October, I documented a Welsh phone-in caller fuming about the arrogance of English fans who believed it was our right to reach the latter stages of World Cups.
Gareth Southgate’s side had just bundled past Slovenia at a half-empty Wembley in front of a TV audience where one million viewers turned off during the game.
So regurgitating the chat of channelling the Boys of ’66 and going all the way wasn’t quite the way the nation was thinking then.
And, mercifully, that’s not the tone now either.
But it’s also certainly not the contemptuous mood which was the starting point for the last two competitions – and continued to blacken as the players lived down to our non-expectations.
What has become increasingly apparent over the weeks counting down to the big kick-off in Russia is the measured and realistic build-up. The talk of believing, lions roaring and the Jules Rimet still gleaming has been conspicuous by its absence. So far.
Instead, sights are low and targets limited in their ambition after the last couple of chastening experiences in France and Brazil.
Of course, failing to be able to handle the footballing force of Iceland and tumbling out of a World Cup before the final group game does tend to quell hopes somewhat.
Those performances should be perceived as embarrassments. Instead they were received with a knowing shake of the head.
The tale of woe which is England’s recent competition performance record tells you why that’s so. It reads: failed to qualify/round of 16/quarter-finals/group stage/round of 16.
So the relaxed air surrounding Southgate’s side and all-round avoidance of hyperbole is to be applauded.
There has been a clear and conscious effort to make the players accessible – and respected observers have noted the culture around the squad is the most relaxed it’s been going into a major tournament in recent years.
The manager has played it well and it’s his leadership and philosophy which has led to a young group going into their opener with some of the shackles which have traditionally hindered England removed.
It may well count for nothing by the time June 28 arrives and the group fixtures are over. But with their draw, the dice are loaded in England’s favour of avoiding a repeat of four years ago and being out of the World Cup by the time Pompey return for pre-season training.
So yes, looking forward to watching your country on the biggest footballing stage of them all should be a given.
Allowing us to begin doing that and avoiding the familiar feeling of apathy once their contribution is over, would represent a sizeable step forward for the national game.