It was June 26, 1996. England were playing Germany at Wembley in the semi-finals of the European Championships. I had bet my grandfather 10 pence that Germany would score first. Not a huge gamble in hindsight, but at eight years old it seemed like a fairly big deal.
With three minutes on the clock, the mercurial Paul Gascoigne took a corner. Whipped in towards the near post, Tony Adams flicked it on and Alan Shearer nodded it home through Andreas Kopke’s legs. The crowd went mental. I went mental, bouncing around my living room like a balloon with a hole in it. “You owe me 10p”, said my Grandfather, smiling. “IT’S WORTH IT!”, I replied, slapping his outstretched palm before launching into a very shouty rendition of ‘Football’s coming home’.
Famously, England went on to lose that game on penalties in heartbreaking, if not typical fashion, and that is the last time I can remember being excited about or, frankly, supportive of the England national team.
That 1996 team had character, and characters. At the back, Stuart ‘Psycho’ Pearce and Tony Adams exemplified old-school, no nonsense defending. In midfield a rotating cast of David Platt, Paul Ince, Darren Anderton, Steve McManaman and Paul Gascoigne struck the perfect balance of determination, discipline and flair. Up front, Sheringham’s intelligence and decisive final ball combined beautifully with Shearer’s lethal finishing. In the dugout, Terry Venables was a likeable cockney wide-boy, tactically astute and unafraid to make bold decisions. It was a team that played good football; that passed the ball well and kept possession. There was a palpable joy in their play that connected with the fans.
England hasn’t seen the like of it, since. World Cup 1998 wasn’t a disaster, but gone was the free-flowing football. The emergence of Michael Owen seemed briefly exciting before it became clear that he had all the personality of a linen closet. Glenn Hoddle proved to be a less than inspiring manager, while when Kevin Keegan tried to manage England through Euro 2000, he demonstrated an ability to handle pressure akin to Miss South Carolina, 2007.
Then came the six year reign of Sven Goran Eriksson that embodied everything detestable about the England national team. The ‘Golden Generation’ label slapped on players like Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard and Scholes hung wearily around their necks like the One Ring from Frodo Baggins. The football was pedestrian, aimless, and without philosophy. The side relied too often on set pieces. Gone were the likeable characters such as Adams, Platt and Seaman. Gone were the flair players like Gascoigne and McManaman. In their place arrived men of questionable judgement and integrity such as John Terry, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole, and others of questionable talent like Emile Heskey and Darius Vassell. These players didn’t represent the public, or make us proud. They were embarrassing both on and off the pitch. Despite this, the English media hype before each tournament dripped with deluded optimism and jingoistic fervor over a team that had done nothing to deserve it.
Little changed under Steve McClaren or Fabio Capello. Expectations lowered perhaps a little. The dire football remained, though. The attitude of the players towards their England duties was rightly called into question.
Then, in 2012, the English FA disappointed tabloid journalists everywhere by appointing Roy Hodgson over Harry Redknapp. Hodgson had managed 16 different clubs in his career, and England would be his fourth national team job, after Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and Finland. His erudite manner, proficiency in over four languages and vocabulary that extends past the usual clichés (when was the last time you heard a manager use the word “nebulus”?) has set him apart. After the carousel of incompetent and mercenary managers the FA have hired since Terry Venables, Roy Hodgson is, quite simply, a relief.
Although Euro 2012 was nothing to get excited about, Hodgson has since presided over a regeneration of the England squad. Young players, technical players, exciting players and most encouragingly intelligent players have been called up. The likes of Adam Lallana, Leighton Baines, Danny Welbeck, Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ricky Lambert, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge have been an absolute breath of fresh air both in terms of their style of play and their attitudes. They’ve brought with them a refreshing modesty, a hunger and a new, positive energy that has been missing for nearly two decades. Watch, for example, Welbeck and Sturridge engaging with local kids in Brazil.
It’s a far cry from Wayne Rooney (allegedly) paying a bell-hop 200 GBP for a packet of cigarettes, or John Terry sleeping with his teammate’s wife.
This is a likeable England squad that will give its all, and try to play good football. This is a likeable manager, who will act thoughtfully, and represent his country with dignity. This time, the results matter less because there are other aspects of the team to enjoy. I’m very glad to say that for the first time since 1996, I will be able to throw my support behind the country I grew up in, knowing that the English national side are in Brazil representing their country in a socially positive way.