England, expectations, and the endless march into the future

Laurence Griffiths

England laboured to a 1-0 win over Denmark on Wednesday night, but their young players gave an indication that there may be a bright future in store. A bright future that their coach may not reach with them. SB Nation 2014 MLS preview

As a spectacle, the international friendly is an unlovely and unloved thing. Games start in second gear and drift slowly down to neutral, with any rare flowerings of actual competitive spirit cut down once the substitutions — teams are permitted up to six — begin to roll. They're not particularly useful either: lessons learned at half-speed and quarter-intensity are of limited value. But one thing they can reveal is the general national mood: if the people are feeling positive, then a dull win is taken in stride; if they're not, then it's cause for deep concern.

And for England? Well, the mood, like their performance against Denmark, sits somewhere between 'OK' and 'meh'. This matters, because the feeling around the England team is always of great significance. While every country doubtless has its own idiosyncratic pressure — this time around, for example, Brazil are not only Brazil but Brazil in Brazil, arguably the most pressurised state of existence in football — English football fans are highly aware of just how much impact a country's and a country's media's view of its football team can have. Nothing is observed without hurting its feelings, after all.

So the build-up to a major tournament isn't just about how the England team are doing. It's also about how the country is doing. As if winning the World Cup were contingent not just on the conditioning of the national team, but also of the nation.

Are England's fans too excited? Are they too expectant? Are they getting ahead of themselves? Positivity is good, yes, but unwarranted positivity is the enemy. Optimism begets confidence, yes, but confidence in turn begets cockiness, which begets hubris, and hubris gets torn to pieces by nemesis, usually represented by Germany.

But wait! Are England's fans now being too negative? Perhaps the ideal state of England — the nation — in relation to England — the team — depends on the quality of the side. If they're pretty good, then be cautiously positive but don't go too far; if they're weak, then be carefully negative, but don't go too far. Otherwise they'll be crippled by either the expectation or the lack of belief, and it'll all go wrong. Wronger.

It was for this reason that the appointment of Roy Hodgson, a man who never once saw an expectation he didn't think could and should be lowered, a man who is to the raging hot fires of patriotism as a bucket of sand, sat quite well with certain parts of the nation and parts of the nation's press. His predecessor Fabio Capello's reign was far too distant, and whatever his merits as a coach his reputation was compromised by the failures of the 2010 World Cup — which memorably included a performance against Algeria so bad that a bird was able to roost in one of the goalnets — and the toxic fallout from Chelsea and then-England captain John Terry racially abusing Queen's Park Rangers centre-back Anton Ferdinand, brother of England stalwart Rio.

The England team circa early 2012 was not a happy thing. Its last major tournament had been a disaster, its manager appeared distant and uncaring, and its most experienced players were at war with one another. (They had also just beaten Spain in a friendly, so it wasn't all bad.) Alternative appointment Harry Redknapp — hailed by the tabloids as the People's Choice, which means the Tabloid's Choice — would have brought chirpy optimism and tup-thumping self-belief; the Football Association, the governing body that oversees the national game, were after something a bit more self-flagellatory.

Which is fine, of course. The world works in cycles, the fortunes of nations rise and fall. Some circumstances call for Genghis Khan, others Jimmy Carter. And Hodgson is not relentlessly negative so much as cautious by preference. (That's in outlook and general demeanour. In terms of the actual football, well, take your shots as you like.) Already the suggestion is being made that lowered expectations in Brazil will be beneficial for England -- that the players will be more relaxed, more at ease, more comfortable with their place in the world. Do what you can, boys. That's all England expects.

But. But but but.

England's best football against Denmark came after the introduction of Southampton's Adam Lallana, who is 25. His clubmate Luke Shaw, 18, made his debut at half time. Man of the Match was Liverpool's Raheem Stirling, 19, while the goal — set up by Lallana — was scored by Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge, 24. England's starting midfield included Jordan Henderson, (23, also Liverpool) and Jack Wilshere (22, Arsenal), while Danny Welbeck (23, Manchester United), Andros Townsend (22, Tottenham), and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (20, Arsenal) made cameos from the bench.

A new generation of English talent is coming. Is, perhaps, already here. None of the players above — plus others on the fringes, like Cardiff City's Steven Caulker, Southampton's Jay Rodriguez, and possibly even England Under-21's like Ravel Morrison and Nathan Redmond — are fully developed. Many may never be anything more than average Premier League players. But the very fact of their near-simultaneous emergence is exciting. More than exciting, it's encouraging. Which throws Roy Hodgson, England, and the 2014 World Cup into an odd position.

Assuming that Hodgson's eventual squad is as expected, most of the young players above will travel and a few of them will start. England — of the muted expectations and the limited horizons — will do okay. They may get turned over by both Uruguay and Italy and crash out of the group stage; they may get to the quarter finals and lose on penalties for old times' sake. Anything bigger than that represents a stretch of imagination so severe that it could cause long term damage.

The thought naturally occurs: would it be a good move to go completely off-piste? Drop everybody over the age of 25. Take 22 kids and near-kids to Brazil for a holiday — with Steven Gerrard and Joe Hart in loco parentis — and tell them to enjoy themselves without worrying too much about the results. International tournament experience is a rare and precious thing, after all. Why not give it to the future, when the present is presumed to be no more than adequate.

Hodgson is not that kind of coach, and will not make that call, fun though it would be. So fast forward to after the tournament, then, and to the planning stages for the European Championships in France, 2016 and the next World Cup in Russia, 2018. With a few of the old guard leaving anyway, and the young players having to take on more responsibility, the picture shifts. Hodgson may have been a sensible choice for an England on a downward curve, when the nation was generally depressed and disdainful of anything to do with the national team. But with a sparky new collection of international bright young things, the Hodgsonian fire blanket goes from understandable to incongruous.

In a couple of years England should, by rights, be feeling positive about its football team. It should be an exciting one, a fresh one: young hearts, running free, and all that good and entertaining stuff. An England back on the upwards curve again, that rare and precious time before hope turns to hype. If Hodgson can't adjust his mentality — on and off the pitch — to suit the interests and aid the development of the new generation of players at his disposal, then once the World Cup is over he may not have too long left in the job. Nobody looks sillier than an England manager being left behind by his own team.

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