October 2013. England play Ukraine in a 2014 World Cup qualifier in Kiev. The Three Lions hold out for a goalless draw that keeps them very much in charge of top spot in that group, and closer to Brazil. But that’s pretty much the only positive to be drawn from that game. England were uninspiring and incredibly drab, which, coupled with Ukraine being uninventive, made for a snooze fest of a stalemate.
That was kind of a microcosm of England in qualifying games in recent past, before the Gareth Southgate era. Games that seemed like mild inconveniences, England almost always breezed through qualifying, with minimum fuss and minimal excitement.
Games against the smaller sides were commonplace victories, while games against strong but still relatively weaker teams were like that one against Ukraine, unexciting, ahead of tournaments in which they’d peter out in the most unfussy yet disastrous fashion.
Well, not anymore from the looks of it. First came the World Cup run to the semi-finals which got the entire English nation bouncing last summer. Then there was a Nations League tournament in which Southgate’s team are in the semi-finals. If you expected things to revert to the shade of dull ahead of the Euro 2020 qualifiers, then you were wrong, as they began their campaign with a delightful display and a 5-0 win over Czech Republic.
Southgate spoke to former Middlesbrough team-mate Mark Schwarzer afterwards about how, back in their playing days, England players didn’t quite fancy playing for the national side. There was pressure, there were expectations, and it seemed to be suffocating. Results were seen as the be-all and end-all for the side, which led to a lack of freedom and enjoyable in the side, and the results didn’t quite happen, which led to utter disappointments.
Things feel different this time. Maybe the lowering of expectations has something to do with it. Perhaps England had sunk so low that the only way was up (well they hired Sam Allardyce, so probably). But it matters little, the players have freedom, and are enjoying playing for the national side.
There’s no suffocation or anticipations of them to do incredible things (even though they are doing great so far), and proof of that lies in the fact that the younger players are getting chances. None of Callum Hudson-Odoi, Jadon Sancho, Declan Rice or Trent Alexander-Arnold – who have all being called up recently – are above 21, and none are burdened by playing for the Three Lions.
Results are not just the sole goal anymore, evidence of which also lies with Southgate calling more players from outside the top six clubs in England, and even foreign-based players (read: Sancho). And with that freedom and expression of belief in their talents comes quality, but performance and results wise, since the start of 2018, England have won competitive games 5-0 and 6-1, and have beaten Spain and Croatia, and, arguably more importantly, are being by a delightful and happy nation, not an expectant and antsy one.
England may not quite be up there with the other top teams in terms of quality and tactical nous, their wins against strong sides have questions and ‘yeah buts’ about them, and their wait for honours may continue, but that’s kind of beside the point. Trophies are limited, delight and enjoyment is not.
No longer are players doing well for their clubs but getting overwhelmed when playing for the country. Football might not come home, but football is making home gratifying.