Between reaching the semi-finals of Euro 96 and the 2018 World Cup, England’s participation in major tournaments can be broadly split into two eras.
The first spanned the early 2000s when a golden generation of stars were weighed down by expectation, anxiety and metatarsal injury. The tabloid massacring of David Beckham after World Cup ‘98 set a foreboding tone which hung over England’s superstar era like a shadow. Sven Goran-Eriksson’s quarter-final curse increased the pressure so that by the time Fabio Capello came along, with his no-wives and no-ketchup policy, the England camp was racked with tension. Capello famously accused journalists of spying on their secretive Rustenburg base in South Africa before the 2010 World Cup, and you could pinpoint the era’s catastrophic end a few weeks later, the realisation of just how far England’s golden glove had swung and missed, when a backtracking Gareth Barry reached top speed moments after Thomas Muller had scored, celebrated and jogged back to the halfway line.
The second era was another brief age of England: Roy Hodgson’s tragi-comic years. Not that Hodgson was exclusively to blame for three successive sub-par tournaments, none of which looked remotely winnable, but it was all neatly captured in gif form by his hanging head, ultimately bringing him more success as international meme than manager. It was a strange time when the team effectively picked itself given there were rarely 23 Englishman shining in the Premier League. Qualifying went without a hitch, the obligatory warm-up matches against ‘culturally similar’ nations passed without fuss, but there was always the nagging sense that England were gliding serenely towards an iceberg – perhaps in a luxury cruise boat down the Seine – all of which added some levity to the inevitable disappointment.
So what is strange and a little unnerving is that this time it feels different. There is not the heaving weight of the Lampard-Gerrard era, nor the sense of farce that seemed to come with the Hodgson-Hart years. It says something about the state of England right now that the biggest inconvenience to preparation was having too many players involved in the Champions League final. There is just enough lack of depth at centre-back to dampen expectation, just enough injury worry to keep sights firmly on the group stage and not beyond. But there is also enough footballing competence in this squad to be justifiably excited by the prospect of England in a major tournament, without the typical foreboding or dread.
This group have skill. And promise. And maturity. To watch an interview with Jude Bellingham is to see a rare thing: a 17-year-old with aura. The second-youngest player at the tournament talks like Michael Jordan has just taken something personally and has no doubt revenge will be sweet and swift. “Not bad for a Championship player,” he recently said to an interviewer who asked if he ever pinched himself playing in the Champions League, with a look that said ‘you should pinch yourself just speaking to me’.
Even those players who have at times been the butt of the joke have shaken their reputation. John Stones has made mistakes for England in the past but he was exceptional this season as a Premier League-winning centre-back. Harry Maguire finished the World Cup known as Slabhead; now he’s grown into his role as Manchester United captain and is rightly considered England’s most important defender. Such is his status in football that before the first warm-up friendly last week, members of Romania’s staff took it in turns to get selfies with him in the dugout.
Southgate’s calm hand at the tiller has certainly helped, when faced with having to justify his selections or anti-racism gestures. But perhaps what is most important to the mood is the anticipation of a squad ready to blossom. England’s is the third youngest in the entire competition, not because Southgate is building for the future but because there is a brooding crop of talented players banging at the door demanding to be centre-stage. Most of them are too young to let anybody down, yet too good not to be taken seriously.
England have enjoyed a net gain from the postponement of Euro 2020. Yes, Maguire and Jordan Henderson are still recovering and a fit Joe Gomez would certainly be handy right now, but Jack Grealish has reached new levels and Phil Foden has exploded into the global consciousness. It’s almost gone unnoticed that Harry Kane produced one of the outstanding seasons in Premier League history, topping the charts for goals and assists. And after such an abject 15 months perhaps fans are not quite so demanding, happy to have a tournament to watch in living rooms and beer gardens and Croydon BoxPark, finally a reason to throw a pint as high as humanly possible again.
It helps, too, that the Euros come on the back of that uplifting run to the World Cup semi-finals when expectation was so low. There was something dreamlike about the summer of 2018: the shootout, the waistcoat, Atomic Kitten. “It’s coming home” began with an ironic smirk and gradually became a question accompanied by the faintest breath of hope. Three years on, whether by accident or design, England have found a sweetspot between suffocating expectation and a lack of depth necessitating the existence of Phil Jones. All is calm. And it’s terrifying.