Watching England beat Germany on Saturday brought an unusual wave of positivity to those supporters watching in the Olympiastadion and at home. Even when Roy Hodgson’s side were 2-0 down, the team performance and individual displays made you feel proud rather than ashamed, the late comeback adding icing to an already sweet cake.
False hope is a dangerous thing, nearer to naivety than realistic ambition. It can, and has before, cloud judgment, making supporters look foolish. This time hope doesn’t look misplaced, but a logical reaction. Saturday was the first time in almost 40 years that England had come from two goals down to win. This team are making us believe.
Twelve hours after the final whistle, and the fun police had already been deployed, their handcuffs and truncheons at the ready. Stop your enjoyment! Stop getting giddy. You’re building them up too much. The defence is still s**t. Repeat all ad infinitum.
Each of those points contains strands of truth, but miss the point. If you can’t enjoy the moments of triumph, however small, then you might as well pack up. Supporting England over the last 10, 20, 30 and 40 years has been a repeated exercise in hope followed by disappointment. If you can’t enjoy the former, the latter reigns eternal.
This is the most likeable England team – in terms of its style and personalities – in some time. At 19, Dele Alli is one of the world’s most exciting teenagers, while Harry Kane has developed into a striker that every other manager at Euro 2016 would love to have. The emergence of Eric Dier as a defensive midfield option owes much to Mauricio Pochettino, but Hodgson also deserves credit for trying him in the role.
We have pressing, we have pace and we have link-up play which demonstrates the high morale. It’s something we haven’t said since Euro ‘96, but this is a fun England team. For the first time in 20 years, competence and excitement are not mutually exclusive.
Suddenly, a ‘can do’ attitude is prevailing over ‘make do’. England could feasibly have a bench containing John Stones, Ross Barkley, Daniel Sturridge, Jamie Vardy, Danny Rose and Jack Wilshere in France. That is as good as any other team in the tournament, however pessimistic you want to be. Players are being picked on form, and are flourishing under the spotlight. Long may that continue.
This positivity is also reflected across England’s teams. The combined record of the seniors, U21s, U19s and U17s since the beginning of 2014/15 reads: Played 60, Won 41, Drawn 12, Lost 7. Lothar Matthaus’ suggestion that England could be “the best team in the world in three years” should this improvement continue is ambitious, but he has no reason for false praise.
Of course there are still problems, or at least questions to answer. Does Wayne Rooney still command a starting place? Does Hodgson consider Jack Wilshere’s lack of game-time as a barrier to inclusion? Can Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill keep it tight enough at the back? And, most relevant of all, will England fall back into their shell come major tournament once again? The answer to this last question is the true barometer of how far Hodgson has taken this squad.
However, a newsflash: No team at Euro 2016 is perfect. France have a history of major tournament collapse and a younger squad than England. Germany have lost to Poland, USA, Ireland, France and England in the last 18 months. Belgium dropped seven points in a gentle qualifying group. Italy scored only 16 goals in ten qualifying matches. Even Spain are in a transition period, evidently keen to eliminate memories of a terrible World Cup 2014.
At a time when football’s corporate creep threatens to p*ss on any deep enjoyment of the game, it is crucial that we enjoy the good times. Forget to do so, and football becomes like the soap opera you don’t enjoy anymore but can’t help but watch. ‘Oh the acting is just appalling and the storylines so distasteful. I’m almost considering giving up on it.’
Anyone who can’t get excited by a young England team beating the world champions should pack up their things and change sport; these are the moments our fandom lives for. Furthermore, it’s one thing not enjoying something but another entirely attempting to dampen other people’s excitement.
England may again let us down in France, but there are valid reasons to believe that change is finally coming. This is a team of poster boys, capable of inspiring this and the next generation. Whatever the eventual destination, at least enjoy the ride. It might be the hope that kills you, but you can’t live on disappointment.