I am often asked the question: “Why do you subject yourself to the misery of following England?”
Honestly, on some days, there is no answer. Blind faith or the opportunity to witness cultures and cities which, usually, would not be high on the to-do list are often stored in the back of my mind as some sort of snap reflex.
However, when the football is of the standard we would usually associate with the Three Lions in recent years, which in the end is why you are there, it is difficult to put any founded reasoning into words.
Although, strangely, I have never once asked myself the same question. The idea of not being there, after a taste of the emotion international football can bring, is almost unquestionable. And on Sunday, Gareth Southgate’s men only affirmed that belief.
Moments before the respective national anthems, which brought about, as always, a spine-tingling rendition of God Save the Queen, a friend turned to me, after drinking in the scenes of the all-new Nizhny Novgorod Stadium baking in the Russian sun, and said: “This is why we do it. This is why we travel to Slovenia in the midst of winter on a Monday night.”
And he was correct. To witness your country in the flesh at the festival of football, after enduring the abundance of weird and wonderful places during the two years prior, makes the bore draws and long airport layovers worthwhile. But, this year, it seems England want to do more than merely make up the numbers.
“England’s going all the way”; the end of a chant which was coined and christened as Harry Kane netted the Three Lions’ last-minute winner against Tunisia last week. Of course, akin to “Football’s coming home”, a significant pinch of salt must be taken in the literalness of the words.
However, even though it was ‘only Tunisia’ and ‘only Panama’, the England travelling faithful sense an air of optimism surrounding Southgate’s current crop. And, for once, it seems the 23 attempting to replicate the feats of those from 1966 have a philosophy alongside, more importantly, the ability to put it into action.
When you scroll through the names of those in the likes of Germany, Brazil, Argentina or Spain’s squads, it is hard not to find yourself in a sense of awe. Across the board, their respective squads are packed with quality and high-profile names who have reached the peak in either the international, continental or domestic scene, or, in some instances, all three.
Yet, with England, that is not the case – with only nine having got their hands on Premier League silverware and just two the Champions League. But, as has been so refreshing under Southgate, that seemingly matters little.
Arguably, for the first time since Euro ’96, there is no dependency resting solely on the shoulders of one man. Of course, Kane being the talismanic figure he is bears responsibility in front of goal, yet, his contribution so far this tournament has been as important as Harry Maguire’s dominance in the air or Jordan Henderson’s midfield marshalling.
It seems England finally have a collective which is interchangeable and offer a style of play which produces the best from the selection available. In years gone by, after netting the second on Sunday, the Three Lions would have shut up shop and managed the remaining minutes out – most likely ending in a nervy 2-1 victory, or worse.
Yet, their ruthlessness encapsulated the fearlessness running through the camp at this present moment, and, maybe, what was even more telling was the way in which England roared to their highest-scoring win at the World Cup in the country’s history.
Although two of Kane’s goals on Sunday came from the penalty spot and the third had sense of fortune about it, Jesse Lingard’s bending effort after Spanish-like build-up play on the edge of the area alongside John Stones’ brace from well-worked set-pieces showed the Three Lions finally possess the ability to score from a variety of situations – a trait which has been absent for some time.
It gave an example of a team which are prepared to tackle anything for success; one which does not possess the short-sightedness or restrictiveness of previous tournaments. It reinstated patriotic pride and a sense of belief.
As I alluded to at the start, beforehand, when asked why I follow England, it would sometimes be difficult to find answer with footballing reasoning.
However, after securing a place in the last 16 of the World Cup after just two games; having scored eight goals and conceded just once from open play, alongside witnessing two first halves of scintillating football, my motivation is a lot clearer.
I follow England for days like these.