Opting to wear shorts when England travelled to Ljubljana as the midst of winter drew in across Eastern Europe nearly two years ago was arguably not one of my proudest moments.
Neither was it to skip forking out on a hotel while waiting for a flight home the next morning in the hope Venice’s Marco Polo airport would offer an overnight refuge, albeit before finding out it has a shorter opening window than that of a supermarket on a Sunday.
So there I was, wandering around the outskirts of one of Italy’s most beloved cities, wrapped up in a blanket one of the other 30-something Three Lions followers who had chosen the same ill-advised route had been given on entry to the Stozice Stadium hours before – on the hunt for a signposted McDonald’s; which never came to fruition.
The 90 minutes which preceded the sleepless and below-freezing night was not much better. It was a contest in which Wayne Rooney’s omission ahead of kick-off took the headlines, and England’s hapless showing – only saved by the heroics of Joe Hart – filled the column space after.
Slovenia is undoubtedly not one of my fondest trips to recall, simply due to the hours of abject misery I was subjected to throughout my time there. Yet, from where we are today, it was certainly a defining one. That evening, in the stand which housed a lower number than usual of travelling England fans behind the goal, negativity was rife.
The FA had finally given Sam Allardyce his chance a few months prior, yet after the well-documented scandal, Gareth Southgate was chosen to be his successor. Bashing chants towards the governing body over its decision, as well as the new Three Lions boss’ on-field choices echoed throughout the eventless hour-and-a-half.
But at the time, the Three Lions faithful could not envisage a time without depending on their country’s all-time top goalscorer or that a new dawn was upon them.The England team at that point was like an old car. Once attached, it is hard not to cloud your vision with a time when the air conditioning always worked throughout the heights of summer or those early years when the paintwork remotely resembled that of the colour in which it left the factory line.
It was familiar, and although the XI housed several names which had failed their country at the European Championships just months before, how dare an unfamiliar and unproven face replace the misfiring engine’s beating heart. And as the months passed, further tinkering was made.
Germany away in March 2017 – this time I was suitably dressed for the occasion, thankfully – saw the customary English flat-back-four altered to a more continental five. Although it visibly provided new-found levels of stability, Southgate was yet to find the formula to utilise its attacking strengths.
"We have to reflect on a very good performance - a new system that I felt worked well and allowed us to control possession,” he said that night.
The wing-backs of Kyle Walker and Ryan Bertrand, either side of the central trio of Michael Keane, Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill, struggled to make their mark on the contest. However, bravely, the still unproven boss persisted. And, arguably, it was not until a year later at Ajax’s Amsterdam Arena; where an extremely impressive England outfit strolled past the Netherlands, that it all, finally, seemed to click.
After 12 months of trial and error, the system, which soared back to life in the Premier League as Chelsea were crowned champions in 2017, was beginning to bear fruit for England. Unlike in Slovenia, where only four of whom started that night also featured in the Three Lions’ quarter final victory over Sweden on Saturday, the XI was made up of seven of the now accepted regulars – with injuries to Joe Gomez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ahead of this summer’s World Cup, as well as Harry Kane’s forced omission at the time, reducing that number further to what it could have been.
But that Friday night in Holland also brought about Walker’s first showing for his country as part of the central three – a position Pep Guardiola had deployed him in previously – with Kieran Trippier taking over on the right-hand side. Despite the win, there were still pockets of disgruntlement within the travelling sections.
However, looking back over England’s showing in Russia so far, it is now easy to see how influential England’s trip to Amsterdam was. Southgate had finally found a nucleus he trusted, one which was capable of implementing his style of play effectively at both ends of the field.
But he would not have been able to do so without intricate detail, persistence and his self-belief. And, somewhat remarkably, when addressing England’s failings at previous tournaments, those three characteristics have always been absent.
It is difficult to find a time when excuses surrounding technical ability or the XI’s ineffectiveness to gel as a cohesive unit are not at the forefront of the reasoning as to why a disappointing or even an embarrassing summer has plagued us again. All the while, the mentality of the squad is rarely the focus.
In previous years, the Three Lions’ team sheet has boasted bigger names, maybe even greater talents, but not in my lifetime has there been an outfit which seemingly enjoys representing their country as today’s do.
Two years ago, there was no hope of imagining the St George’s Park pathway graduate punching the air in ecstasy after leading England to a World Cup semi final. Yet, here we are, a date booked with Croatia for a spot in the festival of football’s biggest game.
Admittedly, on that bitter night in Venice, I found it hard to be inspired by Southgate’s appointment; however, nor was I one who passed judgement too quickly. But, while sitting in Samara airport in the early hours of Sunday morning – waiting for a flight back to my new home away from home in Moscow – I had an overwhelming sense of something which I had forgotten while following England; pride and belief.
And it is solely down to one man. With Southgate at the helm, there is a genuine sense on the ground that this group of players are now capable of anything – which leaves one question I no longer have an answer for: Why can’t England win the World Cup?