Generation Kane versus England underachievers

By Kris Voakes

There is nothing more quintessentially English than high expectations ahead of a major football tournament. Except, perhaps, the ability to deliver new variations of failure at every turn.

Not since their semi-final appearance at the 1990 World Cup in Italy have England really punched above their expected weight. They followed that with a winless group exit at Euro '92 and qualification misery for USA ’94 and a new trend was set. The ‘Golden Generation’ were perennial quarter-finalists but always found penalties, red cards or broken metatarsals – or all three – in their path.

No amount of St George’s banners, car flags or painted faces has been enough to will the team on to success. Countless summers in which the front pages have been caked in hype over England’s potential to finally end their wait for a trophy have ended with the same spaces being occupied with referees’ phone numbers or recriminations towards a player or a manager.

Yet even since the likes of David Beckham, Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry have left the international scene and dreams of hardware have fallen by the wayside, England have still found ways to sell themselves short.

Torn apart by Germany in 2010, a complete non-performance against Italy in 2012, out after two games at the 2014 World Cup and humbled by Iceland in 2016. The list of disappointments has somehow become more frustrating of late despite the general realisation around the country that there would be no tilt for the main prize.

So as Gareth Southgate prepares to send his England side into battle in Russia this month, the question on most England fans’ minds is exactly how their side are going to let them down this time around. Failure to get out of an advantageous Group G, perhaps? Defeat to World Cup debutants Panama, maybe? Whatever it is, there is a general feeling that they will somehow find a way to shoot themselves in the foot.

Or will they?

It is fair to say that Southgate’s squad fly out with almost nobody believing they can trouble any of the major nations taking part this summer. Instead the tournament is seen as a learning opportunity for what is a very inexperienced group of players at international level. Not since 1962 have an England side gone into a World Cup with fewer cumulative caps, and to the majority of informed eyes there is a lack of nous in the 23 who head to Russia.

But Frank Lampard, a veteran of three World Cups between 2006 and 2014, tells Goal that the lowered expectations could actually allow the players more freedom to express themselves.

“I am hopeful about England’s chances. I think expectancy levels are slightly less and that is probably a good thing for the squad,” explains the 106-cap midfielder. “They have a good team in terms of youth, particularly in attacking areas.

“England have some good players who are playing very well for their clubs in the Premier League. I just hope it can come together. Southgate is working very hard with the squad. We can certainly beat teams on our day. It is about getting momentum at the tournament. I expect us to get through our group and then we will see how far we can go.”

Former England striker Gary Lineker, who netted 10 goals in their 1986 and 1990 quests, is hopeful that the emphasis on youth will help to pave the way for success in future tournaments, with players like Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Trent Alexander-Arnold likely to benefit from the experience in the longer term.

“We are on the cusp of being a very, very good international side. It’s probably, realistically, a bit too soon. If we got to the quarter-final, that would be a great achievement with what we’ve got,” Lineker tells Goal.

“But looking behind it, looking in four years’ time, then we are going to be super-competitive. But I think this is a great opportunity to bring in the likes of Loftus-Cheek, Alexander-Arnold, terrific young players who have performed really well this season. And just give them a go. What do England have to lose?”

While there are many players for whom their very inclusion is a bonus, there remains a degree of expectation and reliance on some individuals. Newly-appointed captain Harry Kane now has enough Champions League appearances and international caps under his belt to suggest he can turn in a significant improvement on his underwhelming Euro 2016 showing, which was remembered more for his corner-taking than his finishing.

With Tottenham he has achieved four straight seasons of 20-plus Premier League goals, bagging a total of 135 in all competitions over that stretch. If he is to make the leap from potential England great to bona fide star, these are a big few weeks for Kane.

Lampard adds: “The World Cup is the time for new leaders to come out. Jordan Henderson was showing leadership at Liverpool in their run to the Champions League final, Kane in his performances and stature in the game is a leader. So I think there are players who are already leaders and will become leaders. And tournaments like the World Cup are moments when you have to stand up a little bit. I’d like to think England are not short on leaders.”

Southgate does indeed have a growing core with at least some tournament experience. Beyond Kane and Henderson there are also the likes of Gary Cahill, Kyle Walker, Phil Jones, Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling who have all been away with England before and have been performing at the top level with their clubs for a lengthy period of time.

To call the squad completely raw would be an exaggeration, and there has to be a belief that such accomplished players can stand up at crucial moments along the way. While the manager may not have a multitude of options in every position as some of his contemporaries have, he at least has something to build his side around.

Among the players counting themselves somewhere between first-choice and first-timer is Marcus Rashford, who could do with a stand-out spell in Russia following a difficult 2017-18 campaign with Manchester United. And Rio Ferdinand backs the 20-year-old, who has netted in various debuts for club and country, to perform under the spotlight.

“It could potentially be a breakthrough tournament for Rashford. I don’t see him starting the first game for England, but I can see him having an impact at some point in the tournament,” Ferdinand explains to Goal. “And I would love that to be the case, because he is a young kid who works hard on his game, is very switched on and very concentrated on improving himself as a footballer. And I think that deserves an element of luck and opportunity.”

As ever though, there are simply no guarantees with England. None of their squad have had a truly great international tournament experience to turn to in the difficult moments to come. Gary Cahill is their only player with more than 40 caps for his country but hasn’t been a Chelsea regular, let alone a permanent England pick, over the past 12 months. Meanwhile, their three goalkeepers head into the finals with a combined 180 minutes of competitive international football between them, all of which being accounted for by Jack Butland call-ups in dead-rubber qualifying fixtures.

And that’s not to mention their rookie head coach. Southgate himself was not the primary choice for the role, with Sam Allardyce’s ignominious early departure after one game in 2016 forcing the under-21 boss to make the step up. Since then he has done a reasonable job of adapting his plans to fit the players at his disposal but still finds himself having to round out some square pegs for round holes.

He would have loved some of his favoured players to have played more football of late. The very fact he called up Joe Hart, a 75-cap veteran of three major tournaments, for the March friendlies suggested that he was hoping for the West Ham United loanee to peak at the right time. And while he eventually had to admit defeat in that case, John Stones has made the cut despite having found first-team football difficult to come by at Manchester City.

Ferdinand can see why Southgate has made that call, though.

“Stones has the potential to become world class. I think he has the platform to get there at Manchester City,” the 81-cap defender adds. “It would be great if he can have a fantastic World Cup to set him off on a run on that. He has all of the fundamental basic things on the ball to be a great.

“It is about balancing that out with defensive responsibility, defensive nous, and creating or having that instinct as a defender. If he can get all of that jigsaw put together, you have the foundations of a top player.”

It is all about hoping that players step up to the fore. Hope. That’s the buzzword for this England side as they arrive in Russia. There remains an element of expectation in that opening clashes with Tunisia and Panama should return at least four points, but beyond that hope remains the over-riding feeling for England fans.

Belgium, their final Group G opponents, have exactly the type of mix of talent and experience that has had England fans expecting good things in tournaments past. And beyond the group stage it’s nothing more than a crapshoot for Southgate and his players.

Lampard, like many supporters of the Three Lions, is looking at Euro 2020, the next World Cup and maybe even the tournaments beyond that as the real opportunities for English success.

“Everyone is doing the same now with their youth setup and I think England were late to the party,” he says. “The Spanish, French and Germans have had their academies for years and now England have that as well. And you are seeing the benefits with underage teams winning tournaments. But competition remains high across the board.

“But we have talented groups of youngsters coming through in groups, which is great because it allows them to form relationships as they grow up. And hopefully we can have success again at major tournaments in the next five to 10 years.”

After the misplaced expectation of the late 1990s and early 2000s and the bumbling mediocrity of the last decade, 2018 is all about the hope. The hope that England just don’t embarrass themselves this time. And maybe they could even inject some belief for the years to come. That would be nice.

Illustration by Magdalena Orpych