FOR so long, England being a crushing disappointment had been synonymous with World Cups; part of the competition’s very fabric, like an African nation threatening not to turn up over a pay dispute, or the Dutch squad descending into civil war.
In fact every major international tournament for the last decade had been a source of misery and crushed dreams for the Three Lions, from the never-got-going of 2006 to the nevereven got-there of 2008, the abject impotence of 2010 to the why-bother futility of 2012.
England games themselves, even qualifiers, had become disasters waiting to happen; fixtures with far more to lose from than to gain; appointments to dread; occasions likely to elicit only apathy, boredom or another helping of told-you-so pessimism.
Yet on Saturday night all of that changed. Against a backdrop of muted expectations and taking on an Italy side who knocked them out of Euro 2012, England reminded us that watching them could be exciting, vital and a surprising thrill. They lost, yes, but in doing so revived that most English of traditions: the plucky loser. It wasn’t a surrender, a naive performance to be ashamed of; it was brave, bold, bursting with a belief that they could win, and win playing their way.
More than anything it was a performance to be proud of. For them, yes; for Roy Hodgson, certainly; but also for a nation obsessed with football that has grown weary of the chronic underachievement of a socalled golden generation.
At the forefront of it was Raheem Sterling, the teenage Liverpool forward who thrived on the responsibility of orchestrating England’s attack. Daniel Sturridge was brilliant too; the purest finisher to wear the shirt since Michael Owen.
What is curious about the transformation is that it has been triggered by Hodgson. A man lampooned for his ultra-conservative tactics for the past two years is now loading his team with four forwards. Reliable Roy has become Reckless Roy – and it’s thrilling.
It’s not clear what brought on this change, the footballing equivalent of ditching the estate and buying a sporty two-seater, but we like it. And for the first time in recent memory England’s next game, against Uruguay on Thursday evening, cannot come soon enough.