In the summer of 2006 I was 8. Things were simple. School was rubbish (as I kept telling my mum), and people on the TV kept talking about some bloke called Sadam Hussain, apparently he wasn’t very nice. Oh, and England were going to win the World Cup. Not might, they WERE going to win the World Cup.
In the summer of 2010 I was 12. Things were less simple. School was shit (as I kept telling my mum), and Al Qaeda were coming to get us. Oh and England were going to win the World Cup. Not might. England WERE going to win the World Cup.
In the summer of 2014 I was 16. Things were good. School was fucking hard (as I kept telling my mum), girls were nice. Ebola, Isis and planes going missing, the world was an odd place. Oh and England had an outside chance of winning the World Cup, they MIGHT win the World Cup.
In the summer of 2018 I was 20. Things were complicated. Uni was mental (as I definitely wasn’t telling my mum). Brexit, Donald Trump and Logan Paul… the world was essentially broken. Oh and England weren’t winning the World Cup, not even nearly, they DEFINITELY weren’t winning the World Cup.
That’s what made the 2018 World Cup so incredible; it came out of absolutely nowhere. A period in our country’s history blighted by doubt and hopelessness was being reflected on the football pitch. Although play hadn’t looked bad under Southgate, it was nothing remarkable and with a young and inexperienced squad filled with ‘overpaid prima donnas’, the tabloids decided that the usual furore was unnecessary.
We were knocked straight into utter pandemonium as Sir Gareth and his troops drove us to a place which I (and many other younger England fans), had never seen before; a World Cup semi final. They took back the dignity taken from us in France two years previously and they made the nation love football again. And the best part , we did it without a ‘golden generation’. Gone were the crumpled dreams and quadrennial waves of disappointment, we were no longer the subjects of that ill- fated legacy.
It still haunts my dreams, photos of that 2006 team lining up for their first game against Paraguay. Gleaming in their sparkly white Umbro kit, absolutely off their tits on love for queen and country, ready to win the World Cup in the German’s back yard. It breaks my heart remembering those 10 giants of football; Gary, 2 time Champions League winner; Ashley, world class and pockets full of Portuguese wingers; Rio, like Van Dijk but better in every way; John, the last champion of the old fashioned. The back four would finish their careers with 5 Champions Leagues, countless individual honours and legend status at their respective clubs.
Our David on the wing, with all his lovely hair and and his weird bandy-legged run and his paintbrush of a right peg; Opposite him, Little Joe, still flying off his title-winning goal against United; Then come the pair of straws that broke the national consciousness’ humpy back; Steven George Gerrard and Frank James Lampard Jr. That these two behemoths of world football could simply not play together was baffling. A partnership that was as blunt and uncomfortable together as they were brilliant individually, it was a tragedy of modern times. On paper the best midfield partnership in the world, on grass a poor man’s Sandro-Paulinho; Stevie and Lamps broke our collective hearts that summer.
A young, perpetually furious Wayne was on his way back from injury, looking to prove himself on the biggest stage (while simultaneously trying not to headbutt the ref). Up top in his stead were Ballon d’Or winner Michael Owen and cult hero Peter Crouch. The quality didn’t just stop with the starting XI though. Accompanying Wayne on the bench was half German, half English, half Canadian penalty machine Owen Hargreaves, big angry Tory Sol Campbell and wonder kid Theo Walcott.
Coming off the back of the 2016 Euros, we’d given up on England. Rooney was the last bastion of that ‘golden generation’ and his retirement signified the end of an era for English football. Him finally hanging up the England shirt, I felt like we might as well give up. Hang up all the shirts, if we can’t win with that team we’re destined for a trophyless wasteland. My heart ached. First we’d lost Lamps, then Terry, then Stevie and finally Wayne. The dream was over, and England’s ‘golden generation’ had left empty handed.
After the hurt of 2016, I was bereft of hope. We had been humiliated by the smallest country in the tournament. The world was laughing at us. We’d somehow found ourselves undone by the oldest Sunday league trick in the book; a long throw. Kent had three times as many people in it as Iceland, Kent!
And, to be completely honest, I didn’t really like this new team. Lingard was questionable, he danced far too much and referred to himself un-ironically as “J-Lingz”; Harry Kane was just Spurs’ annoying striker that always scored against us; Jordan Pickford had tiny arms and Trippier had a shit trim; Even Nike made our kit now. It’s like a step-dad had come into the house and I didn’t like it. I wanted Stevie back.
I headed down to Paddington’s big screen for the first game against Tunisia, still wearing an Umbro 2006 shirt in protest. Even the glorious weather did little to brighten the nation’s hopes and, for the first 89 minutes, it felt like our scepticism was being proved right. There were glimpses of quality but the overarching feeling of inevitable doom that had come to typify watching England at tournaments was still very much there.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Harry hadn’t scored then – Southgate sent back to manage in the North-East, the tabloids back to grinding their big, horrible axes, Brexit somehow worse than it is now. But then everything changed. Harry Kane. King Harry Kane at the back post, with his Knights of the Round Table haircut and unerring ability to bang them in. He was no longer the annoying goal scorer that belonged to one part of North London, now he belonged to us all. Pure jubilation.
That’s where it began. That one moment kicked the country into gear. English football was back. I sat on the tube home, soaked in Stella and sweat, light headed from screaming Kane’s name and it felt different from before. Maybe it was just the beers and Vitamin D, but I loved it. And across the other side of the world 2000 England fans around him were feeling the same. From then on it was different, it was new, and we all loved it. They were the boys. The fucking boys out there smashing it up for us. We were playing out from the back, we were scoring goals and we were fearless.
J Lingz, as he was now exclusively referred to, was smashing it home from 30 yards and I was dancing. Slabhead and Stonesy were bossing it and even the game we lost to Belgium was all part of Gareth’s masterplan. They truly were the boys next door – it was like they’d all just gone on holiday together and Harry had signed them up to a football tournament because “they’d need something to do in the day”. Long, hot, happy nights of watching England made me forget about it all. I forgot about Brexit, Donald, Theresa; it was all gone. What made it truly special is that every game as I looked around I could see it meant just as much to the people around me.
The boys done good, and for the first time in years it felt like England’s connection with the fans was back. They gave us something to get excited about and we took that opportunity with both hands. They had turned a nation of sunburnt sceptics into one big group hug. They have made me feel like I was 8 years old again, full of optimism and hope.
In 2022, I will be 24. Things won’t be simple; they rarely are these days. Uni will be finished, with any luck I might even have a job. There will be all manner of mental things going on in the world but I will have one thing to keep me going; England MIGHT win the World Cup.