Being a fan of the English national football team can be a difficult occupation at the best of times. Not only must the Wembley faithful tolerate rendition after rendition of “The Great Escape” being parped out by the notoriously awful England Supporters Band at every home game, but once every two years they’re forced to set sail for foreign shores to endure an equally sub-par tournament performance.
It’s a cycle that can feel endless. An easy passage through qualification, followed by mild optimism, followed by utter disappointment on the big stage at the earliest possible moment, all soundtracked by that never-ending brass drone. For most, it’s not their idea of fun.
Every now and then, however, a little spec of light appears at the end of the tunnel, a break from the constant assault on one’s sense of hearing and of pride. Some young talent emerges, a junior age group performs admirably at a tournament, the band learns a new song. In such a sea of drudgery, it’s hardly surprising that these moments of hope are greeted with a sort of mild hysteria.
Cast your minds back, for example, to the summer of 2006. With a World Cup in the hospitable climate of Germany on the horizon, Sven-Göran Eriksson and his band of merry men took their step onto the biggest stage of all on the crest of a wave of national optimism. After 40 years of hurt, England finally had a generation of players that, on paper, appeared capable of going toe-to-toe with the very best. They were dubbed ‘Golden’ by the press, and even with the gift of hindsight, it’s easy to see why.
At the back stood the formidable figures of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry; the perfect blend of physical prowess, technical ability and good, old-fashioned, heart-on-the-sleeve defending. With arguably the world’s best fullback to their left in Ashley Cole and the ever reliable, if uninspiring, Gary Neville to their right, the foundation was there.
In midfield England were even more star-studded. David Beckham. Frank Lampard. Steven Gerrard. Rarely has this nation ever been able to name three players of such clear top-level pedigree in one area of the field, not to mention the likes of Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick, who would go on to claim Champions League winners’ medals during illustrious club careers.
And finally, the icing on the cake. Alongside the proven goal-scoring class of Michael Owen was the traditional wonderkid. At twenty years old, Wayne Rooney was heading into his second international tournament as one of the most feared forwards in the game. A readymade superstar, full of fight, drive and passion, he could spearhead a successful campaign.
Or not, as was ultimately the case. A combination of unfortunate and untimely injuries, questionable selections and a certain winking Portuguese winger meant that England exited in Gelsenkirchen at the quarterfinal stage with their golden tails between their legs.
In the eleven years that have followed, it’s hard to argue that England fans have ever had it as good as that disappointing last eight elimination, however depressing that may sound. As member after member of the Golden Generation hung up their boots, England’s results got worse and worse, culminating in 2016’s utter humiliation at the hands of Iceland.
In August of this year, Wayne Rooney became the last of his era to call it a day, but when the history books are written, could his retirement be seen as the moment England moved on from their almost-Golden Generation and their truly Golden Generation took the reins?
The reasons to believe that may be case lay partially in the summer just gone, when something strange happened: England won a tournament. Not their senior side, admittedly, but whilst Harry Kane & co. bronzed themselves on the beaches of the Mediterranean, England’s Young Lions claimed victory in the under-20s World Cup.
A quick, incisive, genuinely entertaining outfit, England’s under-20s side offered plenty of cause for optimism. Not only were they more than a match for their peers, but within their ranks were players who are already beginning to make an impact at some of the Premier League’s top clubs. Think Kyle Walker-Peters at Tottenham, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ademola Lookman at Everton. Ainsley Maitland-Niles at Arsenal, and Dominic Solanke at Chelsea previously, now Liverpool. Despite their tender years, each has played their way into contention for a starting spot. The ability is there; their development now is simply a question of application and opportunity.
Following on from the success of the under-20s side, England’s under-17, under-19 and under-21 age groups also performed encouragingly in their respective international outings. The latter stages were reached by each, with standout performers such as Nathaniel Chalobah, Tammy Abrahams, Mason Holgate and Jordan Pickford claiming plenty of headlines. All of this simply added to the feel-good factor engulfing St George’s Park, and the suggestion that maybe, just maybe, a new Golden Generation could be on its way.
Of course, success in junior age groups is no guarantee of success. Plenty of young international sides have tasted glory, only to fade into obscurity in their senior careers. But if even a handful of the players coming through England’s ranks can fulfil their potential, then the green shoots of optimism could finally be warranted. Alongside the already enticing talents of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, England’s Young Lions could help to form a genuinely formidable side once more.
When next summer’s World Cup in Russia rolls round, all the football betting odds will be against England triumphing, and justifiably so. It would be an upset of monstrous proportions. Yet, whilst hysteria must be averted, this is a generation of England players with the potential to do something special. The world is at their feet; they need simply to grasp it. It’s an optimistic viewpoint, for sure, but for fans who simply wish for an end to the drudgery, that glimmer of hope might just be enough.
Tim is a keen sports fan and has been writing about football for many years