Fellow fans of the Three Lions will tonight probably be feeling as disappointed as I do at coming so close to a first World Cup final in 52 years, only to crash out with semi-final defeat to Croatia. Given that it’s 28 years since we were last in a World Cup semi-final, one could argue that – with a bit of rounding down – we England fans have to wait for roughly a quarter of a century for something to get excited about.
It could have been very different, given Kieran Trippier’s superb, Beckham-esque goal from a free kick after only five minutes. But, even at that point, I already had reason to believe that our evening would not pan out altogether smoothly. And, like our solitary goal, the reason was inextricably linked with Mr. Trippier. Let me explain.
There is a tried and tested law of England national footballing fortune which is known instinctively by all our fans: success on the pitch is inversely proportional to the expectation of success. When we swagger to tournaments with a bevy of superstars and arrogant predictions of glory, we crash out in ignominy and fly back home before the Germans or Brazilians have even warmed up. When we expect nothing, on the other hand, when we fans lay low and predict doom and gloom from the outset, our team begins to play the game with an abandon that seems not to be available to them in other circumstances.
It had seemed, in the past three weeks, that everything was lining up beautifully for the low-expectations scenario to play out. For a start, our last finals appearance was an embarrassing ejection from the 2016 European championship at the hands of Iceland, a country so small that fully one-tenth of its total population was in the Stade de Nice to cheer our demise. On top of that, our wise new manager – largely to expunge memories of the Iceland debacle – chose an England squad that was the youngest and least-experienced of all 32 squads appearing in Russia. What’s more, rumours about a less-than-glowing welcome from the Russian police in particular, and Russian football fans more generally, had caused the large majority of England supporters to stay at home.
And so, in part because of these near-perfect conditions of low expectation, our team began to play. They began to play like they had nothing to lose. Like no one was watching. Not perfectly, by any means, but with a carefree spirit that we have rarely seen in the national team. And, as they began to play, they began to win, getting out of the group stage with ease and with a game to spare.
Thankfully, expectations remained low. We told ourselves that, with the greatest respect to Tunisia and Panama, we had still not faced a dangerous opponent. And so the mood remained downbeat and the fans stayed, mostly, at home. Even when we beat Colombia – on penalties! – in the last 16, and Sweden in the quarter-finals, we long-time fans continued to repeat to ourselves like a mantra the inverse law of low expectations. As we did so, we hoped no one would notice that our team was becoming – whisper it – not bad.
Sadly, and inevitably, the bubble had to burst. It did so, with devastating effect, in the three down days between quarter-final and semi-final. Fans, pundits and journalists made the fatal mistake of becoming enthusiastic. Newspapers reported that fans were scrambling to buy last-minute tickets to Moscow. And, worse still, politicians and members of the royal family began to send encouraging messages to the team.
If all that wasn’t bad enough, I realised the game was truly up this morning, while getting ready for work. Innocently enough, I turned on Sky news in the hope of hearing some team news, or perhaps a downbeat, self-effacing interview with the manager. Instead, I saw something considerably more toxic.
Sky had sent a reporter and camera crew to Kieran Trippier’s primary school in the charming Lancastrian town of Ramsbottom, a location almost as exotic as it sounds. The reporter interviewed small children who told breathlessly of their disbelief that the feet of the now-lauded England wing-back had, in ancient times, once graced their green and pleasant playing fields.
And that’s when I knew we were doomed. Only a month ago, Trippier was a nice lad with tattoos and bad hair who had had quite a good season at Tottenham. But now he was a god. And with his premature deification came our inevitable downfall. Expections were no longer low, and so success was once again beyond our reach.
Let’s look on the bright side. We now have a calm, media-friendly manager and a promising young squad who seem to be enjoying themselves. The next European championship is only two years away. And the final will be held at Wembley.
So, next time, let’s get it right. Let’s keep expectations at rock bottom, and give the lads the space to play. Don’t buy tickets to see the games. Don’t send messages of encouragement. And – whatever you do – stay away from Kieran’s primary school.
Only then will the conditions be right for football finally to come home.