England’s starting XI, (L-R top row) England’s striker Marcus Rashford, England’s defender Kieran Trippier, England’s defender Michael Keane, England’s goalkeeper Jack Butland, England’s defender Harry Maguire, England’s defender John Stones and England’s midfielder Jordan Henderson and (L-R bottom row) England’s defender Aaron Cresswell, England’s striker Harry Kane, England’s midfielder Harry Winks and England’s midfielder Dele Alli during the 2018 FIFA World Cup European Qualifying football match between Lithuania and England at the LFF Stadium in Vilnius on October 8, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Adrian DENNIS
England have booked their place at next year’s World Cup, but their chances of making an impact in Russia are slim if recent history is anything to go by.
Gareth Southgate’s side wrapped up their successful Group F campaign with a 1-0 victory in Lithuania on Sunday, extending England’s unbeaten record in qualifiers to 39 matches.
Southgate should take only minimal encouragement from that however, as England have often eased through the qualifying stage before suffering ignominious exits when it gets to crunch time in the tournament.
Here, AFP Sport looks at the lessons to be learned if they are to exceed expectations in Russia:
Win back fans
In the 51 years since England won the World Cup on home soil, the national team’s reputation has been tarnished so badly that fans turned their back on them when qualification was clinched against Slovenia on Thursday.
With Wembley barely half full, England endured the indignity of supporters becoming so bored with the limp display that they took more pleasure in throwing paper aeroplanes onto the field and cheering pitch invaders.
At the final whistle, England’s players went through the motions of celebrating their place in Russia against a backdrop of empty seats as fans trudged to the exits.
It was a far cry from the heady days of Euro 96 and the 1990 World Cup, when England enthralled a nation with their runs to the semi-finals.
Southgate knows how important it is to restore unity between the country and his team.
“We’re in an era where it must be difficult for the supporters to relate to players because of what they earn and all of the hullabaloo that is around them. But these are good kids, desperate to play for England,” he said.
Bridge class gap
Past England managers have been able to call on far more star-studded line-ups than the current crop available to Southgate, but picking household names has been no guarantee of success.
In the Sven Goran Eriksson era, the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney were all among the best players at their clubs, with silverware and successful Champions League experiences on their CVs.
Southgate has a much less seasoned squad, with even his leading stars Harry Kane and Dele Alli yet to win a club prize and Marcus Rashford just beginning to fulfil his potential.
Eriksson’s gilded group never made it past the last eight at any major international tournament, but at least they flirted with greatness.
Southgate has inherited a generation that seem to regard international duty as an unwanted chore and changing that mindset will be crucial to long-term success.
“We have it to prove. No problem, these guys are hungry to prove it,” Southgate said optimistically.
Avoid brolly follies
Having missed one of England’s penalties in their Euro 96 semi-final loss to Germany, Southgate infamously took part in a television advert mocking that painful moment as he wore a paper bag over his head to hide his identity.
If England fail as badly as they have in their last two tournaments, Southgate would do well to keep an even lower profile.
England managers perceived to have let the country down have been lampooned by the tabloid press and their careers rarely recover from the trauma.
Graham Taylor found his face super-imposed on a turnip, Steve McClaren was ridiculed as the ‘wally with the brolly’, while Eriksson, Fabio Capello, Roy Hodgson — all highly respected coaches before they managed England — left bemoaning the acerbic jibes of the media.
Spells as Middlesbrough boss and England Under-21 coach have done little to prepare Southgate for the toxic atmosphere that can envelop the national team, but he insists he can cope.
“They might find it difficult to find much love for me with my history with England, but I’ve managed to shoulder that for 20 years!” he said.
Don’t stop believing
England have reached the quarter-finals at a major tournament only once in their last five attempts and that Euro 2012 run ended with a forgettable defeat by Italy.
With so little to cheer in recent years, England fans have almost abandoned all hope and that should take a little pressure off Southgate and company in Russia.
“People probably are going to be cynical,” England goalkeeper Joe Hart said.
“It’s our job to change that. The only way to do that is by doing well at a tournament.”