It’s that time again. Pull out the ill-fitting Euro 96 replica, dust off the Lightning Seeds CD, search your soul for every last ounce of ill-placed optimism and take one, big, hopeful breath… here comes the World Cup.
It’s the same process every other year for England fans: Excitement, expectation and, eventually, disappointment at a major international tournament.
But not in 2018. Oh no. This, most definitely, is the Three Lions’ year. The famous trophy is Wembley-bound, make no mistake.
And here are 10 reasons why…
1 – Expectation levels are ludicrously low
For the first time in decades, there appears to be a genuine sense of reality floating in the late-spring air. There’s no talk of a Golden Generation, few stand-out superstars among Gareth Southgate’s 23-man squad and the consensus seems to be that a quarter-final elimination would represent a successful summer. Such expectations are a valuable commodity for an England side at a major championship.
Of course there’s still the one bloke in the office, usually the guy who’s completed his Panini album before you realised it was out, who is so adamant that glory is on its way that he’s cancelled the family trip to Centre Parcs on the weekend of July 14 just in case, but by and large, the optimism is so cautious that it ought to come with its own high-vis waistcoat.
That atmosphere can only breed good things – from the England dressing room down.
2 – The (majority of the) media are on the team’s side
If anything can be learned from the recent thunderstorm in an espresso cup involving Raheem Sterling’s right leg and a national newspaper’s desperate attempt for a front page, it is that this summer at least, the vast majority of the English press are standing up for their team.
In England, it is much less common for the media to act as national cheerleaders through the duration of major tournaments than it is in many other countries. For their relative impartiality – and let’s face it, it is relative… you’re not going to find Martin Samuel high-fiving Henry Winter after a surprise Panama opener in Nizhny Novgorod – these English journalists often find themselves subjected to unfounded abuse. Sometimes, they’re even blamed for failure which they cannot possibly be responsible, unless Oliver Holt is a recent convert to voodooism.
However, with the exception of those who persist in subjecting Sterling to the most callous and prejudicial coverage for absolutely no reason, the rest of Her Majesty’s press have not been in the least bit critical of the side in the build-up.
There is, believe it or not, a sense of unity, and an intrigue about how Southgate and his young squad get on.
3 – You can win things with kids
This England squad is the third youngest ever taken to a World Cup by a Three Lions manager – only the 1958 and 2006 travelling parties were younger on average. On one hand, this is a little unnerving, like entrusting your eldest with the house keys for the first time while you’re in Cornwall for the weekend.
On the other, it’s actually quite exciting. How will the kid act? Will he throw a party, and if so, will he leave the place in a state or make sure it’s in the same state he found it? Will he make the most of the opportunity handed to him? Or will he sit alone, in front of the TV, head to bed before 10 pm and hand you back change from the £20 you left for pizza?
England fans will surely want their players to be the exuberant teen showing off to his mates. Hold that party, make yourselves popular, do something different. Age, as they say, is just a number.
There are only two younger squads, on average, at this year’s tournament than England’s 25.9 years – Nigeria (24.9) and Germany (25.7). France, one of the favourites, have an average of 26.4.
And what was the average age of the German team that claimed the world title in Brazil in 2014? Yep, that’s right, 25.9 years old.
4 – England’s form is actually pretty good
Over the course of the past season, Southgate has tested his players against some fairly formidable opposition. Germany, Brazil, Holland and Italy have all come and gone and none have been able to beat the Three Lions.
Sure, victories over minnows like Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia have been low-scoring and as such pulses have been racing like a turtle on Xanax, but when it comes to winning a tournament winning is what counts.
Less than a third of all the teams at this summer’s World Cup are unbeaten during the 2017-18 season, and England is one. So… yeah… there’s that.
5 – All bad things have to come to an end
England hasn’t won a knockout game in a World Cup or European Championship since 2006, and even that was because of a fairly lucky goal against Ecuador in Stuttgart. Quite simply, that run has gone on long enough.
Failure to qualify for Euro 2008 preceded a last-16 humiliation at the hands of the Germans in South Africa. Then Italy won a Euros shootout in 2012, Brazil 2014 was an unmitigated disaster and Iceland (it still seems ridiculous but, yes, Iceland) did the damage in France two years ago.
Just in terms of probability, it’s got to be time for this to end. Even the maths experts agree with us. Honest.
6 – Ummm….
Give me a moment to think.
7 – The fans deserve it.
Yes, this is a good one. Aren’t English fans brilliant? Apart from the ones who get themselves involved in bar brawls, obviously.
Or the ones who think 10 German Bombers is a culturally appropriate little ditty for a family audience in Berlin.
Or the ones who roll into overseas city centres like a flood; a lager-glugging, sunburnt flood. I mean the other ones; you know, the ones who travel around the world without risking the terms of their probation.
Those guys deserve a break or at least something that represents value for money for the months of paychecks they’ve stuffed into overpriced Vilnius hostels and Bratislava boozers. Yeah. That’s a good one. Next.
8 – History is on England’s side
Right, bear with me on this. England has played against the Group G opponents – Belgium, Panama and Tunisia – a total of 23 times down the years. They’ve only lost once, and that was way back in 1936. Fate has spoken.
Group victory would set up a last-16 game against Colombia, Senegal, Poland and Japan. The record against those four combined? One defeat in 26… and that came 45 years ago.
Then for the quarters… and the likely meeting with Brazil. Scared of Neymar and Co? Why? England is unbeaten in three against the Selecao, with one defeat in five.
Next it’s the French and… well, England has beaten Les Bleus once since Le Tournoi. It could be the Portuguese, though. Tournament history doesn’t do Southgate’s men many favours there.
Actually, this is a bit of a struggle.
9 – They just will, alright
They just will. England-mad Nige with the Gazza wallpaper says so, and I believe him.
10 – Okay, I give up
It’s never going to happen. But we’ll take a quarter-final. We’ll always take a quarter-final these days.
Sam Morshead is a British sports journalist. You can follow him on Twitter.