Until mid-2018, the 2010s threatened to be the worst decade in half a century for the England national team. The 1970s – when England failed to qualify for four major tournaments in a row – were an uncontested nadir, the deepest darkest depths of abject failure. But the 2010s, for the most part, will be remembered almost as bitterly for the promised golden age that never got close to materialising.
In the past ten years, England have reached the finals of five major tournaments with alarmingly deceptive ease, losing just one of their 46 qualifiers in that time. Come June-time however, England looked like a bad tribute act of their qualifying selves, winning eight of their 22 games in their three World Cup and two European Championship campaigns – and that includes in their run to the semi-final in 2018. In short, it was an era characterised by the endless bubbling and subsequent weary collapse of expectation.
England’s strongest squad in the modern era was perhaps seen at the 2006 World Cup. But in 2010, a Fabio Capello team featuring a 24-year-old Wayne Rooney fresh from the best season of his career at Manchester United as well as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and John Terry all in the 28-31 age bracket, ostensibly more world-wise than four years previous, were still firmly amongst the favourites to win football’s top prize in South Africa.
What happened was like overloading a low voltage plug socket: too many stars, too many beyond-strong personalities. The fuse blew and blew spectacularly. As the sparks fizzled out, England were left with the putrid smell of burning plastic for six years. They hadn’t capitalized on their so-called golden generation. They hadn’t just failed; they’d failed with a whimper.
The 2012 European Championships under new boss Roy Hodgson offered some slight relief from the Chinese water torture. England reached the last eight where they were eliminated on penalties by Italy. It was enough to persuade the FA that Hodgson was still the man for the job and he remained in charge for the World Cup in 2014. A piteous England left Brazil without winning a game and finished rock-bottom of their group. Still Hodgson clung on to his job.
The rest is history. An ageing squad was humiliated by Iceland. Wayne Rooney – only 30 years-old but burnt out after playing 14 years of raucous, high-intensity football – had missed his last chance to impress for England at a major tournament. This would turn out to be the critical point in the decade for the Three Lions. Free from the shackles of the old guard, they could finally move on. Though it didn’t feel it at the time, the Iceland humiliation was a liberation.
By the time Sam Allardyce was dismissed in 2016 after just 67 days in charge, the England national team seemed stuck in a permanent state of crisis. When Allardyce’s successor was appointed, he was England’s fourth manager of the decade – before 2010, England had only had 11 permanent bosses throughout their history. If negativity was sunshine in 2016, everyone involved with the Three Lions would have a healthy tan.
Clearly, England had to eat their greens before they got their dessert. It’s almost unthinkable now, but when Gareth Southgate arrived at St George’s Park as England manager, the mood around his appointment was somewhere between foreboding and apprehension. It was true that he knew the young squad well having managed many of them in his previous role as Under-21 coach, but it was also noted that he’d seen this Under-21 side eliminated in the group stages of his only major tournament as manager as well as being at the helm for Middlesbrough’s relegation from the top flight in his last senior position. Fast-forward three years and the nation seems to have sworn blind allegiance to their waistcoat-wearing, water-loving saviour.
Russia was a missed opportunity. Rightly, the spirit surrounding England at the moment is one of defiant optimism, but England have never and will never have a better chance to reach a World Cup final than they did in the summer of 2018. Even so, England had the youngest squad at that tournament.
England’s first competitive international of the 2010s – the 1-1 World Cup draw against the United States – saw a matchday squad that was made up almost a quarter of the same players that made up their first matchday squad of the 2000s. By contrast, the matchday squad for the European Championship qualifier against Kosovo (England’s last competitive international of the decade) contained no players that featured in that same match against the USA in 2010. Football is a cyclical game and we are truly at the outset of a new cycle.
The decade ends with a question mark rather than an exclamation, but it could well have been a resentful and indignant ellipsis. Southgate was not universally well-regarded when he took the England job, but it’s more important what people think of you when you leave than when you arrive. As he sings Auld Lang Syne tonight, he can feel secure in the fact that England leave the decade in a much stronger position than they entered it.
Happy New Year from everyone at Gadsby’s England.