How my son and Gareth Southgate allowed me to finally feel hope for England

Things have changed quite a bit for me as a lifelong England fan.

During Euro ’96, I was 24 and living in London in a flat with three lads from home and I spent every England game that I couldn’t physically get to in the pub, drinking industrial quantities of Stella Artois.

This is probably why my memories of that, now fabled, tournament are a little hazy… But I do remember the unrestrained belief that football was indeed coming home being swiftly followed by the sickening, crushing realisation that it had actually only come home for a bit before buggering off abroad with the Germans.

Now 49, I watch every game from the comfort and security of my sofa with a nice craft beer in hand, sitting next to my son Sammy, 12, who has inherited my love of the Three Lions.

Thankfully, what he hasn’t inherited is the nagging insecurity and dull heart-thudding ache that past England campaigns, whether in the Euros or the World Cup, have instilled in me and the expectation that, ultimately, England are doomed to fail.

Unpacking this psychology a little more, I suppose it began in Spain in 1982, which is my first recollection of watching England and in particular one of my heroes, Bryan Robson, aka Captain Marvel, scoring against the French within just 27 seconds of the kick off.

In my 10-year-old brain, I truly believed that England were the best side in the world, that nothing could stop us and that we would, obviously, be triumphant in lifting the World Cup.

What my brain couldn’t then compute was how Robbo, along with the rest of the England squad, could possibly be getting on the plane home just a week or two later after failing to beat Spain and crashing out of the tournament.

And so it began.

All the occurrences of England teams, not lifting trophies and getting on the plane too early.

Memories that have left the deepest wounds and the ugliest scars and will be the same for any England fan around my age.

Like Mexico ’86, where we, quite literally, fell at the hands of Diego Maradona.

This hyped World Cup quarter final was the first game where I really felt the pain of losing, watching Maradona slice through the heart of England’s midfield and defence for his second goal, I felt every skip and sublime touch and when the ball hit the back of our net, I felt sick.

Italia ’90 and more heartbreak as the Germans proved their penalty prowess.

By the time we were crashing out to minnows Iceland in the round of 16 of Euro 2016, I had already endured enough hope-crushing humiliation to last a lifetime.

And then cameth the Gareth, around the same time that my son was just getting into watching England on TV.

However the difference between Sammy’s expectation of what the England squad could do and mine was totally different and never clearer than during Gareth’s first major tournament, the World Cup in Russia in 2018.

It was England’s Round of 16 clash with Colombia and we were leading 1-0 until the 93rd minute, when Colombia scored the equaliser that would take it to extra time and then, inevitably, penalties.

‘Here we go again, same old England,’ I groaned to no one in particular.

‘What do you mean?’ said Sammy. ‘We’ll win in extra time.’

And, as extra time came and went and we headed towards penalties with Harry Kane walking to the spot, my head was already in my hands.

This was familiar territory. The same old story.

That was when Sammy looked over at me and said: ‘Dad, what are you worried about? Harry Kane doesn’t miss.’

And he was right.

Sammy didn’t care what happened in Mexico, in Italy and in Euro ’96 because that wasn’t his England – his England were capable of anything, including winning their first ever penalty shoot out in a World Cup.

That’s when I began to see England in a totally different light and realised that I needed to leave all the baggage behind and banish the inferiority complex that came from a lifetime of supporting England home and away since the eighties.

It’s also when I realised that Gareth Southgate wasn’t just the manager, he was the man.

After his appointment, I wasn’t convinced that he was ready for the so-called ‘impossible job’ and whether he was just trying too hard to make amends for the Euro penalty miss that cut short my Stella (Artois) summer back in ’96.

Now, I realised that he had been building a team and envisioning a future for England ever since he was the U21s boss and now all that graft was bearing fruit. This was his managerial penalty and by God he wasn’t going to miss this time.

That’s why throughout this tournament, I decided to forget the ghosts of tournaments past – I not only expected us to get out of our group, but to top it. To beat the Germans, to turn on the style and bang in the goals against Ukraine and to come back from behind against the Danes.

And it’s why I expect us to beat Italy at Wembley tonight. And I’ll be there with Sammy, spilling craft beer on my sofa when England win the Euros. Come on, England!

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