Paint your faces! Hang up your flags! Buy a novelty pack of Budweiser because you can get a free plastic glass that lights up! Surrender your body to World Cup fever!
The tournament is now in full swing. Russia have brushed Saudi Arabia aside, Spain & Portugal played out a classic, Lionel Messi missed a penalty against Iceland, and Germany were beaten by Mexico! It’s enough to make you giddy and soon it will be England’s turn to add to the chaos.
We all have differing relationships with England. There’s been times when I’ve found it hard to relate to a side which play their competitive home games over 300 miles away and have an entitlement which is totally alienating to someone who supports Sunderland. I’ve never been particularly comfortable with nationalism either, leading to conflicting emotions when it comes to following my country.
That isn’t to say I haven’t fully backed England at every tournament since I can remember, far from it. From being gutted when Ronaldinho lobbed David Seaman, to leaping about my mates living room when we thought Raheem Sterling had opened the scoring against Italy – a moment where I still don’t fully understand what happened.
What is vastly different to how I feel with regards to my country, is that the disappointment doesn’t last when compared to my club. The few flickers of elation are similar, or at least closer, but that’s because they’re easier. True, immovable, gut wrenching sadness is when you know something special has gripped you and unless I’ve been heavily influenced by alcohol, England haven’t come close to breaking my heart in the way Sunderland can.
Perversely, that’s why I’m quite excited to watch England at the 2018 World Cup. I really like the team Gareth Southgate has assembled, and I like the job he is doing. It may be down to failures in past competitions, but the lack of lofty expectations has also brought me closer to England, finding kinship in the type of team I’m used to supporting. It also helps that there’ll probably be two Mackems in the starting line up against Tunisia, but that’s merely a bonus.
I’ve reached the point where I can’t understand why any English football fan wouldn’t want to see this team succeed. So full of youth is this side that the 23 man squad only averages 19.5 caps per player. To put that into context, favourites Brazil average 28.1 caps and holders Germany boast 40.3.
We’ve been crying out for a fresher England squad for years and Southgate has given us just that. Furthermore, the lack of superstars has allowed the squad to develop an identity free of just throwing in the best players and hoping for the best.
There’s also the fact that most of the players are so bloody likeable. Fabian Delph posted a picture on Instagram of himself & Danny Rose when they were in Leeds United’s youth academy, followed by one of them in the plane to Russia and my heart melted. Trent Alexander-Arnold gives away shirts on Twitter and reveals that his mam checks if he’s wearing sun cream. Jordan Pickford will bring the New Monkey to Volgograd, for god’s sake!
Just a few reasons why their inevitable elimination will be so much sadder than usual. The squad looks like they’re having a great time out there, and I’m desperate for that to translate onto the pitch.
“Gareth Southgate – the whole of England is with you” says the commentary which Baddiel, Skinner & The Lightening Seeds sampled for their reprise of Three Lions in 1998. Hearing that part of the intro, which is followed by confirmation of Southgate’s penalty miss in Euro ‘96 before Frank Skinner leads a chorus of “we still believe”, genuinely gave me chills. A squad out to prove themselves, lead by a manager on a 20 year mission of redemption? Yes please!
Football is all about contrived narrative and I want this story pumped right into my veins.
Just like I want Sunderland to embark on a new journey starting with the upcoming season, I want this to be the start of something for England. One of the few positive glimmers of last season at the Stadium of Light was the emergence of some young gems who may be allowed to blossom in the upcoming campaign - a similar narrative could well be unfolding in Russia right now, and today we’ll get our first look at Southgate’s young side.
The World Cup and League One are just as far apart in miles as they are in quality, but the excitement at watching new talent announce themselves is remarkably similar to Sunderland’s current situation and it’s rejuvenated my support for England.