Football is a game whose followers believe in portents. “And no side have won a European Championship finals match on a Wednesday with a team made up of players whose surnames contain fewer than 62 vowels,” the commentator will offer. “And the Croatians here, Danny Mills, can muster just 48 between them. And you have to ask yourself if that will be significant.”
This is nowhere truer than when it comes to following England. Every event is sifted through for good omens. You can guarantee at some point in the next fortnight somebody will offer: “Now, the city of Donetsk was founded by a Welshman named John Hughes. And the England goalkeeper Joe Hart was given his big break in the Premier League by another Welshman named Mark Hughes. And what could that mean for England’s chances, I wonder?” And they’ll have a chuckle in their voice to imply they aren’t actually serious. But you know deep down they are.
A few moments after the merciful conclusion of Fabio Capello’s team’s opening game at the 2010 World Cup — a performance so formless and dull that getting angry seemed an inappropriate response, like shaking your fist at custard — a friend called in a state of mild elation. While I had been struggling to break my hands free from the grip they had taken on the arms of the chair, my friend had been busy chiselling out uplifting facets. “This has got to be good for us in the long run,” he tweeted dementedly. “I mean, we can’t play that badly again, can we?”
His attitude illustrated the madness inherent in supporting the England football team.
“The total lack of expectation is going to work in our favour, big time,” is the opinion that has been thunderously gathering momentum in the national football Twittersphere since the announcement of Roy Hodgson’s European Championship squad last week. Yes, it appears that England’s biggest chance is having no chance at all.
Hodgson has acted with obvious shrewdness in bringing in Gary Neville as his assistant. The former Manchester United man seems unlikely to excite anybody — except Liverpool fans, obviously.
Hodgson and Neville have their work cut out. Because the current fear in the England camp is that if national belief in the advantages of an absence of burgeoning presumption starts to accelerate, while faith in the abilities of a team unburdened by the “fear factor” rises (for in football there is no factor to fear, but the fear factor itself), and excitement over just going out there and playing our natural game on the off chance that with a bit of luck and a following wind we can maybe put a smile back on the face of the Three Lions spirals upwards out of control, England will arrive in Poland and Ukraine as the most overcooked underdogs in sporting history.