By Shane Thomas
Going into an international tournament as an England fan, we all knew the drill; get the beers in, get the flags out, and get down to your local bookies to put £10 on England to win the competition. In conjunction with the television, radio & print media, the nation would be whipped into a chimeric fugue-state, our boundless optimism not in keeping with past experience or rational footballing analysis. The hysteria England would inspire at a World Cup or European Championship was so potent that even those who normally avoided the sport would venture opinions on players, formations and strategy (all ill-informed of course).
It seemed to matter little that England would fail to live up to these nonsensical expectations. The next tournament would come around (assuming England had qualified) and the jingoistic spin-cycle of madness disguised as patriotism would begin again.
But something changed after their elimination at the last World Cup to Germany. The fans and the media had seen enough. England may have suffered more ignominious exits from tournaments in the past, but it seemed that there was a limit to the amount of times we could believe in our national team. Fool me once? I've lost count of the amount of times we were fooled.
You could argue that hangover from that defeat in Bloemfontein is still ongoing. A common refrain when the subject of England is raised is, "I'm done with England. They're useless anyway."
Little changed with England qualifying for Euro 2012. Going unbeaten for all of 2011, which included a 1-0 win over current World & European Champions, Spain made no difference. The pessimism only increased with the loss of Fabio Capello, the appointment of Roy Hodgson instead of Harry Redknapp, the Rio Ferdinand/John Terry debate, Wayne Rooney's suspension, and the stream of injuries that decimated England's midfield.
So maybe it's just as well that Hodgson is the man in charge rather than Redknapp. As their inflated sense of self-worth, exhibited by players, fans, and press alike, seems to have gone. In their opening 1-1 draw with France, there was a pleasant absence of England making a breakneck start, only to run out of steam towards the end. They were relatively restrained, arid and disciplined.
And it's just what England have needed. Hodgson and his coaching staff were the equivalent of Rabbit in the Winnie The Pooh story, The House at Pooh Corner. Tiring of Tigger's spirited personality, which has become irritating rather than endearing, Rabbit hatches a plan to humble Tigger, and give him a personality makeover, as it will turn him into, "A humble Tigger, a sad Tigger, a melancholy Tigger, a small and sorry Tigger."
No longer were the "golden generation" torn apart by huge egos, and a propensity for brainless attempts at self-indulgence. This England team were humble, diligent, and aware of their place - not just in the team, but in world football's pecking order.
These England players seem to realise that they don't belong in the realm of great. But they're not part of football's dungheap either. It remains to be seen how far Hodgson's England can go. But the display against France shows that England are different. They now longer have the pre-tournament bounce. And it could make them the best prepared England team to go to a major tournament in years.
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