There was a time no so long ago that England qualifying for a World Cup would’ve been greeted with excitement and intrigue from the nation.
Flags would’ve been proudly displayed. Songs would’ve been written. And people would’ve been filled with the belief that football may be ‘coming home’.
But in 2017 the Three Lions securing their place at a major tournament is met with little more than a shrug from most and complete apathy from others.
And that is because of what has gone before. Following England in recent years has become incredibly tedious; there is quite simply no joy to be taken from it.
The pattern since 2010 is all too familiar. It’s like watching a bad TV show on repeat. England qualify for a major tournament after a string of fairly uninspiring victories over smaller nations, but they fail to produce on the big stage and are beaten with relative comfort by a more organised or talented side.
Something needs to change. Although Gareth Southgate isn’t the man do to it given the moment England booked their place at next summer’s tournament in Russia, he was already playing down expectations.
“Are we going to become Spain in the next eight months?” he asked after defeating Slovenia.
“”No, we’re not. But, if we can accept England’s options are not going to blossom unexpectedly, can we not at least aspire to be like Iceland at the World Cup? Not necessarily in style, but in structure, playing to a distinct and clear plan that brings the best out of those available?”
So there you have it. England, home of the Premier League, the richest and perhaps most captivating division in world football, should be more like Iceland, a country with a population a little more than the size of Nottingham.
Now that’s not to dismiss Iceland or their achievements at Euro 2016 – where they reached the quarter finals after knocking out England thanks to a brand of disciplined and effective counter attacking football – but they shouldn’t have been name-checked by the England boss .
England should aspire to be more than Iceland, to be more than just a team who attempt to survive in matches against elite opposition. They certainly have the talent to do so when every player is fit, it just needs to be utilised in the right way.
So we’ve drawn up a to-do list for Southgate ahead of next summer’s World Cup. Tick them all off and England may at least have a puncher’s chance of reaching the latter stages.
Get supporters back onside
This has nothing to do with tactics or team selection, it is all about hearts and minds. And before England head off to Russia next summer Southgate must ensure his squad have the support of the country’s football fans.
The disillusionment many supporters currently have isn’t good for any player. ‘Why should I bother when nobody else does?’ would be a valid thought process.
But supporters are a forgiving bunch and all they want, no matter win, lose or draw, is to be entertained. If their team goes down swinging that is often good enough.
With friendlies against Germany and Brazil to come before they travel to the World Cup, England have the perfect opportunity to reconnect with supporters. It is one they must take.
Southgate has to set his side to be bold and to take the game to their more illustrious opponents. The risk is the Three Lions get caught out and are punished, but a spirited 3-2 defeat in which England excite would be accepted far better than a 0-0 draw in which their sole objective is to kill the game.
Build the side around Harry Kane
England are not blessed with a host of world class stars but in Kane they have a player who would walk into virtually every side across the planet.
It’s why Southgate must ensure any system he deploys – whether it has a back four, a back three, two strikers or one – will get the best out of the Tottenham striker.
Kane needs to be receiving the ball in and around the 18-yard box, which means England must be adept of reaching that area of the pitch without resorting to hopeful punts upfield.
Both could work in a three-man midfield, but then fitting Real Madrid transfer target Dele Alli into the side becomes more problematic given he thrives in a No.10 role. The solution is not simple but Southgate must make it work.
Choose a captain
There are few countries that place as much stock in the captain’s armband as England which is why Southgate is causing himself an unnecessary headache by rotating his skipper.
And, in truth, Henderson’s injury record is far from stellar, which leaves us with Kane. He is England’s best player and doesn’t get into any trouble on or off the pitch.
He is the only logical choice for the role and Southgate should name him captain before the games against Brazil and Germany so the striker can become accustomed to the role before the World Cup begins.
Pick and stick with a goalkeeper
Perhaps the biggest selection decision Southgate faces is in goal. He has so far kept faith with Hart but the stopper’s form over the past 18 months at Torino and now West Ham United has been far from convincing.
And Hart is facing competition like never before. A crop of talented England goalkeepers are available to Southgate and can all make a case as to why they should start.
Dropping the former Manchester City star wouldn’t be an easy decision given he is a vocal presence and a big character in the England dressing room. But it’s a call Southgate may have to make.
Butland and Pickford and 24 and 23 respectively. They have the potential to be England’s goalkeeper for a next decade and are ready for their opportunity.
Southgate should give them both a chance in next month’s friendlies and then make a decision. If it is Hart, then so be it. But it’s important England’s No.1 goalkeeper feels like the manager’s first-choice heading into a tournament.
Rob Green can tell you what happens if they don’t…