We have all heard the line in the movies: “I love you but I just don’t like you anymore.” For years, English fans understood such a sentiment when it came to the national team.
The relationship is a long one. Together they had been through so much but recently it has not always been easy to like the Three Lions. Whatever happens against Italy on Sunday however, that feeling has changed. In that regard, this tournament is already a success.
More talented teams than England are already sitting at home yet there is something about this slightly awkward collection of players under Roy Hodgson that is much easier to like than what went before.
The so-called Golden Generation hyped around the turn of the century faded after earning lots but achieving little. Massively-paid coaches who, rightly or wrongly, were perceived to lack the required passion (unless it came to seducing FA secretaries) have gone.
As in all relationships however, there was blame on both sides. The excitable English media was always happy to build expectations ahead of every tournament. Not all fans bought into the hype but plenty did.
Over-confidence, ignorance and arrogance are forgivable – perhaps – if they are accompanied by success. If you are winning, you can say what you want. The problem was that England did not win. In the past 40 years, a semi-final appearance at the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European championships were as good as it got (and both ended by the Germans on a penalty shootout).
The penny has finally started to drop in the media. England are just not as good as they have been painted to be for some time. A quarter-final place is usually as far as the team gets and, in the great scheme of things, that is not a terrible record.
This time, poor preparation helped deflate expectations to unprecedented levels. Not much more than a month before the tournament, England did not have a head coach. Star striker Wayne Rooney was suspended for the first two games; there were injuries to Frank Lampard, Gary Cahill and Jack Wilshere and then there was the whole Rio Ferdinand/John Terry affair. No team could be confident after such a shambolic build-up.
The appointment of Hodgson, solid rather than spectacular, was welcomed more by fans than by the media. Whatever people thought of his coaching abilities, and there has been some debate about that, there is no denying that Hodgson is a likeable man.
The opening game against France was a dogged draw with folks back home generally pleased, perhaps even too pleased, with a performance full of grit and not grace. With the acceptance that Les Bleus had a significant edge in talent, there was an acceptance that England would defend.
But then came the game with Sweden when the team produced the kind of attacking performance that has been rarely seen of late. Young players such as Andy Carroll, Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all played a part.
A thundering header put the English ahead but then came a familiar story. Desperate defending lead to two quick Swedish goals, panic was setting in and defeat was looming. All feared the worst but this England team fought back and came back. Two great goals followed and a nation purred with satisfaction.
If that wasn’t enough, England then defeated co-hosts Ukraine in the final group game to top the group, quite a feat, but did so in a manner that suggested there is still a lot of work to be done. Even when winning, the team was doing enough to ensure that expectations were not rising.
The reward is a game against Italy. England has achieved its objective already and anything from here is a bonus. This is a team that will be happy to sit back and let the Italians have the ball and wait for the counter-attack.
As Italian midfielder Daniele De Rossi remarked: England are “a very Italian team — you can see the signs, from [Fabio] Capello to Hodgson. One is Italian, one worked in Italian football. Hodgson was managing in Italy with Inter Milan, so his teams know how to play defensively and then attack. They will have very good players on the flanks but also be a really compact team. It won’t be easy.”
The English like underdogs and perhaps are especially comfortable when they are themselves the unfancied challenger fighting with backs to the wall against a more talented opponent.
But whatever happens against the Azzurri, this tournament has already been a success. It has helped to repair what was a strained relationship. English fans are learning to like their team again.
John Duerden is a prolific football writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, ESPN, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated, among many other publications. His column, Top Corner, appears regularly on InterAKTV. Follow Johnny on Twitter for more football discussion.