Some of my best friends are English, but… if there was a World Cup for defeatism, you’d lose in the final on penalties! If you’re a positive-thinking England fan, throw this in the bin. If not, read on…
You approach each qualifier as if your team is doomed. Imagine if you hailed from Belfast, not Birmingham. I write as a football fan who wasn’t even in big school the last time Northern Ireland made it to the World Cup finals (Mexico, 1986). Surely, you should be consoling me?
“Even if we finish second, we may not be in the top eight runners-up,’’ you say. “What’s the point anyway? We aren’t good enough to win in Rio, even if we get there.’’ And my favourite: “Any team with Ricky Lambert up front is going nowhere fast.’’
Many nations would kill for a fifth-choice striker as good as the Southampton number seven. And sure, England’s is not the hardest qualifying group by a long chalk – but that probably explains why your team is unbeaten, top of the group, and has two home games to finish off the job, which I’m all but sure they’ll do.
So, why am I having more fun supporting Northern Ireland than you are supporting England? And while we’re at it, why is there more singing at Windsor Park than at Wembley?
I know there’s the constant expectation, the feeling that the only thing that equals success is lifting one of international football’s two major trophies – 47 years of hurt and all that – and there’s the constant debate over the style of football, the formations, the diminishing number of top-flight English players in starting XIs…
It’s a long, long list, the most depressing of which, for me, is the endless debate over a mythical blueprint for success. Yes, more qualified coaches would be a massive help, but only one nation in the world, every four years, can lift the hallowed 141/2 inches of 18-carat gold. So, I’d give up on the negativity – you can leave that to the pundits – and build a siege mentality around the England team. Go forward as fans, proud to wear the Three
Lions, ready to take on all-comers without fear of failure, without demand for victory. Put fire back into the national loins by puffing out the chest and getting behind the players. Leave Lee Dixon to work out where it all went right or wrong.
Learn to embrace your inner underdog – because, take it from me, beside Brazil, Spain and Germany, that’s what England are. And some might argue that Belgium, Argentina and Italy are on that list of top footballing nations, too.
However, there’s solace in accepting your role as David, not Goliath. It’s not defeatist, it just allows the players to line up before a game without the crushing pressure of the win- or-else expectation, or the nothing’s-ever- good-enough pessimism. A “fight them on the beaches” attitude is so very British – and a fearless togetherness would filter through to the players on the field. So come Friday, I don’t want to hear my English friends bemoaning the fact that Lampard and Gerrard are playing together. Instead I want them to look me in the eye and say, “Montenegro and Poland? They have to come to Wembley. That’s unlucky. We are England. Remind me again who Northern Ireland are getting beat by this week?’’