We need to hit ground running... not running scared of the big guns
tournaments with so much expectation, so much build-up from the support, and they are expected to smash everyone.
Then they face teams like Tunisia and don’t blow them away... and the inquest starts before the whole thing is barely under way. I have to be careful how I say this for fear of looking stupid, but that first game is the toughest “easy” one they could have.
No England side ever seems to hit the ground running in the first group game. And, against opponents like Tunisia, who you know will be right up for the game, it is so easy to drop points.
The only World Cup finals I went to, it happened to us.
We played Sweden and everyone back home was already looking ahead to which of the big nations we’d face in the knockout stage (it was Brazil, and that was that).
We only drew and it was as if the sky had collapsed... even though Sweden were, obviously, a very good team, who actually went on to top the group. Belgium are hardly rubbish either, are they? I reckon their management will be having a field day, telling all the players that England think they have any easy group and a pass into the knockout. I can imagine the reaction there. If we think it was an easy group, what about them? They’ll be doing cartwheels that they didn’t get Spain or Uruguay from pot two, which says much about our standing at present. No one knows much about Panama, just as no one knew anything about Costa Rica at the last World Cup – and they knocked out England and Italy! That’s the biggest reason I wanted Southgate’s team to get a tougherlooking draw (and again, I’m not saying it is easy), to stop all that triumphalism and expectation that we always seem to go to tournaments with. If we’d had, say Brazil, Sweden and Serbia, no one would be thinking we’d got a chance, but I believe, on any given day, England are capable of beating any team.
That doesn’t mean I think we can win the tournament, but we could beat Brazil on a good day.
It’s a big regret I only went to the finals once. I wrecked my knee in 1998 and actually had a hip problem when I went in 2002 and probably shouldn’t have.
I think I should perhaps have gone in 2006, when I was back at Liverpool, because we didn’t have many options up front with Michael Owen injured (they took a 16-year-old Theo Walcott, remember) and I had hit a decent run of scoring form.
Looking back, I’d have loved my World Cup experience to have gone beyond a second-half appearance against Denmark when already 3-0 up (and don’t get me started on why Sven-Goran Eriksson didn’t bring me on when we were losing to Brazil).
That’s the point. You go to the finals to play against the biggest nations in the world, so when you get there – or rather, when you get home – you want to have faced them up.
England have a young team and I guarantee they will all be praying they play as many of the big guns as possible before they come home.