golakeeper Joe Hart has no doubt England have the ability to succeed at Euro 2016 providing they can display the ruthless edge lacking during their early World Cup exit two years ago.
Roy Hodgson’s men headed to Brazil more in hope than expectation, but few could have foreseen the Three Lions being dumped out with a match remaining in their group.
Narrow defeats to Italy and Uruguay condemned England to a first group-stage exit in the competition since 1958, but the Football Association stuck with under-fire Hodgson and an impressive response has been the reward.
England cruised through European Championship qualification with a 100 per cent record and have lost just two of 21 matches since returning from Brazil, racking up friendly wins against France, Germany and Portugal over that period.
It is a fine run that Hart is confident will continue against Russia tomorrow, although the England goalkeeper knows they can ill-afford the toothlessness displayed during the 2014 World Cup.
“Playing to a decent standard sometimes isn’t enough – we have got to be really ruthless (at) both ends of the pitch,” he said of the lessons learned in Brazil.
“It’s an obvious thing, that doesn’t differ from Premier League football or Capital One Cup football, but it’s the thing that probably stood out the most in the two games we lost in the World Cup. We could have walked off easily with two victories, but we didn’t and that’s the most important thing.”
Hart is sure England can go far in France if they are on “the right end of the key moments” and was focused, if curt at times, during yesterday’s press conference previewing the Group B opener.
His desire to succeed was palpable and the 29-year-old believes a bold young group can thrive over the next month.
“It’s exciting, fresh, there’s a lot of youngsters so they are probably going to be a lot more comfortable than maybe other teams,” Hart said.
“But there’s a good bond right the way through. I think it’s well known that Wayne (Rooney) is at, I don’t know if he’s our oldest player, 30 years old such a key part of the squad, he’s accessible to all the players, right the way through.
“You look at him doing the interview with Marcus (Rashford), that’s just how Wayne is.
“There’s definitely a connection, age doesn’t really factor into this team. We are one and we’re all pushing in the right direction.”
Only James Milner and captain Rooney have more international experience to their name than the 59-cap goalkeeper, for whom this is a fourth major tournament.
“You’ve got to enjoy it,” Hart said. “I’m a kid who loves football – well, I’m not a kid any more, I’m a slightly grown man, but I love football.
“I’d be watching it as a huge England fan if I wasn’t involved.
“I’ve got one of those lucky spots where I might even be potentially representing my country on Saturday in a European tournament, so I’m going to enjoy it.
“I’m 29, I’ve hopefully got a lot of football ahead of me.
“I love playing football, I love being around guys that want to play football – that’s a really good thing about this squad and we’re enjoying each other as a unit.
“The only way we’re ultimately going to enjoy this tournament is success so, like I say, that starts Saturday.”
Rashford has been as amazed as anyone by his whirlwind rise, with the England teenager confessing it “doesn’t feel real” being at Euro 2016.
There are few ascents that compare to the speed and style with which the 18-year-old has seamlessly transformed into one of the country’s most feted players.
Thrust into the Manchester United team in late February after a warm-up injury to Anthony Martial, Rashford flourished rather than wilted under the Old Trafford spotlight by netting eight goals in 18 appearances and helped United win the FA Cup.
Rashford’s form earned a maiden England call-up and it took just 138 seconds against Australia to become the country’s youngest goalscoring debutant.
That rubber-stamped the striker’s place in Hodgson’s 23-man squad heading to France, putting him in line to feature against Russia this weekend, just 107 days after his club breakthrough.
Asked if he could ever imagine being in this position, Rashford shook his head and said with a smile: “No.
“Back then I was actually trying to work my way into the Under-21s side and all of a sudden I appeared in the first team – you have to be ready when your chance comes.
“To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about the England set-up as much because obviously at United there was a lot of games coming thick and fast.
“All of my focus was on those games.
“At the end of the season you hear talk and stuff, but to be here now is just amazing.”
Will the Three Lions roar? asks Richard Sutcliffe: Page 24.