‘BELIEF’ may be pushing it a tad but, in terms of the nation’s mood ahead of tonight’s opening Euro 2016 group game against Russia, there is at least now hope.
Hope that England, for the first time in a decade, may make a positive contribution to a major tournament.
Hope that an exciting new breed of youngsters can help restore a sense of pride to the Three Lions after the debacle of the last World Cup.
And hope that this new exciting generation can, if not this year, then by 2018 finally be in a position to end all those long, long years of hurt for England’s national team.
Just how the next few weeks will pan out for Roy Hodgson and his men, no-one knows. England could go all the way to the final on July 10 or Rooney, Kane et al could be out of Europe a couple of days before the rest of us even have the chance to vote to do the same.
But, regardless of what happens from hereon in, there is a sense of cautious excitement surrounding the Three Lions ahead of tonight’s meeting with Russia in Marseille.
Results have been decent, a host of emerging talents have been bedded in and, as Leicester City so gloriously proved by lifting the Premier League just last month, the unexpected really can happen in modern-day football.
Of course, for Hodgson to follow Claudio Ranieri by leading his side to glory, history will have to be overcome.
For nigh on 50 years, England’s footballers have proved so effective at getting out of Europe that it is a surprise Boris Johnson has not been in touch for advice ahead of the June 23 referendum. This country’s Championships record is abject.
Our first appearance in 1968 brought a semi-final defeat in a four-team finals, while we did at least earn a place in the last four of Euro 96 under Terry Venables on home soil.
Other than that, though, it has been decidedly slim pickings with four of the last 11 tournaments taking place with no English presence at all. Of the other seven, four brought an exit in the group stages.
Compare that to three triumphs by West Germany/Germany and Spain. France also have two Championships to their name, while even Greece won Euro 2004 and Denmark managed to lift the trophy in 1992 despite being on the beach a couple of weeks earlier.
In comparison, England’s record is dismal. So, too, is their record in the opening fixture of a Championships.
Four defeats and four draws from eight games is perhaps as good an illustration as any of why the Three Lions have rarely roared in the Euros. That and the fact England have won just a single knockout fixture in those previous eight appearances in the finals. And even then, that came on penalties against Spain at Wembley 20 summers ago.
The need to improve that latter statistic can wait. First, a group containing Russia, Slovakia and Wales has to be negotiated.
Thanks to the new bloated format that means up to three teams go through, victory tonight in Marseille will see Hodgson’s men as good as through to the last 16. Even defeat will not – again thanks to Euro 2016 featuring 24 teams – be too damaging in terms of reaching the knockout stage with four points from the remaining two games likely to be enough.
In terms of gaining an advantage, however, top spot in Group B is a must. That would bring a second-round tie in Paris on June 25 against one of the four best third placed teams.
Just who that would be against is a complicated business thanks to the new format but there is a near 50 per cent chance it would be the third placed team from either Group A (France, Romania, Albania, Switzerland) or Group D (Spain, Turkey, Croatia, Czech Republic).
After that, England, as group winners, could face Portugal, Belgium or Italy in the quarters and France or Spain in the last four.
Alternatively, second place in Group B would bring a clash for Hodgson’s men with the runner-up from Group F (Portugal, Austria, Iceland and Hungary). And if we edge through in third place, get ready for, in all likelihood, Spain or Germany.
Of course, progress in France will only be possible if Hodgson gets his tactics right. England may have a squad top-heavy with attacking talent but the right system will be needed, as the recent friendly against 10-man Portugal proved.
England, with Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane pushed to the fringes and Wayne Rooney playing too far forward, looked a disjointed mess at Wembley and struggled to create anything of note until Raheem Sterling came off the bench.
The Manchester City man may not have had the best of Premier League seasons but he provides width and pace. He needs to be in the side, as does the breakthrough talent of 2015-16, Dele Alli.
That, for me, is why things must change tonight and a switch made to the 4-2-3-1 formation that earned victory over Germany in March.
Kane, who surely must be taken off corner-taking duties to make the most of his predatory talent, starting as the lone frontman would mean Vardy missing out, a sacrifice made necessary by a vulnerable defence needing Jack Wilshere and Eric Dier as a protective barrier if England are to prosper against the very best teams in France.
Wilshere’s fitness, of course, is the big concern. He only played 141 minutes for Arsenal last season and Hodgson is understood to have doubts over the midfielder. If that is the case, expect Adam Lallana to come in ahead of a back four that will contain three Yorkshiremen.
Either way, England do have hope – even if this is accompanied by the nagging fear that a quarter-final exit awaits to leave us alone as the only European-based former World Cup winner to have never tasted success in the Euros.