MANAGER Roy Hodgson is confident England’s young and talented squad will flourish when their Euro 2016 campaign gets under way tonight against Russia.
Nine months after qualification was sealed and 24 days after preparations began, the Three Lions kick off Group B against Leonid Slutsky’s men at the imposing Stade Velodrome in Marseille.
Wales and Slovakia swiftly follow after England attempt to win a European Championship opener for the first time amid a backdrop of fan trouble in the city centre.
It is an unwelcome snapshot of years gone by, but Hodgson is focusing on the football, expressing his confidence in the side he will charge with victory on the Cote d’Azur.
“I feel happy with it,” he said of his starting line-up, which will be revealed to the players this morning.
“It is not something that has suddenly been sprung upon us over the last few days, it is something which has been emerging certainly over the last six months.
“You are right that, it hasn’t emerged over the last four years or even over two years, but certainly over the last six months the team that I’ll pick (for today) and the team I might pick in future games, they’ve been emerging and I feel very comfortable now I know what those players can do on the field and what they can do together.”
Hodgson was in good spirits as he teased photographers during the open training session.
The 68-year-old was pictured holding up a small piece of paper for the assembled media, seemingly mocking assistant Ray Lewington, who was photographed on Tuesday carrying a clipboard with a number of player names written on headed Football Association notepaper.
There may be comfort and confidence in the side, but Hodgson knows there are always aspects of the game to improve at international level.
Recent wins over hosts France, world champions Germany and Portugal, ranked eighth in the world, show they can threaten the best, which could make the next month one to remember.
“We know these players can play football,” Hodgson said of his squad. “We see it at their clubs.
“My fear as a coach would be that the players take anxiety on to the field, that they’re weighed down when they go out and play and don’t play as well as they like, imagining the headlines.
“We try and encourage them to believe in themselves, go out and play the football we’ve been trying to play, and we’ll see what it brings.
“We hope it brings some good moments and the people back home like what they see.”
The Duke of Cambridge and Prime Minister David Cameron have been among the well-wishers ahead of England’s Group B opener, although the coaching staff are working hard to relieve the tension such attention can breed.
Captain Wayne Rooney will be key to retaining focus before and during the match against Russia, with Hodgson confirming his place in the starting line-up at the same time as underlining his importance.
“I want him to be the captain of the team, I want him to bring his experience, of course,” he said, stood next to England’s on-field leader on the eve of the game.
“I want him to bring his obvious passion, enthusiasm and desire to do well.
“I don’t honestly believe there are any players out there that need to be dragged along.
“I think they’re all on the same boat, but what Wayne has to say and what Wayne can do as an example is because he got 111 caps and 52 goals.”
Hodgson believes his team will find themselves on a “sticky wicket” if they look to Rooney too much and just wants the forward to do what he has done over the entirety of his England career.
That cannot be entirely true given the temper that impacted his early career, such as the red card against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup quarter-finals.
Dele Alli has proved similarly temperamental during his breakthrough season at Spurs, but Hodgson has no concerns over him ahead of the game with Russia.
“As far as I am concerned on Dele Alli, if he is selected to play I will select him because he is Dele Alli,” the Three Lions boss said.
“He obviously realises as much as anybody that he needs to be careful and we want to finish the game with 11 men.
“That is his responsibility, but me making a big point of it could detract from his game.
“These are the delicate balances all coaches must go through with players who occasionally get a reputation for being easy to provoke.”