NO MATTER how low the national team sinks, or how deep the scandal surrounding England, one thing can be guaranteed: the nation’s fans will still turn up in their droves.
This much will be proved once again today when the Three Lions’ first home outing of the season sees Malta visit the national stadium.
A crowd of more than 85,000 is expected, a phenomenal turnout considering not only the paucity of the opposition – Malta are ranked 176th in the world and a home win is priced as short as 200-1 on with one bookmaker – but also the chastening few months that England have endured.
Getting knocked out of Euro 2016 by the minnows of Iceland was bad.
But to follow that by losing a newly-appointed manager after just one game in charge made the country who gave football to the world a laughing stock.
Despite that, the support from the stands remains unwavering and it is caretaker manager Gareth Southgate’s task to reward that faith in the four games that England have before the end of the year.
Southgate has called on his side to set pulses racing at Wembley with an exciting, attacking style.
He will lead out his country against Malta hoping to make headlines for the right reasons after the embarrassing exit of previous boss Sam Allardyce.
Southgate has inisisted his team must be aggressive and gamble, if necessary, in a bid to showcase their skills.
“Above all I want players to be brave, bring the exciting things they have, the capabilities they have, to the table,” said Southgate.
“One of the messages I’ve wanted to get across to the players this week is I want to see an England team that is brave in possession, willing to take chances, prepared to risk in one versus one chances even though they won’t always succeed.
“They have the freedom to do that while I’m in charge, I’ve been very clear on that with all the young players in the system.
“I think this is a great opportunity for them to show what English players can do. I keep hearing what English players can’t do but I’ve seen what English players can do. I want these guys to go and show it.”
If that sounds like the manifesto of a man who intends to be around longer than the four games he has been assigned, then it should be no surprise.
Southgate is bookmakers’ favourite to claim the full-time post and knows first impressions count for a lot.
Speaking on the 16th anniversary of his final England appearance at Wembley, the former defender confirmed Wayne Rooney would captain the side and be joined in the starting line-up by Arsenal’s Theo Walcott.
Neither is expected to take the centre-forward position vacated by the injured Harry Kane, with Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy vying for that shirt.
Southgate seems set to follow in the footsteps of predecessors Roy Hodgson and Allardyce by using Rooney in a midfield berth in which he has not always excelled, and no longer plays, for Manchester United.
Asked if he could confirm Rooney’s precise role, the former Middlesbrough boss said: “No, I can’t. A good one hopefully.
“I think he has ability to control games (with) his experience.
“This is a game we know we’ll have a lot of the ball. In their last few matches Malta have had probably 35-40 per cent of the ball, so I expect to be controlling the game.”
As for Walcott – left out of the Euro 2016 squad but in the middle of a purple patch of four goals in his last four games – Southgate confirmed he would be on duty from the start.
Injuries to Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling may have helped his cause, but the 27-year-old is in compelling form.
Southgate said: “It’s a good moment for him. He’s in superb form for his club and as an international manager your ideal is to have people in the squad who are playing well.”
Southgate is looking light on defenders following the withdrawal of Everton’s Phil Jagielka and a sore throat that ruled Gary Cahill out of training yesterday.
The Chelsea defender will be assessed this morning and cover may yet be summoned by Southgate ahead of Monday’s flight to Slovenia.