Richard Hercock: Football is not coming home so let us just enjoy the World Cup

My earliest World Cup memory dates back to 1978. It has nothing to do with the football, but the sticker books which made the Shooters Grove Juniors playground Sheffield’s answer to Wall Street.

England's Wayne Rooney stands dejected during the Round of 16 match at the Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein, South Africa.

Traders would swap their Osvaldo Carlos Ardiles – the midfielder who would join Spurs playing for hosts Argentina – for an Archie Gemmill. I had nothing against the bearded Scotsman, but it was a bit of a steal.

Or how about Zico, the long-haired Brazilian, for Holland’s Johan Neeskens? That would have made my lunchtime.

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I can remember little about the tournament, although I do remember a fellow pupil, Mark Gregory, proclaiming he was some bloke called Dino Zoff when he took over between the jumper ‘goalposts’ at break-time (Mark was always ahead of the gang; he knew who Seve Ballesteros was before any of us.)

But what I do recall is my treasured World Cup sticker book. That was the only year I ever had one; I was eight at the time.

Maybe it is because England failed to qualify for the finals in 1978 that I do not remember Argentinian Mario Kempes opening the scoring in the Buenos Aires final against Holland. He would go on to double his tally – finishing the tournament as top scorer with six goals – in a 3-1 win.

Four years later and Italian Paolo Rossi was the new playground hero for would-be strikers, following on from Kempes as top scorer with six goals as Spain hosted the tournament.

This was Ron Greenwood’s England side, Bryan Robson netting after just 27 seconds in a 3-1 win over France, and my favourite national kit.

But not even their sartorial elegance could rescue England as they headed home without losing a game before Italy beat West Germany 3-1 in the final.

Back to South America and Mexico in 1986, this will always be remembered for ‘that’ goal by Diego Maradona. Forget all the skill and Maradona’s other goal from that quarter-final, his ‘Hand of God’ has haunted a generation of football fans.

Maybe I had found better things to spend my money on in my teenage years, but I never did get another sticker book after 1978.

Come 1990 and I found myself on the other side of the Atlantic from the World Cup. This was the summer that elevated football onto a new plateau in England.

As a student, I worked at an American summer camp as Italy staged the 14th World Cup. In the days before internet and mobile phones, English staff had to resort to calling home to get score updates.

England squeezed through the group stages with draws against the Republic of Ireland and Holland before a 1-0 win over Egypt.

Subsequent wins over Belgium and Cameroon meant England faced West Germany in the semi-finals in Turin. Gazza was left in tears and there was another penalty shoot-out hard luck story.

Whatever happened in Turin – and it was hard to experience that outpouring of emotion 4,000 miles away in Massachusetts – but when I returned to college that September, girls who had sneered at my obsession with football suddenly wanted to come to a game.

A few cold rainy nights at Hillsborough soon washed away that new-found liking for the game, but the 1990 World Cup had opened up the sport to a new crowd.

A back operation meant I spent most of the 1994 World Cup in bed recuperating, meaning I watched almost every single minute. Such a shame England did not make the finals – just the third time that had happened – but Jack Charlton and his adopted Ireland team more than made up for it.

Ray Houghton’s winner against Italy at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey is probably my favourite World Cup moment.

The Irish eventually lost to Holland 2-0 in the searing July heat of Orlando.

Since their no-show in 1994, England have approached the four subsequent finals with the weight of expectation upon their shoulders.

This has meant losing in Round 2 in France (1998) and South Africa (2010), and the quarter-finals in Germany (2006) and South Korea/Japan (2002) have been greeted as failures.

But something is different this year. England does not seem to expect.

My friend’s children are now collecting the stickers, but there does not seem to be any expectations from their parents about England’s prospects when the 20th FIFA World Cup kicks off on June 12 in Sao Paulo, between hosts Brazil and Croatia.

There was a great moment when Roy Hodgson announced his 23-man World Cup squad earlier this month.

The press conference was staged at the home of Vauxhall, one of the national side’s sponsors, and one cheeky journalist asked if the squad was a bit like the car which rolled off the production line; dependable, but ordinary.

Now I know where the line of questioning was heading; I drive a Zafira, that loveable family car, and it certainly will not get the pulse racing.

A bit like James Milner or Phil Jones, guys who are reliable squad members but hardly fill you with confidence that England might actually exceed themselves this summer.

The journalist’s tone is probably reflected in pubs and kitchen tables across the land. There is a realism this year, that England are not expected to end “48 years of hurt” and, no, football is not coming home.

Yes, we might be getting the obligatory World Cup songs, but deep down, nobody expects England to win in Brazil.

That is where my optimism kicks in. Maybe, just maybe, this summer we can simply enjoy a feast of football, with games kicking off at all times of the day.

Take the opening Saturday, June 14. Day spent washing the car, cutting the lawn, then settle down for a pre-match coffee and kebab as Colombia face Greece at 5pm.

Then, three hours later, it is a South American affair as Uruguay tackle Costa Rica in a game where you would expect a fair few bookings.

That is just the appetiser, of course, for 11pm heralds England’s opening match in Manaus against Italy. This is a huge game, as you would expect the winner of this match to progress from the group stage.

If that has not exhausted you and the TV, then how about Japan versus the Ivory Coast at 2am to see the night/morning away?

What an evening – and we have a whole month of such fixtures to look forward to, meaning it is not just the playground traders who can enjoy the World Cup this year.