'It’s The Hope That Kills You' is a MatchPint series looking at England since the turn of the Millenium, examining the results before every major tournament that left you thinking that maybe, just maybe, something special could happen...
They do it to us every time. Just as we come off the back of two convincing wins against Nigeria Costa Rica, hopes and expectations rise to a point where we start to believe again. This England side looks functional at the very least, capable of actually doing something in a major tournament. And yet the lingering feeling that the wheels could fall off at any moment persists.
Cast your mind back two years ago, to March 2016. Leicester City are eight points clear at the top of the table, a bedraggled Remi Garde is still Villa manager, whilst Tottenham’s Harry Kane is on course for a second consecutive 20-goal season.
The changing nature of the Premier League landscape would be reflected in Roy Hodgson’s team selection for two pre-Euro friendlies against Germany and the Netherlands. He named five Tottenham players in his squad, with Danny Drinkwater and Jamie Vardy making the cut from the league leaders. One club would go on to win the title, the other "put the pressure on".
Overall, England seemed to be in a relatively good place at the time. As ever they had topped their qualifying group, this time without dropping a point and conceding just three goals along the way.
Confidence was high about domestic football and as well as Kane and Vardy, Dele Alli was enjoying a breakout season. As good as these players were though, they were all still very fresh to the international scene and needed a few tests to show they were ready for Euro 2016. Playing the world champions away at the Olympiastadion in Berlin seemed like the ultimate baptism by fire.
The squads that night were chalk and cheese in terms of experience. To put it in numbers, Hodgson’s starting XI that night had 161 England caps in total; Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller and Mesut Özil had 200 between them. It was also the first time England had started with four Spurs players (Rose, Dier, Alli and Kane) since 1987.
In the sort of way two of the world’s biggest transnational corporations could get away with, Adidas and Nike managed to get both sides to wear their away kits that night: Germany turning out in a nightmarish green and grey number, England in a more traditional red strip inexplicably paired with garish blue socks.
The game itself started brightly, England looking decent in possession in front of a rowdy Olympiastadion - incidentally, at stadium at which they had never lost.
Trouble was never too far away though and Germany had the ball in the net courtesy of the ageless Mario Gómez - only for it to be (incorrectly) ruled out for offside. Gómez is a player who beggars belief a little. Still only 32, an age he seems to have been stuck on for about 6 years now, still laughably handsome and still knobbing them in wherever he goes.
Danger momentarily averted, it wasn’t too long before Germany broke the deadlock, merciless midfield humanoid Toni Kroos taking a long-range pop at a hobbling Jack Butland. Punching the ground in frustration, it later transpired he’d broken his foot and the Stoke No.1 had to be subbed off for Fraser Forster.
Despite some more encouraging passages of play from England let down by wayward finishing, Forster was soon collecting the ball from his own net shortly after half-time - this time Gomez rising at the back stick to add Germany’s second and his 26th international goal.
With a demoralising battering on the cards, England’s response was immediate. Kane, leading the line with a perspex eye-mask on his face, produced a brilliant piece of skill in the box, Cruyff-turning his way around Mueller and Ozil before rattling home into the far corner. Not all heroes wear capes.
It was the kind of moment that gave England the belief they could turn this round. The final half an hour of football was some of the most gallivanting, effective and fun footy they played in Hodgson’s often stodgy reign. The manager unleashed Vardy and Ross Barkley from the bench on the 72nd minute; two minutes later, Vardy had located the onion bag for the first in international football - and what a goal it was.
After Barkley had come marauding through Germany’s midfield, he slipped in Nathaniel Clyne who crossed low for Vardy. Leicester’s arch agitator then back-heeled it on the half-volley back past Neuer at the front post, a truly remarkable goal. As Clive Tyldesley said on the ITV commentary that night, “Everything he touches, turns to gold”.
With five minutes left on the clock, Alli - who had played out of his skin that night - had a golden opportunity to seal the game earlier, blazing over from inside the box with the goal gaping in front of him. But there was to be one more chance. Jordan Henderson lofted in a corner, which Dier met with his considerable forehead to thump into the net. 3-2. Comeback complete. Hand us the trophy now.
Hodgson’s merry band of bairns had been excellent. Beating Ze Germans in their own backyard was no mean feat and then had done it in swashbuckling style.
Much of the media talk after the game jumped on the hype train, laying down the gauntlet to see what they were capable of. “In the space of 90 minutes, a new generation of talented footballers raised expectations for the England team for the next decade”, Sam Wallace wrote in The Telegraph.
Hodgson himself didn’t want to get carried away after one of the results of his career but acknowledged that the way England had played would silence some of his critics. “‘Fearlessness’ is a good word”, he said after the game. “We use it a lot when we talk to the team, encouraging them to show positivity and composure and being comfortable on the ball, not to panic when someone pressurises you and play it off first time. Be prepared to risk the more difficult passes occasionally.”
In fact, it only took three days England to come crashing back down to reality. England returned home to Wembley and promptly lost 2-1 to what’s widely regarded as the worst Netherlands side in memory. And while there were still encouraging signs in the performance, the result was proof that they were far from the finished article.
Victories against Turkey, Australia and Portugal followed in the build-up to Euro 2016 and what looked like a relatively kind group gave the nation confidence that England could make a decent stab of the tournament as whole. Ironically, England’s most entertaining display came against Wales, who would go on to reach the semis.
England’s dismal dismissal by Iceland in the last 16 was a low point for the national game. The defeat that night, to a country of 350,000 people, is best summarized by Harry Kane’s freekick, surely one of the worst set pieces ever taken, which he managed to blaze an entire goal width’s wide of the target.
This is incredibly harsh of course. Kane continues to outdo himself and two years on from that night in Berlin has shown he is no one-trick pony. To Hodgson’s credit, the backbone of that team makes up the squad as we enter the World Cup in Russia. There are a couple of novel sprinklings - an Alexander-Arnold here, a Maguire there - but it is the players who performed best that night (Kane, Alli, Vardy, Dier) with whom the weight of expectation still lies.
If England finish second in their group and can negotiate a last 16 clash with Poland, it seems probable that Germany will await in the Quarter Finals. Gareth Southgate will need to inspire the same energy England produced in Berlin if they are to go any further.