The burden of expectation that England carry in the wake of the World Cup appeared in the form of a kid on a bike yesterday.
Gareth Southgate recognised the young lad in a red jacket who pedalled his BMX bike to the Grove hotel in Watford. He had wished them luck ahead of their Russian adventure and he was back here yesterday with a card to say well done.
As Southgate acknowledged, it is now up to him and his players to prove to a new generation of fans that they are worthy of their support and that, unlike in 1990, a World Cup semi-final will not be followed by four years of decline. Equally important is how the players reflect on the success they enjoyed in the summer and move forward.
‘We’ve got to convince ourselves it wasn’t a one-off,’ said Southgate. ‘That’s the most important thing. That was a moment in time. I remember there was a lad who cycled up here to the hotel on his bike, he was waiting for us, he was 13. He was there today, too.
‘He felt like I did in 1990. Two generations of supporters have experienced something they’ve never experienced before. That will always be there.
‘But expectations are good. That means we are progressing. It doesn’t change the pressure of the role. Working with the national team and playing for England has that wherever you perform. It’s something we have to embrace.’
Part of taking England forward is starting to beat teams like the one they meet at Wembley this evening. Spain have been in utter disarray in the summer but they remain one of the world’s finest sides and a victory in England’s opening Nations League encounter would certainly represent the progress Southgate is looking for.
As he reminded everyone yesterday, England’s record against the international superpowers is desperately poor. ‘Against top teams in competitive games it’s non-existent,’ he said.
‘It is not impressive, bar Argentina in 2002. It is very rare since 1970 that we have beaten top teams.’
The process by which England strive to improve involved a review of what they did at the World Cup, good and bad.
‘We looked at a few things that we wanted to get the players’ view on,’ he said. ‘We wanted the players to think about why the tournament had gone well — how we played, the preparation.
‘Very often we don’t ask the players. If things had not gone well we’d have been asking them, as we had for the two years since the last tournament. To capture why you’ve done well is important.
‘Then we spoke about how we want to develop without the ball. That’s the key element, technically. First and foremost is how we can improve as a team in terms of possession, being braver in our positioning and our solutions with the ball and how we press and be a bit more aggressive without the ball. We put little bits of footage up, some stills, some stats around a couple of the games.’
Ambition in the group remains strong, with Harry Kane capturing the sense of desire in his responses to questions yesterday.
He will rightly feel proud to receive his World Cup golden boot from his manager tonight but spoke of a wish to focus on the next challenge — in this case the Nations League which, for all the confusion around the new UEFA competition, represents a chance to win a trophy. It is why Southgate may be looking to make more changes than perhaps expected.
The signs earlier in the week were that he would try to send out a team as close as possible to the line-up he employed in the World Cup semi-final against Croatia — giving his players something of a homecoming in front of a near-capacity Wembley crowd.
But by last night there was talk of Marcus Rashford (below) getting the nod as partner to Kane in the absence of the injured Raheem Sterling and perhaps even a starting place for Joe Gomez.
Quite where the young Liverpool defender slots into that back five remains to be seen, but if he has earned selection ahead of Kyle Walker that would be a big call.
With Ashley Young out of the squad, the contest for the vacancy at left back is also an intriguing one. Luke Shaw or Danny Rose? Shaw probably gets the nod, but it’s a close call.
‘When you put on an England shirt there’s a level of performance expected,’ said Southgate. ‘We want that level of performance. We want to learn from those experiences and test ourselves.
‘This is a good moment to build on what we’ve done. That’s how we should view it. When we look back, the next four years (after 1990) weren’t great. That’s the challenge I’ve spoken about with the players.
‘The summer was enjoyable for everybody, but that’s done now. Our focus has to be how we get better. We need to get better to be able to compete at the highest level, with the best teams.
‘But we’re not as far away as we thought we were two years ago, going out in the group stage at the 2014 World Cup and then what happened in the Euros.
‘We’re competitive against anybody. We’ve gained respect abroad. But that only lasts into your next matches. The next matches are the most important.’