England hopes Gareth Southgate and his team can build on solid foundations
Gareth Southgate’s men could make this the summer of a lifetime, with England among the favourites to win a competition that just five years ago witnessed one of the lowest moments in the national team’s history.
Nobody will forget – as much as they may wish to – the Three Lions’ last European Championship match, with minnows Iceland humiliating Roy Hodgson’s stuttering star-filled side in the round of 16.
As if that Euro 2016 exit was not chastening enough, Hodgson’s successor Sam Allardyce was gone after just 67 days following the emergence of secretly-filmed video footage containing controversial remarks.
What has been dubbed ‘the impossible job’ certainly looked like a poisoned chalice for the next man, yet Southgate provided the foundations for the most exciting period in more than a decade.
The Under-21s boss’ promising stint in interim charge led him to get the role on a permanent basis, with his contract deservedly extended just months after the impressive run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals.
From the last-gasp winner against Tunisia to Harry Kane’s Panama hat-trick, and a penalty shoot-out triumph against Colombia to the comfortable quarter-final victory against Sweden, it was an amazing ride in Russia.
Kieran Trippier even had England dreaming of going all the way with his stunning semi-final free-kick at the Luzhniki, only for Croatia’s guile and experience to break hearts in extra-time.
There will forever be a nagging feeling of what could have been but steady progress since then, including bronze at the inaugural Nations League, has led belief to grow that this group can follow in the footsteps of the 1966 heroes.
And following one of the toughest years any of us have dealt with, England have the chance to lift the trophy on home soil just like Sir Alf Ramsey’s men.
The Three Lions’ group matches against World Cup foes Croatia, old rivals Scotland and the Czech Republic – the last side to beat them in a qualifier – will all be held at Wembley.
There will be the welcome sound of fans in the stands after a season in silence and the tournament also culminates under the arch, with the semi-finals and July 11 showpiece taking place at the national stadium.
Southgate knows better than most how huge hosting major tournament matches for the first time in 25 years will be, just as he understands the immense pressure and attention that it can bring.
Replays and references to his missed spot-kick in the Euro 96 semi-final against Germany will be relentless this summer, but it is never a chapter he has shied away from and he has used that pain to fuel improvements.
The survivors from that embarrassing Iceland loss five years ago will no doubt approach this summer with a similar mindset, but this group is far different to the World Cup, never mind the last Euros.
Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker, Jordan Henderson, John Stones and Marcus Rashford are the only players to be involved in both tournaments – a product of Southgate’s constant push for improvements and evolution.
Not afraid to take bold decisions and trust talent, 17-year-old Jude Bellingham is the youngest player in an expanded squad that only includes three players in their 30s.
But what the group lacks in experience it more than makes up for with promise and ability to leave England dreaming of a summer to cherish after a tough, coronavirus-shaped period for all.