Godspeed England and thank you for reigniting that loving feeling

Unburdened by hype and narcissism, Gareth Southgate and his side have the qualities that make it easy to once again get behind the national team at a World Cup

A World Cup is upon us, which means it’s time to look forward as well as back. Forward to a glut of football over the next few weeks – some of it great, some of it poor, all of it compelling – and back to previous tournaments, acting as they do as signposts in our lives. We remember how they shaped our summers as well as ourselves and, as is the case with most things, the first World Cup tends to mean the most.

Italia 90. That was mine. I was nine, a year into my love affair with football and it was the tournament that sealed the deal. Omam-Biyik’s header against Argentina; Baggio’s dribble against Czechoslovakia; Schillaci’s eyes; Rijkaard’s mouth; O’Leary’s penalty; the warm hue of the television coverage that was like nothing I had seen before ... it was mesmerising. And making that summer of 28 years ago even more glorious, there was England.

Oh, England. Young readers may struggle to believe this but there was a time when the national team were less a trigger for regret and cynicism and more a source of pride and hope. More than that they were liked, and no more so than in 1990.

Bobby Robson, everyone’s favourite uncle, was in charge and the team was made up of seemingly decent blokes, the type who smell of Old Spice and have normal, proper jobs. Add Paul Gascoigne, that most lovable of rascals, to the mix and it was easy to be intoxicated by “our boys”. World in Motion played endlessly during those long, warm days and it went on all the way to the semi-finals, at which point there were tears before bedtime but also confirmation that, yes, I was an England fan.

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But it didn’t last. Come France 98 I was utterly indifferent to England’s progress and by Euro 2000 the bond had snapped completely. I laughed when Phil Neville gave away that penalty against Romania, a reaction that confirmed the worst – not only did I no longer care about England, I found their failings utterly hilarious.

Several factors explain the change. On a somewhat superficial level, I found it increasingly difficult to get behind players from Manchester United, Chelsea, Everton and elsewhere as my dedication to being a Liverpool supporter hardened during my teenage and early adult years. Wanting the likes of Gary Neville, John Terry and Wayne Rooney to do well felt like an act of treachery rather than loyalty, with all the overblown fuss that surrounded the “golden generation” hardly helping matters. By the mid-noughties England felt like a travelling band of celebrities and no good can, and should, come from that.

On a deeper level there was also the fact that as I got older, I felt less English. It’s the fate of many second-generation immigrants and especially those who have seen their mum called a “fucking Paki”, as I did in the 90s. Quite frankly, there’s nothing like a bit of racist abuse hurled at one of your parents in the middle of the street to make a person feel disconnected from the place of their birth and those who live in it.

The hooliganism was a problem too, and in that sense Euro 2000 was a real watershed moment. Seeing those boozed-up dunderheads tear through Charleroi before England’s game against Germany made it even clearer that this particular source of national engagement wasn’t for me.

All of which was a shame given how much England had meant to me, with Euro 96 the undoubted high point. I’m from Wembley and it felt like the centre of the universe for those few weeks in June. I also went to the Scotland game, saw Gascoigne score that goal and, up to that point, had never felt more deliriously content.

The love died but now, slowly but surely, it has returned. Well, sort of. Because as England get comfortable in Russia I find myself willing them to do well. Godspeed Gareth and the boys, to Volgograd and beyond.

This is an England setup that is easy to get behind. The manager is thoughtful and upstanding, bringing a primary school headteacher quality to the role (not to mention an actual tactical plan), while most of the players come across as decent lads. Yes there’s Jesse Lingard and his bloody dabs but even he fizzes with a tiggerish energy that is rather endearing.

The captain, meanwhile, looks like the type of bloke you’d hire off Checkatrade to paint your spare room and be thoroughly satisfied with his time-keeping as well as work, while the sinister targeting of Raheem Sterling by a certain section of the media has had the effect of turning the player into a figure of sympathy.

So England are nice again, unburdened by hype and Baden-Baden narcissism, and that’s no bad thing, especially as Brexit continues to tear a hole through society. Frankly, it’s become exhausting arguing with people over the colour of a passport and now comes a chance for the fighting to pause and for everyone to get behind a single cause.

That’s certainly what I intend to do, and while too much has happened since 1990 for me to feel deep affection for England, there’s enough there to work with, enough for me to say I want “us” to do well.