Lower expectations give rise to modest surge of optimism for England fans

Swathes of empty seats reflect World Cup realism but supporters hold out hope that a team to challenge may emerge

They still play the old songs at the new Wembley, if not quite with the same gusto. As 30 years of hurt has become 48 years of dull throbbing ache, the memory of the absurd optimism that used to start bubbling at this point still lingers. To everyone's relief we are no longer in the 2002 or 2006 territory. Then, aided and abetted by a public for whom the froth of the WAGs had yet to be tarnished by harassment and phone-hacking, the hype machine was self-perpetuating.

Like a teenage party they would rather forget, those at Wembley old enough to remember still shudder in embarrassment at the sea of plastic flags and inflated hopes that built around those tournaments. Even, to a lesser extent, during the austere march to elimination under Fabio Capello in South Africa four years ago.

Instead the "new realism" that took hold during a Euro 2012 in which the then recently appointed Roy Hodgson was given the benefit of every doubt has persisted throughout a sometimes turgid but ultimately successful qualifying campaign and two home defeats in friendlies, by Chile and Germany.

When the FA chairman, Greg Dyke, was very publicly captured making a throat-slitting gesture as the draw was made, it made it hard to pretend that England are riding to the World Cup on the crest of a wave. It all presents the FA with something of a dilemma. With shirts to sell, sponsors to keep happy and seats to fill a rallying cry of "We'll be lucky to get out of the group stages" or "Let's concentrate on building for 2018" does not exactly set the pulse racing.

It was a mood partly reflected in the swathes of empty seats at Wembley and the low-key fare on the pitch. One side of the upper tier was a sea of red plastic. When the PA announcer yelled "It's time for international football action!" even his heart was not really in it.

With a full ground required by the FA to service the debt taken on to build it, retaining enthusiasm for the national side is imperative. The uninspiring qualification grind for the expanded Euro 2016 and the need to renew Club Wembley contracts in 2017 will merely exacerbate the problem.

And yet, old habits die hard. Hope springs eternal. Given the turgid showings in November the fact that more than 68,000 people trekked to England's penultimate home friendly before the World Cup is really a small triumph.

No other country fills their national stadium so frequently and at such volume for comparatively meaningless matches. Bright eyed kids, sporting red and white jesters hats, still tugged the hands of their parents as they walked up Olympic Way. Older heads shrugged, reasoned that football without hope was nothing, and queued for overpriced merchandise and to have their photo taken in front of the Bobby Moore statue regardless.

During recent days there has been the first flowerings of a new breed of curious reverse logic. Hodgson, so circumspect and careful not ramp up expectations, has been talking up the blend of youth and old heads within his squad. One newspaper went so far as to damn them with the cursed phrase "golden generation".

In the face of all available evidence on the pitch once cynical voices have begun to wonder if maybe, just maybe, his blend of innocence and experience will coalesce into a decent team. There was not too much evidence of it last night, save for encouraging cameos from the Southampton pair Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana.

Until the lively Raheem Sterling hit a post when it was easier to score, the biggest cheer was reserved for a linesman replacing his broken flag. Yet the captain Steven Gerrard has started saying "it's time to get excited" and claiming – in the face of all evidence – the intensity of the Premier League programme may somehow help England when they face Italy in the heat of the Amazon in June.

The hiring Dr Steve Peters, the "mind mechanic" who helped Britain's cyclists to an avalanche of medals – albeit with several years to get inside their heads rather than the several weeks he will have with England's footballers – has also induced optimism.

With 99 days to go even Dyke had started daring to believe. He now says: "We got a tough draw and we'll do well to get out of the group but I am optimistic we will achieve that. After that it's in the lap of the gods," is his most recent assessment.

The crowd enjoyed themselves regardless, resorting to Mexican waves by the 75th minute. A night at the national stadium is now sold as a good-value family outing – with the score almost incidental, although Daniel Sturridge's late winner came as a welcome bonus.

Most will be back when England play Peru on 30 May in their final send-off before Hodgson's chosen 23 head to Florida and then on to Rio. Paradoxically, the lowered expectations have given rise to a modest surge in optimism.

With no talismanic figure to hang their hopes on, England fans have begun hoping a strong team may emerge.

When nothing much else makes sense about English football, perhaps it is the only sane way to approach this summer.

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