Last month, a social media clip went viral, circulating media channels up and down the UK. Twenty-three names were read out in an array of regional accents by English Youths, announcing the players who had been selected by Gareth Southgate, for England’s World Cup campaign in Russia.
The way in which the FA decided to announce the squad received mixed reviews, however, on the whole – barring a couple of mildly debated names – the list was generally well received by press and public alike.
With a sparse number of senior players to choose from, it was an inevitability that Southgate’s squad would have a host of new names, a refreshing undertone and a welcomed sense of the unknown.
Only five of the twenty-three players heading to Russia featured in Roy Hodgson’s 2014 squad in Brazil – most of whom played minor roles, if at all – so this time around, it’s impossible to question whether a player can redeem himself after being sent off for erratically kicking out at an opponent in the last sixteen or whether two of the country’s greatest ever box-to-box midfielders can finally gel for their country, on the game’s biggest stage.
With no comparisons being drawn to previous World Cups, it seems to have generated an embracement of the unknown, where England fans are excited to see how Southgate’s fresh crop of Internationals can perform against the best in the World.
After England’s ‘Golden Generation’ were knocked out by Portugal in 2006, we were clutching at straws when the return of Gareth Barry to England’s squad for South Africa could rescue any hope of winning the tournament in 2010.
Since then, there has not been a huge amount of expectation on England in the build up to a major tournament, which leads people to buy into the irony that England might just do well this time around, because we’re not expecting it.
There is one problem here, however. The moment a manager, player or journalist so much as utters that there is ‘no pressure ’, it’s like a hypnotist’s buzzword clicking the nation into an intoxicated state, where people believe that England can play with a sense of freedom and, who knows, maybe do much better than people think, now that the albatross of expectation has been lifted.
Between the end of the English football season and England’s first group game, journalists need something to keep themselves occupied and, as we’ve seen with their targeting of Raheem Sterling in recent weeks, this can sometimes be malicious and lazy – with a lack of games to cover, mountains are often made of molehills fairly quickly.
Thus far, Southgate has managed the media brilliantly and after receiving some criticism for attending the Super Bowl in February, he has used his experiences from that trip and applied them to his England side.
The prime example of this, is England’s media day, where all twenty-three players were stationed around the futsal pitch at St. George’s Park and interviewed by the press, replicating the media-format used in the build up to The Super Bowl.
This was a cute move, which gave the press access to players, allowing the public to get to know them on a more personal level, but with the entire session lasting just forty-five minutes, they did so in a controlled environment.
In the current competitive footballing vacuum, Southgate has given the press content, rather than leaving a void for click-bait stories to be published while we wait for the World Cup.
Instead of seeing articles on which WAG will be wearing the shortest skirt or the player most likely to flop, we’ve seen stories on Fabian Delph’s love of Yorkshire Tea and Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s ability to ‘Floss’.
Danny Rose has also opened up about being diagnosed with depression and the personal battles he’s fought over the last couple of years – a serious, news-worthy story, that is rightly being covered by the media.
Whether you’re interested in any of the media day coverage seen over the last week, this is far less damaging to the squad than any externally fabricated stories of hot air.
England’s warm up games against Nigeria and Costa Rica could not have gone any better: two wins from two generally forgettable performances (barring a stunning strike from Marcus Rashford). No one can criticise them for winning, nor can they overhype England’s chances if they’d have put in two mind-blowing performances against two, mediocre-at-best, sides.
The Three Lions should cruise past Tunisia in their opening match, but this could well be the point at which the press decide to go down the path of branding this young side as fearless world beaters, falsely raising the hopes and expectations of the nation; only then to question whether they have the spirit, drive and shoulders to cope with the pressure of expectation, if they are – more likely than not – eliminated by Brazil or Germany in the knock-out stages.
We’re now just days away from the start of the tournament and now is usually the time where the press become more interested in debating England’s starting line-up and looking through the keyhole into their St. Petersburg base, rather than players’ personal lives (unless they’re given an obvious excuse).
The weight of expectation has been an over-bearing burden on England over the last twenty years, often crippling sides into defeat, for fear of a domestic persecution upon their return to the UK. There’s no doubt that players in previous squads needed to take responsibility for performances and had the quality to achieve more, but the nation’s gauge of expectation is undoubtedly set by the media.
By treating players and press like the adults they are, so far, Southgate has done well to usher journalists away from negative stories. Other than a brief media-assault on Sterling, the wolves have been kept from the door, however, there is a sense that the vultures are quietly circling from above, waiting for the right time to craft an angle to mount pressure on the team when they feel the time is right.
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