MX23RW : Wednesday, January 23 08:10:30

Could 50 years of hurt finally be about to end for England?

Could 50 years of hurt finally be about to end For England?

With the door closing on the domestic season, attentions are starting to converge on this summer's European Championships.

Roy Hodgson has now named his 26-man provisional squad that will carry the nation's hopes in France, and despite lacking the stardust of bygone sides, England fans will still be dreaming that this time, things might actually be different.

The announcement is typically not without controversy. Marcus Rashford's involvement at the expense of the likes of Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott is already fuelling debate on social media. Rashford has only been on the radar since February, and while he has put in a string of high-class performances for Man Utd, many will doubt if he is ready for the rigours of an international tournament at just 18 years old. Some will recount Walcott's own involvement at the 2006 World Cup as an example of the pitfalls of being thrust into the limelight too soon. Walcott didn't play any minutes in that tournament, and has never really been able to replicate the early promise that he showed. Of course, this is just a provisional list, and it is still likely Rashford will not make the final cut, but conversely, plenty will remember the performance of Michael Owen in 1998 and Wayne Rooney in 2004, when they too were the same age as Rashford.

Marcus Rashford in action during the Premier League game between Manchester United and Aston Villa on April 16, 2016© Getty Images

On the whole, the squad is largely what fans and media expected, and it is refreshingly representative of a new generation of players, with the average age standing at a youthful 24.8 years.

Fans will be cautiously optimistic, however, this iteration of the England team will not be smothered by expectations and pressure in the intense manner previously endured by the ill-fated 'Golden Generations' of recent years - Hodgson's side will be allowed to breathe in France, at least initially.

Fans are aware of England's limitations, but with a relatively straightforward group, they will at least be expecting an appearance in the knockout stages, and after the events of this season's Premier League, it is inevitable that logic and reason will go out the window.

Leicester achieved the impossible, and some sections of the public will undoubtedly dare to dream that England can do the same - albeit, England are rated at 8/1, not 5,000/1 to lift the trophy!

Tottenham's young core of English talent will also do much to stoke the flames, after Mauricio Pochettino has instilled a tactical discipline rarely seen in English players, and in the space of one season, England has now found itself with an abundance of, if not technically exceptional, certainly effective players.

Mauricio Pochettino applauds after the Premier League game between Stoke City and Tottenham Hotspur on April 18, 2016© Getty Images

As seen in previous tournaments, hard-working, disciplined teams can excel in a knockout format, and if Hodgson can cleanse the squad of the fear which has been endemic in previous tournaments, maybe England could finally compete against the other European heavyweights.

Since the 90s, England has had two so-called 'golden generations', but neither was able to deliver the holy grail of a major trophy, with 1990 and 1996 the closest any English side has come to emulating the heroics of the 1966 squad, and while the team in the early 00s was more than capable, it could still not deliver.

Currently, the squad is not blessed with such riches: it lacks the leadership of players such as Tony Adams and Alan Shearer, while it is devoid of the quality provided by the likes of Gerrard, Beckham, and Scholes.

However, with such ability came unreasonable expectations. Since Southgate's penalty miss in '96, England have never really threatened the elites of Europe, but this did not stop the bookmakers making the three lions amongst the favourites heading into every single major tournament for which they have qualified over the past two decade. This expectation has crippled England on the international stage, with a multitude of managers at a loss as to how to shield the players from the demands of the supporters, media and odds compilers.

Fabio Capello commented on this mental fragility shortly after assuming the manager's position, stating that he "understood everything when they played Switzerland in the first match. The same players who played well in training, played with fear, with no confidence, and I said this is a big problem of the mind."

Sven-Goran Eriksson also identified such inherent weakness, stating back in 2002: "We work a lot on tactics, we work a lot on fitness. It's very difficult to do something more in those two things, but where you can do things are on the mental base to practice your brain."

Under those two managers, the England team could never move past the burden of expectancy, with each passing tournament's failure weighing heavier on the next group of players' shoulders. However, since 2010's disastrous World Cup showing, demands have been tempered, and a level of acceptance has been reached among supporters that we are not as good as we once were.

Gary Neville said before Euro 2012: "It should be fantastic, the best moments of your life. But there is no doubt that too many players spend too much time fearing the consequences of failure when they pull on an England shirt." This may have been applicable for the 'Golden Generations', but this time around, Hodgson's side should not feel pressure.

The latest England squad should feel liberated; they are not expected to outgun the likes of Germany, Spain or France. They can play with a freedom not afforded to previous squads, and should they lose a quarter-final penalty shootout, it would be hailed as a valiant effort rather than a catastrophic failure.

Despite the lowering of expectations, England's performance at the 2014 World Cup was heavily criticised, as Hodgson's team crashed out bottom of their group, with one solitary point. While these statistics appear damming, England can still take positives from the chastening experience. Italy and Uruguay were always going to be hard opposition for an inexperienced and naïve side, and they could certainly have felt aggrieved to lose both matches. Against the Italians, England looked mobile going forward, but were let down by poor defensive positioning and tactical naivety, and it is easy to forget that had Diego Godin been rightfully sent off, it is likely England would have found a way through to the next stage.

Essentially, despite poor results, England's performances did indicate that there was potential in this squad, yet it just needed to be fine-tuned with the tactical nuances and defensive discipline possessed by others on the continent.

If Hodgson can crack that, England could really create a stir this summer, and as Leicester have so expertly shown this campaign, what a team may lack in technical excellence, can more than be made up for with organisation and structure.

So, with expectations eased, and vital tournament experienced gained, what will it take for England's summer exploits to be deemed a success?

Effective tactics will be vital if the team is going to reach the latter stages of the competition, and Hodgson faces many a dilemma in his team selection.

Phil Jagielka of Everton is challenged by Dionatan Teixeira of Stoke City during the Barclays Asia Trophy match between Everton and Stoke City at National Stadium on July 15, 2015 in Singapore.© Getty Images

In Brazil, England were exposed defensively, with Phil Jagielka often looking bewildered next to the more assured Gary Cahill. In the subsequent seasons, Chris Smalling has asserted his status as England's new number one centre-back, but a decision will have to be made on who will partner him at the heart of England's backline. Cahill has had an inconsistent season at Chelsea and his position will be challenged by the emergence of John Stones, whose ability to play from the back could be so vital against lesser opposition.

Hodgson may feel that while Stones is by far the most technically-gifted centre-back, his style may not be as effective in a system which will look to absorb and counter against superior opposition. Here, Cahill may prove to be his preferred option, offering a more combative style.

In midfield, England are blessed with a variety of industrious players, with the likes of Eric Dier, James Milner, and Danny Drinkwater all prepared to run themselves into the ground for the cause, while Dele Alli has had a tremendous year at Tottenham, and Hodgson may very well look for him to provide inspiration from the middle, and when surrounded with these types of players, he will have plenty of opportunities to do so. Hodgson will still be able to call upon the enigmatic talent of Ross Barkley, who despite having an indifferent season at Everton, still possesses the ability to really cause problems for teams late on.

Wayne Rooney "in action" during the Premier League game between West Ham United and Manchester United on May 10, 2016© Getty Images

Hodgson's biggest dilemma will come in the form of Wayne Rooney.

Having started the season up front for Louis van Gaal's Manchester United, Rooney has since seen himself shunted back into midfield, as Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial's emergence has overshadowed his performances as a lone striker. This season, Rooney has often looked off the pace and nowhere near as effective as he once was. He is not the same player who hit 26 league goals in 2010 - this year he has only a measly seven - and with Harry Kane in such good form, it would be nothing short of madness to play him as a lone striker in France.

Hodgson will have two options: either to play England's record goal scorer in an unorthodox position, or to drop him all together. Whatever he decides, it is sure to cause intense debate amongst fans, and have a huge impact in the overall playing style of the team.

If England can utilise the discipline of Pochettino's Spurs, and the enterprise of Ranieri's Leicester, France 2016 could prove to be a very special tournament for English fans. It is clear England are not the best side, not even in the top tier, but with a newly-structured tournament format, England should be able to reach the knockout phases, and with that always comes a chance for an upset.

Should England manage to claw their way into the semi-finals, that would undoubtedly have to be looked upon as a monumental achievement, and while looking for anything beyond that would appear farcical, this new wave of English industry might just provide enough steel to stir them past the likes of Italy, Belgium and France. Whether that alone would be enough to beat the heavyweights of Germany and Spain remains to be seen, and England will first have to focus on the likes of Russia and Wales before they begin to dream of ending 50 years of hurt.

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Marcus Rashford celebrates scoring during the Premier League game between Manchester United and Arsenal on February 28, 2016
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