From Russia with love for England again: Martin Smith’s World Cup column

England's John Stones, second right, celebrates scoring his side's first goal against Panama.
England's John Stones, second right, celebrates scoring his side's first goal against Panama.
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We’re in love. Unbelievably, ill-advisedly and hopelessly naively, we have fallen for the England football team again.

How did that happen? How did the emotional wreckage of South Africa, the bottom-of-the-group finish in Brazil and the Euros’ Iceland meltdown come to be forgotten in a week? Are we simply delusional as on so many St George’s-flag-and-too-much-Carling occasions?

England manager Gareth Southgate

England manager Gareth Southgate

No. This is new, different and better.

Examining the pricked balloon of our national hysteria may feel just as embarrassing when we have to do it. But this IS better.

Southgate won’t be sacked or resign if and when England lose, the players have already done enough to not be hated or humiliated. You have to wonder what Rio and Frank are really thinking as they lavish praise on an England squad considerably less gifted than the ones in which they played.

But it’s not all their fault that their generation failed. England football’s structure and attitude have changed.

England fans in the stands show their support

England fans in the stands show their support

For years we admired the bottom-up planning innovations of the French, Germans and Italians, and eventually put in new structures of our own. The FA created the St George’s HQ and began working with youth to create a national footballing identity, a way of playing, training and preparing.

In the last couple of years England have won the under-17s World Cup, the U-19s European Championships and U-20s World Cup and finished third in the U-21s Euros by playing as a team of committed individuals in a recognisably new England style.

Dangerous though the comparison may be, from 1963 Alf Ramsey made the most of his players’ strengths within a system. Instead of building a team around individuals, he made the pieces fit the whole.

Bobby Charlton, our most creative player, did a man-marking job in the final, Jimmy Greaves, possibly the greatest finisher ever, couldn’t get into the team because it worked better without him.

This team may lack such world-class luxuries and that may eventually be their undoing.

But by turning away from the hypnotic glare of the import-dominated Premier League elite, accepting our limitations and working to overcome them, we have found unity.

The unity of a team that recognises it needs all its parts - and some it hasn’t used yet - to get anywhere.

England may lack the extra quality or the tactical fine-tuning to go beyond the last 16.

But we’re in love again and that means more.