LONDON (Reuters) - When England fans sang about “30 years of hurt” at Euro ‘96 they had high hopes of ending the pain with a first trophy since the 1966 World Cup but 20 years on from that agonising near miss there is precious little optimism in the air.
To a buoyant chart-topping Three Lions soundtrack of “football’s coming home” England came within the width of Paul Gascoigne’s bootlace of securing a place in the Euro ‘96 final on home soil.
The midfielder’s extra-time, open-goal miss against Germany led to penalties, which England lost, just as they did in their only other semi-final appearance since 1966 at the 1990 World Cup.
Since then England have been serially unsuccessful despite the virtually biennial routine of excitable build-up followed by dispiriting exit.
That see-saw frustration was summed up in the space of four days by England’s two most recent friendlies in March.
Having reached the Euro 2016 finals by winning all 10 qualifiers, scoring 31 goals and conceding three, England put the icing on the cake with an uplifting 3-2 away win over world champions Germany.
However, with predictions of glory still filling the back pages, a flat performance and 2-1 Wembley defeat by a Dutch team who did not even make the Euros brought everyone down to earth.
Ironically, as England have gradually adopted a more continental style of play, and can now keep the ball and build patient attacks with the best of them, their traditional strengths have been left behind.
Since John Terry left the scene England have looked horribly vulnerable in the centre of defence and, having been bundled out of the 2014 World Cup group stage on the back of the most basic errors in that department, they were caught out in both friendlies in exactly the same way.
Manager Roy Hodgson is taking John Stones, Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill to France and mobile opposition attackers must be licking their lips in anticipation.
The coach is better served elsewhere, with the emergence of Tottenham Hotspur duo Dele Alli and Eric Dier adding panache and bite to a midfield where Wayne Rooney is also likely to feature to give the side experience and leadership.
Rooney has been usurped up front by free-scoring duo Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, the latter fresh from leading Leicester City to their surprise Premier League title, but conservative Hodgson is unlikely to play both men together despite the partnership looking good in Sunday’s 2-1 friendly win over Turkey.
Despite their defensive shortcomings it would still be a monumental shock if England failed to advance from a group containing Russia, Wales and Slovakia, and should they top the standings to face a third-placed qualifier they would also expect to reach the quarter-finals.
However, having failed to get beyond that point in any tournament in the last 20 years, stand by for yet another re-release of the Lightning Seeds’ pop classic for the next World Cup, with the hurt counter clicking round to 52 years.