The changing expectations of England managers - how blind World Cup optimism has made way for reality

Ben Bloom
England managers of recent years have taken contrasting approaches when it comes to building up or knocking down their team's World Cup hopes - getty images
England managers of recent years have taken contrasting approaches when it comes to building up or knocking down their team's World Cup hopes - getty images

Listen to Gareth Southgate speak of England's chances at next summer's World Cup and not even the greatest optimist could come away with the impression that our brave boys are going to win.

Qualification is one thing, but can England bring back the glory days of 1966? No, not according to Southgate.

The England manager has been at pains to play down expectations of his team in Russia next year, which is no surprise given the country's track record at recent major tournaments.

But that has not always been the case. Here we look at how England managers have reacted to their brave boys securing their World Cup spot... with a notable decline in confidence over the past 15 years.

South Korea/Japan 2002

Having experienced the highs of beating Germany 5-1 on their own turf in that game, England only sealed their spot at the 2002 World Cup in the dying moments of their qualification campaign thanks to that spectacular David Beckham free-kick against Greece at Old Trafford.

David Beckham free-kick - Credit: action images
David Beckham propelled England to the World Cup with a late free-kick against Greece Credit: action images

Sven-Goran Eriksson was the man in the hotseat and he was careful to tread a line between bullish and measured when asked for his World Cup hopes immediately after that 2-2 draw against Greece:

"We have seven or eight months to talk about the World Cup and I honestly believe this team can and should be better, a lot better, for the finals. We have many young players who can improve a lot yet and, every time they play together, they will get better and better.

A regular feature of quotes from England managers in recent years - play up the youth element. The perfect way of deflecting failure by effectively saying: "We may not win it this time, but we might do next time" (Spoiler: they won't).

"I think we will do a very good World Cup."

This is clever from the Swede. By not specifically stating how far he thinks England will go in the competition, he leaves plenty of wiggle room in the event that they do not win or reach the final/semi-final.

What happened next?

England lost 2-1 in the quarter-finals against Brazil, who went on to win the entire thing.

Germany 2006

Despite quarter-finals exits at the 2002 World Cup and 2004 European Championships, England headed to Germany in 2006 with expectations growing ever greater.

Qualifying had not proven troublesome and many players were supposedly at the peak of their powers. This time, Eriksson was not going to bother beating around the bush:

"We have an extremely good team. I am extremely confident England will have a very good World Cup. We are one of four or five teams who can win the World Cup. If we are lucky with injuries I think we can do it. Everything is in place. This is the best squad I have had and they are good enough to win it."

This is it. Whereas last time round Eriksson had predicted a "very good" World Cup, this time he was going for the jugular. Yes, the caveat of injuries is mentioned, but the manager was prepared to go on the record and give the fans what they wanted to hear: England are good enough to win the World Cup.

What happened next?

A lacklustre performance saw England draw 0-0 against Portugal in the quarter-finals before inevitably losing on penalties. It was Eriksson's last match in charge.

South Africa 2010

Fabio Capello's reign had begun in some style with seven successive World Cup qualifying victories before a comprehensive 5-1 win over Croatia secured a spot at the finals with two matches to spare.

World Cup disappointments under previous managers were starting to take their toll... but Capello felt good:

"The first target has been reached. We had to get to South Africa, and now we have time to prepare for the World Cup. We have time and, if everyone is fit, why would we not be contenders?"

There are echoes of Eriksson last time around here (HAVE YOU NOT LEARNT YOUR LESSON?). Injuries are offered as the usual caveat but Capello thinks England can win the whole thing, or at least challenge for it.

"All the players in the squad are really good. The expectations are always really high. But we have to play to win because we are England. We are one of the best teams in the world who can play against all the teams out there. This is my opinion."

Having seemingly swallowed the pill of patriotic hype, Capello again provides the soundbite to rouse the troops. England are England and - just in case you find yourself becoming disillusioned by their dismal recent World Cup record - England are the best. Believe it, because Capello says so.

What happened next?

Woeful draws against the United States and Andorra, an unconvincing 1-0 win over Slovenia, and then a 4-1 mauling at the hands of Germany.

England lose - Credit: action images
England went out at the hands of Germany in 2010 Credit: action images

Brazil 2014

It took until the final game of qualifying for England to secure their place in Brazil after a smattering of draws, but they did so with a 2-0 win over Poland at Wembley.

Roy Hodgson had been at the helm for 17 months and was not prepared to leave himself open to the grandiose statements of his predecessors that had proven so foolish:

"If you want to win the lottery, buy a lottery ticket. We have our ticket. I have great trust in my players that they will not let us down. We have got a chance. It's job done. We're looking forward to going to Brazil, something the whole nation wants and backs us over. We've been working together for 18 months and the way we play has changed. We're getting better all the time and hopefully will get better still."

Taking a leaf out of the Sven-Goran Eriksson pre-2002 World Cup book, Hodgson refuses to pigeon-hole himself with talk of specifics. There is no mention of how far he expects his team to go in the tournament. Instead, the only thing he is sure of is that "they will not let us down."

"I'm pretty sure all the European teams go there rather hoping they can be the first to win there. I presume we will go with the same attitude. Can we win the World Cup? It's pretty obvious we're not favourites. We will do the best we can."

The first sign of definitive downplaying of chances by an England manager for a decade. Hodgson leaves people in no doubt that their expectations should not be as sky-high as previous years because "England are not favourites". But one thing is certain: our brave boys will try as hard as they can.

What happened next?

There can be no doubt whatsoever - England let us down. They lost their opening two matches, drew the third and did not even make it out of the group.

Russia 2018

Gareth Southgate's men remained unbeaten for the entire qualification campaign, while somehow managing to underwhelm throughout.

A man who has experienced - and contributed to - the bitter disappointment of England failures in recent decades, Southgate is embarking on a mission to ensure no one in the entire country thinks we have a chance of victory:

"Is this team where we want it to be? Of course, no. It is young, but there is potential and they are going to improve… They're young players we have to try and get behind. They're giving everything they've got. They haven't got Champions League or league championship-winning medals in the group. They're a work in progress. But they are giving everything for the shirt and they will improve in the next few years. They're suffering the consequences of 25 years, 30 years, 40 years whatever, but that isn't their fault. We have to give them the backing to go and believe."

Point No 1: This is a young England team. Do not expect too much. Point No 2: Don't blame them for how bad previous England teams have been.

"Are we going to become Spain in the next eight months? No, we're not. But they've got a squad of players who have won league titles and Champions League medals. Until you win things and can prove yourself on that stage, you can't consider yourself in that company. We can’t consider ourselves big players. Big players are (Gerard) Pique, (Sergio) Ramos, (Sergio) Busquets, (Toni) Kroos, (Sami) Khedira, (Manuel) Neuer - I could go on. Our expectations are not in tune with reality.

Look, he's already told you once - these guys are not good enough to win the World Cup, so don't think for one moment that it will happen. Spain? Maybe. Germany? Perhaps. But not England. We have not been good for decades and we aren't about to become good any time soon.