Well – this is it, chaps. Our World Cup starts today and literally millions of us Back Home will be glued to TV sets tonight as you take the field (mostly sand and earth painted a tasteful shade of grassy green) against those troublesome Eye-ties. Much is expected of you, as ever. And, as ever, some of you will probably fail to deliver. Not to worry. It’s only a game, after all.
As those of you with a spark of intelligence may have surmised, the last two sentences of that first paragraph are utter bollocks. Of course it matters. And “only” a game?? Get out of here. It’s the biggest game on the planet tonight. Billions of eyes will be on you, courtesy of HD cameras poking at you from every conceivable angle. Every facial expression will be noted, amateur body-language experts by the barrowload will be analysing every twitch and every kick. Scary, eh?
But don’t worry too much. Try to relax and enjoy it, go out there and express yourselves. There’s pressure, of course there is. But you’re a well-remunerated group of young men in the peak of physical fitness, enjoying the privilege of wearing your country’s badge over the heart; something most of us out here would give their eye-teeth for. So think of all those people, the ones who wish they were in your boots tonight. And after all, it’s not exactly like huddling in a bivouac in Afghanistan, is it?
All you have to do is what each of you is extremely well equipped to do – apply an immense talent with a 100% level of graft and commitment. Doubtless Woy has already hammered this message home. If not, he should have done. Nobody in an England shirt tonight should take for granted the right to play. It has to be earned.
I can only speak for us Leeds fans, but we certainly do love and warmly applaud a trier. Then again, we’re not as spoiled as some fans, enjoying as they do a galaxy of lavishly-gifted stars in their clubs’ colours, used to witnessing technically excellent football. At Leeds, we take to our hearts the lad who’ll run his guts to water, who’ll “get stuck in”. Some level of talent is necessary, of course – but you have to be born with that and it has to be honed by good coaching. But the graft, the application, the determination to work hard from start to finish – they’re choices. The players who choose to put the graft in are loved at Leeds, and the same should be true of any England fan – though, as I said, some of them are spoiled.
You lads in the England shirts tonight – you should have all of the qualities I’ve mentioned, and more – just to get where you are today as you prepare for such a massive game with the world watching you. Talent and ability are there in abundance, as they are for your opponents. The willingness to graft and fight for your country must also be in the DNA of every man who walks out there tonight with the Three Lions on his chest. The sense of pride you must have should be immense, something you can feel burning inside you. Talent, graft and pride. That’s the magic mix.
At Leeds, we count ourselves lucky if we have a few players who can show two out of these three qualities. An England international must have the lot, and it must show, it should seep from every pore. In other years, in other tournaments, that’s not always been apparent in every England player. Are you listening, Mr. Rooney? You’re under the microscope tonight, lad.
Just wear the shirt with pride, work your balls flat, be aware of the privilege and the responsibility of being an England man – and show no fear, have no regrets when the final whistle blows. Make that choice to give your all, to keep giving, as long as you’re on the field of conflict with your nation’s hopes and expectations on your shoulders.
England – and her finest fans here in Leeds – expects that every man this day will do his duty. More we cannot ask. Enjoy it, and win.