Can Roy Hodgson’s England erase 46 years of hurt?

We’re doing it again, aren’t we? Building our hopes up. Having those ‘what if?’ conversations in living rooms, workplaces and pubs.

What if we can get past the group stage? What if Andy Carroll comes good? What if Roy Hodgson’s appointment is actually a stroke of genius? What if Rooney doesn’t get sent off?

Despite years of crushing disappointment and the failure of the ‘Golden Generation’ to shine, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and roll out the Three Lions song from Euro ’96.

It’s no longer 30 years of hurt. Or even 40. It’s, er… 46 years since the England football team actually won anything.

Since then we’ve had odd flashes of brilliance, the occasional dalliance with a semi-final and plenty of penalty shoot-out misery. But, for my entire life, it’s been soul-crushing, gut-wrenching, toe-curling disappointment and endless frustration. It’s been a montage of tears, tantrums, bizarre dismissals and the obligatory elimination courtesy of Teutonic spot kick efficiency.

OK. So we may not have had the most technically-gifted footballers in the world.

But we humble England fans would just like someone to explain to us why talented individuals who play out of their skins for their clubs in what is billed as the best league in the world become useless donkeys when they pull on an England shirt. Why does a lion of Istanbul become a lamb in Bloemfontein? Why does the top of the bill at the Theatre of Dreams suddenly get stage fright?

Is it because there’s no money at stake? Is it because their club contracts are so much more important? Is it because our many and varied managers have been deficient?

Or are we just, well, rubbish? Do we delude ourselves that we have ‘world class’ players when, in actual fact, they can’t do it on the biggest stages?

If we are being honest, it’s probably all of the above which explains the love/hate relationship England fans have with their team. Combine that with some pretty tepid or downright dire performances and we could be forgiven for chucking our St. George foam hats and red novelty wigs in the bin with our dog-eared copies of Hoddle and Waddle’s Diamond Lights.

In spite of all this, we can’t help ourselves but be reinvigorated with renewed optimism every time a major tournament comes around. It’s tribal, so I’ve been told.

We simply can’t prevent the hope of the glory.

We all have our favourite moments but some bond us together in the way that only sport can.

Moments such as captain marvel Bryan Robson scoring the fastest-ever World Cup goal against France at Spain in ’82.

Or never-booked Gary Lineker scoring a hat-trick against Poland at the ’86 World Cup in Mexico.

We get all choked up remembering Gazza’s tears at Italia ’90 and eulogise about THAT goal he scored against Scotland at Euro ’96.

We talk about Shearer and Sheringham dismantling Holland on that memorable night when we put four past the pass masters.

We recall David Platt’s sublime volley to end Belgium’s World Cup challenge.

We remember lion-hearted Stuart Pearce having the bottle to take a spot kick against Spain after messing up in a previous tournament shoot-out.

We savour shaven-headed Becks’ astonishing free kick against Greece and his fearless penalty against the Argies which exorcised the demons of his youthful indiscretion against Diego Simeone.
We enjoy replays of the 5 – 1 demolition of Germany in Munich when even Emile Heskey managed to score.

You see, England may have won nowt in the last four decades but we now have a rich history of glorious failure.

It is a heritage which marks us out as the nearly men of European and world football.

Roy Hodgson may be as dull as a dissertation on the Yellow Pages but that’s maybe no bad thing as, for once, expectation levels have not gone beyond the borders of reality.

Not just yet, anyway…

For now, at least, he’s our Roy and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is this year’s Theo Walcott.

As always, hope springs eternal in the birthplace of the beautiful game.

It’s back to two banks of four, men behind the ball and a big bloke up front.

All is well with the world.

Come on Engerland…

Newsagent who made his own sporting headlines

Come on, admit it: You all thought hockey was a game for girls. Most people still do.

But on October 1, 1988, this sport grabbed us all by the, er… short and Kerlys.

Sean Kerly, to be precise. Team GB’s talismanic top scorer – sort of like Gary Lineker with a hockey stick – and his teammates became household names.

We all huddled round the telly watching the action unfold in the 12,000-seater Songnam Stadium.

I was 16, had just left school, and remember it as though it was yesterday.

As is the way with many Olympic sports, we were all momentarily swept along on a tide of hope and euphoria.

Yes, our footballers may have consistently under-achieved since 1966, but apparently the men’s hockey team were good!

Unfortunately, standing between our boys and gold medal glory on that fateful day were the old enemy.

Yes, with typical Teutonic efficiency, the Germans had swept all before them on the way to the final in Seoul.

Their progress included a 2-1 win over Team GB. As omens went, it wasn’t great…

What hope did we have? Surely the inevitable penalty shoot-out heartache beckoned.

This time, however, the Germans had reckoned without a certain newsagent from Stoke-on-Trent.

Imran Sherwani, who ran a business in Cobridge, was the name on the lips of all Sentinel readers.

Little did we know, of course, that the man who had given up a career in the police because he couldn’t get enough time off to train for international matches, would become the hero of the hour.

As it turned out, the wing wizard had a dream game – scoring the first and last of Team GB’s three goals and prompting a veteran BBC commentator into a now infamous (and very un-BBC-like) outburst.

As Imran swept home Team GB’s third goal, the normally consummate pro Barry Davies asked the nation: “Where, oh where were the Germans? And, frankly, who cares?” Oh how we smiled.

Team GB won the match 3 – 1 – prompting scenes of delirium.

Imran threw his stick into the air… and never saw it again.

Perhaps it hit an official because he and Sean Kerly (now an MBE) were whisked off for a random drugs test and missed much of the after-match celebrations.

On their return to the UK, Imran and his teammates were treated to the kind of media scrum usually reserved for football stars – with crowds of cheering well-wishers waiting to greet them as they landed at Heathrow Airport.

Capped 45 times for Britain and 49 times for England, Imran played club hockey for Stourport and Stone before playing for and helping to coach at Leek Hockey Club. Aged 49, he now works as director of hockey at Denstone College in Uttoxeter.

Mercifully, he has long-since dispensed with the shockingly-bad moustache which he sported in Seoul and which I can only assume put the Germans off marking him properly.

This year, quite rightly, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) is making a fuss of all Team GB medal-winners and so Imran will be in demand.

But even when the London Olympics has come and gone I am pleased to say that Imran will never be taken for granted here in his home city.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Imran and his wife Louise through the organising of the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality Of The Year Awards. For as long as I’ve been involved in the awards, Imran has been a VIP guest.

After all, how many Olympic gold medal winners do we have here in the Potteries?

He’s also given up his time freely to be a judge – passing on his wisdom and expertise for the benefit of the city’s emerging sporting talents and coaching stalwarts.

May 30 this year will be a very proud day for Imran when he becomes one of the few people to carry the Olympic torch in his home city on its route to the London games.

It is an honour which I think we all agree is thoroughly deserved.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel for 12 pages of nostalgia

I grew up in an era of proper celebrities who earned their fame

Another week and another non-entity leaves the X-Factor while whatsisface wins the latest edition of Big Brother.

All this and Strictly Come Dancing trundles on as I’m a Celebrity prepares to resuscitate (or kill-off entirely) the careers of a dozen Z-listers.

As someone who avoids such shows like the plague, I often yearn for the days when stars were stars – not someone who had simply blubbed in front of the nation or showered for the cameras.

The definition of a celebrity is a famous or well-known person but these days the word has been diluted to such an extent that any Tom, Dick or Harry who has been on the telly for five minutes – irrespective of their obvious talent vacuum – can earn the label.

People we wouldn’t know if we fell over them in the street – the ‘stars’ of Geordie Shore, The Only Way Is Essex or My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding – are tragically classed as famous. Basically for being, er… famous.

But it wasn’t always like this. Turn back the clock a quarter of a century and there was no internet to speak of, no reality TV and mobile communications were in their infancy.

Back in the Eighties, if you were famous it was usually because you were good at something and people liked or at least respected you for it.

Generally speaking, you also had to have served your time – shown enough talent and been around long enough to have been talked about, written about and seen enough to warrant fame.

When I recall the celebrities – for want of a better word – who dominated my formative years, they had that status on merit.

(I am not, here, talking about the time that I met Grotbags at the Garden Festival).

As the blockbuster movie phenomenon took hold, stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Eddie Murphy, Harrison Ford and the assorted beautiful people who made up the Brat Pack loomed large into our collective consciousness.

Then there were the sporting celebrities of that period – genuine icons whose auras haven’t diminished with the passing of time. For instance, I put my love of cricket down to watching the colossus that was Ian Botham (now Sir Ian) almost single-handedly wrestle the little urn from the Aussies back in 1981.

I know the killer statistic off-by-heart: Five wickets for one run off 28 balls. Enough said.

Then there was Daley Thompson (now a CBE) whose gold medal-winning heroics at the Olympics in 1980 and 1984 enthralled millions.

Let’s face it, most Olympic sports are boring and rubbish but Daley ran, jumped and chucked stuff better than anyone. I mean, what’s not to like about the decathlon?

Sticking with athletics, who could forget the rivalry between working class hero Steve Ovett and the posh lad Seb Coe? Those boys made actually made running watchable. For a short while, at least.

The Eighties was also the decade that snooker entered our living rooms and we all, inexplicably, sat up until the wee small hours watching a one-man domination of a sport.

This, of course, prompted a huge spike in sales of fold-away, six foot by three foot snooker tables like the one mum and dad brought me for Christmas in 1983.

A world champion no less than six times in the decade, the ginger magician Steve Davis OBE was nothing if not interesting.

At the time, Gary Lineker was the darling of England football fans – back when yours truly still gave a monkey’s about the national team.

Famously never booked or sent off during his illustrious career, his reputation at the time was as white as his freshly-pressed Spurs shirt.

He was a far cry from today’s high-profile England stars who can’t seem to go a week without appearing in the tabloid press for all the wrong reasons.

Interestingly, back in the 80s even politicians seemed to have genuine stature and a celebrity status which transcended the kind of spin-doctoring that goes on today.

I wonder how much of this was down to a certain television programme which mercilessly poked fun at the great and the good?

First airing in 1984, the multi BAFTA-nominted Spitting Image turned the country’s top politicians into figures of fun. And we loved it.

There was a time when many people could name all of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet – simply because they had been so brilliantly caricatured by Spitting Image.

It helped, of course, that the Iron Lady herself was such a powerful figure – not only in the UK but also on the world stage.

No matter what anyone thinks of her now, I somehow can’t see Maggie playing lap-dog to George W. Bush like a certain Prime Minister of ours famously did not so long ago.

By the same token, even the royal family seemed larger than life back then – prior to the scandals and the tragedy which rocked the house of Windsor to its foundations in the Nineties.

In my lifetime, there hasn’t been a more famous person than Princess Diana whom I bumped into at Alton Towers, of all places, while I was learning my trade as a cub reporter.

She was out with her two young boys and they went past me on the Log Flume.

At the time I remember thinking that I had just taken a photograph of the most famous person in the world.

For all her faults – the beautiful, vulnerable, misunderstood and ultimately tragic Princess of Wales deserved the fame she both enjoyed and hated in equal measure.

I honestly can’t think of a single, modern celebrity who can hold a candle to her.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Mon dieu! Gary’s goals didn’t half quieten the French lads

England's World Cup goalden boy Gary Lineker.

England’s World Cup goalden boy Gary Lineker.

It was damned hot, as you’d expect, in Majorca in June 1990. I was 18.

I remember it fondly for a couple reasons. Firstly, because it was my last holiday with my mum, dad and brother before I flew the nest (and they let me take my then girlfriend with me).

Secondly, it was there where I experienced the genuine agony and ecstasy of the World Cup as only an Englishman abroad can.

Our hotel’s guests were a genuine mix of nationalities and each night we would all gather in the cinema room to watch the footy.

I recall there being an awful lot of noisy French lads in there who would adopt any nation that was playing England as their own, much to my annoyance.

No wonder we do so badly in the Eurodrivel Song Contest.

“Belgique! Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap – clap, clap, clap, clap, Belgique!

That’s all I could hear for almost two hours.

Still, no matter. A dinked free-kick from Psycho and there was ex-Crewe boy David Platt to swivel and volley home from eight yards out in the dying seconds of injury time.

Cue unbridled joy among the English contingent and much gnashing of teeth among the pseudo-Belgians.

A couple of days later mes amis adopted Roger Milla’s African surprise package and chants of ‘Cam-air-rune’ (trust me, that’s what it sounded like) drowned out the commentary.

Then suddenly, mon dieu, it all went quiet over there. God bless Gary Lineker’s penalty-kicking boots, that’s all I can say.

In the semis, the French lads even sided with the Germans – which I thought was jolly unsporting.
I think we all knew it would end badly, didn’t we?

The Germans went through on penalties and the French contingent whooped like they had just won the trophy themselves.

Gazza cried. He wasn’t the only one.

To be fair, the German guests were magnanimous in their victory – shaking hands and even buying the beer. You remember stuff like that.

Twenty years later and here we all are again getting our hopes up, planning barbecues when it’s bound to rain and coming up with excuses to skive off work when Fabio’s boys are playing.

And who can blame us?

Forget the 2012 Olympics, forget Britain’s Got Talent, forget the General Election – there is simply no show on Earth which raises our passions quite like the football circus which has just arrived in South Africa.

Now all this talk about the flag of Saint George being an offensive symbol which has been appropriated by the Far Right is shown to be rubbish.

Suddenly the PC brigade have gone quiet because you can’t move for English flags hanging from windows, fluttering on vehicles and branded on to every product under the sun.

Nonsensical studies and predictions abound – claiming, for example, that every goal England score beyond the knockout stage of the World Cup (if we get that far) will be worth £126 million to retailers back home.

I mean, come on! On the back of which fag packet was that calculated?

We lap it up, nonetheless, along with the proper ‘Rio crocked’ type news from England’s base.

Meanwhile, one national newspaper is already digitally placing a second winners’ star above the Three Lions badge in its TV adverts as Terry Venables croons at us from the goggle box like your mad uncle at a wedding.

Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that never has so much hype been written by so many, about so few.
‘Fifty million believers’ screams a Sky TV poster.

And yes, I’m one of them.

On Saturday family and friends will gather round the telly in my living room as the action unfolds and yours truly sits there, wrapped in a Port Vale-doctored flag of Saint George, no doubt resorting to a bit of Anglo-Saxon now and again. (Sadly, we’ve no room for French spectators).

Of course, on Saturday it won’t matter if you’re Stoke, Vale or Crewe, black or white, or if you only watch football every four years.

On Saturday, for better or worse, we are all English and it’s glorious. Bring it on…