Somebody help me, I don't hate the England football team anymore
This isn't easy.
It's not easy to write, and it probably won't be easy for you to read. It's something I've been thinking about for a while now, and I'm finally sure.
I like the England national team. I like almost all of their players. I like Gareth Southgate. I hope that they do well at the World Cup. And I know I'm not the only one.
So. How the hell did we get here?
Mainly, it's the players. By some quirk of nature, Brexit Britain has somehow coincided with what is by far the most likeable England team of our lifetime.
Harry Maguire is a centre-half at Leicester who showed up for his first England training camp with all of his clothes in a black bin bag. Two years ago he was attending Euro 2016 as a fan, watching Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling, inferior options to all three starting England centre-halves. John Stones was playing for Barnsley five years ago. Jamie Vardy only started playing professional football at the age of 44 and has since scored 500 goals for club and country.
You think Jordan Henderson is as obsessed with glory as Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard? God no. He can't afford to be. The only reason he's picked for club or country is because he seems unable to stop running.
An Irish Liverpool fan who likes Jesse Lingard? What does that say about me? It's not quite an identity crisis but it's inching into that territory. But it's hard not to love Jesse Lingard's dancing celebrations when you know how many English dads are upset by it.
And then there's Harry Kane. Football's inexplicable idiot-savant. One of so few footballers whose primary skill seems to simply be putting the ball in the net, without fail. An anatomical anomaly, he simply lacks the nerves that have laid low so many other England greats over the years.
But the England team used to be so easy to hate. It used to be second nature. But were they ever really that bad?
Here's the thing: Yes. They were. They were catastrophically bad. Each of them had a laundry list of offences attached to their name. Steven Gerrard decked the head off a DJ because he wouldn't play his song (Gerrard was subsequently cleared of all charges). John Terry was stripped of the England captaincy, for a second time, after racially abusing Anton Ferdinand. Rio Ferdinand infamously missed a drugs test. Ashley Cole accidentally shot a work experience student, and cheated on Cheryl Cole. And, of course, there was Wayne Rooney's granny-antics. Even Gary Neville wasn't a beloved pundit at the time — he was just an insufferable, murine Manc.
And that was the "Golden Generation".
The only likeable players they had were the types who wouldn't get in today's squad: journeymen like Peter Crouch, Emile Heskey and Joe Cole. Players we appreciated because we knew they were so much worse than what the England fans wanted.
Even their managers were at it. Sven had his affair with Ulrika Johnson. Fabio Capello reminded us too much of Giovanni Trapattoni. Roy Hodgson was so bad at his job that he simply made England easier to laugh at. Big Sam, in charge for precisely one game before being sacked for indiscretions while drinking a pint of wine, was Big Sam.
Gareth Southgate has broken that mould. Or, in true Southgate fashion, he has tapped the mould on the shoulder and politely asked it to step aside. The Times was mocked earlier this week for suggesting that Southgate is already a part of English football history — but it's true. Sure, it's only because the bar is so catastrophically, hysterically low, but that doesn't make it any less accurate.
Southgate is the best manager England have had since Glenn Hoddle — and Glenn Hoddle loses marks for being totally bonkers. So really, Southgate might be the best manager England have had since Bobby Robson, 28 years ago. Southgate is the manager that England has needed for the last 30 years, too. Neither confident nor cocky, just steady with the results to back it up and ending up in the job by accident has really only helped his case.
His dorky demeanour, pleasant sense of humour and investment in exciting young players have all insulated him from the abuse that usually clings to England managers.
I mean, can you imagine the headlines if Steve McClaren had tripped up while running and dislocated his shoulder? We'd be laughing about it for years. If I heard Steven McClaren dislocated his shoulder now I'd have a field day.
But it's not just about how likeable this latest crop of players is.
League of Ireland fans delight in telling their compatriots that it's hypocritical to support English and their English players, all while decrying their national team... and, well, they're right. How could they not be right? Irish punters give more of their money to English clubs than Irish clubs. We watch more of the English games, we buy more English jerseys, we talk about the Premier League at work and down the pub.
And yet, when it comes to the national team, it's all about the 800 years. Which is fair. It's just not very consistent with our attitudes towards club football. Or, you know, our attitudes towards all the English players who have played for Ireland over the years to great effect.
Andy Townsend played for Ireland. Tony Cascarino played for Ireland. Have you ever heard them speak? Cascarino wasn't even eligible. But none of that mattered to us when they scored in the 1990 penalty shootout against Romania. In fact, all five Irish penalty takers on that day were born in the United Kingdom.
But there is an explanation for the difference between how we view the English team and how we view English club teams. Whether Liverpool win, or City win, or United win, or Arsenal, win — we can always glory in the fact that there is a huge subsection of the English population that is pissed off. The worry is that if the national team wins, they'll all be happy.
The Sun will be happy. The Daily Mail will be happy. Everyone who voted for Brexit will be happy. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Piers Morgan will all be happy. God, I've honestly almost talked myself out of it.
But here's the flip-side. Even if England lose, the aforementioned self-satisfied, smug pricks will still be happy with themselves. No matter what happens — whether the England players humiliate themselves in the last 16, or whether they win the whole thing without a scratch on them, the disgusting old Rule Britannia institutions will think they were right.
These cowboys will go on the offensive and they'll ruin Jordan Pickford's career. They'll say that Ruben Loftus-Cheek was too inexperienced to be called up. They'll ask whether it was really that wise to leave experienced heads like Wayne Rooney at home. They'll probably argue that Margaret Thatcher should have started at centre-half. They might call for war with Belgium.
They will somehow have been right all along, and the players and manager who got them there in the first place will be stuffed into the Union Jack Brexit cannon and shot into space.
When you look at the abuse that players like uber-talented, league-winning young players like Raheem Sterling suffer at the hands of the the Daily Mail, the coded targeting of black players, the way they've ramped up the pressure after gimme wins against Tunisia and Panama... you realise that these people are unhinged. And it's the England football team who has to live with those delusions more than anybody else.
The saddest thing might be that there are so many England fans whose desire to see the team fail is significantly more sincere than their joy in the event of success.
The grotesque, imperial history of their nation means that England can never be the underdog. But those players out there are underdogs. Underdogs beneath the expectations and accusations of their own gammon-faced, Tory-voting, Sun-reading supporters.
But let's be clear, I'm not saying I want them to win the whole thing. I'm just saying that it no longer makes me sick when they score. As Moe Szyslak famously said: "I'm a well-wisher, in that I don't wish you any specific harm." And, to be fair to them, they have been one of the more exciting teams at World Cup 2018.
I'd be happy enough if they manage to notch up a noble quarter-final exit. Maybe even the semi-finals. And after all, if they crash out at the very last hurdle, think how satisfying the schadenfreude will be then. It's win-win.
Come on England? Ugh, no. That's too much. Pretend I didn't say that last part.