“As we came out of the ground that day contemplating a quarter final again in a World Cup, if someone had said ‘by the way enjoy that, because you won’t win another game for 12 more years in a knockout tournament’, you’d have been absolutely horrified.”
England’s World Cup troubles – how many years of hurt is it now? – have been meticulously documented over the past few decades, and Nick Collins has been responsible for more of that coverage than just about any other human being.
After being removed from his post as Sky’s chief football reporter in November 2016, he won’t be at the World Cup this summer for the first time since 1986. Three decades of following England around the world would scar all but the most resilient of psyches but Collins is in a relaxed mood as he enters 90min Towers, marvelling at the portable phone charger he’s been lent and happy to sit and chat about England performances past and future.
Nick Collins’ book from @PitchPublishing has made for enjoyable reading. When I spent a couple of years covering England under Sven whilst at Boro tv, reporting on McClaren, Southgate, Ehiogu and Mills, always found Nick to be a really good bloke. The book backs that up. pic.twitter.com/sNBh7t01Uj
— Michael Weadock (@MichaelWeadock) May 9, 2018
The future quickly becomes the focus, with Gareth Southgate set to announce his 23-man squad for next month’s tournament on Wednesday – expected to be a youthful group, anchored by the relative experience of Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane.
“You can trot out all the cliches you like,” Collins says, “but I think it will help them that this is a young group that’s come through together in many ways through Gareth’s Under-21 setup and I do get the distinct impression that it’s a very tight unit. I know every England squad always goes off to World Cups and Euros saying ‘there’s never been better team spirit’, but I feel that there’s genuine friendships between this group and I think that will help.”
England wouldn’t be England without some last-minute injury panic though, with Joe Gomez likely to miss out after the ankle surgery which has ruled him out of Liverpool’s Champions League final.
“You think ‘what a useful player he would’ve been for England’, just because of his versatility at the back, and he’s absolutely the right kind of profile in terms of a Gareth Southgate team. The ongoing saga of Adam Lallana’s injury is another thing I think is a great shame, a year ago he was one of the most important players in the team and one of the very first picks.
“Don’t get me wrong, we have some great attacking players. Dele Alli and Harry Kane have done wonders in the last couple of years at Tottenham and I’ve been hugely excited by Jesse Lingard’s progress as well, but as I say, who is going to unlock those defences when you get to quarter finals, semi finals and – dare I say it – the final? We’ll see.”
England have failed to win a knockout game at a major tournament since 2006, when a David Beckham free kick squirmed past Ecuador goalkeeper Cristian Mora at his near post to set up a quarter final against Portugal.
10 – Eric Dier scored the first England free kick goal in a major tournament in 10 years (David Beckham v Ecuador, 2006). Rocket.
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) June 11, 2016
“If Gareth took them to the quarter finals this time, I think he could be very satisfied. It would help lay a few ghosts of that dreadful game vs Iceland and not being able to get out of the group in Brazil.
“As long as they don’t implode the way they did against Iceland I do think that fans – without going over the top – can look forward with a degree of optimism because I think they’ll be organised, they’ll be difficult to beat. Whether there’s enough creativity, that extra spark to break down the top teams, I don’t know. That’s something that has been lacking for England.”
With no Russian visas to sort out ahead of this summer’s tournament, Collins has worked with Pitch Publishing to bring out his first book, ‘Fifty Cup Finals’ – looking back at the changing landscape of English and European football over the last quarter of a century, from the arrival of Arsene Wenger to the oil billions hitting the Premier League, and beyond.
“It’s called Fifty Cup Finals because, by a bizarre quirk of fate, during my 25, 26 year career with Sky and BSB I covered 50 cup finals. Not 49, not 51, 50.
“The 2008 all England final between United and Chelsea I would say is probably the most memorable of the 50 I covered. Not because it was the greatest game, but the whole occasion, the fact it was in Moscow and pouring with rain. It didn’t start until 11pm, carried on into the next day. It started on a Wednesday and ended on a Thursday!”
Fifty Cup Finals is published by Pitch Publishing, and is available now on Amazon.