By Alan Tonge, lecturer in sport research at the UCFB Etihad Campus

Alan is a former professional himself, having played for Manchester United and Exeter City, before he was forced to retire at the age of 24. He’s since gone into academia and has a Master of Philosophy in Sport Psychology. Alan is currently undertaking a PhD on ‘exploring critical moments, identity and meaning amongst professional football players’.

‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!’

Over the past 52 years much has been written about the failings of the England national team across the major competitions of the World Cup and The Euros. A high percentage of the media, fans and pundits have had a field day, often reaching the conclusions that “we’ve no bottle when the going gets tough” or “the players find it more comfortable and are better suited to club level.”

Has this been a fair assumption? In my humble opinion, it hasn’t. The biggest psychological issue resides with our countries identity as a whole, rather than the players and the coaching staff.

One of the most challenging aspects faced by England is the fact that many of the people in the media (and amongst the fans!) are always keen to give us a decent chance of doing something (if the qualifying campaign and pre competition friendlies have gone well!). Most of the time when the major competitions kick in, England are fairly strong in the betting markets and expected to challenge, or at least reach the latter stages of tournaments. Sadly, this euphoric view from the fans and media is matched equally by doom and despair when things don’t go our way (more often than not via the penalty spot!). From a psychological perspective, euphoria, matched by doom and despair is found in human beings who lack a clear sense of deep, personal identity and have low confidence in themselves.

As an ex professional player and someone who is currently writing a PhD around critical moments and transitions, my first piece of advice as we head into The World Cup would be for Mr Southgate to shield the players from the frail mentality of a proportion of its hugely passionate followers. It’s absolutely crucial to nurture and restore the operating culture of yesteryear, and make sure all of the players are definitively aware of their roles, responsibilities and freedom to choose the right course of action, especially under the greatest scrutiny of the world’s gaze. In the far too distant past of the 1966 glory, I remember Alan Ball saying that Sir Alf Ramsey’s environment was created with family in mind and that by doing this, everyone stood tight together as a solid unit. One for all and all for one as Alexandre Dumas famously coined! Anyone not prepared to conform to this approach, or toe the line, should be weeded out and removed with immediate effect!

In terms of individual players going into battle, the key quality in my opinion is a term often heard when I played, but not as much in the modern day; character. Character is a quality acquired over long term periods, is caught not taught and to have good character, one must have solid foundations.

So what is character and how is it developed? Character lies within the deeper core of a human being, where existential psychological qualities such as courage, humility, integrity, love and passion reside. Two or three players within England’s side have demonstrated these qualities over their careers and more recently throughout the qualifying campaign, but need to be joined by others if we want to progress and achieve once more. Far too many players in the past have lacked character when the going starts to get tough. Very few have wanted to stand up and be counted and sadly many more have been readily prepared to hide, point fingers, or go missing in action. This seems to be a problematic disease in our modern cultural landscape. It is far easier to blame someone else as opposed to looking at yourself.

In preparation of counteracting the above, the early signs are encouraging. It seems Gareth Southgate is quite categoric in the requirements needed for a healthy, business-like, systematic, winning culture and even the media have suggested there seems to be a different feel and spirit in relation to previous England camps. When this type of culture and character can merge together, it is more likely that players will play at their best for the consistent amounts of time needed to do something of worth. When the players and coaching staff are singing from the same hymn sheet, creating a cultural congruence, the force to meet challenges head on becomes all more powerful. There is no secret to this. It is all about having the skills and qualities and knowing deep down you have got what it takes to achieve success. This is what performing and winning at elite levels is all about and is what has been sorely lacking in many of the previous tournaments and World Cup assaults.

For England to truly get amongst it over the next few weeks, plenty of players will have to show up, stand tall, be authentic, dig deep and demonstrate resilience, as sport at elite levels is about strong characters staying with tasks in tough times. Any early jubilation, followed by moaning, destructive comments, or vitriolic mudslinging must be left to the fans and media. You never know (and we can all dream), football may even be coming home once again.