Gary Cahill has had a very good career but as he looks back over it there is still one thing missing. He has been the most accomplished English centre-back of his millennial generation – post Rio Ferdinand, post John Terry – winning every club trophy he has played in: Champions League, Europa League, League Cup, two Premier Leagues, completing the set with the FA Cup 10 days ago.
But like every English player who arrived after the Golden Generation era – the three consecutive quarter-finals in 2002, 2004 and 2006 – Cahill has never been part of an England team to make any serious impression on a summer tournament. This generation, which has 32-year-old Cahill at its upper end, does not even have a noble defeat to its name – and certainly no single stand-out performance to point to.
This generation of England players – born in the late 1980s and early 1990s – have only known miserable football and embarrassing exits. Managing to drag Italy all the way to penalties in Kiev six years ago somehow stands out as a high-point. But they will forever be remembered for their crippled-with-stage-fright 0-0s, just like Slovakia two years ago, their two-game elimination from the 2014 World Cup, and, above all, Iceland.
Cahill may well be dreaming of lifting the World Cup at the Luzhniki on 15 July, but discussing his hopes for Russia at St George’s Park on Monday evening, he set a modest target. This summer he just wants to make an impression.
“Personally, in my career, one thing that’s missing is a tournament where I feel that we’ve had a real good crack and a real good run at,” he said. “It’s something personally that’s missing.”
Cahill would have played at Euro 2012 only to get injured just before the tournament started, but he was there for 2014 and 2016 and knows how painful it is to be part of an England team that does nothing to write home about. “The last two tournaments have been disappointing and to come back with that feeling is not nice,” he said. “I don’t want that again.”
So Cahill is not asking for much. Just enough to draw a clear distinction between this and the last four tournaments, this long transitional period, so that the players and the country can point to Russia 2018 and say it was England’s best performance since 2006 and that the last four tournaments can now be forgotten. This is almost everyone’s goal, really, and it does not require England to win it or even reach the semis. The quarter-finals and one or two fun wins will do. “I just want to try to enjoy this tournament,” Cahill said. “Enjoy means go as far we possibly can. Enjoy means by winning games. And that’s the only way you enjoy.”
And Cahill knows that this may be his last England tournament. He will be 34 for Euro 2020, and Harry Maguire, John Stones and Jamaal Lascelles will all be better players by then. Cahill almost did not make the squad this summer – Gareth Southgate dropped him for the March friendlies – and it was only his late-season improvement for Chelsea, winning back his place, that got him into the 23 here.
Cahill did not want to be drawn on where he will be in two years’ time – “who knows what the future holds” – but he did say that every England player should go into Russia with the total commitment of a player getting his last shot at the big stage. “These boys have got many, many years ahead I’m sure,” he said. “But again, you shouldn’t look [at it] like that, you should look [at it] like it’s your last one, because you never know what’s round the corner.”
England’s last game at a tournament, of course, was Iceland in Nice. Not many would have expected at kick-off that evening that England would be led into Russia by Roy Hodgson’s successor but one, and that they would be going without Jack Wilshere, Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney, himself the last link with the generation who made their presence felt when it mattered most.
Cahill admits how deep the scars were from Iceland, but insisted it is only by reversing that approach that England can finally do what these players have yearned for their whole careers. “Iceland was so frustrating because we had unbelievable amounts of possession, but we never created anything with it,” Cahill said. “It took a long time to get over that. But we can’t harp on about the past. We’re looking to the future and we’re going into this tournament with a positive frame of mind. That’s the key for everybody: go in with a more positive attitude and see how far we can go.”
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