Some time before 8pm tonight, Steven Gerrard will walk out of the Wembley tunnel at the head of a line of England players, doubtless with his expression set to that familiar aspect of grim determination usually reserved for his darkest days with his club side Liverpool.
The analysis of England's failure in the World Cup in South Africa did not come sugar-coated yesterday from the man who was captain for that tournament and will do the same job tonight against Hungary. When it was put to him yesterday that it would take more than a few goals against a team ranked 62nd in the world to turn the mood, Gerrard chose to put it in rather more blunt terms.
"This [mending the relationship with the fans] is not going to happen overnight," he said. "This is not going to happen in weeks and months, it is going to take years to turn this situation around. This is as low as it gets, going out the way we did. If we are going to have a successful tournament and we qualified well it would turn around, that's the way football is."
As low as it gets. Given the mood when England went out of Euro 2008 qualifying in November 2007 that is a bleak assessment. At least when England began again after that in the January of the following year they had a new coach in Fabio Capello to sustain hope. Now there is not even that. All that was on offer yesterday were more words, which Gerrard himself acknowledged would not be enough.
"We need to raise performance, individually and collectively and do it out on the pitch," he said. "It's easy to say 'Oh yeah, we're sorry' to the supporters. But the supporters don't want an apology in a press conference. They want to see the team go out and show how sorry we are by performing well, turning things around and qualifying for the next tournament."
Tonight is not the disaster for the Football Association that some have predicted in terms of ticket sales, which have been healthy for an August fixture. Neither have there been the high-profile retirements that were considered a possibility in the aftermath of 4-1 defeat to Germany. But it does promise to be a weird occasion with the possibility that many fans have paid their money and trekked to Wembley just for the opportunity to boo their team.
They were given an invitation to do so yesterday by Gerrard's admission that if he were a fan at the stadium he would probably boo the team. But the issue is now so well-trailed that it is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Who knows, the FA might even slip it into the official night's itinerary somewhere between the presentation of the teams and the national anthems.
Instead of demanding grovelling apologies from Capello and the players we might be better served instead trying to understand where it went wrong against Germany in Bloemfontein. Gerrard said yesterday that the problem was that the English continually over-hyped their team but then did rather the same himself by later asserting that they should be reaching the last four of major tournaments.
The 23 players who worked under Capello at South Africa came back with 23 different opinions of their manager's merits and not all of them were favourable. It would be safe to say that Gerrard was among those who genuinely still believe in the Italian and are not just saying so in order to tread the party line.
"It's not just about putting the blame on Fabio," Gerrard said. "We've got to share it and put it right together, all the players, me included. For me, it would've been stupid to get rid of the manager and start again with a different guy. Who is there out there that is better than Capello?"
Gerrard was bullish about his own performances at the World Cup claiming, not unreasonably, that he had "worked his socks off". He has always been a player upon whom failure sits heavy, and one glance at his face told you that he is not exactly relishing tonight's game. But there was enough sparkiness in him, taking journalists to task for what would constitute success for the England team, to suggest that he is still up for the fight.
That did not mean that he had not considered quitting international football over the summer. "I suppose it does cross your mind at times," he said. "But very quickly you switch back to thinking of staying and hopefully turning things round and having a successful tournament.
"I don't see it [playing for England] as a hassle. I'm not going to lie to you – since we were knocked out of the World Cup it's been really difficult to be an England player. We've received a lot of criticism, both as individuals and as a team group, and rightly so. I've played for England for over 10 years now. I would love nothing more than to go out on a high."
A high is not where England are now, not with two more withdrawals yesterday – Darren Bent and Ben Foster – which at least were the result of injury rather than disaffection with the international game. Foster's back problems left Capello with only Joe Hart as a goalkeeper and he called up Frankie Fielding (Blackburn) and Scott Loach (Watford) from the Under-21s to compensate.
All of it will contribute to the sense tonight that, when Gerrard gets the nod from the French referee, the England team-mates he leads out – with the exception of Bobby Zamora – will be hoping to get it over with as soon as possible. Despite that, Gerrard said that whatever happens he still wants to play. "I love playing for England, I love being down here and I love the standard of the training," he said.
He is not alone. The 60,000-plus crowd expected tonight at Wembley is because – against the evidence of recent history and, some would say, all logic – hope springs eternal. It is quite amazing. "If we were to go to the semi-final of the Euros would it be worth the hassle of playing for England?" Gerrard said. "It would for me because I would be able to tell my kids I had done it. That's the motivation for me."Reuse content