The thing with England and football, is that we're prone to erraticism. Rarely are we satisfied with our national side and seldom do we expect realistic achievements. Usually this is because a familiar process happens: 'we won a game, going to win the tournament' ...'oh we've not won it, we're rubbish after all'.
I'm no lionhearted England fan but I support my country and want to see them do well. They play when my club doesn't, so there's never a conflict of interest. Like many United fans, I went through a phase where I fell out of love a bit with England - the generic England fan disliked United; the United players took the blame for failures; and the 'Golden Generation' became nothing more than a tease. Over the past couple of years though, there's been something likeable about the transition into a new generation of players.
The Euro 2012 campaign was never going to be straightforward. A manager who wasn't the media's first choice was appointed; players were left out for strange reasons; injuries hit key personnel; and the nation's best footballer was guaranteed to miss two games. These factors were all put into a massive computer and what came out of it was sensible journalism. England weren't expected to win the tournament, may well have difficulties in their group and anything beyond the quarter finals would be excellent.
And then the games started.
I'm not sure that England have been in control or dominated a single one of their group games. Each performance has been unconvincing and unspectacular but yet somehow solid and lucky. Caution reigned against the French before an entertaining but worryingly open game against Sweden. By this point, the return of Rooney meant that England could go on to win the tournament, apparently. Ukraine provided a tough opposition - they should have at least drawn and were hugely unlucky as a poor decision meant they were robbed of a goal (THE BALL WAS CLEARLY OVER THE LINE!).
Group D has proven to be incredibly disappointing. The quality of football has been poor and brief spells of entertainment have been cancelled out by caution, lack of quality and more lack of quality. England have topped it because they've been the most consistent side - something Hodgson deserves praise for. It's been a long time since an England side have played like a unit and come across as being 'together'. Rooney has alluded to the fact that this year, it feels much more like a club setup, the players all get on and are used to being around one another.
Part of that determination to get results may well stem from Gary Neville. Whilst Steve McLaren was criticised for being too friendly with the players, Neville's in a perfect position to bridge coaching staff with playing staff. He's not long retired, knows the players and commands their respect. Neville though is a natural winner - someone who achieved what he did in football because of a mental attitude, not talent. That solidity and attitude to getting things right is why England are in the quarter finals now.
Tactically, the two banks of four have been tight, reliable and probably wrong. England don't have the players to make it work - Gerrard and Parker individually are good but as a pair they're just not enough. Had Barry been fit, I daresay that he'd have joined them in a three - Hodgson's current predicament in terms of available players is far from ideal. The fact remains that a better team, maybe even Italy, should have a field-day playing their three against our two in the centre of the pitch.
Assessing England and making a reasoned prediction is hard. They're capable of more but certainly limited by the system and to an extent, the personnel. Gerrard for example has been praised for influencing the key moments but on the whole he's been no better than average. John Terry, a most dislikeable man, has for me been the best England player - something that's occurred because of the amount of defending England have had to do.
Comparisons have been made with Chelsea's Champions League success - it's been cited as a reason England can win the Euros. The reality though is scenarios like that are rare and England shouldn't be expected to win the competition. There's nothing wrong with hoping, I would love to see them crowned Europe's best, but a dose of realism is needed. A couple of unconvincing wins against poor or out of form opposition shouldn't equate to probable tournament success.
If England don't progress past Italy, I hope that there won't be the usual and predictable blame-game. This isn't the 'Golden Generation' and it isn't a particularly special England team. Chances are, they'll achieve exactly what they deserve to and whilst we, the fans, will want more, we should probably be somewhat satisfied rather than angry if things don't follow the ideal route. There's nothing wrong with being honest, we're not rubbish but we're also unlikely to win the tournament. Better times with some good young players are probably ahead for England rather than here now.