Belfast Telegraph

Gareth Southgate's boys have the spirit of our 1982 squad, says Billy Hamilton

By Billy Hamilton

It may seem like a surprising thing to say, but I feel this England team can go far in the tournament. They are a talented group of young players who don't seem to be weighed down by the pressure and expectation that harmed previous squads.

We have seen a lot of England teams over the years with great individual players but they have never really functioned as a team.

Gareth Southgate may finally be changing that trend. These players are gelling, and Gareth has created a club culture in the England camp where there are no cliques.

Their performances prove how much they are enjoying each other's company, and you can see that in the goal celebrations where they are all united in pure joy.

That 'Club England' mentality has been nurtured and it's producing results.

It reminds me of our 1982 World Cup campaign with Northern Ireland. There was a great spirit and camaraderie in the squad and we were more like brothers than team-mates.

If someone left a foot in late on one of us it wasn't long before retribution was dished out. When you have that respect for your team-mates, you fight harder for them, and it's pleasing to see that great atmosphere in the England squad.

Keeping Harry Kane fit is key. He's a natural goalscorer who knows how to get himself in the right position to convert chances.

But England fans should be quietly optimistic they can reach the quarter-finals, and once that happens everyone is in with a shout.

England have momentum, and there isn't one team in this World Cup which is standing out as a firm favourite. If England can maintain this form, it could be their year at last!

If they could go on and win the World Cup, England's bid to host the tournament in 2030 could gather pace and look a lot more realistic.

And it's been 52 years since the World Cup was in England so I feel they deserve it. It would be great to see, and there is already a huge following for the Premier League so the interest and passion for the game is there.

I know people will say England have only beaten Tunisia and Panama, but it's difficult to beat any side in the World Cup.

They are usually well organised teams and hard to break down.

They kept a high tempo despite the heat and played a very good pressing game.

As an attacking force they carried a big threat and forced many corners.

I also thought it was refreshing to see a referee brave enough to penalise wrestling at corner kicks and set-pieces because there is too much of that going on.

Kane clinically fired home the penalties and his confidence must be sky high after scoring five goals already.

That's a huge bonus for England to have a top-class striker in brilliant form on the world stage.

We are now looking at an open World Cup. Germany, Argentina and Brazil have struggled at times and there's three big names not having it all their own way.

France have laboured in moments, while Russia have emerged as a real force. I still think Spain are well equipped to win it but once a team reaches the quarter-final stage then they can start thinking about lifting the trophy.

Many of us probably thought Germany were doomed against Sweden but you can never write off the world champions, and what a finish that was from Toni Kroos.

Sometimes they are slow starters but then get their tails up and blow teams away.

It doesn't look like the real Germany for me, there is something not quite right with them, they are looking mediocre but they still can't be discounted.

As for Argentina and Lionel Messi, it's sad to see their misery deepen. When you've got a player of that quality in your team you need to give him the ball, but that Argentina midfield is not up to the job.

I'll be surprised if they make it through to the knockout stages and that will mean more agony for Messi.

His critics will be out in force but I think it's nonsense to say Messi can't be considered the greatest player in the world because he hasn't won a World Cup.

Are you going to forget about George Best because he never even played in a World Cup? The comparison with Diego Maradona is an obvious one, but for me Messi is an even better player than Maradona.

He's won trophies galore at Barcelona and it's just a sad reality that he has been let down by his team-mates at international level.

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