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Reasons to believe in England outweighed by negatives

The Thursday column

The goalscoring form of Harry Kane has been a huge plus for England
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Good grief. Did you know it’s 11 years since they temporarily stopped calling them Mars Bars and rebranded them Believe? Time flies when your national team are useless.

The change of name was sparked, of course, by the belief that England were going to win the World Cup that year, but a quarter-final shootout defeat to Portugal soon had the old name back on the packaging.

Twelve years on, as things stand, there will be no such stunts. In fact, the general view of the Three Lions is now so negative there is half a chance that come next May you will pop into the petrol station for a KitKat only to find the word Bleak emblazoned on the wrapper.

Never has there been such a mood of realism and gloom as we head towards a major tournament. The preposterous optimism that always acted as such a cruel prelude to the crushing disappointment of early elimination is nowhere to be seen.

But of course we all know that the apathy and scorn that accompanied England’s dull passage through the qualification process will somehow find a way of transforming into genuine hope by the time the finals start.

Quite what that will be based on remains to be seen, but somehow it will happen, even though at the moment everyone seems refreshingly tuned in to the reality that the players are not good enough and the manager should be running a digital security function at a mid-size company, telling his colleagues all about how the Under-11s team he coaches got on at the weekend and being that annoyingly sensible one at the Christmas party who nurses a can of bitter all night while making sure nobody is getting wasted and actually enjoying themselves.

The first potential hike in hope levels would appear to come next month when Germany and Brazil have been invited to play Gareth Southgate’s mob at Wembley (thankfully not simultaneously).

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There is always the chance England will approach these friendlies in a far more energised manner than their visitors and therefore might just win one or both of them, which would suddenly get people thinking the impossible was possible even though the chances are victories would only come about through the Germans and Brazilians fielding their reserves and telling them to stroll around and try to avoid injuring themselves.

So how else might the national mood lift from its current position (on the floor) to one that might even cause one or two retailers to stock white and red car-window flags?

Harry Kane is the obvious first port of call. What a genuine pleasure it is to watch him develop into a world-class centre forward, a player with a tremendous workrate, superb awareness, excellent movement and, most importantly of all, a clinical ability to convert a high percentage of the opportunities that come his way.

You can certainly argue that considerably fewer chances come his way when he is playing for England than for Tottenham, but Kane is now in the world-class bracket and while he is fit and firing there is a glimmer of hope.

Likewise, his Spurs mucker Dele Alli is a superb talent who has a fine chance to advertise his ability in Russia provided he finds a way of lengthening his fuse. If there is one thing that has slightly tarnished his rise it is that a growing malice is infiltrating his game.

A return to fitness of Adam Lallana would also improve England’s chances of avoiding a return home after three matches. His game is better suited to international football than domestic and he could be a major influence for Southgate’s side next summer.

It was pleasing too to see Jack Butland return to the team in Lithuania. He was developing into the real deal before his long injury absence and even allowing for my lack of faith in Southgate to do the right thing he will surely see before long that Butland is a far better option than Joe Hart.

But before I talk myself into thinking England might actually have a chance, it is time for a reality check.

There are other reasons to be encouraged such as a better set of full-back options than have existed for some time and the possibility that John Stones will mature into a classy ball-playing centre back.

But there are also some significant shortcomings in the squad, not least that however good Stones is the remainder of the central defenders are either average or not up to it.

Central midfield is a huge problem. Jordan Henderson remains grotesquely overrated, Eric Dier is like one of those bands that releases one really good album but then disappoints and there is not much competition for their places.

There is an equal paucity of talent in the more forward positions that are not filled by Kane and Alli, as illustrated by the prominence in the pecking order of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jesse Lingard.

Hopefully, then, the current lack of hysteria surrounding England’s 2018 World Cup bid will remain in place right until the finals, because it is annoying and embarrassing when everyone is getting carried away, and by setting expectations low there might just be scope for everyone to be pleasantly surprised.

They will, however, need to drift well beyond their current general price of 20-1 to become a remotely interesting betting proposition.

Restrictions put a major block on enjoyment

There has undoubtedly been an increase in the number of punters who voice their dissatisfaction at having their stakes restricted, either partially or to such an extent they may as well not have bothered asking.

Only this week, for example, a colleague who bets successfully on football told me there is now just one exchange where he can bet at his desired levels without being subject to an inflated commission rate and that fixed-odds firms are a no-go zone.

I also conversed with a punter who says his average bet is approximately £15 and that he bets almost entirely on racing plus some occasional football.

I like to think I have become quite good at spotting an arber or a former bookmaker employee from a genuine recreational punter when discussing this contentious topic and this man struck me as perfectly believable.

He said for 45 years he had placed bets without any restrictions, but that in the past 18 months he had had three accounts effectively closed through excessive stake limits, of which two were roughly £30 up over a three-year period and the other had won him around £20.

A growing number of punters are having their maximum stakes restricted
Now he may be making the whole thing up, although if he is fantasising he is doing it very eloquently and plausibly and it would also be a weird thing to fabricate.

But he seemed convincing and if his story is true it suggests bookmakers are clamping down even harder on successful customers.

It cannot be claimed bookies operate on a strict 'thou shalt not win' basis because I believe no firm would be so stupid as to deny the person who makes a few grand on a dream multiple the chance to do it all back. But if the smart punter who chisels out a small profit over a long period cannot get his bets on something is badly wrong.

I don’t know what the answer is but I do not believe it is an enforced minimum-bet stipulation, as many are calling for.

This is unworkable because many punters have control of multiple accounts so if bookmakers were forced to lay anything to lose, say, £1,000, the punter with access to 20 accounts could stretch that limit to £20,000.

It remains the case that the vast majority of punters are no threat to bookies’ profits and are therefore allowed to have as much as they like on whatever they like. But the aspiration to be moderately successful should not be snatched away once a customer shows they are capable of making even a marginal profit from their hobby.

Days to savour ahead in the racing calendar

There are a few Saturdays in the year when the racing is not of the highest quality, but from now until Christmas there is at least one captivating race every Saturday, making it the best prolonged period in the entire calendar.

Here are the main attractions taking place over the next ten Saturdays: Dewhurst and Cesarewitch; Champions Day; Racing Post Trophy and Cheltenham; Charlie Hall; November Handicap; BetVictor Gold Cup; Betfair Chase; Ladbrokes Handicap (or Hennessy as everyone will still call it); Tingle Creek; International day at Cheltenham.

What a line-up. Bring it on!

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There is half a chance that come next May you will pop into the petrol station for a KitKat only to find the word Bleak emblazoned on the wrapper
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