BY next Monday night, it could all have wrong. This is England, and this is the World Cup, so there is always the potential for a spectacular failure. Or a dull disappointment. In the last couple of tournaments, England have made ‘dull disappointment’ something of a speciality.

For now though, with the tournament underway and England’s opening game against Tunisia just three days away, let’s cling on to some positive thoughts. Let’s cherish the all-too-rare sensation of actually being excited at what an England side might achieve, not to mention the positive playing style they’re expected to adopt. Let’s take some pride in the way in which a young crop of players have conducted themselves in the last few weeks. And let’s enjoy the lack of claustrophobic expectation that has sucked the life out of previous competitions. In short, let’s enjoy watching a different England.

Things do feel different this time around, less manic, less on edge, less chaotic. There has been an uncharacteristic calmness to England’s preparations, allied to a clear sense of purpose and some meticulous planning.

What’s happened to the traditional eve-of-tournament crisis where a player who was shoehorned into the squad despite being injured for most of last season suffers an all-too-predictable breakdown on the training ground? Where are the headlines screaming about a fracture in relations between various factions within the squad? The World Cup has begun, and I haven’t seen a single picture of a WAG dancing drunkenly on a table yet. What’s that all about?

It’s all very un-English. In fact, it’s almost as if the Football Association have managed to appoint a manager who knows how to deal with the unique demands of competing at a World Cup. It’s almost as if some planning and preparation has gone into this. Is this what it feels like to be German at the start of a World Cup finals?

It’s not Germany of course, it’s England, so as I said at the start, there’s still every chance things will unravel pretty quickly. Nil-nil with Tunisia, with ten minutes left, and the mood will have darkened considerably. Whatever happens over the next few weeks though, whatever mishaps inevitably befall Gareth Southgate and his squad, the FA need to remember that they’re on the right track.

Win, lose or draw, the template for England’s progress over the last couple of years is the right one to follow. That means avoiding any knee-jerk reactions if things do not go to plan in Russia, and certainly means sticking with Southgate for at least the next two years ahead of Euro 2020, with its semi-finals and final at Wembley.

Southgate has been the driving force behind England’s evolution over the last two seasons, and the former Middlesbrough manager deserves huge credit for the way in which he has calmly changed the course of the national team’s progress.

On the pitch, he has eschewed the temptation to stick with the tried-and-tested, and instead put his faith in a group of young players who have the potential to develop together over the next five or six years.

He has successfully nurtured a ‘Club England’ mentality, a phrase that is easy to deride, but that clearly has value when it results in the absence of the kind of cliques and club divides that have previously proved so damaging.

Tactically, he has come up with a formation he believes maximises his players’ strengths. You can disagree with his thinking – although I actually believe three at the back is the right way to go – but at least he has moved on from the traditional mind-set, which was to pick the supposed best 11 players and shoehorn them into a side. Had Southgate been manager a generation or two ago, you wouldn’t have seen Paul Scholes kicking his heels on the left wing.

By cultivating a grown-up relationship with the press, Southgate has removed some of the mistrust and fear that impacted on previous teams. No longer afraid of the fall-out from a ‘them-and-us’ mentality, England’s players will hopefully feel comfortable taking a risk in Russia. Failure would be a bitter disappointment, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

By treating his players as adults and putting the responsibility for their behaviour into their own hands, Southgate has also enabled us to start to see a different side of the players that represent us in an England shirt.

From Raheem Sterling’s commendable honesty about the tattoo that caused such nonsensical hysteria in the tabloids to Danny Rose’s openness about his mental health issues earlier this season, England’s players have come across as likeable, intelligent and grounded.

‘They make too much money to care,’ has been a common refrain in the past, but it would be extremely difficult to level that accusation at the current squad. Southgate regards playing for England as the biggest honour in football, and that attitude has permeated through the squad.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Southgate has also helped drag the FA and it various institutions into the modern era. When St George’s Park was opened as the home of the English game, it was immediately derided in some quarters as a white elephant.

Yet thanks to Southgate’s desire to create a joined-up approach linking all of England’s age groups, the National Football Centre now feels like a genuine nerve centre. It is also a talent hub that is the envy of much of the rest of the world thanks to England’s World Cup successes at Under-17 and Under-20 level.

The youngsters playing in those sides will look at Southgate’s squad and think they have a genuine chance of making it to the senior stage. Again, it is almost like England have become Germany in disguise.

Let’s see how things go over the next month-and-a-half before we start getting too carried away. Let’s see if this brave new era can withstand the challenges of a World Cup that will quickly see things begin to get more difficult if England can survive the group stage.

But whatever happens, let’s not forget how good it feels at the moment. Let’s not undo some genuine progress if things do not go to plan. Let’s hope for the best, but be ready for the worst that Russia can throw at us. Let the action begin…