Steven Gerrard has told his England team-mates they have to be strong enough to cope with the pressure of playing for their country in the aftermath of a disappointing FIFA World Cup™. The 30-year-old knows it is vital the Three Lions make a positive start to their UEFA EURO 2010 qualifying campaign, which kicks off against Bulgaria at Wembley on Friday, to restore some belief to an under-fire squad.
Several England players were booed during the friendly win over Hungary last month as fans showed their frustration at the team's underachievments. But the Liverpool attacking midfielder, who will again captain his country in the absence of injured first-choice skipper Rio Ferdinand, knows the negative atmosphere is inevitable after South Africa.
"The players and the manager realise we are under pressure at the moment, which is normal after under-performing at the World Cup," Gerrard said. "A win always helps in this situation. That is the challenge.
"The difficult thing is there is slightly more pressure on us this time. But we have to cope with that and handle it. Hopefully the booing is behind us now and we can give a good performance.
"We certainly have the exciting players in the squad to get off to a winning start. We qualified really well for the World Cup playing good attacking football, and if we can put in a good performance and take maximum points, we will go into the next game with confidence."
Gerrard was one of the few England players to return from South Africa with any credit, as the 1966 champions were beaten 4-1 by Germany in the Round of 16 following three poor displays in the group stage. He appears to relish the responsibility of wearing the captain's armband and was in fine form, scoring twice, in the 2-1 win over Hungary. Even the prospect of taking on a resolute Bulgaria without injured stars John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Peter Crouch doesn't faze Gerrard.
"I'm really enjoying being captain," he said. "I've captained Liverpool for many years and thrive on responsibility. My performances for England have been good with the armband.
"It does make it more difficult to have injuries because they are fantastic players with big experience. But now they are injured it puts a bit more responsibility on myself and the other experienced players to try to pull the lads together and get two wins.
"After the team under-performed in South Africa there have been changes made. And, with injuries to big players, it's a fantastic opportunity for people to stake a claim and give the manager something to think about when we next get together."
Gerrard believes the improved form of Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney, who scored for the first time in 14 matches last weekend, is a positive sign ahead of the Bulgaria game and the trip to Switzerland for another qualifier on Tuesday.
"Wayne's looked really sharp the last couple of days," he said. "I watched him against West Ham last week and he looked in good form, so hopefully we will see a good performance from Wayne on Friday."