REALISED only t'other day that England take on France in Lisbon the same day as the Leinster hurling semifinals in Croke Park next month. No contest in terms of viewer appeal, you'll agree. Two horribly predictable matches on the one hand, a fixture in which anything might happen on the other. The fixture in which anything might happen being, naturally, the first of the Leinster semifinals at Croke Park, the one between Laois/Offaly and Dublin/Westmeath/ Kildare.

What'll happen between Kilkenny and Wexford in the second semi-final, we can be pretty sure of. We can hazard a pretty shrewd guess at the outcome of England v France as well. A draw. Remember, it's the first match for both. Nobody will be trying to make a name for themselves.

Everyone will be satisfied to share the points. So it'll finish 1-1, and Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry will get all huggy with Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole afterwards, and they'll all toddle off happily, to get down to the real business in their next fixture.

A cursory glance at the tabloid press and you'd be forgiven for assuming that the trophy is in the bag already, of course. "Sven Goran Eriksson last night backed David Beckham to put his Madrid misery behind him and lead England to glory at Euro 2004." Etc etc. It is ever thus. Sometimes this nonsense is irritating, more often it's merely amusing One thing is for sure, though. That England will be competing in Portugal next month should be cause for serious celebration ? and anticipation ? on this side of the water. As the archivist arm of the McEvoy family never tires of pointing out, the major tournament finals are "much better when England are in them".

Think of all the entertainment they've given us over the years as they discover new and ingenious ways of bowing out of said finals. Maradona's goals in 1986 to an immortal Jimmy Magee soundtrack ("Different class? DIFFERENT CLASS!").

Chris Waddle putting that penalty into Row Z of the Stadio del Alpi in 1990.

Gareth Southgate ensuring a career in pizza commercials for himself in 1996. Graeme Le Saux collapsing like a Guardianreading wuss as Dan Petrescu battered his way past him in 1998. Phil Neville's masterclass in how to avoid the needless concession of last-minute penalties in 2000. David Beckham jumping out of the way in the build-up to Rivaldo's equaliser for Brazil two years ago. All infinitely more entertaining than the splendid hours this nation squandered watching the Boys in Green grinding opponents and spectators alike into a stupor.

You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be absorbed. But mostly you'll laugh. There are few more appealing sights than watching the Tans get tanned at their own game.

The more highbrow op-ed writers will, with some justification, sigh at the above contention and be quick ? with total justification ? to once more point up the glaring dichotomy of Irish people drooling over English club teams yet despising their national team. Yes, it's childish, but it is the way of the world when former colony and former coloniser are involved. Reckon that Papa Bouba Diop and his funk-dancing Senegalese chums didn't get an extra kick out of beating France in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup finals?

Every worthwhile sporting narrative demands its harmless pantomime villain.

(For the record, Off The Fence was cheering for England, albeit from the comfort of the leaba, in the Rugby World Cup final last October. It was easy to cheer for England, the best team on earth for quite a while beforehand and dignified with it. It was even easier to cheer against Australia and their media morons, the loudest and most classless bunch of oafs on the face of the planet. ) What's more, harmless is exactly what the current England team are. Much as we might like to damn them as a collection of preening, pussy-whipped, tailor's dummies and roastobsessed fiends, no side that contains inoffensive souls like Owen Hargreaves or honest lummoxes like Emile Heskey will ever pass for Satan's XI. Glory for Sven's boys in Portugal and the heavens assuredly will not fall. Remove the English media from the equation and we'd struggle to find a stick to beat them with.

And here's another thing.

The fun and games in Japan and South Korea were grand (great Irish word, that) while they lasted. But the gloss wore off pretty quickly halfway through. It's all very well to see a minnow devour a whale. It's not all very well to see the business end of the competition approach with Argentina, Spain and France already back home, and Holland never having left it in the first place. A World Cup or European Championship finals without the inevitable Dutch catfight? An appalling vista.

Or without England contriving some way of blowing it? Equally unconscionable.

Rest assured that they will.