Gareth Southgate and all of the England players they’ve had the easiest run to a World Cup final in decades but still fell short. They faced two real tests in the tournament, against Belgium and Croatia, failing to beat either side. The victories over Colombia (penalties), Tunisia (last minute) and Panama (minnow) showed the warning signs that this side was not Champions elect, but none of that matters they have done the nation proud.
Before the tournament England fans looked at the squad and discussions were about making it out of the group. Walking down the street you wouldn’t have found a single person expecting us to top the group, Tunisia were ‘probably going to do us’ and Panama was ‘Iceland all over again’. The prevailing feeling was that the tournament came at the wrong time for a young inexperienced squad and a manager still trying to find his feet on the world stage.
When watching the Tunisia game ‘we’d seen it all before’. England dominated the game and Tunisia never looked like scoring, until a soft penalty gave them an opening. Struggling to create chances it looked like the start most of us expected, then the winds of change started to blow with Hurri-Kane scoring that last minute header. Queue elation and disbelief.
The Panama game came and many were expecting another nail-biting affair. The South Americans had played so well against Belgium in first half, they showed their defensive capabilities and that was a concern for a side that struggled to break down Tunisia. England went on to produce the best half of football many fans will have ever seen. The team created chances, caused riots in the box and devastated a side who were far less competent than it first appeared. Hope was sparked and we’d made it out of the groups.
The Round of 16 began to fall into place and it was clear that one side of the draw was going to be stacked with the top seeds. Finishing second in the group would provide the path of least resistance to the final, but wait, England have won just 6 knockout fixtures since 1966. It was a free hit for Southgate, lose and end up in the weaker side of the draw, win and maintain the momentum. It was a defeat between two ‘B’ teams.
England’s route was set, there were some beatable teams on the way and it started with Colombia. The South Americans were a good side, but missing playmaker Rodriguez they looked to stifle England by hook or by crook. It almost worked, but the England set piece specialists held a 1-0 lead until the dying seconds. Southgate had looked to solidify the defence with the introduction of Dier, but it invited more pressure until it eventually told. England collapsed in the final minute, ‘we’ve seen it all before’ rang round pubs across the land.
Penalties loomed and it was another knock-out game against a beatable team that England were going to lose against, and on penalties again, pints of beer swapped for glasses of whiskey. Henderson missed the first penalty and the defeat seemed inevitable. A couple of inches and the crossbar gave England a door back into the game, Trippier drew the scores level. A young lad from Sunderland recently mocked for being too short had a chance to make himself a hero, and he did just that. What a save, what a moment, Can we? Can we really win this? On penalties. We could as Dier slotted home. Elation.
England fans went to the stratosphere, you could feel the weight lifted off millions of shoulders, this young side given little chance had not only won a knockout game, they’d won on penalties in a World Cup, for the first time ever. The nation united in singing ‘it’s coming home’. Whether or not people believe it at that point it was a rallying cry. Men, Women, Girls, Boys, those who watch football, those who don’t, all caught in England mania.
Sweden were next in the way, a professional outfit that lacked a clinical edge. Each kick of the ball held with bated breath. Even as the clock ticked the final seconds away it was hard not to shake the feeling that it’s still going to go wrong. All those years of disappointment as an England fan triggering their ‘PTSD’, but it didn’t. The game went as smoothly as was possible, a comfortable 2-0 win.
Could football really be coming home? The sun has been shining for months, we’d won on penalties and now we’d won two knockout matches. The stars seemed to be aligning and ‘we still believe’.
Croatia was always going to be the toughest test of England and Trippier got us off the best start possible. He’s arguably been England’s player of the tournament, robust defensively with a quality set piece delivery. He epitomised the defensive heart of England the togetherness of the Northern lads holding together, reluctant stars, they played for the shirt and for each other. Not for money or fame.
Missed chances stacked up and at half time England should have been comfortable but they weren’t. The Hurri-kane looked as if it had been downgraded to a tropical storm. The lack of goals from open play looked as though it could come back to haunt us. Southgate had taken and average side and got them playing as a team greater than the sum of their parts. He was learning on the job, but unfortunately for England is was not quick enough.
Henderson had a great tournament but faltered here, playing backwards too often, or his delivery failing him when trying to exploit the killer pass. Alli and Lingard pressing too high and not collecting the ball from the defence leading to too many long balls and turnovers in possession. Modric and Rakitic began to collect the ball from the defence and control the play, stretching England and tiring the wingers.
The removal of Sterling stopped the counter-attacking threat and the defenders of Croatia began to focus on attacking rather than defending, the wingbacks causing more and more danger. Unable to stop crosses the scores were finally brought level, lax defending by Walker letting Perisic sneak. The legs started to go as England were run ragged. Croatia were in the ascendancy, captain Kane unable to get involved in the action with lack of service and composure.
The Mandzukic goal in extra time was always coming and we were never likely to score with just 10 minutes to go. The lack of playmaker such as Modric in midfield was the difference between the sides. It was a harsh lesson for Southgate to learn but much needed, creativity is key and it’s something he needs to be able to incorporate into his sides’ identity.
This England side is young and inexperienced but it has been forged in the fire of tournament football and it will come out harder, stronger, better. These young players have shown that we don’t have to rely on experience and with Lewis Cook, Phil Foden and Lewis Baker coming through the academy, all with international glory at U21, U19 level the future looks bright. Perhaps Southgate will be able to find a round peg to fit the round hole in midfield.
It’s the first time England fans have had hope in a generation, for many the first time they’ve been proud of a side who plays for the shirt & each other. Many have sacrificed the spotlight of the top teams to play lower league football, they’ve sought to earn their way into the national side rather than rely on reputation and potential. That drive to take the path less travelled is engrained in their determination to succeed and will lay the road for any youngster who wants to become the best footballer her can be, not just the richest. The togetherness of players from all over England, different races and backgrounds epitomises everything England wants to be and all led by a gentleman of the highest order.
We are all disappointed but we’ve had 4 weeks of excitement and enthusiasm. The atmosphere around the country has been fantastic and it’s reignited many peoples passion for football. The World Cup may not be coming home, but Football’s already arrived. Bring on 2022 and get your waistcoat ready.