Despair is an emotion that is part and parcel of supporting England, and in recent years has been accompanied by anger, disillusionment and utter misery after embarrassing tournament exits.
It has been felt again, perhaps more than ever, following the Three Lions’ World Cup exit to Croatia on Wednesday night, but is now accompanied by new emotions. Pride, admiration and a connection with the players that has not been felt in years.
It sounds almost impossible to say just two years after one of the worst nights in England football’s history against Iceland in Nice. But the turnaround that has happened since then, via Sam Allardyce’s ill-fated 67 days in charge of team, is nothing short of incredible.
Gareth Southgate, the man who never wanted the job and the man who many people thought couldn’t do the job, has rejuvenated and refreshed the national football team and given it a future. In taking England to a World Cup semi-final, the Hertfordshire-born boss has achieved what only two men, both knights of the realm, have done previously. Much like the squad, Southgate has gone on his own journey of redemption throughout the tournament – the penalty shoot-out win over Colombia going some way to banish the demons of Euro ’96 when he missed the crucial spot-kick against Germany.
When Eric Dier slotted home the key penalty in Moscow, it confirmed that the Three Lions had won a World Cup shoot-out for the first time in history. The weight had been lifted and the curse had been broken by this young, fresh, different, England team. But they ended so many other hoodoos and records too. We won our opening two World Cup games for only the third time, scored six in a World Cup game for the first time, won a knockout match for the first time at any tournament since 2006, whilst the team’s total goal tally of 12 (and counting) has not ever been bettered. To top it all of course, they reached a first World Cup semi-final in 28 years.
Were England fortunate to play so-called ‘easier’ teams in this World Cup? For sure – heavyweights Germany, Spain and Argentina are unlikely to all get knocked out so early again any time soon. But perhaps that’s what this country needed, a bit of luck. After Maradona’s hand of God, Cristiano Ronaldo’s wink, Frank Lampard’s goal that never was, perhaps we deserved a bit of luck.
You still have to take your luck though, and England all too often haven’t in the past. But by digging in until the end against Tunisia, ruthlessly putting Panama to the sword, being undeterred by Colombia’s dirty tactics and professionally seeing off Sweden, they forgot history and got the job done. Nothing was taken for granted, and everything was put on the line.
Such wins will naturally get fans back on side, but this process was undoubtedly accelerated by the players’ willingness and desire to reconnect with the public in any way possible. They have taken the time to speak to fans live on the official England YouTube channel, gone over to the travelling supporters after games for longer than normal, and given open and honest interviews to the media. In doing so, they have inspired a new generation of fans and given existing generations restored hope after years of disappointment.
All of this comes from their manager. Gareth Southgate has never once forgotten the importance of the fans both at home and in Russia, and is potentially the most appreciative of the support out of any England manager ever. Consider this alongside his ability to make big decisions and not care what people think about him, and it’s easy to see why he has turned so many people on up and down the country.
Full video of @GarethSouthgate’s long-awaited emergence from the tunnel – precisely 70 minutes after the final whistle. The @England fans had been chanting for him non-stop while he was inside conducting all his media duties. #mixedemotions #Eng pic.twitter.com/u1BO08uJAe
— Jacqui Oatley (@JacquiOatley) July 12, 2018
So what next for this England team (beyond Saturday’s third place play-off with Belgium)? Southgate and many players have claimed that this is ‘only just the beginning’ for this group, and it’s hard not to get on board with that. The Three Lions squad was the youngest in Russia, and 18 of the 23 man squad will still be under 30 at Euro 2020 and 12 will still be under 30 at the 2022 World Cup. Add in to the equation the host of young players that have achieved glory at the Under-20 World Cup, Under-17 World Cup and Under-19 European Championship in the last year or so, and the future looks very promising.
Aside from this year, two of England’s best performances at tournaments have come on home turf in 1966 and 1996. With the semi-finals and final of Euro 2020 being held at Wembley, might football make it’s way home in two years’ time?