As is custom each and every four years, this summer the nation was captivated by football fever as the football community fled to Russia in the hope of their country winning sport’s biggest prize. After fifty two years of hurt and astonishing twenty eight years since England reached a semi final, the country seemed unphased about our footballing prowess and the patriotism of past tournaments had slowly evolved into repressed cynicism. Ghosts of David Platt’s missed penalty, David Beckham’s red card and Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal had each left a severe dent in the psyche of the nation and it was almost impossible to think positively about our national side.
Following the notorious dismissal of disgraced manager Sam Allardyce in September 2016, the difficult post was given to former England midfielder Gareth Southgate. Southgate’s missed penalty in the Euro 96 shootout against Germany. This was his opportunity to right the wrongs of his International football demons and create a team that the whole nation could get behind and reignite the passion for our national side. For some reason this summer’s World Cup seemed different from tournaments in recent years with a newfound confidence in our squad and people actually believed that football was actually coming home. We had King Harry Kane, Raheem Stirling and Marcus Rashford. Could this finally be our year?
With an average age of twenty six, this was a very young and inexperienced team who hadn’t been scorned by past failures. They seemed hungry for success and with a manager who had coached the majority of them at Under 21 level, there seemed to be universal cohesion throughout the whole squad. Understated, calm, collective and able to keep the British press at arms lengths, this squad seemed to have learned how to combat demons which dominated past tournament teams. It felt different and suddenly England flags were scattered over the land as we felt a sense of pride in this team.
On Monday 18th June England’s World Cup campaign opened with a 2-1 victory against Tunisia, ironically a team which we hadn’t faced since the 1998 World Cup when we also beat them by 2-0 thanks to goats from Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes. This time, a late winner from Harry Kane was enough to get England off to a winning start and thoughts were already turning to Panama just six days afterwards. Another win would secure our place in the last sixteen and ease the pressure on what would be a difficult game against one of the tournament favourites Belgium. A convincing 6-1 win with: a goal from Manchester United’s Jessie Lingard, abrace from Harry Kane and an unlikely hatrick from Leicester’s stone walled Harry McGuire. This placed England in a prime position to secure automatic qualification in to the last sixteen for the first time in eight years.
Yet before we tasted the sweet success of the last sixteen, we had a small matter of a date with Belgium in the Saint Petersburg Stadium. Tipped as one of the favourites to lift the notorious trophy, this was to be the hardest challenge which this young team had faced. Made up of stars who light up the Premier League on a weekly basis. A team of all stars would arguably give England their biggest test and would eventually give this hungry team a taste of defeat. However there was still a significant silver lining in the form of the prospect of facing Columbia in the last sixteen.
With wounds of the Belgian defeat already healed, Southgate’s disciplined positivity was certainly paying off. There was total harmony within the camp which obviously transferred itself from the hotel to the football pitch. A manager who can identify with the pressures which the players felt is a definite advantage to boosting the morale of the team. This was just the positive attitude which was needed ahead of our last sixteen game against Columbia, knowing that victory would take us to our best tournament in over a decade. Yet we also had history with Columbia in the 1998 World Cup, again beating them by 2-0 courtesy of goals from Darren Anderton and a young David Beckham. Unfortunately England weren’t that lucky this time and 1-1 after 90 minutes meant dreaded extra time with the threat of penalties looming large in the minds of the English players and indeed the whole watching nation. Could this be Gareth Southgate’s salvation for Euro 96?
For the first time ever, England won a penalty shootout thanks to Eric Dier’s last minute conversion which was felt around the whole country. With a date with Sweeden confirmed, it was time for some to dream. Over the years, England has enjoyed a complex relationship with the clog loving nation, most notably the 2001 appointment of football manager Sven Goren Erikssen who took England to a World Cup quarterfinal respectively in 2002 and 2006. Headers from Deli Ali and an in form Harry McGuire cemented England’s best progress at a World Cup for twenty eight years and the prospect of a semifinal against Croatia encouraged hopes of emulating the legendary team of 1966. We couldn’t, could we?
Croatia has long been a side which England has tasted both the ecstasy of victory and bitterness of defeat. Indeed this small country was responsible for England’s failed bid to quality for Euro 2008 and the subsequent dismissal of Head Coach Steve McClaren. Fate seemed a cruel thing when England was drawn with Croatia 8n the World Cup qualifying campaign for the 2010 tournament. Yet by this time Fabio Capello was the man in the dugout and masterminded a successful entrance. So Croatia had been a side of great unpredictability for England and it was a tough call as to which nation would prevail. A good start by England gave us a deserved lead courtesy of Kieren Trippier but a vulnerable defence allowed Ivan Perêsič to sneak the ball passed a shocked Jordan Pickford took the nail biting game to extra time. Unfortunately England’s luck ran out in the 109 minute when Mario Mandżukic fired the ball into the net. It was a harsh blow for the nation as our hopes of emulating 1966 faded…not this year!
England failed to make another final of a major tournament and as speculation continues about when and indeed England will ever get to lift that elusive second World Cup, this summer the country rediscovered an inner confidence in our national football side which will hopefully grow even stronger as the years go by. So let’s continue to wear those shirts, hang out the bunting and decorate our cars in patriotic accessories because one day soon football is going to come home!