It’s the day after the night before, and football isn’t coming home. England’s World Cup journey is over after a 2-1 semi-final defeat to a better Croatia team, but it’s still a journey that has left most of the country who care (and a lot who don’t) feeling slightly more optimistic against a backdrop of a political week that suggests the country is part of a union in turmoil.
When the team under Roy Hodgson flopped against Iceland two years ago, and when they lasted only 7 days in the previous World Cup, they were perceived as a national embarrassment, “not fit to wear the shirt”. A team of primadonnas more interested in the limelight than results. Previous defeats in international competitions have scapegoated those who missed penalties, bizarre managerial decisions (Eileen Drury anyone?) or those who failed to maintain discipline.
Radio phone-ins after last night’s defeat spoke of returning heroes. Players will arrive home after their third place playoff against Belgium on Saturday with enhanced reputations – the likes of Jordan Henderson and Jesse Lingard. Others such as Jordan Pickford and Kieran Trippier are seen as amongst the best in their positions in the world. John Stones finally looked like he might live up to his reputation.
However, this was a defeat. Look at England’s campaign and it’s easy to argue that it wasn’t that great despite a run to the last 4. Wins came against Tunisia, Panama, Columbia and Sweden – all teams that should have been dispatched. Defeats came to Belgium and Croatia – both teams stronger than England. Results were par.
Croatia’s two goals last night came from lapses in concentration by Stones and Kyle Walker. Harry Kane, likely to end as the tournament’s top scorer despite only scoring once (from the penalty spot) in three knock-out games, played far too deep and barely contributed more than passing up two golden chances to make it 2-0. Substitutions came too late to affect the game, and were possibly not the right ones.
Players looked tired. Despite going through two rounds of extra time and penalties in their previous two games, Croatia looked the fresher team. Dele Alli looked like he was carrying an injury for the whole tournament. Henderson had hamstring problems. Jamie Vardy has had a knock and I suspect we’ll hear news that Kane has also been playing with an injury. Yet the starting line-up was only changed once other than for the B-team game against Belgium, and that singular change was enforced.
One could say that the squad selection for the tournament was too negative, too safe. There weren’t many surprises. Would Jonjo Shelvey or Jack Wilshere have provided a creative spark to break Croatia’s defensive lines from midfield? Injuries to Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain before the tournament may have played their part. When it counted, England lacked the imagination to create enough chances from open play.
Of course, “what ifs” are futile at this stage but should be reviewed for lessons learnt when disappointment has faded. This is a time when the overwhelming feeling will become pride and optimism. This is an England side at the beginning of a journey – a journey that they own, as they would remind us during their media engagements.
The perception is that the players, while still mostly all multi-millionaires or well on their way to be being, had done the hard work and are prepared to still work hard. They were prepared to fight for their reward, rather than their being an expectation that it would happen. In a way, they were relatable.
This was the second youngest squad at the tournament. England are Under-17 European champions and Under-20 world champions. In addition to the youngsters in the squad this tournament can be added the likes of Phil Foden, Ryan Sessegnon and Jadon Sancho and, a bit further back, players like James Garner and Mason Mount.
There is a sense now of an England DNA. Back when the England Rugby Union Team when the World Cup in 2003, it was the end of a process where the team that would win that title were essentially picked and backed four years prior. There was no short-termism. The football team have never had this in the same way that their French and Spanish (via Barcelona) counterparts seem to be producing generations at Clairefontaine and La Masia.
This is not yet being seen as England’s second Golden Generation, though. There are not the players like Gerrard, Beckham, Scholes, Lampard, Neville, Terry, Ferdinand and Owen who would arguably all have walked in to any team in the world in their heydays. Star performers came from, with respect, Everton and Leicester City. Ruben Loftus-Cheek spent his season at Crystal Palace, while the reserve goalkeepers came from Burnley and Stoke.
Only 7 members of this squad made their professional debuts in the Premier League. As Jordan Pickford said this week: “Places like Wrexham and Southport away when there are not that many people there. They were the hardest places to play. You are a young lad and you’re having abuse hurled at you. That is what teaches you and that’s what you laugh about now.”
The players are being picked because they are the best for a team and to build around, and not necessarily because of reputation. There is no fettling a side to accommodate Wayne Rooney, or attempts to balance a team containing Lampard and Gerrard.
Much of the credit must go to Gareth Southgate, the manager who has inspired players as well as a 35% increase in waistcoat sales. Southgate is understated but in control. An appointment from within after the debacle with the ego that was Sam Allardyce, Southgate’s appointment was not enough to stir the imagination. That might have been the intention, as might have been the idea that Southgate was expendable as a stop-gap measure before finding another big name.
Southgate has been progressive. When asked if it is a rule he has imposed that means that the players do not use their phones at meal times, he said that it was a rule that the players themselves came up with after spending a couple of days training with Marines. He wouldn’t tell them not to use them – “they’re adults”. No hint of the strict Capello era where butter was not permitted on toast.
He has also travelled to America to learn from other sports, specifically about blocking opponents to make room for others. This is a tactic resulting in goals from crosses and corners.
Hodgson and Allardyce are stubborn managers, maybe a little too long in the tooth and stuck in their ways because of it. Capello and Ericsson had plans, but also had personal flaws too big for the job. The less said about McLaren, the better. It feels that Southgate is pragmatic and open to change and learning.
Southgate’s biggest skill, looking from the outside, is his emotional intelligence. After the penalty shoot-out victory over Columbia, he spoke of helping his players to “own the process”. He encourages them to take responsibility and write their own stories. Also after that shoot-out, he went and consoled the losing players, knowing their pain from his own experience of missing a penalty against Germany at Wembley in 1996.
He allowed Fabian Delph to leave the squad and go home for the birth his child. He took the hit when media photographed his tactical notes and spoke calmly about Sterling’s controversial tattoo, instantly avoiding an all to common siege mentality between team and press at most major tournaments.
Southgate may not be the greatest tactical manager in the game. He is, however, the first England manager in my lifetime that I have felt can affect his players at international level where time together is scarce. His team carries hallmarks of Guardiola, Mourinho, Pochettino and Klopp, but no longer are these club coaches the most important ones for the national team. Southgate can take the assets that others have forged and mould them together in to a coherent unit.
He has made a country fall back in love with a national team that went right up to the limits of its potential, if not beyond. He gave hope, rather than expectation, and that’s all you can ask of a leader. The challenge now, as with all successes, is to move on from them. For the first time in decades, the FA may now have all the pieces in place for that to happen.
Football isn’t coming home. Not yet, anyway. Fifty-two years of hurt had stopped me dreaming. This England team may well make me start dreaming again.
Never stopped us dreaming.