The newspaper headlines this morning looked very familiar, the front pages were plastered with titles such as “England are going home”, or “England out of the World Cup”. However, this time around there is a different feel to England’s exit from the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Gone are the feeling of despair, replaced by a sense of pride, this England team gave it all they had and then some. This tournament has seen a different England side, an England team that hasn’t seemed weighed down by expectation or intimidated by their surroundings. It’s a refreshing change and one that has resulted in a third semi-final appearance.
Recently, there has been progress shown by England’s promising youth teams who have won the U20 World Cup, the U19 European Championship and the U17 World Cup in the last few years, as well as the England Women’s team who in recent tournaments have shown their undoubted quality, with a third placed finish at the 2015 World Cup being a highlight. The men’s senior team in Russia 2018 have shown that the FA’s reshuffling of the national team’s structure and identity is working. A young and relatively inexperienced team have reached a semi-final that many thought, including myself, was well out of reach. They also managed something arguably more impressive. They made England fans believe in the men’s senior national team again. This time around, the team can return with their heads held high, to a country that is immensely proud of what they have achieved.
Following the draw for the 2018 World Cup many believed that England would end up going through as the second placed team in the group. It turns out that this assumption was correct following a rather uninspiring final group game against Belgium, although many believed that in the knockout round England would face a footballing superpower in Germany or Spain and be subsequently knocked out. But this World Cup has been full of surprises, including Germany not even making it through the group stages and former champions Spain being eliminated from the competition by hosts Russia. With a young and hungry team, England started the tournament with a hard fought win over minnows Tunisia, who spent a lot of the game attempting to con the referee and upset England’s flow. Sadly, this tactic has been a common one at this World Cup, having been used against England in more than one game, as well as against other teams. Whereas in previous years, England would have fallen victim to the provocation and let it affect them, this England team stuck to their guns and played the football they wanted to play, regardless of whether their opposition wanted to play football either.
Throughout the tournament, we have seen the players grow, in their confidence and belief in their ability. Before this World Cup, many fans commented that they thought that this group of players lacked the experience and even the talent to do well at an international tournament. How wrong these beliefs were. This England side have shown that despite being the youngest team at the tournament, they are incredibly talented, believe in each other, and have shown that squad unity is just as important as individual talent. Gareth Southgate has managed to create a squad ethic where the players are honoured to play for their country and will give everything to do well in an England shirt. This was exemplified by Kieran Trippier in the semi-final who seemed to pull his groin towards the end of extra time, having scored a stunning free kick and ran himself ragged throughout the game, he put his body on the line for his country and this was the same for every player in the England squad. I am sure they would all do it again when needed. This group of players, unburdened by expectation have shown the country what they are capable of, and the future looks bright. With many talented youth players waiting in the wings, this England side, with the experiences gained from this World Cup and more time playing together will go from strength to strength. Let’s not forget that many of these players learnt their trade in the lower leagues before making their big break, they’ve worked hard for this chance, with many only having won a handful of caps prior to this tournament. For example, 2 years ago Harry Maguire was at Euro 2016, not as a player but as a fan. Fast forward to 2018 and he has played a starring role for England in Russia, scoring a sublime debut header in the quarter-final against Sweden.
England has gone to this tournament to play football, and more importantly, their football. A clear English style and identity has emerged on their journey to the semi-final against Croatia. All the great World Cup teams have a clearly defined style. Brazil are about flair and skill, Germany have always been defensively solid, apart from at Russia 2018, and the Spain side that won 2 European championships and a World Cup between 2008 and 2012, was a team that played possession based ‘tikka-takka’ football. England’s play at this World Cup has been all about possession and quick, incisive attacks. With a strong base made up of a ball playing goalkeeper in Jordan Pickford, and a back three who have an eye for a pass and are comfortable on the ball, England had the foundation to exploit the pace of Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard, Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford and the finishing ability of Harry Kane. Also, set pieces have been a source of joy for England in Russia. Whenever England won a corner or free kick, there was the feeling that a chance or even a goal would result. This tournament, it felt as if there was a clear plan in what England were doing, a stark contrast to Euro 2016 or the dismal showing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The FA has worked hard to create an English footballing identity and it is great to see that it is starting to pay off, and hopefully this will continue to go from strength to strength.
Along with a team identity, this team has a captain who leads by example. Harry Kane has taken the Premier League by storm over the past few seasons, and at this World Cup he has done the same. He set his sights on winning the Golden Boot, and bar a high scoring final or third placed playoff, he should secure this thanks to the six goals he has scored. He gives everything on the pitch and encourages his teammates to do the same. Kane has shown incredible maturity for a player who is only 24 years old and captaining his country. With him leading the line and leading the team out, the future is looking good for England.
As well as an exemplary captain, England has finally found a manager who has brought belief back into the men’s senior team. When appointed, Gareth Southgate was criticised by many, me included, as being an FA man through and through and that he lacked the experience to succeed in the biggest job in English football. Boy has he proven everyone wrong. Not only has he united the team, he has united a country behind an inspiring group of young players. Many questioned his decision to include players such as Ashley Young and Gary Cahill but it is clear that their experience has been invaluable at this World Cup. Young has been inspired in the left wing back role and has rebuilt his reputation that had been on the decline. He backed Jordan Pickford in goal despite his lack of senior international experience, and Pickford has repaid this belief tenfold. His save against Carlos Bacca in the last 16 penalty shootout boosted his confidence immensely, and he made 3 tremendous saves in the quarter final win over Sweden to get his first tournament clean sheet. Pickford has gone from strength to strength in the tournament and long may his progress continue. It isn’t just Pickford that Southgate has believed in. He trusted every member of his squad, and that was reflected in the way they played, they trusted each other to have the ball or to make that pass. There was no hesitation. Southgate has created such a strong team spirit that come the final whistle in the semi-final, you could see how much it meant to the players to have missed out on a place in the final, and credit to Southgate, he went round and consoled every one of his players, knowing what they were going through, and was clearly proud of what they had achieved. With Gareth at the helm, and more time to work with this developing squad, the FA’s target of winning the 2022 World Cup in Qatar looks far more attainable than 2 years ago after England’s dismal Euro 2016 exit to Iceland.
This England team have had their critics. Some argue that the draw has been kind to them and that they didn’t really play a decent team until they met Croatia in the semi-final. Firstly, this is a disservice to the teams England faced. All the teams had to go through a grueling qualifying process to get there so deserve to be there, and let’s not forget that teams like Italy and the Netherlands didn’t manage to reach the World Cup. Secondly, it doesn’t matter who you face, you still have to beat the team in front of you, and England has done this on their way to the semi-finals. It hasn’t been pretty, and I’m talking about the way some teams have decided to play against England, but the players have dug deep and performed. That is the indication of a good team, one that finds a way to win even though the going gets tough. England have shown the world how football should be played, without the diving, the attempts to con the referee and the play acting. It’s been a relief to see this young team not give in and to play football their way. England can still finish third in this tournament, which is a great achievement for this side.
Finally, this England team has managed to do something that many past England senior men’s teams have failed to do, make the English public believe again. In my 24 years of existence, I have not seen a nation so galvanised by an English sports team. England’s Rugby Union World Cup triumph in 2003 came close, as did the Ashes win on home soil in 2006, but this World Cup campaign has touched more people than ever before. Yes, we may have got a little carried away with the “It’s coming home” talk, but we had good reason to. England should be going to a World Cup with the belief that they can win it, and past teams haven’t done this. I’ve enjoyed watching England at this World Cup and I honestly can’t say with any conviction the last time I’ve felt this. The ecstasy of the final minute winner against Tunisia, joy of the 6-1 mauling of Panama, the relief of the penalty shootout win over Colombia and the satisfaction of the professional dismissal of Sweden; these are things I haven’t experienced watching a senior men’s team at a tournament. This team have inspired a new generation of England fans, new memories have been made and the boys can return home proud and as heroes. They have exceeded expectations and given us cause for hope, at a time when our country is divided. It may not have come home, but this England team have done so much without winning the trophy. They’ve taught us to not give up, even when the going gets tough, to believe in ourselves and have restored a sense of national pride. Well done lads, and we look forward to having you home.