As the dust settles on another World Cup campaign for at least another four years it’s time to reflect on whether England had an amazing tournament or whether they under-achieved.
In the cold aftermath of the game last night against Croatia, like after every England or Rovers defeat, I was looking for an answer, a reason why we had once again not made it to the promised land of the final. At first I wanted to blame the players, then Southgate’s tactics, then the Croats for wasting time, but in the end I opted to blame the referee. He hadn’t got any big decisions wrong, but he been overly lenient to England in the first 45 minutes, and then made up for it in the next 75 minutes, giving us very little. Why did Walker get booked for grabbing the ball but Lovren hadn’t been? How wasn’t Rebic booked for the obvious heads gone moment in the first half where he scythed a white shirt down after not getting a decision? None of them game changers, but enough for me to point the finger. The most frustrating crime: adding next to no time on at the end of Extra Time injury time, despite the ball being in play for about 120 seconds of the allotted four minutes; including the blatant time wasting at the end when England had a free kick, walking back at snails-pace to delay the kick being taken. All things I would have been willing England to do had the roles been reversed.
What I was keen to avoid in my blame-finding mission was to accuse the players or Southgate. For the first time since 1996 it felt like we had a team who could do something and the whole country unquestionably got behind them from day one, despite having no expectation of success. They won a game in the last minute; they won a penalty shoot-out after conceding in the last minute; they’d won a knockout game comfortably; and may still win the Golden Boot and Golden Glove award – aside from winning the bloody thing it feels like we have had a great tournament. Although the “It’s coming home” memes and the playing of “Three Lions” started as a bit of self-poked fun, as the tournament went on we believed. Hell, the Croats had just played 120 minutes in two games on the bounce, surely this must be our chance to go one further than Bobby Robson’s men did in Turin 28 years ago.
But it wasn’t to be.
For 45 minutes England were in full control, scoring early and creating chance after chance which were squandered and not taken. At half time I think we all had a feeling that we may have had our chance to be out of sight, and would most likely live to regret it. Everyone expected the Croats to tire as the game went on, but in fact they grew. In the first half they had tired legs and couldn’t get to grips with England, but in the second half they got their second, third and fourth wind, as England dropped deeper and began to tire. Even as we dropped, we didn’t really give them much of a clear chance, but the one time they got the ball out wide and Vrsaljko had the time to take a touch, get his head up and pick a pass, they made England pay. From that moment it was very much like watching a boxer on the ropes – I didn’t want to hope for Extra Time and Penalties, but in that second half I would have snapped your hands off. England limped towards to extra time and carried on where they left off in the additional 30 minutes and when the inevitable happened and they took the lead, England had nothing in response. Gone had the games of passing the ball out from the back, doing the doggies, and moving to keep opening options up, back was the long ball forward, only for it to be returned relentlessly.
On Tuesday night, the night before the Semi-Final I said to my wife: “Don’t bight my head off, but we should be in the semi-final”; she bit my head off, explaining that England never get to semi-finals no matter how easy the route, we always find a way of ruining it, but this team have brought the country together in one of its darkest political times, and defied all expectations.
I can’t argue with this. However, the way the draw played out, the toughest game we had getting to the semi-final was to play a James Rodriguez-less Columbia, another game we should have won by more. We should have qualified from that group and we should have beaten Sweden – the team did everything that was asked of them. Yes, the penalties against Columbia were a test which the team stood up to, but the first real test they came up against was against Croatia, a team who had laboured to two penalty shoot out wins against Denmark and Russia, I think when we look back in years to come we will see this as a game we should have won, and a massive missed opportunity. On the flip side, Croatia will never get a better chance to get to a World Cup final, and they took it.
When England were knocked out in Italy ’90 by West Germany, that was a tough game, a game that on paper England were not expected to win, and the fact we took it to penalties adds to the drama and memories, and the “what could have been”. The loss against Croatia this time doesn’t seem as defining, as gut-wrenching. It feels as though we’ve been on a ride where the team we were supporting weren’t really England – achieving things we aren’t used to, doing the simple things, winning; and then out of nowhere the familiar England came back. The disappointment, the frustration at a missed opportunity.
The players have been fantastic; Southgate has been a class act and in all honestly looks to be the only person who could unite the country and deliver BREXIT; for once even the fans have mostly behaved and brought credit back to England and English football. I can’t blame any of them, and I won’t, they deserve a heroes welcome, they’ve done what a golden generation of countless prima donnas couldn’t deliver – pride in a national football team, and a journey to the last four of a World Cup.
My worry now is that old foe “expectation”. Already pundits and fans are talking about how good this team will be in four years for the next World Cup and how we’ll be challenging at the Euros in two years. Come the Summer of 2020 no doubt the majority of the country and press will be building up our chances, once again building us up for a fall. The reason this World Cup journey has been so special is that no-one expected it. Yes we expected to progress out of the group and possibly past the last 16, but the quarter final was the zenith were we all deep down knew our tournament would likely end. If we are to repeat the feet of this summer, and hopefully go two steps further and win the tournament, we need to be realistic and not set unrealistic expectations, a quiet optimism is fine, but full blown expectation will put us back in to a vicious circle of disappointment which could end with Sam Allardyce once again falling on his sword whilst drinking his pint of wine. The likes of Pickford, Kane, Maguire, Trippier, Alli, Lingard, Rashford, Loftus-Cheek, Stones and Sterling all have their first, or second, major tournament behind them now and the experience to take with them in to the next one; not to mention the World Cup winning younger age groups to come through. The future is bright, we just need to make sure we don’t try and make it burn brighter than it actually is, until they have proved it.
Remember the unexpected highs we had this fantastic Summer. Trust in Southgate, trust in the system, and back the team. Just don’t get carried away.