Dr. Seuss, famously, said: don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened. Tears undoubtedly flowed across the nation following England’s agonising 2-1 World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia. This was despite the fact that 23 Lions made the nation dream and fall in love with the England team. 23 Lions swept those who are not really arsed about the success or failings of the England team on a journey and re-kindled pride in a national team bereft of success. They unified the country at a time of need, especially after the mess Theresa May and her cronies are making with regards to Brexit. Prior to Wednesday, I amongst many under the age of 28 had not experienced England play a World Cup semi-final. The thought of England being potentially 90 minutes away from the World Cup Final was enough to make me excited and dare to dream.
England, the home of football, have not performed like football was the game of the English. Italia ’90 was the first time since the immortal group of ’66 that England had reached a World Cup semi-final. Gazza made the nation cry as England lost 4-3 on penalties against fellow capitalists, West Germany. Since then, England and major tournaments have usually been defined by penalties. England couldn’t beat a divided Germany in 1990, so we shouldn’t have expected them to beat a unified one in 1996. We reached the semi-finals but inevitably lost on penalties. Current England gaffer, Gareth Southgate came up stumps in the shoot out. You’re forgiven gaffa!
Expectations were low considering the recent debacles at major tournaments in recent history. Prior to Russia, England had not reached a quarter final for 12 years – against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. England’s hero of Euro 2004, Wayne Rooney, turned villain as his petty stamp ultimately played a significant role as the Three Lions returned home, having underperformed. 2006 was supposed to be England’s tournament, give me a break.
2010 was a disaster as well, under the stewardship of Italian Fabio Capello. A 0-0 draw with Algeria was memorable as the antelope of England were brutally massacred by Joachim Loew’s efficient Germans in a Last 16 no contest in Bloemfontein. Yes, Frank Lampard had a goal ruled out which would have tied the scores but let’s be real, a squad with Emile Heskey were not going to be World Champions even IF England had progressed. A defeat in the last-16 simply ended the humiliation prematurely.
2010 was bad but 2014 was disastrous. This time England failed to make it past the group stage. England were out by June 20th after two defeats to Italy and Luis Suarez’s Uruguay. That was before Suarez was found guilty for biting Giorgio Chiellini. England lost both ties 2-1 and you could say they were close-run affairs but the reality was Italy and Uruguay were head and shoulders above the Three Lions. The most exciting bit about Brazil 2014 was when the BBC thought Raheem Sterling had scored against Italy and they accidentally changed the score to make it 1-0 England.
Our recent track record in World Cups definitely proved expectations were low. That is not to mention the farce of Euro 2016 in France when Roy Hodgson decided to put Harry Kane on set pieces. Yes, that is the same Harry Kane, the Premier League’s top goalscorer who notched 25 goals in 28 Premier League appearances. Given mind-boggling decisions such as the aforementioned one, it shouldn’t but it still does surprise me how England managed to lose to a country which possesses the same name as a supermarket and has the same population as the city of Leicester.
Something was different about Russia 2018, however. Egos had been removed from the squad – there was no Joe Hart who thought he was indispensable and was omitted, having paid the price for an extremely poor season at West Ham. By April, Hart had played in 18 Premier League fixtures, conceding 35 goals, having made 4 errors directly leading to goals. That was as many as his rivals combined. So, his omission was frankly deserved and the inexperienced but fearless Jordan Pickford took his place between the sticks. England’s record goal-scorer, Wayne Rooney, the guy whose position became ever more so unclear as he aged, was long-gone. Was he a midfielder, was he a striker? No one even knows anymore. Shrek’s had enough of the humiliation, hence why he’s over the pond playing some game called soccer with D.C. United.
Something which put a point in Gareth Southgate’s column was that he picked players who were actually fit. This should be the case: pick players on merit, not on reputation. In 2016, however, Jack Wilshere was selected in Roy Hodgson’s squad of 23, having played only six minutes of competitive football that season, as correct per May 7th. Contrastingly to 2016, Gareth’s 23 Lions did not feature the most well-known of players with not really a huge reputation. Yes, there was Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy who likes a blue WKD at a party, and Raheem Sterling are prominent names but only the most avid Premier League fan would have heard of Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire, Jordan Pickford, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to name a few. Trippier and Maguire are two honest lads from Lancashire and Yorkshire respectively who received their call-up on merit. Prior to his move to Tottenham, Trippier had spells at Barnsley and Burnley yet Maguire started his career at Sheffield United, moved to Hull and is now plying his trade at Leicester.
The England squad that headed to Russia was the least experienced in terms of international caps of any of the 32 countries participating. The average number of caps in the England side was 20, compared to the tournament average of 34. England also had the third-youngest squad with an average age of just over 26. Youth brought a fearless personality, a team which did not hide and cower in moments of adversity. In the opening game against Tunisia, England dominated the first-half but went into the break all square at 1-1 but they kept plugging away and tried to wear down their North African opponents. Tenacity and a never-say-die attitude saw England prevail at the death. Youth brought a fast-flowing, fantastic performance against Panama in which Harry Kane became the third England player to score a hat-trick at the tournament, 6-1 was England’s biggest win and John Stones became the second-ever Manchester City player to score for England at a World Cup.
Youth also brought relative inexperience and that was expected. Compared to previous tournaments, there was no John Terry or Rio Ferdinand that would have marshalled the defence in the closing stages of ties that were on a knife-edge. The last 16 tie that saw England prevail on penalties could have been averted. England invited Columbian pressure in the closing stages of what was looking like a professional and comfortable victory. Southgate could have replaced Stones with the likes of Gary Cahill in the latter stages of the ties against Columbia and Croatia. Albeit, England’s most experienced player, coming into the tournament with 59 caps, Cahill, 32, is more of a leader but is rather incompatible with Southgate’s philosophy of “using the football” and playing out from defence, instead of lumping it to Kane and Sterling. Perhaps, in hindsight, Gareth will have regrets but to experience success, the experience of failure is necessary.
Football didn’t come home literally but metaphorically, the love in the England team was brought back. The fans reaction after the heartbreak in Moscow emphasised this. In 2016, after the shambles against Iceland, there were shouts of you’re not fit to wear the shirt as Roy Hodgson resigned in shame in his post-match press conference. 2018 saw a young, hungry, fresh pack of lions come of age, who will give it a right bloody go in future tournaments to come.
Featured image: The Metro