I have to be honest and say when Gareth Southgate was announced as England manager, to say that I was underwhelmed was an understatement as it seemed to yours truly that once the hierarchy of the English FA had opted for the safe choice. Qualifying in a relatively poor group was its usual comfortable journey but then to the World Cup itself which has been littered with a plethora of disappointments for many years. The group we were in was a comfortable one, and PBJ and I agreed that if we got to the last sixteen that would be okay and the quarter finals a sign of real progress.
Then the magic started with us progressing to the last sixteen and our side of the draw looked favourable. A penalty shootout victory against Colombia, and a very comfortable victory against an ordinary Sweden propelled into the semi-finals against Croatia who had been okay but nothing spectacular thus far during their World Cup campaign. There had been so many positives to this point. Gareth Southgate impressed with his calm understated approach and he came over as genuinely nice guy with a sincere and compassionate disposition. In addition, the players looked like they could really make history, the press had not over hyped us and the fans had been fabulously well behaved.
Then it started. The media then developed its customary frenzied approach towards England’s chances of making history by winning the World Cup, and there was even talk of a national bank holiday next Monday starting to circulate. ‘It’s coming home’ was played repeatedly via TV and radio (it really got on my nerves) and England’s fans went into the game believing that something special could really happen this year. PBJ and I even started to get very enthusiastic musing on Croatia’s ageing squad and the number of minutes played thus far which we anticipated could have a real effect if we went into extra-time. The game started like a dream with that early goal from the excellent Trippier and we appeared to be creating chances at will, with the usually prolific Kane missing a relative sitter as did Lingard. Ian Wright eulogised about how poor Croatia were (they had been poor in the first half admittedly), and PB, PBJ and others became increasingly confident that we could achieve the dream of a World Cup Final but did worry that Croatia couldn’t be that poor again and we still only had a slender yet crucial lead.
Our worries at half time proved well founded. The Croatians started to pass the ball at pace and with devastating accuracy whilst England appeared to have reverted to the slow ponderous style that afflicted us for many tournaments before. Croatia deservedly equalised in the second half and but for the goalpost and the heroics of the superb Pickford, extra-time and the potential for penalties loomed large. Extra-time certainly came and we did seem to up our game again in the initial first period, with Stones goal-bound header brilliantly cleared off the line by a Croatian defender in added on time. Then our worst fears were realised when Croatia deservedly took the lead early in the second period following some lax defending. Trippier came off injured and England huffed and puffed until the final whistle when we knew it was all over and England would be returning home, sadly without the trophy.
Croatia were the deserved winners over the course of the game and I really hope that they can produce a major upset by beating France on Sunday. A meaningless 3rd & 4th place play off on Saturday is all we have left and to be honest I will not bother watching it, but instead travel over to Tameside to watch my local heroes against Ashton United. If I am honest it should be Belgium who come out on top as they are a much classier side than us and were very unfortunate to lose to France on Tuesday evening. Before the tournament I would have bitten your hand off for a semi-final tie against relatively beatable competition, but the second half and extra-time display made me feel much more disappointed than I expected to be. We were not gallant losers as had been the case in 1990 and 1996, but we had been beaten by a much better team on the night, and it really felt like a ‘damp squib’ of an end to our World Cup dreams.
So what are the positives and negatives of this game? Starting with the negatives, I was so disappointed with Sterling who has pace but did little else to warrant a starting place in any of the games that he played. I was also disappointed with Dele Alli throughout the tournament who may well have been carrying an injury. If that was the case, I would have played Loftus-Cheek who looked decent in the game time that he had. However what was most disappointing overall was how we appeared to ‘choke’ in the second half and extra-time and lost one of the best opportunities we will ever have of a place in the World Cup Final. So many big-name players were poor (Kane and Alli in particular) and I was at a loss to see how Ashley Young kept getting starts. I preference to the infinitely more talented Danny Rose.
The positives include the initial press approach, the likeability of the manager and team; the lack of trouble from England fans, and the rise to prominence of Harry Maguire, Jordan Pickford and Kieran Trippier which is a testament to the leadership of Southgate who was brave enough to pick previously unheralded players rather than our alleged superstars. Trippier just edged Pickford for being the best English player at the tournament IMHO and it would have been so disappointing that if we had progressed, he would have most likely missed out on the final due to the injury he sustained late in the game.
In the cold light of day, we were simply not good enough although we did exceed all pre-tournament expectations, and we are a young squad with emerging talent from under-17’s onwards. We desperately need a playmaker in the middle of the park like Modric who just got better and better the more the game went on. Sterling needs to become an impact player off the bench (at best) and we need to take our chances at international level better both via open play and dead balls. Football isn’t coming home but at least we have hope for the future if Southgate can continue to pick players who deserve to be in the team on merit and not ones there by reputation.
In conclusion therefore, we seem to have had more pluses than minuses but we still have a very long way to go before we can truly be called a world class team. The debate will rage on as to whether we want the best Premier League or best National Team. I know which one I want, and by stating that I would love to see our best young players playing week in and week out in the Premier League with a reduction of the influx of foreign players provides an answer as to what I would prefer! And finally, I will be a Croatia fan on Sunday evening as it would be a magnificent achievement for this tiny country to achieve the pinnacle of World Cup champions against a French team who will be undoubtedly odds-on favorites for the title.