When England crashed out of the 2018 World Cup at the semi-final stage, losing 2-1 to Croatia after extra time, a nation was silenced. The England fans, so vociferous in their support for the Three Lions on the shirt and the 11 heroic ones on the pitch, were left gutted. For this one glimmering summer, the optimism seemingly extinguished long ago started to flicker back into existence. Football was coming home, they thought. But it didn’t. However, instead of the usual what-ifs and why-didn’t-theys, this time the team left with their heads held high, falling against a side who, once they grew into the match, were simply the better team on the night.
That makes for a refreshing change quite frankly, and the pride instilled back into the national team after a long absence has been both welcome and exciting. Parents would collect their children from school united in wearing their England shirts, and the flags continued to fly once the sun rose again for a new day. This was a summer to remember – and much of that credit must, of course, go to England boss Gareth Southgate. From the sense of calm contentment being emitted from the base camp prior to the tournament kicking off to the growing love and hopes of a nation, Southgate has conducted himself – and the whole squad – with masterful aplomb.
Here is a team of relative kids, younger than England have had before on average, with a clear burning desire to right the wrongs of the past and play for the badge on the chest. Importantly, they would be playing for football’s biggest prize under the tutelage of the very man who had helped them through earlier stages of their international career – the U21 squad. For this year’s World Cup squad, Southgate included five players he had selected for the 2015 UEFA European Under-21 Championships. Jack Butland, John Stones, Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and Ruben Loftus-Cheek all played then and, with the exception of Butland, all had an important on-field role during this campaign. That particular U21 tournament may have been one to forget for England – they finished bottom of Group B.
Despite the old adage though, familiarity actually can breed success, not always contempt. Considering England have proceeded far beyond any initial expectations with a squad primarily aimed for Euro 2020 onwards, this is a great sign that there may just be greater things to come. Southgate’s continued tenure would, presumably, be a massive factor in that – the nation has fallen in love with a head coach whose last job in football prior to England ended when he was sacked by Middlesbrough in 2009. Not only has this summer been a story of redemption for England, but also one for Southgate – and with the nation now completely behind him as England’s head honcho, it is time to push forward and start planning for Euro 2020 with gusto.
After the defeat to Croatia, Southgate could be seen consoling his players in a real show of leadership. Never a man afraid to put his arm around a player who needs it, the strength they gathered from his composure was clear for all to see – and that kind of leadership is a joy to behold. The players have bought into his philosophy, and clearly enjoy playing in his team. If England can keep the core of the present structure together, with perhaps a slight tweak here and there where and when it is required then they could be earmarked as serious contenders in future tournaments rather than a team who should do better than they ever do.
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