FIFA World Cup 2018: How Southgate’s Boys Brought Belief and Hope Back to English Football
This line must have resonated in the hearts and minds of English football fans as Kieran Trippier sent in a peach of a shot from a set-piece to give England the lead, just five minutes into their semi-final against Croatia on Wednesday.
Trippier was still in his mother’s womb on that fateful night in July 1990, when England had last played in a World Cup semi-final. Bobby Robson’s team were given renewed hope by Gary Linekar, then a Spurs player just like Trippier, as he equalised late against the Germans. But England bowed out after losing on penalties.
England manager Gareth Southgate knew a thing or two about teams taking early leads and fading away and thus his reaction after the goal was more studied. Alan Shearer had scored as early as the third minute in England’s Euro 96 semi-final, only for the Germans to equalise. Southgate had missed a sudden-death penalty in that match. England never made it to the last four of either the World Cup or the Euro, until Southgate inspired a bunch of youngsters to believe and not hope.
Two decades of fiascos and under-achievement at the global stage meant England fans neither believed, nor hoped for anything as Southgate’s young team left British shores for Russia. A relatively easy group meant England managed to enter the knock-out phase, unlike four years ago in Brazil, despite a loss to Belgium. One of the first things Southgate did after being elevated to the position of England manager was to take away the weight of that jersey. He knew how to keep expectations low.
But hope is a dangerous thing after all and Harry Kane’s penalty against Colombia in the round of 16 meant hope was back to haunt English football. Yerry Mina equalised late for the Latin Americans and suddenly it was all back to square one. Southgate was witnessing another penalty shoot-out, the only solace this time was that he didn’t have to take one. Jordan Henderson’s miss sent the pulse racing, but England’s 24-year old goal-keeper Jordan Pickford held his nerves and ensured England were not to be denied from the penalty spot this time. The hoodoo had been broken and hope had been renewed.
A clinical quarter-final display saw the Three Lions subdue the gutsy Swedes to enter the last four with a bang, and the streets of Moscow were flooded with English fans chanting “It’s coming home”.
Expectations were not a problem for England this time as they were still not the favourites. Croatia had entered the World Cup semi-finals for the first time since their memorable debut in 1998. Davor Suker, the architect of that glorious campaign, was now the president of the Croatian Football Federation and watched the match eagerly from the stands as Luka Modric’s ‘golden generation’ tried to live up to those glory days.
England could have buried the Croats in the first-half itself. The duo of Modric and Ivan Rakitic had failed to take control of the mid-field and the pace of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard was troubling the Croats. Captain Harry Kane and Lingard himself missed opportunities to increase England’s advantage as Croatia managed to go into the break down by just one goal.
As expected the Croats came out firing on all cylinders and once Ivan Perisic found the equaliser in the 68th minute, England were left chasing the game. Wave after wave of Croatian attacks kept coming as England were now looking to survive.
The full-time whistle came as a much needed break for the tired legs but Croatia knew all about taking a match deep and why not? They had come through the shoot-out against both Denmark and Russia. But they didn’t need to go that far this time as Mario Mandzukic shot home from close range to break English hearts.
Incidentally, it was a defeat against Croatia in 2007 that started a renaissance in English football. That defeat at Wembley meant England missed out on the bus to the European Championships. A new system was put in place which has now started yielding results. Football at the grass-root level has been strengthened which has seen England win the Under-20 and Under-17 World Cup titles respectively last year.
Southgate has already repaired English football at the international stage as the Russian sojourn is being viewed as a success story and England now have a steady line of world-class talent coming through, which means they could well land a major trophy soon.
The formality of a third/fourth place play-off against Belgium remains and when they look back at this campaign, this English bunch will have a lot to be proud of.