Uniting a nation

England vs Croatia

A picture can tell a 1000 words or so they say. This one says a hell of a lot more! England’s Russian adventure which has carried the country through June and into July will come to end on Saturday, a day short of where we started to believe it would end.

Not that what we witnessed over the past four weeks was in anyone’s thinking, not even the most optimistic of us. But slowly and surely Gareth Southgate and his players re-built from the disasters of the past 28 years.

There will be those and there are, that will say we had the easiest route to the Final an England side has ever had. But, you can only beat the eleven players that are put in front of you. Golden generations of the past failed to match their opponents despite being more experienced players in a lot of cases.

The lack of expectation made this run all the more easier to manage for Southgate. He believed in his players and made the nation do the same. People can identify with the players again and what is England. It’s inspired and has been in the forefront of everywhere you look and while the big nations and superstars of others have been sitting at home watching the tournament unfold, quietly England went about their business.

The semi-final. You can point to a number of reasons why we’ll touch down at Birmingham Airport before Sunday’s final kicks off. Did we score too early? Could we have killed them off before half time? Should we have been better prepared for the Croatian onslaught in the second half? Were we caught out tactically? Was the referee not as strong as he could have been?

Let’s go one by one. Why should scoring early be a hindrance? Especially when it was a magnificent free kick and a first international goal for Kieran Tripper. Sure, we had enough chances to score a second and almost have the tie put to bed in the first 45 minutes, Croatia struggled to live with England’s way.

The experience that runs through the Croatian team would tell you the second 45 would not repeat the first and sure enough sustained pressure was applied and made them stronger as the game wore on. Both Croatia goals were lacking a bit in defending from England, but easy to argue the first goal should have been ruled out for a high foot, one of a number of decisions the Turkish referee decided not to implement.

Rather than close the game down we went for more goals and really Eric Dier should have brought on when Dele was substituted to stiffen things up and stifle their attacking threat. It didn’t happen and we saw wave after wave of attacking football from Croatia.

The referee certainly didn’t have his strongest game. He started off well enough, but then failed to properly punish some agricultural Croatian tackling and missed the high boot as  Croatia equalised.

And so we go to Saturday with the aim of finishing 3rd, whilst the likes of Brazil, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Argentina pick through the ashes of their disappointing performances. A lot of those nation’s star players will not see the next World Cup in 2022, whilst the majority of the England squad will, form and injury permitting, be a part of the next two World Cups, the future is exciting and very much on our side.

We’ve seen players really make a name for themselves over these last few weeks, namely Tripper, Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford. All three have certainly raised their stock and none of them were anywhere near the first squad picked by Sam Allardyce at the beginning of the campaign. While these three have come from nowhere, there have been other impressive performances. John Stones and Kyle Walker look very assured alongside Maguire, Harry Kane looks set to win the Golden Boot , strong performances from Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young, the latter one of very few unlikely to make the next World Cup, age is not on his side.

And to Southgate. Four weeks ago, many were not convinced he had it in him to lead his country. Now, he stands shoulder to shoulder with Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson as the only managers to lead us to a World Cup Semi Final, picked a team to play flowing vibrant football and excited the people back home eager to watch this team in action. Wembley should well see the quickest ever sell out when they return to action in September.

It might not have come home this time, but it was closer than we ever imagined, it captured the imagination of the public and everyone should be rightly happy, pleased, proud that we are heading in the right direction. The next step? Finalists in the Euro’s in two years time, it’s a generation to rival what France and Spain have done over the past 20 years and be consistently good, it’s our turn and we’re in good shape to make it happen.

This whole World Cup has been a joy to watch right from the opening game which seems so long ago. We’ve been surprised, we’ve seen some new players enter the world stage and there’s been some fantastic football played, I’ve never watched so much football as I have these last four weeks. Two more games to and then attention turns back to a new season which promises to give more than it gave last year, this World Cup I feel will be talked about for years to come, not just from an England point of view, but the lack of impact from those already at home, what a summer it’s been so far!


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