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13th Jul 2018

World Cup Comments: England were going nowhere but Southgate’s masterplan has restored hope

Nooruddean Choudry

Sometimes it’s hard to acquiesce to the truth.

Over the course of the last four weeks, a strange swell of emotion has overtaken the country. England entered the World Cup to general ambivalence, and none of the usual hype. In fact we heard many people say it’s just a waste of time. But little by little, indifference morphed into excitement, and gradually into real hope.

The national team weren’t expected to go very far following Sam Allardyce’s wine pint-fuelled exit, and everyone accepted this was far from a ‘golden generation’. Gareth Southgate was drafted in to salvage something, but expectations were low. You can’t build a house out of plasticine, and you can’t fashion heroes out of a rabble.

Only, it turns out you can. Under Southgate’s calm and understated leadership, we saw England coming in a mess, going out in style. And whilst more celebrated nations left the party early, asking themselves where did it all go wrong (some with banana skin feet), England were like the uninvited guest who stays till the end. It was great.

Alas it ended in heartbreak, as it always does. Another valiant not-quite. But there’s no point in mourning glory or crying your heart out. Sniffing in a tissue need only be a temporary state. Losing to Croatia was hard to take but nothing to be ashamed of; it’s no one’s fault that the sublime Luka Modric was born on a different cloud.

Southgate has somehow managed to change the mood. He has instilled dignity into his players, and drilled into them the importance of being idols. The England manager has acknowledge we live in fractured times, but he is not concerned about the way we are, but instead what we could become – and all around the world, people have taken notice.

As the tournament went on, hope began overflowing gently into a crescendo of thrown pints. But it was not to be, at least not today. Bound with all the weight of expectation, and gutted to see it all slide away, the players took to social media to apologise. But there’s no need to say you’re sorry, and please feel no shame.

We thank each and everyone for great memories: Jordan Pickford’s heroics against Columbia; Kieran Trippier’s supersonic runs down the wing; Harry Maguire with his head like a rock spinning round and round. It’s so easy to get lost in a haze of pity, but for most England fans, their spirit has been purified.

As for those mocking England fans for their ‘It’s Coming Home’ enthusiasm, it’s all a little mean-spirited. Maybe the songs that we sing are wrong, and maybe the dreams we dream are gone, but it’s about the feeling we all shared. When you’re rocking in your rocking chair in years to come, these are the moments you’ll cherish.

Personally, I can’t tell you the way I feel, because the way I feel is so new to me. It’s been a long time since there was an England team so easy to get behind and root for. Whether this was a golden opportunity that slipped through our fingers, or the start of something that will live forever remains to be seen, but I hope (I think) I know it’s the latter.