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11th Jul 2018

Despite their World Cup elimination, Gareth Southgate’s England has done the nation proud


England’s World Cup dream is over

It wasn’t enough in the end. The jubilation, the deification, the pride and the happiness watching this likable young team play, it was not enough to get them over the line.

England came into this tournament with little expectation, just a group of Premier League players who – despite their obvious quality – were expected to do little other than, hopefully, give us something to be proud of.

In the end they exceeded expectations beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

In the first group game against Tunisia it looked like the England we have come to know and worry about. Sure, there were moments of real quality, but they gave way to tension, trepidation and stuttering football.

With hindsight, Harry Kane’s winning goal against the North African side was pivotal.

It showed that this England team was different. They don’t merely live up to the nation’s lowest expectations, but instead want to go above and beyond, to surprise and create pride.

The second match against Panama was a walk in the park, yes, but it was a walk in the park that we’ve never seen before. This generation has seen disappointing results against Algeria, the United States and Iceland, but against Panama they showed up and never gave them a chance.

England’s B-team faced off against Belgium’s knowing there was little on the line, and while the defeat was not desired it was a sign of what this team and its manager had their sights on: the bigger picture.

This isn’t a team obsessed with breakneck reactions or the media response. It is a team obsessed with growth, progression and success.

That defeat to Belgium brought Colombia in the next round and as expected it was difficult. But, far from being expected, England rose to the challenge.

Taking the lead in the first half England dominated the entire game and would have gone through to the semi-final within normal time was it not for a towering Yerry Mina header in the 94th minute.

A weaker, indeed, England teams of past would have wilted, but not this team.

Instead of falling apart at the first sign of adversity they weathered the storm. They defended with their heads, feet and legs and came back stronger. They didn’t grab a winner in extra-time but they brought the game to penalties.

As has become tradition with any England team it wasn’t straightforward. Jordan Henderson’s missed penalty kick left the country on tenterhooks, expecting the worst.

Arise Sir Jordan Pickford, who dived to his right to save a penalty, before Eric Dier put the winner way.

This, more than the extra-time performance, sent a message. Not just to other national teams but also to the nation: this is a different England team, unshackled by the ghosts of failure, untethered by the weight of expectation. Playing without fear.

The quarter-final against Sweden almost seems like, in hindsight, a bizarre dream. Expecting a grind against an ordinary side, England breezed through without a drop of sweat.

It was devastatingly easy. A cruise. The drive to a cruise. The morning before the drive to the cruise. Easy.

Easy, though, wasn’t a word people associated with the semi-final against Croatia.

Yes, the Croats’ momentum had slowed since their group game demolition of Argentina but, nonetheless, they presented a challenge. The challenge presented when you face a team of immensely talented and strong players dotted nicely with true, world class talent.

Like every other challenge this team has faced, Southgate’s side rose to it.

They started the game with gusto through Kieran Trippier’s stunning free-kick. What followed this were moments of shock and, ultimately, regret, as England peppered the Croatian goal with shots.

They should have scored again, didn’t, and the Croatians took control. England grew tired; it would be harsh to say the weight of history began to weigh heavy, but something did.

Perhaps emotion, perhaps enormity of it all.

At this point we all know what happened. Croatia won and England went out. Despite it all. Despite Harry Maguire Slabhead, despite Jordan Pickford’s heroics, despite Three Lions being on a shirt, despite the love back home.

It wasn’t enough in the end. The jubilation, the deification, the pride and the happiness watching this likable young team play, it was not enough to get them over the line.

But it was something, something we’ll never forget. Something which did England proud.