John Brewin: It was refreshing to see England embrace the chaos for once

Our football writer looks back at England’s failings at tournament past and feels something is a little different about the bunch Southgate has in Russia…


It has been a World Cup of chaos and England found a way to ride out their crisis. Since June 1996, penalties had meant the end of the road.

The English stiff upper lip truly wobbled as a nation considered who might be the next candidate for pariah status.

In missing his penalty against Colombia, Jordan Henderson looked odds-on to star in a revived pizza chain advert with Chris Waddle, Stuart Pearce and Gareth Southgate, his manager, before namesake and fellow Mackem Jordan Pickford came to his rescue.

Perhaps Pickford, who had made a wondrous save in normal time, may soon gain the housewives’ favourite status that David Seaman enjoyed after being England saviour in that last shoot-out win over Spain at Euro ’96.

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After Yerry Mina’s injury-time header had deflected off Kieran Trippier and into the net, the first half of extra-time had seen The Three Lions lapse into the time-honoured template of being unable to keep the ball as a spot-kick doom surely beckoned.

Hard luck stories were being penned in the press box, with American referee Mark Geiger surely headed for a monstering, but then came the shoot-out.

Pickford’s save and Eric Dier’s decisive spot-kick washed away disaster, and suddenly a nation now simmers with an unbridled excitement.

Anyone peeling through the streets of an English town on Tuesday night will have caught scenes that brought back memories of 1996.

England have been to two World Cup quarter-finals since then, but both the 2002 and 2006 campaigns were played out with an air of doomed acceptance. If the opponents didn’t win, then penalties would surely finish the job.

In 2002, Brazil loomed in the quarter-finals and four years later it was Portugal, who had beaten England at Euro 2004.

English football has an inferiority complex when it comes to such Latin opponents, far more capable of keeping the ball, usually with better forwards and with a cunning level of game management that evades an Englishman with blood rushing to his head.

Where does this once-in-a-generation wave of optimism come from?

Beyond the fresh confidence that actually winning a penalty shoot-out has kindled, it most obviously derives from the level of opposition England must face on the road to the final. And once in the final, who knows?

All dissent against Thursday’s group stage go-slow against Belgium has been extinguished with Wayne Rooney, now living the ex-pat life in Washington DC, speaking for a nation happily embracing skulduggery when saying, “maybe that’s been a problem we’ve had the last 15, 20 years as a country: we’re too honest.”

Sweden, Russia and Croatia, the teams blocking the road back to Moscow and a World Cup final, are opponents that engage English football’s superiority complex, and despite history dictating that all three can present huge difficulty.

England went 43 years from 1968 to 2011 without beating the Swedes, though did beat them 3-2 at Euro 2012.

Against the hosts, themselves burnished with a swelling sense of national destiny, England have a record of played three, won one, lost one, drawn one, with the last meeting that Euro 2016 night in Marseille much more famous for off-field violence than a decent performance nixed by a late Russian equaliser.

Croatia, though they were crushed 4-1 and 5-1 in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, is an opponent that will always conjure memories of Steve McClaren sheltering from the rain but not the hail of abuse that came his way as a 3-2 loss ruled out qualification for Euro 2008.

There is still much to be optimistic about. Half of Harry Kane’s six goals may have been penalties but he is in rare form, and his status as a marked man is generating those penalties.

Harry Maguire’s mime of a VAR TV screen as England asked for another look at Wilmar Barrios’ headbutt and heavy antagonising of Colombia marked him as something of an English Pepe, and he defended just as doggedly as the Portugal agent provocateur.

Henderson played well in midfield before infamy briefly beckoned him, while Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling’s buzzing styles created opportunities. Marcus Rashford came on as a highly useful sub in midfield, and his penalty was unerring.

He has talent aplenty to work with, but Southgate must also find the means for his team to ride out the anxiety that enveloped them as full-time in the 90 minutes beckoned and following Mina’s equaliser.

Such moments are not exclusive to Englishmen, as each team still left in the competition has stared down the barrel. However, it felt so novel that England rode it out.

And for the final to be reached, there will be further chaos to embrace.

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