So it isn’t coming home after all, but there’s so much to be proud of from England’s efforts out in Russia over the past four weeks.
There’s also some room for improvement too, so let’s be celebratory and critical at the same time, because we won’t get better otherwise.
TEAM ENGLAND HAS BEEN REBOOTED
Cynics might sneer about false dawns and overhyped levels of hope but the nation has fallen back in love with the England football team over the past month, and it’s a deep and meaningful kind of love that hasn’t been seen since Euro 96. The kind of love that forgives you when you forget to put the bins out and you’re on a fortnightly collection. Oh yeah, the real thing.
GARETH SOUTHGATE IS ENGLAND’S CHRIS COLEMAN
Just as Coleman did for Wales, Southgate has taken a group of players and created a team that is better than the sum of its parts. Tournament football is all about fine margins and Southgate’s attention to detail has made the difference for England in 2018.
He’s not an overpaid chancer like Capello or Eriksson and he’s not flailing out of his depth like Keegan, McClaren or Hodgson. And he hasn’t employed a faith healer or said anything objectionable about disabled people. So by my reckoning, that makes him the best England boss since Terry Venables, who tellingly was the last man to guide us to a semi-final. And we all remember Southgate’s contribution to that. The circle is complete – like I said, England have been rebooted.
He’s revitalised the UK waistcoat industry too.
JORDAN PICKFORD – ENGLAND’S NUMBER ONE
The lad has had just two full seasons of top flight football, one in a diabolical Sunderland side, the other in a turbulent Everton team and he’s weathered all of those storms to become a truly outstanding young goalkeeper. The number one shirt is his for the next decade if he wants it.
Who among us feels nothing other than raging pride each time we see Pickford roaring at anyone who gets in his personal space (including his teammates)?
THEY’LL COME AGAIN
Seven of Southgate’s first-choice XI are 25 or under, so there’s every chance they’ll be hitting their peak in Qatar 2022. Not only that, there’s the continent-spanning Euro 2020 to think about – that could see us playing most of our matches at Wembley, making it a de facto home tournament, so let’s keep that momentum going and work towards at least reaching the final of that one.
Hey, maybe Wilshere and Barkley will get their acts together and force their way back into the team. Maybe Jack Grealish will start to fulfil the potential we keep hearing about. Maybe there’s two or three players out there who will feature in a World Cup-winning side in 2026 that only a few of us are even aware of right now. There’s so much that can go right for Southgate and England over the next four years – THIS could finally be our ‘golden generation’.
THEY’RE PROPER NORTHERN
15 of the 23-man World Cup squad are from The North – and it’s scientifically provable that The North is better than the south. Of course, it’d be nothing with southern-born contributors such as Kane, Alli and Sterling but the heart of the squad pumps with beautiful, Northern, lard-fuelled blood. Reet gradeley.
ENGLAND TOO RELIANT ON SET PIECES
Only three of our 12 goals came from open play and one of those was Kane’s flukey heel deflection against Panama.
The diligent work done on set pieces was one of those fine margins I mentioned earlier but when you learn that England had the same number of attempts on target from open play as Saudi Arabia in the entire tournament, a meagre six, it’s clear that there’s significant work to be done if we’re ever going to get to that holy grail of a tournament final.
The writing was on the wall right at the start in the first match against Tunisia – England could have been three or four ahead by half time but the coolness and composure needed to convert the chances wasn’t there. Kane and Lingard could have had England home and hosed by half time last night but it wasn’t to be.
WE WERE BEATEN BY THE ONLY TRULY GOOD TEAM WE’VE PLAYED*
Sometimes you need a huge dollop of luck that gives you that chance to discover if you’ve even got the ability to get you to where you ultimately want to be – that’s a long and winding sentence but it makes sense to me, honest, and England had that dollop by being placed in the easier half of the draw.
That in itself is a great thing – if the chips had fallen differently, we might well have gone out against Japan ten days ago and this group of England players would never have experienced a run that they can definitely draw upon in the future.
But the fact is that we wilted under pressure when we were properly tested for the first time. Ah well, it had to happen eventually.
(*England reserves v Belgium reserves doesn’t count)
ONLY ONE CLEAN SHEET IN SIX MATCHES
If not scoring from open play was an issue, so was our inability to stop goals going in at the other end.
If you’re conceding one against both Tunisia and Panama, it stands to reason that you’re going to concede more than one against Croatia, and so it proved.
IT ISN’T COMING HOME
Not yet anyway.
In conclusion, was it a glorious month? Yes! Did they blow it? Also, yes… well a bit. It’s okay for it to be a bit of both though.
This does not slip now, we go again… as someone once said.