Well, what a summer it was – predictions of serious crowd trouble and poor facilities at the Russian World Cup proved completely unfounded as did predictions of another England failure at a major tournament.
Gareth Southgate’s young, vibrant England side played with freedom and passion, smiling for the press at every opportunity and even welcomed grizzled old media hacks into the England camp on a regular basis to ‘grab a coffee and chat’ with players who opened up and spoke with an honesty and enthusiasm never seen before – no more deep suspicion from a press-weary group of players who simply wouldn’t say anything interesting at all and even refused to ‘reveal’ the results from players darts competitions as they had done at the previous tournament. Instead, members of the press were invited to join in these competitions, get to know the players and join in tournament-life. They loved it and absolutely bought into the ‘new England’.
The press loved them; we loved them and players fed on warmth and support from a nation desperate for a little ‘respectability’ – we didn’t necessarily want major success at the tournament, we just wanted the players to play with a smile and return home with the respect of the football world, not having to leave East Midlands Airport via a back door to avoid the baying mob!
The teams progression to a semi-final (which we really should have won) ticked all the boxes and a nation fell back in love with its football team. A fabulously hot and sunny June and July obviously helped but we haven’t seen the kind of excitement replicated across every single town and city in England for many, many years – pubs were completely full, big screens showed the games and the nation cheered, shouted, sang and eventually cried as ‘our boys’ fell just short – but it didn’t matter, they played as if they actually cared, won several games, didn’t snarl at cameras even once and kept us on the edge of our seats for the best part of 5 weeks. We even won a penalty shoot-out and the public officially loved them again.
When we look back at the summer of 2018, most of us will remember it with a smile and a pride in our team which will survive the odd poor result moving forwards. We will remember hot, sunny days in beer gardens, hugging complete strangers and talking ‘football’ with people who had clearly never been to actually see a game but were caught up in the excitement anyway – everybody young and old, male and female, sports fans and not, joined as one and experienced a national pride not seen in England for a long, long time.
Now Gareth Southgate has a difficult job – expectations have been raised and his determination to jettison older players and promote young, hungry players will clearly have its ups and downs. Young players’ form can be in and out and we will simply have to remain patient when the young-guns don’t perform on occasion, but I think we will – our new England is exactly what we asked for and as the 2020 European Championships will see quarter finals, semi-finals and the final played in England we hope – no, we expect!!