Not long after Croatia ended England’s World Cup dream with Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time strike, the plaudits for the Three Lions came rolling in on Twitter. An ‘unbelievable achievement’, said Rio Ferdinand, ‘an over achievement’, was Gary Neville’s assessment and ‘the boys done us proud’ was the overwhelming sentiment across social media.
When exactly did expectations get so low that the response to squandering the opportunity of lifetime in a World Cup semi-final was to unequivocally hail the players as heroes?
England, a once-proud football nation, was coming together to pour praise on a team that had just been beaten by Croatia, a nation with less than 10 per cent of its population and one that had qualified for Russia behind England’s old foes, Iceland. So scarred have fans become at recent disappointments that it is considered completely acceptable to lose to a team that had the much-ridiculed Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren up against England skipper Harry Kane.
Croatia had stormed through the group stage in impressive form before edging past moderate opponents in Denmark and Russia on penalties in the knockout rounds. The stage looked set for England’s young team to book a place in Sunday’s final against France.
No brave new world (yet)
The much discussed team spirit would form the basis for a triumph under father figure, Gareth Southgate, who had provided the leadership apparently missing for so long under previous managers.
In the end, however, this brave new world would have to wait a little longer. England and their manager were found wanting after a bright start and a familiar unravelling saw more talented opponents take advantage.
It had all been good fun watching an unexpected run to the last four for the first time since 1990. Some glorious summer weather had brightened the mood, and victories over Tunisia and Panama saw the nation gather together for one big group hug.
When defeat to Belgium offered the chance of one of the easiest possible routes to the final, spirits were not dampened. When the only other heavyweight team in England’s side of the draw – Spain – lost to Russia, hope of a place in the final became real. But hope was tempered with reality. Overcoming Colombia on penalties in the last 16 prompted many to start insisting that no matter what happened next, the boys had done us proud and exceeded expectations.
This is where it all got a bit weird. The golden generation were rated as underachievers after losing to the likes of Brazil, Portugal and Germany. This generation was to be given a free pass for losing to a very average Sweden side.
It wasn’t about the football
It started to become apparent that, for many, this year wasn’t just about the football. It was more about England’s relationship with its fans healing.
The years of overpaid foreign mercenary managers and self-centred egotistical players had taken their toll and fans finally had a team they could warm to under a manager who every mother would like as their son-in-law and every wife would want as their father-in-law.
A country divided by the political tensions of Brexit could find unity in a team of apparently modest and likeable young men. With the fairytale breakthrough stories of Jordan Pickford and Harry Maguire adding to the team’s legend, there was en element of the X-Factor’s human interest tales to encourage the fans to get behind their boys even more.
It’s far easier for a nation to love a rugged centre-back who has risen to success the hard way than John Terry – a symbol of everything fans love to hate.
An unusual reaction to a painful defeat
When Sweden were dispatched with relative ease in the quarter final, England fans really did start daring to dream. One game away from their first final in 52 years and Croatia standing in the way. No doubt this would be a step up from the Swedes, given the world-class talents of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in midfield and the mercurial Ivan Perisic and bustling Mandzukic in attack. But still, England started as most people’s favourites with a team full of talent from the Premier League’s top sides.
Nevertheless, the ensuing defeat was quickly met with expressions of pride rather than bitter disappointment.
In a world in which middle ground is increasingly hard to find, the World Cup performance should be seen as a step in the right direction, not a cause for celebration. The players should be considered as an honest bunch to have done their best and come up a little short, rather than heroes deserving of an open-top bus parade.
The Southgate question
And then there’s the Southgate question. So much has been written about his niceness and his great relationship with the players that his actual coaching ability has not been analaysed in any great detail.
Southgate’s team certainly found success in using set pieces effectively and trying to play out of the back with more assurance than the average England team. But change takes time and while some of the players have learned from the best in Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, there is still a lack of game winning composure.
Southgate’s substitutions against Colombia and Croatia were suspect. When ahead in the second half of both games, he seemed unsure of whether or not to go in for the kill or defend the lead.
Southgate might have earned great respect as a man, but victories over modest opponents leave the jury very much out on his long-term suitability. He has earned the right to be given more time but the autumn fixtures against Spain and Croatia in he UEFA Nations League will give a much clearer idea of Southgate’s potential.
Underdogs no more
Ultimately, England fans should look back with fondness on a campaign that took them further than they expected. They show also look back with regret at having failed to make the most of a huge opportunity.
Either way, it is the best English fans have felt after a major tournament since the 1996 European Championships.
But England supporters have to throw off the underdog defence mechanism that was adopted to prevent too much pain this summer. With some of the best paid players in world football in their squad, the rest of the world will always expect. Four years ago, England failed to get out of the group stage but, in their defence, they were defeated by Italy and Uruguay. It may be a moot point but would Southgate’s England team have emerged from the same group to spark a summer of love?
Would England’s golden generation have failed to make the most of this opportunity under Sven-Goran Eriksson?
While many English fans may have seen their own team as plucky losers on this occasion, observers elsewhere just saw a glaring opportunity missed.
In four years, many of the class of 2018 should be hitting their peaks and that is an exciting prospect. They should be better for this year’s experience and maybe they will be true heroes next time rather than just likeable but limited.