From driving Middlesbrough into relegation in 2009, to masterminding England into the semi-final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup – also uniting the nation in the process. The waistcoat merchant known as Gareth Southgate emerges as one of several signs that this might be the start of something special and exciting for English football. Or not. It’s England anyway.
For now, let’s just put that English pessimism on the side and remind ourselves of England’s journey to almost achieving footballing immortality. Let’s take some steps back, not to the group stage nor the qualifying round, but to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when the Golden Generation was still around. Sadly yet somewhat unsurprisingly, they didn’t really achieve anything as England crashed out in the QF after a penalty-shootout defeat to the hands of Portugal. The Golden Generation crumbled. Two years later, it was time for Euro 2008, and England…well, they didn’t even play a single game, because they were eliminated in the qualifying round after finishing 3rd in Group E below Croatia and, err, Russia. Yes it was really that bad.
But they did qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and some of the Golden Generation was still around. Gerrard was captain. Lampard, Rooney, and Terry were still there. Beckham missed out due to injury, but there were still several good players like, err, 32-year old Emile Heskey. It wasn’t a very exciting tournament for England, as they score a total of THREE goals in the whole tournament. Germany put FOUR past them in the Round of 16. Euro 2012 saw England crash out in the QF after another penalty-shootout defeat, this time to Italy.
The 2014 World Cup had England in a group of death, along with Italy, Uruguay, and Costa Rica. The result? Only one goal scored, and a group stage exit. Wow this has been quite a depressing journey maybe they would do well in Euro 2016 and oh wait they lost to Iceland in the Round of 16.
Those were some dark days for English football. Capello couldn’t lead them to glory. Eriksson flopped. Hodgson was, well, a bit shite to say the least. But what was more worrying, was that the Golden Generation failed the nation. Their best achievement was only getting into the QF in 2006. After all that, you’d understand why many people already lost their hope for the English men’s national team. When the 2018 World Cup was around the corner, you’d think that England had no hope for getting anywhere far, and the whole media uproar, particularly antagonizing Raheem Sterling, only darkened the clouds.
But no. Football was genuinely NEARLY coming home, and England seemed to be freed from the ghosts of the Golden Generation.
After qualifying with ease from Group F, topping the group with no defeats, England saw themselves in a relatively easy group along with Belgium, Tunisia, and Panama. Remember when England only scored 2 goals in the 2010 World Cup group stage that had USA, Slovenia, and Algeria? Well they just put 6 past Panama a few weeks ago. Optimism and belief started to grow, but it only grew a lot more when England beat Colombia, wait for it, ON PENALTIES! England actually won a bloody penalty-shootout! The world rightly lost their minds. A professional 2-0 win against Sweden followed suit, and England were in their first semi-final since the 1990 World Cup. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as England fell short to an extra-time defeat in the hands of Croatia.
Looking back at it, you’d think that England had a relatively easy path to the semi-finals. But actually, for a team with a manager whose managing experience includes managing Middlesbrough while NOT having the required coaching license, and for a team that has the likes of Pickford, Maguire, Trippier, and Lingard – who turned out to be the unlikeliest of heroes – this has been one hell of a tournament for England.
On the pitch, England seemed “revolutionary”. I mean, it’s not the Spanish tiki-taka or Klopp’s gegenpress, but it was something. A 3-5-2 system, with ball-playing defenders, overlapping wing-backs, and an attack relying on off-the-ball movements especially in set-pieces, had football fans scratching their heads. Southgate worked hard on this, paying attention to every detail and absorbing knowledge from watching NBA and NFL. When it worked, it was very effective. Off the pitch, things also worked for the better. There seemed to be a new identity among the players. Out with the toxic club rivalries transcending into the national team, and in with the young, vibrant, and diverse environment quite rightly representing modern England.
Another thing that the England team does well in this tournament is how they engage with the fans and the media. This seems to be an important factor in ensuring a healthy relationship between the team and the English public, which in turn, also become an important factor in having a successful campaign. COPA90 did a brilliant piece on why these aspects need to be aligned in order to have a successful campaign. A healthy relationship all around on one side helps maintain the focus of criticisms to be on the performances and not on off-field antics. On the other side, it unifies the public support towards the team. It was obvious that the spirit of the support was high, with the “football’s coming home” chants echoing and beers spilling around as a result from celebrating. Not to mention the steady flow of Maguire memes. This has been a very entertaining tournament for England fans, where haters seemed to be only the minority.
All those signs show that the whole England national team setup is on the right track to success. But if we look past this year’s World Cup, there were actually some signs all along, particularly with their younger age groups. Their U21 team just won their third straight Toulon Tournament last May, beating Mexico in the final. Meanwhile, their U20 team won the FIFA U20 World Cup last year after defeating Venezuela in the final.
These achievements can immensely help in injecting a winning mentality early on and stack up experience playing with each other in several age groups so that when young players break through the senior squad – like Loftus-Cheek and Alexander-Arnold – they will have already got significant ground work and are able to help the team in more ways than just mere quota-fillers. With memories of previous underachieving wonderkids like David Bentley, Joleon Lescott, Jack Rodwell, and even Theo Walcott, England fans will surely hope that these next batches of players will have a different spark than their predecessors. Keep an eye out for Dom Calvert-Lewin, Phil Foden, Rhian Brewster, Patrick Roberts, and Ryan Sessegnon.
All in all, skies are looking brighter for English football, and this year’s World Cup might not just be a one-off occurrence. But more importantly, the sight of unified public support towards their national team, oftentimes showed with sheer passion, is such a refreshing sight amidst difficult times in terms of unity, particularly with the whole Brexit ordeal. While there is still every possibility for things to head south, but memories of this World Cup will linger on and fuel England’s further progress. Perhaps, football will come home soon.