I’m not sure there’s too much appetite for Norwich City talk after the events of yesterday – and it’s not often I write (or believe) that – but it’s not every day your country qualifies for a World Cup semi-final. At least not when your country is England.
(Our German contingent would disagree).
But here we are, with a World Cup semi just around the corner for the first time (in the men’s game) in 28 years and only the third time ever. Heady days indeed.
I’ve been one of the few it seems to resist the It’s Coming Home mantra – partly because I don’t want to jinx it and partly because I still don’t believe it’s going to happen – but having gone two games beyond what was considered a reasonable expectation, there really is now an element of ‘anything is possible’.
A FIFA ranking of 12 before the tournament started led us to believe that our natural resting place was the Round of 16 and, in fairness, the FA’s PR machine and the media had done such an excellent job in dampening down expectations, most would have accepted that if it had been accompanied by some positive signs going forward.
Gareth Southgate too played a blinder even before the tournament began. He selected a squad that was talented but young and knew that ‘young’ often equated to inconsistency. He knew it could go awry, despite the meticulous preparation, and that he needed to offer these lads a platform on which to play that would spare them the bi-annual media brickbat avalanche if it did go belly up.
There was no bravado from Southgate – there is no bravado from Southgate – and his calm, measured, considered approach sat perfectly with the ‘learning process’ mentality we took to Russia. And during the tournament itself, there has been little tub-thumping – except in victory – and he’s left the grand gestures and euphoria to those who back home and in the stands.
The players clearly hang on their manager’s every word and they too only feel the euphoria in the moments of triumph. The daily routine is more Barnsley than England and is free of bells and whistles.
For this tournament, the FA have used their YouTube channel to take us behind the scenes. It’s aimed at the young generation – it might as well be in a different language at times – but still it’s offered a fascinating insight into what goes one and the grounded mindset of those involved. The day after scoring the most important penalty of his career, they interviewed Eric Dier but you’d never have known this was a young man who a few hours earlier had written himself into the history books.
He was calm, relaxed and, most importantly, grounded – just how his manage wants it. Quite how Southgate has achieved that when the nation is on the cusp of spontaneously combusting is hard to fathom, but he has, and his ability to combine a cool head with burning national pride has been quite something to behold.
Of course, there are those who point out the fortuitous route that has taken England to the semi-final and there is no denying the defeat of England B by Belgium B did offer up a route that was free of the big names. But said big names have been knocked out. Knocked out by the ‘minnows’ who have been and are now in England’s path.
Few succeed without a little bit of luck along the way and, anyway, it’s long overdue. Let’s hope it continues.
Even the Croatians getting past the Russians may have played into England’s hands. While they’re technically a far better side than the hosts – and in Modrić and Rakitić they have surely the best central midfield combo in the world – a game against Russia would have sparked repercussions way beyond the sporting variety. And it would have also made it nigh impossible for England fans to snaffle some additional tickets.
So, while they’re a good team with good players who are more than capable of beating us, this still represents a chance – one that may not come along again for a very long time. And I suspect in the hours approaching kick-off on Wednesday, carpe diem will give It’s Coming Home a good run for its money.
Roll the clock back three weeks, and if anyone would have offered us a semi with Croatia for a place in the World Cup final we’d have declared them insane at the same time as whipping their hand off. It’s crazy.
The feelgood factor is something special though. Not since London 2012 has the nation come even close to uniting in this way, however temporarily it may be, and as we live through these troubled times – and the 5hitfest caused by a certain vote in June 2016 – this run has given at least part of the union something to unite behind.
The worries, stresses and strains won’t go away but for a few hours are tucked away in the recesses, and for that we must be thankful to Southgate and a group of young men who have restored faith where faith and belief had been eroded.
I’m not sure we have enough left in the tank to win this thing and I still can’t bring myself to believe it’s really coming home, but it’s been bloody fun. And how I’d love to be writing a 1000 word rallying cry next Sunday morning.