England and Gareth Southgate emerge as heroes in World Cup exit

Chloe Beresford by Chloe Beresford / 12 July 2018, 12:16

Never one to mince his words, Roy Keane reprimanded Ian Wright on ITV’s coverage following England’s extra-time defeat to Croatia in the World Cup semi-final. You were planning the final, where the parades were,” blasted the Irishman. “You need a reality check.”

Indeed, the entire country was in full grip of England mania, and perhaps outsiders viewed the “Football’s Coming Home” slogan that was embraced in such a widespread manner as arrogance or a sense of entitlement.

“Why shouldn’t we get excited about it?” replied Wright, before the argument descended into a full-blown spat between the two.

“It’s something to get excited about. People weren’t even expecting us to get to the semi-final, why couldn’t we have got excited about being in there (the final)?”

Those who have witnessed the trials and tribulations of England over the years had this inner conflict running through them as their heads warned them not to get carried away with the success of Gareth Southgate and his young side, but hearts could think of nothing else but reaching the first World Cup final since 1966.

In the first half versus Croatia there was no reason to think that the Three Lions were on course for anything else as they controlled the match just as they had done versus Sweden, Kieran Trippier’s stunning free-kick having given his side the lead before even five minutes had passed.

If the team were guilty of anything, it was of not finishing off a number of subsequent chances in that opening period, in which a 2-0 or 3-0 scoreline wouldn’t have flattered them. Southgate too, should really have reacted tactically when Croatia emerged after half-time energised and wiser to England’s setup.

However in the end, England lost to a more experienced side that were used to a battle, extra-time goalscorer Mario Mandzukic for example, well known in Serie A for a series of warrior-like performances for club side Juventus. This time there was no controversial incident, nor was there a penalty shoot-out heartbreak, just a young side of heroes that had defied all expectations.

Yes, the excitement felt by Ian Wright was indicative of the mood across an entire nation, but in this regard we just can’t help ourselves. Those England supporters who don’t remember 1966 want to experience a World Cup Final for themselves so badly, and as a country we tend to show our feelings for the team on the outside, our emotions there for all to see.

In one fell swoop, Gareth Southgate has protected his players from that well-meaning adoration, something you could argue that perhaps even the great Sir Bobby Robson failed to do during his successful stint on the bench. The new man in charge has achieved so much in such a short space of time – making the difficult decisions necessary to erase the harmful mentality of the past – and there is clearly so much more to come from him and his young squad.

During this tournament, he has made England play in a way we haven’t witnessed ever before, professional, calm, well-prepared and humble in their approach to every match. Versus Colombia, Southgate also broke the penalty hoodoo that has haunted both himself and the team for so many years, his polite and well-mannered demeanor a perfect disguise for inner resilience and fortitude.

The “Ian Wright” in us all is still hurting from last night’s defeat, but let’s step back and look at the situation through Roy Keane’s detached and unbiased eyes. While the Irishman – both during his playing career and now as a pundit – clearly believes anything less than victory is meaningless, England are actually building something very special indeed, and we must honour these heroes in the manner in which they deserve. They must be thanked for making us believe, each one of them having contributed to one of the best World Cup performances this country has ever seen.

Above all, Gareth Southgate must not only be given the appropriate recognition for taking his team further than any of us could have imagined, but also allowed to continue his project unopposed. Football may not have come home this summer, but it’s been a pleasure to watch England in their attempts to do so.

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