World Cup 2018: #4 England Review

“To take the second youngest team in the tournament and the least experienced team in the tournament and break through so many historical barriers has to be a brilliant achievement for the team.” [Gareth Southgate on ITV’s ‘World Cup: Summer of Love’, December 2018]

The year of 2018 will be remembered in England as one of the worst, most chaotic and confusing years the country had seen in a long, long time. Government ministers provided shambles after shambles with the ongoing Brexit saga. The nation was divided and at each other’s throats. Debate was disappearing, with people refusing to engage with anybody who disagreed with their opinion online. The football World Cup in the summer was being treated with fear, trepidation and a lack of enthusiasm the likes our team hasn’t seen for at least a decade.

Six months on from Russia 2018, it was that tournament which provided an all-too-brief respite from the horror back home. That team, led by that manager, were the beacons of light in a dark, dark time. Gareth Southgate, BBC Sports Personality Coach of the Year, had achieved the most difficult of tasks; getting the country to unite behind a common cause. Not only that but he also inspired people to believe in the England team again. To get behind them. To will them on. It was a wonderful time to be a football fan again. And this resulted in a semi final place and fourth overall at the World Cup; our best achievement since 1990. Imagine if we’d have won the bloody thing!

Southgate's World CupBBC Sports reporter Gabby Logan interviewed boss Gareth Southgate in December to reflect on the World Cup summer

 

Monday 18th June, 7pm. Volgograd. Group G; ENGLAND 2-1 Tunisia

The draw for the group stages had been kind to England; the beatable Tunisia and Panama in with tricky Belgium. The aim was always to get out of the group and realistically in 2nd place behind Belgium, who were many people’s tip for the whole thing. We wouldn’t play Belgium until last so it was quite conceivable that we’d qualify for the knockouts before that match, all we had to do was win the opening two games. This Monday night in Volgograd saw England face Tunisia for the first time since a 2-0 win in France 1998, coincidentally that was also the opening group match. England had an inexperienced squad led by an inexperienced international manager but expectations before the tournament were low. This was only going to be a benefit to them. The way they were open with the media in the build up to the tournament was impressive. It allowed the characters in the squad to shine through without a filter or another agenda. It was a masterstroke from the FA. By the time the opener kicked off England seemed ready and raring to go, demonstrated by the fantastic start made. Inside the opening eleven minutes England took the lead. An Ashley Young corner was thumped goalwards by the head of Harry Maguire. It crashed off the goalkeeper’s claw to land at the feet of poacher Harry Kane just three yards out to tap home. However the lead only lasted twenty minutes. Kyle Walker used his arm to shepherd an attacker out of the way from an in-swinging cross, which the referee decided was a foul. Sassi converted the penalty right into the corner despite Pickford’s best efforts and the game was level. England pushed and harried for a winner but it was just not there. We had to wait until stoppage time at the end of the match for the decisive action. Another corner, this time from Kieran Trippier, was floated in to Maguire. His knockdown fell at the back post to an unmarked Kane who expertly guided his header into the goal from five yards to snatch it. England had done it! “There’s no doubt scoring that late goal and being patient enough to do it I think was a big moment in the tournament for us,” Gareth Southgate told Gabby Logan during her retrospective review “Southgate’s World Cup” in December.

 

Sunday 24th June, 1pm. Nizhny Novgorod. Group G; ENGLAND 6-1 Panama

Again speaking to Gabby Logan for her review, Southgate explained the opening win “definitely meant that the atmosphere around the whole training camp and for our fans and everything else was more relaxed. You buy yourself another five days before the next game.” That next game being England’s biggest ever tournament victory. Set pieces continued to be a major part in England’s success. Another Ashley Young corner found an English head unmarked in the centre of the area, this time John Stones, to take an 8th minute lead. The lead was doubled through Harry Kane’s penalty after Jesse Lingard was shoved over. Kane’s kick absolutely flying into the top left corner, unstoppable. It was Lingard’s turn next after he played a neat one-two and unleashed a fabulous curling effort into the corner from outside the box. It was four in the 40th minute through a cleverly worked free-kick routine. Henderson flicked the ball up, it was headed across goal by Kane where Raheem Sterling was waiting. His header was saved by the goalkeeper but Stones was waiting to pounce on the rebound from less than two yards. And the scoring continued just before the half time whistle when another penalty was given, this time for practically an assault on Kane right in front of the referee whilst waiting for a cross to be delivered. Tunisia had got away with a few rough holds in the first match but Panama certainly would not here. Up stepped Kane to blast it the exact same way as his first to make it five-nil England. What an incredible first half of football. He got his hat-trick in the second half via a fortunate flick off his heel from a Ruben Loftus-Cheek effort, and in doing so became only the third ever Englishman to score three in a World Cup match – joining Sir Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker. Panama did pull a consolation goal back with around twelve minutes remaining from Beloy, which gave their fans something to cheer about for the first time in tournament history, but the day was all about England and their march through the group. Suddenly the fans started to believe this year would be different. The squad was playing with freedom, scoring goals and creating chances. Banana skins were avoided, six points from six achieved and the top scorer in the Cup was one of our own. Gareth’s waistcoat attire quickly became elevated to iconic status levels, fans were singing his name, cheering his players and witnessing great things on and off the pitch. Yes it was “only” Tunisia and Panama. But in 2010 it was “only” Algeria, in 2014 “only” Uruguay and Costa Rica and 2016 “only” Iceland. And we didn’t win any of those matches. Whatever happened afterwards, this would always be a match and a performance to savour for the fans.

 

Saturday 7th July, 7pm. Kaliningrad. Group G; ENGLAND 0-1 Belgium

With objective one achieved, qualification to the knockout stages, the final group match against Belgium was a bit of a dead rubber as they’d also made it through. The only thing left to decide was which of the two would top the group. Usually that would mean a more favourable path in the next round however this tournament was all over the place in terms of upsets and the reality was that second place in this group would probably be a better route to take. Neither team would ever throw the match of course, but it was used as an opportunity to give game time to some of the personnel who so far had not featured and those players could look back and say they had played in a World Cup; all invaluable experience for next time. “We knew that actually one half of the draw looked stronger than the other. We knew that the most important game was the knockout game and we had the chance to keep the basis of what we saw as our first team, at that moment, fresh,” the boss outlined to Logan in December. The match itself was largely forgettable, with the pace being slightly slower than in the opening games, and neither team wanting to put too much at risk as they looked ahead to bigger things. Former Manchester United striker Adnan Januzaj got the only goal of the game six minutes into the second half. Consequently Belgium won the group whilst England were runners-up and not many people back home were too disappointed with that outcome. Belgium’s potential route to the Final would feature the possibilities of Japan next, then Mexico or Brazil in the quarter finals with France, Argentina, Portugal or Uruguay in the semis. By contrast, England’s 2nd place spot meant it would be Colombia next then either Switzerland or Sweden with potential semi final opponents being Spain, Croatia, Denmark or Russia. On paper you would definitely select the half of the draw England were now in, but it’s never as simple as that as Southgate pointed out once again to Gabby. “Whoever we played in the second round, frankly if we had an easier semi final, we hadn’t won a knockout game since 2006 so let’s not worry that far ahead. How do we give ourselves the best chance of winning the knockout game?” He wasn’t allowing himself to get too carried away, but for us fans we really believed now we could go far here.

 

Tuesday 3rd July, 7pm. Moscow. Last 16; ENGLAND 1-1 Colombia (AET, 4-3 on penalties)

With second place secured, the first knockout hurdle England had to face was in the shape of South American tricksters Colombia. We had previous with them. France 1998, group stages; England won 2-0 then thanks to Darren Anderton and David Beckham’s goals up against the likes of Carlos Valderrama. But they were a far better team now with household names all over Europe. It proved a tough match, both mentally and physically. Following on from the pushing and shoving against Panama and Tunisia, this too was a bruiser. It boiled over in the 57th minute when England were awarded a penalty after Harry Kane was bundled to the ground by Carlos Sanchez from a corner. It took around two minutes between the kick being awarded and Kane converting it due to various protestations from the Colombians, including scuffing up the penalty spot with their studs. But this was 2018 England, not 1998. We wouldn’t let that distract us. Harry Kane certainly wouldn’t and calmly slotted the ball home straight down the middle as the keeper dived to his right. The lead would last all the way until the third minute of stoppage time when a corner was swung in, with every other Colombian in the box including the goalkeeper, and Yerry Mina’s header bounced up and over Kieran Trippier on the goalline. Equaliser. And you just knew it would be the inevitable penalty shoot-out that would follow. It just had to be; for Gareth Southgate, for England, for the World Cup. The preparation had been done months in advance, players knew who would be taking the kicks and Jordan Pickford in goal knew where he needed to be diving to save them. The first five taken were all scored; Kane and Rashford for England, Falcao, Cuadrado and Muriel for Colombia. But up stepped Jordan Henderson who saw his shot saved, with England 3-2 down. We needed a hero. Pickford became that hero. Uribe hit the bar and the balance shifted back our way. Kieran Trippier scored in the top-left corner and we were all square again. Back came Jordan Pickford, who saved magnificently with a solid left-hand to deny Bacca and put England in the driving seat. Amazing! Eric Dier was next up and he made no mistake; low, hard and towards the left corner of the goal. England had won their first ever World Cup penalty shoot-out at the fourth attempt, managed by a man whose most infamous moment in international football thus far was missing a penalty in a shoot-out twenty-two years prior. Redemption. The tables had turned, the belief grew further. Whatever happened after this, that moment on that night had given us England fans so much joy, so much relief and so much belief.

 

Southgate conductingGareth Southgate emerged after concluding his various media duties to conduct the jubilant England fans in celebration following the Quarter Final win

 

Saturday 7th July, 3pm. Samara. Quarter Final; ENGLAND 2-0 Sweden

England had reached their first quarter final since 2006 and the Germany World Cup. That summer we played, and drew with, Sweden in the group stage. This summer we played them in the knockouts. The belief back home was definitely this would be ours to lose today, Sweden were OK but no more. Even Gareth Southgate was confident; “I knew if we played the way that we were capable then our system in particular would cause Sweden problems. So the 3-5-2 against their 4-4-2 gets us in pockets of space that really is a problem for them,” he later told Logan. The truth turned out to be exactly that. Nerves were settled after half an hour when our set piece dominance showed once more. Ashley Young’s corner was angled towards the big, powerful head of Harry Maguire (Slabhead to his mates) arriving on the penalty spot and flew into the net. Maguire was in the stands as an England fan with his mates just two years earlier at the Euros in France, now he was scoring in the World Cup quarter final, his first England goal. Raheem Sterling would go close and Jordan Pickford would have to produce some fantastic stops during the match but it was all settled just before the hour mark. Trippier pulled the ball back for Sterling to loop up into the area. Waiting at the back post unmarked was Dele Alli. He had beaten the offside trap enabling him to head straight through the Swedish goalie and double England’s advantage. Pickford again had to make some further outstanding stops but by this point there was never any doubt. The belief that was so lacking in previous years was there for all to see. There was only ever going to be an English win from that point onwards and so it proved. After the stress, the emotions, the exhaustion of the penalty shoot-out last midweek, this match was relatively plain sailing. England marched on to the World Cup semi finals four days later and the entire country was talking about it. Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat look had become iconic; he had a lookalike in the crowd, a song of his own sung by the fans and a National Waistcoat Day established to support the team. Every interview he gave, every match we played, we impressed so much, he impressed so much. The clich├ęd ‘zero to hero’ tagline was spot on for this case. He inspired his players, the fans, the nation, with his calm demeanour and classy attitude. The whole of England would be watching on Wednesday.

 

Wednesday 11th July, 7pm. Moscow. Semi Final; ENGLAND 1-1 Croatia (1-2 AET)

The big match was here. This was the side of the draw we wanted. The big teams were all falling by the wayside; Italy and Netherlands didn’t even make it, holders Germany eliminated in the groups, Spain and Argentina out in the next round, Euro champs Portugal too, Brazil, Belgium and France were on the other side of the draw meaning we were left with just Croatia to beat to reach our first World Cup Final since the boys of ’66. And it began oh so well. In the fifth minute, Kieran Trippier secured his place in the Team of the Tournament by scoring his first international goal with a wonderful free-kick from just outside the box which flew into the back of the net. Cue delirium both at home and in Moscow! His deliveries, his work rate, were all so impressive this summer. England were dominating the match and a golden chance fell to Harry Kane who was miraculously thwarted by the goalkeeper Subasic (and a combination with the post) not once but twice in the same move when it looked certain he would score. As the game went on, the pressure grew. The enormity of the situation perhaps began to dawn. Fans were nervous, players were anxious and, most importantly of all, Croatia began to get better. In the 68th minute they equalised. Vrsaljko’s cross from the far touchline was met by the outstretched boot of Ivan Perisic who nipped in ahead of the defence to stab home. He went on to hit the post as Croatia really pushed for the winner but it wasn’t to be and extra time would again be necessary. The experience showed, they got stronger as we got weaker. Modric, Perisic, Rakitic and Mandzukic showed off their ability. In the 109th minute of the match the fatal blow came. Kyle Walker’s half clearance only put the ball onto a Croatian head. That header went over the right back and suddenly Mario Mandzukic was in the clear out of nowhere, sharper than John Stones to the danger and able to fire towards goal past Pickford from just a few yards out. We couldn’t say it wasn’t coming, but when it did come it was so, so heartbreaking. For the first time in that tournament it looked like we didn’t believe any more. It wouldn’t be coming home. The players had given everything and more, they made us so proud. It was a joy to watch the England team at that tournament but it would be the semi final stage and no further.

 

Saturday 14th July, 3pm. Saint Petersburg. 3rd Place Play Off; ENGLAND 0-2 Belgium

The emotions were still very raw just three days on when England had to complete their tournament in the Third Place match. The country was of course disappointed not to be playing in that Final on Sunday, some genuinely believed “It’s coming home!” and all that. It was hard not to be upset by the semi final, going so, so close. There was a connection between the fans and players for the first time for years, even decades. We bought into this group, led by an impressively calm and sensible leader who said all the right things at the right times. So that bond amplified the feeling of disappointment not just for us but for them too. We were so proud of them, indeed are so proud of them, for their achievements and that will always stay with so many. Just like when we played Belgium three weeks earlier, this match had the strange feel of a friendly. Unlike that match though, where only five players across both teams had played their previous match, today the line ups were pretty much full strength. When England were last this far into a World Cup in 1990 we lost the Third Place Play Off to Italy in Bari. And it would be a similar outcome in 2018 against the Belgians, losing two-nil in Saint Petersburg. They took a fourth minute lead with a goal assisted by the Premier League; with Manchester United’s Lukaku passing for West Brom’s Chadli to provide the crucial cross into the penalty area. It was finished by Thomas Meunier who wasn’t picked up quick enough in front of goal by England’s Danny Rose. England came closest in the second half when Eric Dier was put through by Marcus Rashford but his chip over the onrushing ‘keeper didn’t quite have the legs to make it over the line and a covering defender cleared off the line. The bronze medal was sealed with eight minutes remaining Chelsea’s Eden Hazard was found by Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne to run in behind the England back line and sidefoot past Pickford for two-nil in typical fashion his fans are used to seeing. And that was that. Belgium recorded their best ever finish at a tournament whilst England had their best for 28 years. The impact on English football domestically that Italia ’90 had was enormous, the aim after this summer would now be to maintain the connection, the passion, the performance levels and everything that was so great about this England squad as we look ahead to future tournaments.

 

The feel good factor of the World Cup certainly continued in the months afterwards for England. The newly established UEFA Nations League, replacing international friendlies and providing competitive football to international matches outside of Qualifiers, helped the momentum. England were drawn in a tough group with Spain and Croatia but came out on top, advancing to the inaugural tournament finals to be played in June 2019. And the terrific atmosphere from the World Cup was present in those matches. Wembley was absolutely bouncing for the final Nations League group stage match against Croatia. The new version of the stadium had never heard anything like it at the highest level. England did the business again in the most incredible year for a long time. Gareth Southgate was universally praised and, more importantly, respected. Harry Kane was the World Cup golden boot winner, our first since Gary Lineker in 1986. The players enjoyed playing for their country. They bonded with their teammates, had the press and fans on their side and this youthful, exciting and engaging team were only just getting started.

I never quite thought I would see England in a semi final of a World Cup, certainly not so soon and absolutely not at this tournament. Everything done in the previous two years was with the mindset of doing well in the 2022 World Cup. Gareth’s reflections with Gabby were “of course an opportunity missed which would always be there. But also a large feeling of that’s maybe an experience we had to go through because normally teams that win – France lost a European Final at home, Germany had semi finals before they won their tournaments – it’s very unusual to come from 15th in the world where we were a few months before, to being a team that are ready for semi final, Final and winning a tournament.” Yet here we were in the semis four years ahead of schedule. After the disappointment of Brazil 2014, crashing out after just two group games, and the embarrassment two years later against Iceland, international football was so low down the English pecking order. It was seen as a nuisance when the international breaks came. A team full of overpaid underperformers in a soulless ground with no pride or passion. A lot of that thinking was eradicated in one glorious summer in Russia.

“Whether it’s the opportunity of a lifetime is up to this group of players and this group of staff,” Gareth Southgate told ITV’s ‘World Cup: Summer of Love’ documentary which aired in December 2018. He continued “To take the second youngest team in the tournament and the least experienced team in the tournament and break through so many historical barriers has to be a brilliant achievement for the team. What’s hit me since we’ve been back is that that’s probably been the most rewarding part. People felt they enjoyed the summer and there a reconnection with the team. For me that is a massive step for us moving forward.” And that sums it all up. It’s easy to overplay and overstate the importance of football to its community but when they get it right and it goes your way the effect is enormous. Gareth Southgate was rewarded for his efforts with an OBE in the New Year’s honours list. This summer changed perceptions of so many; the sceptical media, the club loyalists, the casual fan and even the anti-football brigade. They all saw something during the tournament in the summer from that young, united England team which will stay with so many people for a long, long time to come.

FansFans erupting in celebration in a show of unity behind this exciting England team

About Mark O'MEARA
I am Mark O'MEARA.

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