Towards the end of the gloriously good Oscar-winning film, Alex and the other survivors are seen getting off Mr Dawson’s boat and there is an old man handing out blankets. He keeps muttering, ‘well done lads, well done lads’. As Alex approaches to pick his blanket he notices that the man doesn’t even look up to acknowledge him. ‘well done lads’,the old man repeats as Alex picks his blanket. ‘All we did was survive’ Alex retorts to which the old man replies ‘That’s enough.’ Alex later complains about how the British people are so ashamed of the survivors they cannot even look them in the eye. However later on we see the man stretch his hand and hold another soldier’s face as if to signify that the old man is indeed blind. Whichever way the players want to look at this semi-final exit, blind or not, fan or rival, one thing that remains is the fact that there is no shame brought whatsoever to the millions who watched them from Russia as well as afar.
They might be known as the three lions but after seeing the progress Southgate has had on the team, he did not just give them belief, he took lions and clipped wings on them daring them to fly and boy did they fly! The wax may have melted off the wings but they flew nonetheless and I genuinely can’t remember handling a tournament defeat this well. It is one thing playing with expectations weighing on your shoulders but have you tried playing without any expectations? A bunch of kids let off in the playground with only one instruction; express yourself. What is not up for debate is that Gareth has taken a significant weight off the England jersey and the generation to come surely have a free punt at this.
However there was also something very English about this exit. It seems the narrative continues in that when England comes up against half a decent team they either struggle (Colombia) or crumble altogether (Belgium and Croatia). This is still something that Southgate needs to work on immediately, as there is the small matter of the this place playoff this weekend.
With all the furore it might be lost on us as to how good Croatia actually was. They matched their class of ’98 by getting to the semis and went one better by getting to their first ever final. To refer to my point about ‘heavy shirts’, Modric and Co have been carrying ghosts for over a decade. They might not have shown it but the penalty shootout against Turkey haunted the players including Modric and Rakitic who took and missed spotkicks that day. With a relatively light burden on their shoulders now, there is no guessing which Croatia side will turn up on Sunday.
Their street-smart nature also disarmed England quite effectively. When push came to shove, Croatia pressed the right buttons while England scrambled to read from the manual. In extra time, if Croatia was a brand new intercooler engine simply whooshing past, England was a 20 year engine spluttering and spewing smoke trying to get to the next gas station. Understandably England did not have someone who could take the game by the horns and control the midfield. England should not feel bad about this as not only did England not have a Luka Modric, the rest of the world does not have Luka Modric. Peerless, genius and a lovely man to watch altogether. No matter who you were supporting yesterday it was weird not to clap whenever this gorgeous conductor sprayed passes with the outside of the boot or simply took the sting out of the game with dummies and cute little passes. Player of the Tournament for me.
How liberating it must feel to vanquish ghosts of penalties past. Both England and Croatia have emerged with greater mental strength after the paths trodden to get to the semi-finals. How satisfying it must be for the man whose penalty miss cost England in the Euro ’96 to be the first England manager in 20 years to win a penalty shootout. There was nothing lucky about the penalties England slotted in. In the buildup to the tournament, Southgate reiterated the fact that England had been practicing penalties and it was tempting to wonder whether these were just the ramblings of a deluded man seeking to bolster his squad’s confidence. However you look at the technique the players used and Trippier in particular and one gets the sense that they have been doing this for a while. This is such a gigantic mental victory that will be appreciated for years to come.
However the rebuilding now begins. Southgate need not slack off in his quest for impeccability. Kyle Walker has been decent but at centre back? Probably not his best position though the manager’s decision to play him as part of a back three has hardly been the biggest mistake in the world. This also looks like its Young’s last tournament thus a replacement should be groomed from early on. He should also seek to get a defensive midfielder who will be calm in his passing under pressure, not the Henderson type who just punted long aimless balls upfront hoping Kane gets a nibble.
The English U17 and U20 are the reigning world champions, the U19s are Euro winners, the U21 are Euro semi-finalists and the senior team are the world-cup semi finalists. It doesn’t take a genius to see that there is something special brewing in English football and with Southgate at the helm it’s quite obvious that we are in safe hands. Southgate has done the impossible job of turning fans and media alike from being self-deprecating creatures to a bunch of people who were willing to get behind the team and most importantly the manager. The players know what it feels to feel the love of a country and the various appreciation from their social media handles prove that.
All in all Russia has brought more joy than pain. The players can hold their heads up high and drink in the accolades because they deserve each and every one of them. After the game, Southgate noted “In international football you give everything for your country and play in a way that you hope connects with the fans.” You sir, have certainly done so.
We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. and even if this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old. – Sir Winston Churchill after the Dunkirk evacuation.
Also, the video of thousands of England fans singing 70 minutes after the final whistle waiting for Southgate to finish his media duties so that they can serenade him makes me shiver!! Truly truly, not all super heroes wear capes, others wear waistcoats.