#ENGCRO – The Match that Broke the Lions’ Hearts

Let’s not look back at #ENGCRO with a heavy heart. If you had asked me at the beginning of the World Cup what I thought England’s chances of success were in the World Cup 2018, I’d have laughed at you. I love the England football team, but I have never had faith in them. Supporting England just leads to one heartache after another – and sometimes you’ve just got to protect yourself. However, this time, for the first time in years, I let myself believe again… only to have my hopes dashed as usual.

Don’t get me wrong, as much as I loved singing along to ‘It’s Coming Home’, and sharing the gloriously delightful memes that accompanied it, did I truly believe? Well, not really to be honest. Let’s face it, we did well, but we had our flaws as a team. My main issue was our apparent inability to score from open play. Yes, we did incredibly well in set pieces. Getting tackled to the ground in corners was great, as we got penalties, but against more disciplined teams? I had my doubts, and rightly so.

A Promising Draw

The games that led up to #ENGCRO were pretty standard and not too tough. I know you can only play the team in front of you – and we did that and won, but we never had any major challenges to overcome – in the shape of Germany, Brazil or Spain. The two teams we faced at the beginning of the group stages were pretty easy and very poor. Our only competition in that group was Belgium and we both ended up playing our B sides. Even by losing that game we got the easier side of the knockout draw: Colombia, Sweden and Croatia rather than Japan, Brazil and then France.

Colombia caused us problems – and again, the only goals we scored that day were penalties. They also exposed a weakness in our back and scored at the last minute. The one huge positive from this game, however, was the penalty shootout. Having never seen England ever win a penalty shootout, witnessing it was extraordinary. As every England supporter knows, penalties never end up going well for us. Here, our lions showed composure and strength. Pickford, though small in stature, proved to be big in heart. Seeing Southgate celebrate the victory was rather emotional. For once, I believed that the boys could win if it came down to penalties. Despite a dirty and violent game, it was heartening to see our boys keep level headed and do the job. Previously, I had seen our team as chokers. I saw this England team differently.

From Hot Headed to Ice Cool

Next came Sweden; super organized and very together. I was a little nervous about this team as previously they have been a bit of a sticky team for us. However, this was probably the easiest game to watch in a long while of England supporting. Not only did we get a goal from a set piece, but also from open play – from Deli Alli no less, who until this point hadn’t really impressed me too much. I was expecting a big push back from the Swedish team, but none came. Normally I loathe the last 10 minutes of a football match, but this one was comfortable. The Swedes looked older and just more tired. It was like a Premier League versus Champions League match. For sure, it gave me more confidence, but #ENGCRO always scared me more… it’s a team bursting with top league talent and they were always going to be tougher than any other team we’d faced before.

The Big Match: #ENGCRO

I was always taught to ‘hope for the best but prepare for the worst’; this has always stood me in good stead when watching England. I do that. Watching the boys walk onto the pitch and sing our national anthem is always something that gets me nervous… and  this was no different. We were in the World Cup semi-final and we actually had a chance. We’d beaten Croatia before so it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility. Of course I hoped… but I never fully believed, and that’s why I feel better now than many other England fans. It was devastating for many… just like having someone say ‘here’s what you could have won’, and then tossing it aside, out of reach.

The first half of the game was ours, without a doubt. Within 5 minutes of the game, Trippier delivered the most beautiful free kick, over the tall wall and dipping into the goal. I had rated Trippier throughout the entire tournament, and I felt he truly deserved this moment of glory. It was beautiful – and he’ll always have that memory of scoring in a World Cup semi –final. The first half was littered with chances where we really could have put the game to bed. Lingard missed sitters, as did Kane… and as I knew we would, we lived to regret those misses. Being unable to finish was always my concern… and it was this that proved to be our Achilles heel. I am sure Harry Kane will look back at those two chances to score with regret for a very long time, knowing that if he’d managed it, we’d probably be returning to Moscow on Sunday in Croatia’s place.

A Game of Two Halves

As predicted, Croatia came out fighting and we were all over the place, finding it difficult to control the talent and speed of Modric and Perisic. It seemed like for 20+ minutes, we were clinging on to our lead for dear life… until Perisic scored a beauty of a goal that saw them draw equal. Around the country… and even around the world, England fans just knew. Yes, there were another 22+ minutes of normal time, but Croatia was ascending and we were struggling. It looked as though if any goal was going to be scored, it wouldn’t be by us. It was almost a relief when the whistle blew and extra time was on the cards.

I was surprised at how well the England team came out fighting in that first half of extra time – we looked strong and we had chances – most notably Harry Kane’s header. Again, we couldn’t finish… and again we were punished. In the second half of extra time, when the tired players had been playing for 109 minutes, a stupid and fatal defensive error on our part saw Mandzukic score Croatia’s second. Yes, there was time, but deep down, we all knew the dream was over. I didn’t even witness the boys go all out to push forward afterwards – it was as though they too, were resigned to defeat. The final whistle blew and we were out.

The End

The look on everyone’s face when the realisation sunk in was simply just sad. The boys just stayed on the pitch for what seemed like an eternity, as though they didn’t really know what else to do. The players who missed their chances were probably wondering ‘what if?’… and will probably be wondering that for many years to come. We had a great opportunity and it was gone; the sad thing, was that we know we could have done it. It was a wasted opportunity.

The boys have consolation though. The crowd supported our boys. Instead of the barrage of abuse normally aimed at our players and manager after a defeat, they got ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ sung at them, and a whole lot of love aimed in their direction. But why? Simply put, they were all likeable and they all tried. They weren’t the overpaid and under-performing stars of yesteryear. There was not a pitch full of top world class players – such as Rooney, Terry, Lampard, Gerard and Ferdinand, who came across as arrogant and careless. These boys were young and they showed heart. Their grit and determination against Colombia warmed our hearts. Their fearlessness in the penalties was beautiful and their levelheadedness against some very fiery teams was admirable. However, it was the relationship with manager, Gareth Southgate, that spoke volumes. It was clear that they loved playing for him and they loved playing for their country.

The Return of the Waitcoat

Southgate was never meant for the job… it was thrust upon him in the unlikeliest of circumstance, yet it worked. He was calm and unassuming but passionate. Southgate cared about his players and he cared about his country. He was so beloved that he even garnered a twitter trending of #garethsouthgatewould as he was such a gent. Was he perfect? No. He could have made different decisions and substitutions; he could have not insisted on sticking with Deli Alli in every match. There were possibly times when a change was needed and not made; our midfield sometimes needed a bit of adjustment. However, like the team, he did his best and showed his passion, which was what really counted… he even made waistcoats cool again! All stars of the team were young and inexperienced in their roles, and that included the manager.

The Future

Russia isn’t quite over just yet for the boys as they still have the play off for third place. England will go out to try for a win here – as will Belgium. England may be the underdogs, but betting on the underdog is sometimes a profitable football betting strategy. At the moment, Ladbrokes are offering 20/1 just on England scoring, which is definitely worth a go. Harry Kane is also odds on, with all the best bookmakers, to win the Golden Boot award, so we can still get something out of the tournament yet.

This is a young team with a great future ahead of them. They have instilled a national pride in the team that has been missing for a very long time. People now have good reason to get excited for tournaments again, and the countdown to Euro 2020 is on. With more age, experience and practice, who knows what can be achieved. These boys – and their manager- can come back home with their heads held high. They have already added to our greatest footballing moments with their historic penalty win, and there’s even more to come.