Football's not coming home, but Gareth Southgate has proven the doubters wrong
England’s extra-time defeat against Croatia on Wednesday evening left supporters with a feeling of heartache that they have grown accustomed to in recent times.
It is now 52 years and counting since the senior men’s national team last tasted success at a major international tournament and it will be at least another four years until we can resume talk of the Jules Rimet trophy returning.
However, in a metaphorical sense football has come home.
Gareth Southgate and his group of young players entered into the World Cup with low expectations and backed by a general public that had become acclimatised to seeing the team drastically underperform.
Ultimately, they exit the tournament with their heads held high having gone above and beyond what anyone thought they were capable of and they will return home to the adoration, respect, and love of a nation that has lost touch with the national team in recent years.
It is hard to remember the last time that the country has become so infatuated and united behind an England team and there is a real sense of pride in what they have accomplished in Russia. Maybe we have got our football back after all.
The credit for that must go to Southgate.
The 47-year-old was thrown into the proverbial deep end following the departure of Sam Allardyce back in September but has since flourished in the role of England manager.
‘Big Sam’, just one game into his managerial reign, left the team in a state of chaos after being embroiled in an off-field scandal that left his position untenable and only added to the sense of apathy, disillusionment and disconnect between the fans and the national side.
Southgate has undoubtedly exceeded all expectations and his professionalism, composure and work ethic have been the perfect antidote to England’s recent woes.
But let us not allow anyone to revise history here.
Southgate was certainly not a popular appointment when he was handed the job on a permanent basis and many onlookers raised concerns over his CV and doubted his ability to work miracles with the senior side.
His first steps into management with Middlesbrough were certainly not a success, ultimately ending in relegation, whilst his achievements working with various England youth teams were not seen as a guarantee of him being the right man to lead at senior level.
However, the job that Southgate has done over the last couple of years should not be understated.
Reaching the semi-final of a World Cup is a fantastic achievement, but it has been his ability to remould England into a young, fresh and fearless team that has been his most impressive accomplishment.
The squad that he inherited possessed a vast amount of experienced and yet had failed to accomplish anything of note at any major international tournament.
The likes of Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart were still key figures in the group whilst the standard of football on display often left supporters feeling underwhelmed.
However, Southgate has successfully overseen a transition and changing of the guard.
He has been able to nurture and bring through a host of young, exciting players who have brought fresh energy, enthusiasm and impetus to the national side.
This England team will only get better over time whilst the likes of Jordan Pickford, John Stones, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane will form the backbone of the squad for the next decade.
There are some detractors that reflect on the joy of England’s success with raised eyebrows.
They point out that Southgate’s side did not face any of the ‘top’ nations and ultimately lost against the only two quality teams that they played in the tournament.
Progression through the group stage was reliant on a last-minute goal against a poor Tunisian team and a blow out against an out of depth Panama whilst we had to rely on penalties to see off a Columbian side that were without their star player.
Perhaps there is some truth in that and the long-term challenge for England is to continue this level of progression at future international tournaments.
For Southgate it is only fair that he has an opportunity to enjoy his accomplishments so far – it is not very often that England managers are out of the firing line of constant negative headlines and criticism from the media.
So, football is not coming home, but there is certainly a new sense of hope and optimism throughout the country.
Never stop the dreaming.
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