What more can you expect from football than memories? Results are too unknowable, too out of your control. To actually win a World Cup is in the realms of fantasy when you are a nation like England. But memories which will last a lifetime, which mark the beginning of new friendships, which inform your understanding of football and the world beyond it, which install deep emotional responses in your brain, are really what the game is all about.
The four-year World Cup cycle invariably creates memories of the unwanted kind for England. Heartbreak. Recrimination. But in 2018 it was different. An unfolding montage of leaps into the air and flying limbs at set-pieces across Russia was matched by leaps into the air and flying limbs at public gatherings back home. England, for the first time since 1990, produced a World Cup campaign free of anger and blame; a World Cup campaign which engaged and united a nation.
Even if a semi-final defeat to Croatia raised familiar questions, Russia 2018 was a new experience for a whole generation of England fans, full of new sensations. A dramatic injury-time winner in their opening game; a record World Cup win in their second; a first penalty shoot-out victory in 22 years; a first semi-final in 28 years; an English Golden Boot winner for the first time in 32 years. Set-piece superiority, smiles, songs and Southgate.
Yes, Gareth Southgate. Maybe the most extraordinary fact of the whole campaign is that it was overseen by a man indelibly linked with England’s most crushing tournament disappointments. But it was not Southgate’s Euro 96 penalty heartbreak which England ultimately aped in Russia - rather the sense of the nation uniting around the national team, all soundtracked by Three Lions and the hopeful, euphoric and gently ironic strains of “it’s coming home” emanating from every house, pub and smartphone across the country.
A template was set over four glorious weeks - all informed by a man whose leadership and methodology served as a catalyst for recasting the image of the England team in the eyes of a nation. But what lies behind what one bewildered Brazilian journalist referred to as “the Southgate revolution?” How much did England really change during football’s summer of love? And can it endure?
1. A new feeling
England's defender Danny Rose attends a open media day at St George's Park in Burton-on-Trent
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Before the pleasure, the pain. On June 6, six days before England embarked for the World Cup finals, Danny Rose gave a remarkable interview. The England left-back not only explored in great detail his mental health issues, and how he required treatment for depression, but also some of the reasons for his struggles. An uncle’s suicide, racial abuse directed at his mother and a gun being shot at his brother at his family home in Doncaster. It was an important moment. A disarming series of revelations. And, tangentially, a valuable insight into the culture Southgate had created in the England camp.
In his interview at St George’s Park, Rose described England as his “salvation, one million per cent ... I can’t thank the manager and the medical staff enough. It’s no secret that I’ve been through a testing time at Tottenham this season, which led to me seeing a psychologist, and I was diagnosed with depression, which nobody knows about, and I had to get away from Tottenham. I’m lucky that England gave me that opportunity to get away, refresh my mind and I’ll always be grateful to them.”
It's felt like a good holiday that we've all been on
Rose had chosen to undertake part of his recovery from a knee injury which wrecked his 2017 at St George’s Park. Southgate was there for the same three weeks and the two had dinner together “most days”. It was evident Southgate had created a safe and rewarding environment. Where once international footballers were reluctant to join up with England, now the mood had changed. And when the team arrived in their base in Repino it served as a further bonding exercise. Miserable camps had contributed to England’s struggles in previous tournaments, most damagingly in South Africa 2010 under Fabio Capello’s iron rule, but things were different right from the start.
"It's felt like a good holiday that we've all been on," Ashley Young told ESPN FC. "There has been no boredom at all. If you'd have said we'd be away for seven weeks and not be bored - well, it has not felt [boring]." As you might have guessed when images of England players racing each other on inflatable unicorns in their swimming pool made the front pages.
“I look at them as my brothers, and I know they look at me the same,” said Harry Kane as England progressed through the tournament. Where once England squads were divided into Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool tables at mealtimes, now players from these ostensibly rival camps were pulling together as one. Banter, that dressing-room staple in English football, was flowing. In a press conference ahead of England’s second game against Panama, Harry Maguire was met with an unexpected question from the floor: “It’s Jamie Vardy here from Vardy News. Just how big is the diameter of your head?”
If the country was gradually being wrapped up in a state of giddy euphoria - a genuinely collective phenomenon - everything really started with the spirit Southgate fostered after taking charge in September 2016. As the profiles of these players change, as they earn big-money moves or win titles, the egos may inevitably expand. But retaining that sense of collective endeavour will be essential.
2. A new relationship
Harry Kane of England plays darts during an England Media Access on July 1, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia
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The next stage was to engage the media in the project: a notoriously thorny exercise. On the eve of the tournament, the BBC broadcast a documentary titled ‘Managing England: The Impossible Job’. It lovingly chronicled the downfall of every England manager since 1966 World Cup winner Sir Alf Ramsey - an hour-long TV documentary version of the kind of ‘England national team - the banter years’ thread you might come across on Twitter. Don Revie quitting to manage the UAE in 1977 - after selling the story to the Daily Mail for £20,000. Glenn Hoddle leaving in disgrace in 1998 after making his abhorrent comments about disabled people and karma in an interview with The Times. Two managers forced out over undercover stings: Sven-Goran Eriksson following his unwitting chat in 2006 with the News of the World’s Fake Sheikh, recently jailed for 15 months for tampering with evidence in the drugs trial of N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos, and Sam Allardyce, captured nursing a mythical pint of wine while loquaciously telling the Daily Telegraph how to circumvent the FA’s own rules over third-party ownership. It is fair to characterise the relationship between the national football team and its national media as a destructive one.
And yet, while the press can be a vicious beast, it is also susceptible to having its belly tickled. Seasoned reporters like Henry Winter, who almost boasted in the BBC documentary of having the power to make or break England managers, were won over by the relatively simple device of hosting a pre-World Cup, Super Bowl-style media event on June 5, inspired by Southgate’s trip to observe the NFL’s annual jamboree.
As a clock counted down from 45 minutes in the futsal hall at St George’s Park, all 23 members of the squad were made available to the media, with no restrictions. Fabian Delph was presented with Yorkshire Tea, Marcus Rashford tackled a trivia quiz about Tunisia, Ruben Loftus-Cheek showed off his dance moves. Within three weeks Winter was hailing Southgate as “a key influence in the history of the English game.” Upon arrival at England’s training base in Repino, the charm offensive continued. Journalists were bowled over by the facilities - and the integration with players they offered. Reporters took on players at darts. Even the German federation dispatched officials to see how England were handling their media operations.
All that threatened to be derailed on June 21. What had otherwise been a fairly innocuous open training session ahead of England’s second game, against Panama, triggered a 24-hour media storm. Assistant Steve Holland’s training notes were snapped, ostensibly revealing Marcus Rashford was to take the place of Raheem Sterling in the starting XI. In a subsequent press conference, Southgate and Kyle Walker were critical of the decision to publish. The manager said, “our media has to decide if they want to help the team or not." Despite mounting evidence on social media that their readers agreed this was a breach of trust, the press pack bristled. Southgate sensed a breakdown in the entente the FA had so carefully constructed and the next day swiftly defused the situation.
England's assistant coach Steve Holland attends a training session
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“I understand some of the guys have had a bashing on social media, for which I apologise,” said a contrite Southgate the next day, “but nothing that happens or is released changes the way we want to work with the media.”
The extent to which the national press still dictates the agenda when it comes to England may be exaggerated - more people will engage with one of Kyle Walker’s tweets than a broadsheet thinkpiece - and the reaction to the Panama leak demonstrated that many readers aren’t in the market for unhelpful coverage of the national team. So perhaps it is open to debate just how important it was to defuse the press. But England still managed it adroitly and will seek to apply these strategies again. Either way, nothing quite generates rave reviews like a proper performance and in the first 30 minutes of the opening game against Tunisia, England produced one.
3. A new approach
England's Harry Kane celebrates with team mates after scoring their first goal
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England had to wait until the fifth day of the World Cup to open their campaign, on a sticky night in a stadium in Volgograd which had been besieged by midges and flies. The first half hour was as good as any team had produced up to that point, England cutting through Tunisia almost at will. Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling wasted big chances but England were playing progressive, intelligent football - a clear departure from stylistic approaches in previous tournaments as the fruits of Southgate’s work since his appointment in the Autumn of 2016 became apparent.
In fact, some of the foundations for this performance were laid even earlier, December 2014 in fact, when Southgate, then England Under-21 manager, sat alongside director of elite development Dan Ashworth and head of player and coach development Matt Crocker at St George’s Park to present a document designed to become England’s coaching blueprint: England DNA. The current squad are not products of it per se, not to the extent that the vibrant new generation coming may well be. And it is doubtful how much credit you can give the FA for their advance World Cup planning when their first choice for the managerial role was Allardyce. But England DNA is a document which clearly informed Southgate’s thinking in Russia and merits investigation.
We aim to develop England players with outstanding skills and decision-making abilities
Initially aimed at player development from U15s to U21s, England DNA is the FA’s attempt to centralise and codify coaching in this country - a response to the Spanish and then German systems which produced the World Cup winners of 2010 and 2014. It is nothing less than an attempt to radically reform the national football culture. Radically by England’s standards, at least. Under the sections, ‘Who we are’, ‘how we play’, ‘the future England player’, ‘how we coach’ and ‘how we support’, this document has acted as a mission statement for England at all levels. In terms of its technical and tactical targets, it is unambiguous: “England teams aim to dominate possession intelligently, selecting the right moments to progress the play and penetrate the opposition. To do so, we aim to develop England players with outstanding skills and decision-making abilities.”
Southgate’s first chance to properly apply this strategy was at the European Under-21 Championships the following summer in Czech Republic. England came bottom of their group, but it was a work in progress and Southgate’s squad for that tournament included three players who started against Tunisia: Harry Kane, John Stones and Jesse Lingard.
England's coach Gareth Southgate (R) speaks with England's goalkeeper Jordan Pickford
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The first inkling that something significantly different was occurring really came in the March friendlies against Netherlands and Italy. England were suddenly trying to play the ball out from the back like Barcelona or Manchester City. It was a high-wire act at times but the intent was clear. Jordan Pickford, soon to be a hero on the World Cup stage, was picked for his ability on the ball and made only his second appearance for England against Netherlands. Pickford’s skill with his feet pre-dates the cultural change at the FA’s highest levels but the England DNA document had given Southgate the intellectual and structural framework to trust in these qualities. As the blueprint says: “England goalkeepers will… fulfill the role of the 11th outfield player.”
If 2017 was the year that England’s youth teams wowed the world - runners up at the European U17 Championship, winners of the Toulon Tournament, European U19 champions and World Cup winners at U17 and U20 levels - 2018 was the year this advanced thinking began percolating into the senior team. The moment when the dinosaurs of the Golden Generation became extinct and a new strand of DNA could be identified. If Southgate’s current squad can hardly be said to be the technical equivalents of their German, Spanish or Brazilian counterparts, it is clear that joined-up thinking, lacking for so long in the national team, allowed for a unity and clarity of purpose. England had developed a progressive identity that was previously missing - as Rio Ferdinand so astutely observed, with some regret.
The March friendlies were also vital in a tactical sense, too. As well as witnessing the first instance of Kyle Walker being used in a back three to accommodate Kieran Trippier, they marked the final evolution of the World Cup team developed by Southgate and his assistant, Steve Holland. Having switched to a back three in the final game of qualifying, a 1-0 win over Lithuania, and then, additionally, a front two in the November friendlies against Germany and Brazil, the 1-0 win against Netherlands on March 23 saw England switch up their midfield as one of the two holders was pushed further forwards - in effect aping Pep Guardiola’s strategy as England put into place the kind of ‘free No. 8s’ which Manchester City had with Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva. In this case Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain and Lingard. As Southgate’s assistant coach explained in an impressively detailed chronicling of the team’s transformation early in the World Cup.
How could we take that to another level, and retain that stability?
“You need to be productive with what you’re doing. Certainly in qualification our team looked stable, but didn’t look exciting, didn’t create a lot of chances and didn’t score a lot of goals. So how could we take that to another level, and retain that stability? We didn’t concede a lot of goals, and we didn’t want to lose that, but to add the next bit. Holland was the first time you would have seen two offensive 8s, Lingard and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and that worked well, and that continued into the Italy game.”
Both Lingard and Alli contributed goals in Russia 2018 - the former with a rasping long-ranger against Panama, the latter with a header against Sweden to seal an easy quarter-final win - but if the tactical switch was designed to bring goals out of an England side which had previously struggled to score under Southgate, the net effect was not promising. A turgid second half against Tunisia, enlivened in injury time by Kane’s winner, showed England still had some work to do. So too the retreat against Colombia late on in the last-16 match when Southgate reverted to old modes of thinking and brought on Eric Dier in an attempt to close the game down. A new-found excellence at set-pieces propped up their campaign - with 10 of 12 goals at the World Cup coming via this route - but by the time they were eliminated, England had created fewer chances from open play than Saudi Arabia.
Jesse Lingard of England looks dejected following his team's defeat in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Semi Final match between England and Croatia
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In the semi-final, there was even a palpable sense of regression. After a bright start against Croatia, England’s ideas dried up. A stinging assessment from Croatia full-back Sime Vrsaljko invited some introspection: "The all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield,” he said. "But, when we pressed them, it turned out that they haven't."
They really, really were shown up for being a back-to-front team playing very basic football
Graeme Souness directly attributed England’s problems to Southgate’s midfield formulation. "You can't win the big trophies, you can't dominate football matches, you can't put yourself in a position where you are not giving the ball away unless you've got good players in midfield who can keep the ball,” he said after the Croatia result. "I come back to Lingard and Dele Alli - two players who want to get on the end of things after there has been clever play by somebody else… they really, really were shown up for being a back-to-front team playing very basic football."
Luka Modric’s ability to control a game was an element painfully absent in the England squad - a feeling which was reinforced when a far superior Belgium, with De Bruyne at their heart, easily brushed off England 2-0 in the third-place play-off. If Southgate is using all the right building blocks, with England DNA providing the progressive framework, there were more specific questions of tactics and personnel which needed answers in qualifying for Euro 2020. Still, Southgate was happy with the progress he saw. As the World Cup progressed, he specifically highlighted, “Stones and Maguire, bringing the ball out and playing with composure, we had not have seen in previous years. That was symbolic and why I joined the FA five years ago. I believed that was possible.”
4. A new face
Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier, John Stones, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling of England
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Not only had England’s approach been radically altered, breaking from the yoke of the mostly regressive 15-year era spanning Sven-Goran Eriksson to Sam Allardyce, this England team had developed a new profile too.
In Allardyce’s singular match in charge - a 1-0 win against Slovakia in the first World Cup qualifier in September 2016 - a seemingly nervous Big Sam infamously said it was, “not for me to say where to play Wayne Rooney.” Southgate would not make the same mistake as product was prioritised over reputation. Rooney had been a problem for successive England managers but his departure from the stage was perfectly orchestrated by Southgate as he pushed him to the fringes with a respectful and avuncular demeanour. Rooney was dropped for the qualifier against Slovenia in October 2016 and retired with a record 53 goals in 119 caps in August of 2017.
The cull was ruthless. Chris Smalling was discarded when it became apparent his passing skills were not up to the required standard - Gary Cahill, too, until Joe Gomez’s injury gave him a late reprieve for the World Cup. In Southgate’s selection for the finals, there was no room for Joe Hart or Jack Wilshere, remnants of tarnished and failed regimes who did not fit the profile Southgate wanted. England’s fabric was changing. And that meant new heroes would be forged.
We’ve scrapped and fought our way
This was a team of players from “Barnsley and Leeds and Bolton and Blackburn,” as Southgate said in Russia. He might have added another Northern town, home to the man who became known as the Bury Beckham. Kieran Trippier treated the nickname as an honour, but in four weeks in Russia he put together a more impressive and important major tournament campaign than David Beckham ever did - replete with a Beckham-esque free-kick in a World Cup semi-final. Farmed out on loan by Manchester City as a youngster, his career took shape outside of the Premier League and he was hardly unique in this. Neither cult hero Harry ‘Slab head’ Maguire nor Harry Kane were overnight successes. “We’ve scrapped and fought our way,” noted Southgate. “Most of our boys have played in the Championship or lower, whether they started there or played on loan there.”
If the Golden Generation was characterised by a group of players who emerged from some of the most gilded youth systems in the country and seemed born into the role of superstars - players like Beckham, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard - Southgate was managing a new breed. He talked of how his young and diverse squad represented “modern England”. It made them feel accessible, and likeable.
Some important additions had been made behind the scenes too. Steve Holland’s tactical influence was well-known and well-regarded but psychologist Dr Pippa Grange, appointed by the FA in 2017 to increase ‘psychological resilience’, was being hailed by players as a key influence in changing the mentality of England players. “She's done a lot of work with us, she's an amazing person,” Dele Alli observed.
Alongside Holland, attacking coach Allan Russell - who had spells at Mansfield, Hamilton Academicals and Carolina Railhawks on his CV during an eclectic but uninspired playing career - was also wielding influence. The FA had identified that a greater percentage of goals came from set-plays at World Cups and Russell was brought into place in March 2017 with a remit to develop the innovative and deadly set-piece routines which became a defining feature of England’s campaign. Glenn Hoddle, on ITV, derived great enjoyment from discussing the “Love Train” tactic which saw gangs of England players line up in formation to attack a set-piece. Russell was also said to have played a role in improving the country’s notoriously dismal performance from the penalty spot. Both factors came into play in a decisive way for England.
England's John Stones scores their first goal
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Two years previously, a miserable Euro 2016 campaign was best encapsulated by the sight of Harry Kane taking corners. The players even took it upon themselves to try and undo this farcical failure of planning on Roy Hodgson’s part. “I don’t know, Roy obviously decided for Harry to take corners,” Rooney later revealed. “I felt at the time that he was the top goalscorer in the Premier League. He’s a big lad in the box. It was Roy’s decision. But after the first game I don’t think Harry wanted to take the corners so I went and took them. I felt I probably should have taken them anyway.”
There was no such equivocation under Southgate. With Trippier approaching set-pieces with the clarity and accuracy of a military sniper, VAR regularly punishing defenders for holding and Russell’s NFL-inspired blocking and running strategies causing havoc, England were filling their boots from dead-ball situations. No more so than in a thumping 6-1 win over Panama, where Kane scored two penalties and John Stones thundered in two headers.
Southgate’s Midas touch extended from the players he picked to the coaches he installed. Everything was going right. Even a defeat to Belgium in the final group game had the effect of opening up the draw like a ripe satsuma - despite 24 hours or so of frenzied reaction to his decision to deploy a weakened team for the 1-0 defeat. But the Belgium game would only truly be a good game to lose if England could follow it up with a win in the last-16.
5. A new mentality
Jordan Pickford of England is mobbed by teammates in celebration
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June 27, 2016. The Allianz Riviera stadium, Nice. Maybe the darkest day in England’s national football history. Certainly a dark night of the soul. As England were knocked out of Euro 2016 by Iceland, the players lay strewn across the turf, united in turmoil and grief. It was as if they had frozen during the match, panicked by the reaction that would follow a defeat of this magnitude, sickened by the rising bile in their stomachs. It was a night when all of the psychological insecurities infecting England came to the surface and forced one massive collective brain fade.
It would also prove a turning point. Allardyce was the immediate, and brief, beneficiary of Hodgson’s failure but Southgate soon inherited the squad responsible for one of the most embarrassing results England had suffered and set about divining what he and his team could learn from it. Tragedy turned to opportunity. “We felt it was important to learn from it, unpick it a bit, and find out why it happened,” Southgate said.
By qualifying from their World Cup group in 2018, England had already outperformed their result in 2014, when they took one point and were knocked out after two games, and had started to make amends for Euro 2016. But they hadn’t experienced a truly cathartic moment. Harry Kane’s late winner against Tunisia led to an explosion of joy across the country but implicit in that relief was recognition that England could easily have drawn. A 6-1 thumping against Panama was a thrilling 90 minutes, but against one of the weakest sides in the competition. A defeat to Belgium did not augur particularly well, even with a weakened team.
England and Colombia players look on from half way line during the penalty shoot out
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But Colombia in the last-16 presented a chance not only to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2006, but in doing so harpoon the white whale which England had pursued for decades.
England were leading 1-0 going into injury-time courtesy of another Kane penalty at the Spartak Stadium, his third of the World Cup, before Colombia levelled in injury time. A body blow which threatened to KO England completely as they stumbled through the first period of extra-time. When 120 minutes were up, a sense of fatalism enveloped many England fans. We knew what happened in penalty shoot-outs.
England had only experienced the high of winning on penalties once, against Spain in the quarter-finals of Euro 96. That contained a cathartic moment of its own as Stuart Pearce roared in passion and relief after making amends for his miss in the 1990 semi-final against West Germany. The problem was, it only lasted four days. Then England lost to Germany in the semi-finals on spot-kicks and a 22-year sickness was cast on the national game. Southgate had seen his penalty saved and a psychodrama which spanned generations was born. Argentina 1998, Portugal 2004, Portugal 2006, Italy 2012.
England's goalkeeper Jordan Pickford saves a penalty kicked by Colombia's forward Carlos Bacca
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The clearest evidence that Southgate’s England were a clean break from the past was the unique sensation of seeing them actually manage to win a penalty shoot-out. Jordan Pickford saved from Carlos Bacca and Eric Dier struck his penalty past David Ospina. A nation exhaled - and then celebrated wildly into the night. Traffic was brought to a halt in towns and cities across England as a mass exorcism was conducted. It was no fluke: penalties had been discussed and practiced with scientific rigour, Southgate even attempting to replicate the effects of fatigue on spot-kicks during training. On the night, Pickford was handed a water bottle with cheat notes written on it in marker pen before the shoot-out commenced.
We were thinking 'please, let's not let him see the bottle'
"The night before the game we all sat down as keepers and went over everything that could come up, going over penalties as far back as you like,” said Jack Butland. "As a team we are covering every box. Me, Popey (Nick Pope) and Jordan had individual bits of paper. We watched penalties and each came to our own conclusion, which all matched up. We knew what we were going to do so there was no grey area. In years gone by teams have done the old paper in the sock with people's penalties on, and the bottle was just our way of preparing for each penalty taker. We covered our bottle with a towel. We were worried as Ospina didn't have a drink, so we were worried he was going to go for Jordan's bottle. We were thinking 'please, let's not let him see the bottle'. Fortunately, we avoided that."
The margins were slim, but the rewards were great as overnight, England erased the most unwanted aspect of their football identity. “The English can’t win penalty shoot outs and have a ‘butterfingers’ for a goalkeeper: two laws which have held good for decades up until Russia 2018,” wrote German newspaper Die Welt. “Jordan Pickford is breaking all the rules.”
If England were suddenly taking, and saving, penalties like the Germans, they were also indulging in the dark arts like South Americans. Following the tempestuous match against Colombia, a Russian reporter asked Southgate: “Your generation of players did not fall as much as the current generation of players. What do you think happened to the spirit of English football? Your generation played like rocks. The current generation fall every time the wind blows.” Southgate’s reply was a knowing one: “Maybe we’re getting a bit smarter. Maybe we’re now playing by the rules the rest of the world are playing by.”
And if England had re-set their relations with the rest of the world, they were also doing the same with their supporters back home.
6. A new connection
England football fans celebrate England's first goal during a Hyde Park screening
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On the day of England’s World Cup semi-final against Croatia on June 11, London’s Hyde Park hosted a hastily-arranged festival of football. It is estimated that as many as 500,000 applied for the 30,000 tickets on offer after a frenzy erupted when mayor Sadiq Khan announced the free screening. Hollywood legends were jockeying for admission. Soap stars and music legends were besieging contacts in an attempt to gain access. For the throngs who made it through the gates, it was an unforgettable occasion. Oasis played Knebworth three weeks after England took on Germany in the semi-finals of Euro 96 - in 2018, it was as though the two events had melded together in a compelling confluence of football and festival.
The Hyde Park event marked the height of the nationwide euphoria which the World Cup evoked in those special summer weeks. The Lightning Seeds came on stage to sing ‘Three Lions’. They had it sung back to them by the 30,000-strong choir. Atomic Kitten was on the crowd’s playlist too: “Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on, football’s coming home again.” Thousands of litres of beer were hurled into the air as Kieran Tripper scored his free-kick after five minutes - and thousands more were sunk in dismay when Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic sent England home.
They were scenes repeated across the country, in every pub and bar, and for every game, starting when Kane scored his late winner against Tunisia. This was the first World Cup where social media amplified England fan reactions to such an extent, making them into viral content. There was nothing to celebrate, no equivalent videos to share, in the awful 2010 and 2014 campaigns. The beer-chucking seen from Croydon to Leeds took on a performative element but the emotion it evoked was no less authentic as a result. It wasn’t just social media which saw this level of engagement, but old media too: 26.5 million people watched the semi-final defeat to Croatia on TV.
It spoke of a real emotional investment in this team. ‘Likeable’ was the word you kept hearing about England’s players and manager. Particularly the manager, who began to assume religious proportions. After England games, fans stayed in the stadium for over an hour to serenade him. Back home, the Southgate worship was out of control. People wondered why he couldn’t be appointed Prime Minister; he was hailed as the answer to toxic masculinity; and sales of waistcoats increased in recognition of an unlikely and unwilling style icon. “As a centre half with a face like I’ve got then that’s a very rare position to be in,” he told the BBC. “I’m no David Beckham."
The rebridging of the bond between supporters and the team was a two-way process. Players were shown videos of fans leaping into each other's’ arms during interviews and it engaged them emotionally too. "It’s massive," said Harry Kane. "We see all the videos. I was one of those fans not too long ago getting drinks thrown over me. It's about bringing the whole country together and seeing them enjoy it." Southgate’s stars were not just passive subjects, they were active participants too as they joined in with memes on Twitter - famously Kyle Walker ribbing his defensive colleague Harry Maguire. Jesse Lingard and Trent-Alexander Arnold were like giddy fans back home as they played with the “it’s coming home” meme on the pitch after the penalty shoot-out win over Colombia.
The ‘it’s coming home’ movement started out ironically but became incrementally less so the further England progressed. It became like a fever dream. Borrowing the soundtrack to so many disappointments - a song which took decades of England humiliations as its starting point - was a form of subconscious self-protection but it began to develop a hopeful tone, too. Still, claims that this movement spilled into arrogance - Vedran Corluka’s pointed comment that “it’s not coming home” after the semi-final suggested what the Croatians thought of the phrase sweeping England - missed the point and ignored the context. In an atomised and fractured world, where adverts are microtargeted on specific personality points, this was an organic shared experience for millions of people which had the notable effect of making the World Cup that all-too rare sensation for an England fan: great fun. Football did come home, in a way, as the national team returned to the hearts of the people.
There were instances when the delirium seemed excessive. Maybe England could reflect on how the lyrics ‘it’s coming home’ are perceived in the rest of the world - even if you can hardly try and police supporter enthusiasm. Attempts to portray this new expression of national unity as an antidote, and even a response to, a calamitous Brexit also seemed an overreach. Until Southgate welcomed the comparison himself.
“There’s been a connection with the team from the people of England,” he said to ITV in the build-up to the Croatia match. “And I think what I’ve sensed over the last few years is that the country have wanted something to unite them. There has been some difficult moments for us as a country, and some questions for us to answer as a country, and the power of sport to unite is often the thing that brings people together. Of course football is the biggest of all sports and the World Cup is the biggest of all football events so to have been able to have had a positive impact on everybody at home and get them on the same page, even if for only brief moments of enjoyment and happiness, is very special.”
How united will England be as a country when the Euro 2020 Championship comes around? It’s impossible to know. The semi-finals and final are being held at Wembley, so if England qualify it’s likely the words “it’s coming home” will earn a reprise. But can they be as sweetly naive as they were in the early days of 2018 - or will the increased expectation generated by England’s success in Russia render this summer a glorious one-off?
7. A new story
England's defender Kieran Trippier (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring the opening goal
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There was a phrase that Southgate and his players repeated all summer, as if it had been drilled into them like a talking point for a politician prepping for Question Time. “We are writing our own history.”
Southgate embarked on a project to uncouple England from the oppression of their past failures. Again, the mission statement contained within England DNA was explicit: “English football has a rich heritage and history that we want all England players to be aware and respectful of. History itself, however, must not become a burden. The future is the focus and the aim is to create new history.” Southgate mirrored those very words during the World Cup. “They’re getting blamed for what my generation and generations that followed did,” he said. “But these guys had an opportunity to start from scratch and create their own history. That’s what we are focused on.”
And that is exactly what England achieved. Admittedly, you could make a case that in being knocked out by the first elite team they faced - in the process losing touch with the new playing philosophy they tried to cultivate - all England ultimately managed was to revert to their inglorious past. But that would overlook all the genuine achievements contained within England’s World Cup summer. All the ways in which this was different.
Southgate catalogued a number of them the morning after the semi-final defeat to Croatia. “We’ve asked a huge amount of them, to take on board lots of new ideas, lots of new ways of working and they’ve really embraced that,” he said on the Lion’s Den show on England’s YouTube channel. “They’ve made so many breakthroughs through the tournament. The late goal against Tunisia: we’ve not always been a team who’s been able to do that under pressure. We tore Panama apart, and people will look at that level of opposition but we’ve had those games in the past and not been able to do that. The first knockout win for 10 years. So we kept knocking down barriers and writing our own history. I remember Germany in 2006 and it feels like we are a similar place. It feels like we have reconnected with the fans, we’ve shown real signs of progress. They kept progressing, kept improving, kept making latter stages and it still took them eight years to win but they were always knocking on the door and that has to be our ambition.”
Across four unforgettable weeks in Russia, new connections were forged with supporters. New ways of thinking, playing and planning were all implemented. A new form of leadership was portrayed. New horizons were glimpsed - and then ripped away. But there was no remorse, for once. Instead the prevailing emotion was pride. Euro 2016 ended with screams of fury; World Cup 2018 ended with thousands of England fans in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow singing ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’.
It spoke of a sense of absolution, forgiveness, a bond being restored. In English football’s summer of love, Gareth Southgate and his players had indeed started to write a new history for the national side - and things could never be the same again.