It’s reaching “squeaky bum” time for England. And guess what, it’s not the third game of the first round, where we usually sit sweating on a point or three. This is the semi-final; dizzy heights, heights England haven’t reached since the glorious Italia’ 90, largely regarded the most romantic World Cup ever in England, as we actually did well. Nostalgic memories come rushing back of the funny arm dance amongst the fans and a new found love for the coach. Bobby Robson has a few similarities with Gareth Southgate; both being humble men, creating a good nucleus in the team, tactically astute and resilient after being very much criticised by the press. In Harry Kane we have a striker who we know can pull us out of trouble if needed just like Gary Lineker, and Harry Maguire possesses a similar bulldog spirit to Terry Butcher. Is it the summer of love? We wait to see. Saying that, in Honduras it isn’t strictly summer, but the sun has been out most days so it certainly feels like it, but whereas Brits are watching the games in the mid-afternoon or evening, I’m catching them at 8am or lunch time. I must admit, part of me wishes I were back at home for this. Few Hondurans are following England in this world cup, but those who are, thank you so much.
England have surpassed all expectations. They have been on the easier side of the draw and beating teams we expected them to, but they have been doing things which recent previous England teams would have failed, such as beating Tunisia in the last minute, taking full advantage of a weak team (Panama), beating a team on penalities and overcoming adversity and provocation, and beating a bogey team (Sweden) quite convincingly. Here we have a team who play for each other, have belief and want to win. We also, it seems, have a quality goalkeeper at long, long last, who quite simply saved the day against Sweden. Would David James, Joe Hart, Robert Green et al been able to make those saves? No sé. I’ll be honest, I haven’t been following Jordan Pickford’s career. I know he learned his skills in the English lower leagues from going out on loan from Sunderland, and I know he had an excellent first season at Everton last season. Apart from that, he was a virtual unknown before the tournament and seen as a risk, but he’s a nice surprise. His delivery of the ball is something special too, and I wonder if Pep Guardiola et al would consider him. I also like the way he berates his defenders. Last but not least, he looks like the little boy in the series This Is England. There you go, the little kid who joined a gang of nationalist skinheads is now the national goalkeeper. How people turn their lives around.
Other honorable mentions have to go to Trippier and Young, who work the wings so professionally and productively (Young’s passing in the first half against Sweden was a bit loose, however). Stones, Maguire and Walker have seemed mostly strong and organised throughout the tournament so far. I admit that I haven’t always been Stones’s biggest fan and I questioned the wisdom of playing Walker in central defence when for me he’s been one of England’s best right fall back’s in recent years, but he’s added speed to that area. And Maguire. What more can I say. Immense. Like John Terry without the baggage.
There’s also Jordan Henderson, who we saw playing a major role in Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final, who’s movement and passing has improved a ten-fold in recent years. His ability to control the opposition and move the game forward, putting constant pressure on their midfield and offence, forcing them into mistakes; he’s more than the regular anchorman. His movement and vision made Sweden look a breeze yesterday. For me, he deserves more plaudits than he gets. Remember, in many of these games, he’s been England’s only recognised midfielder; Jese Lingard and Dele Alli play as forwards at club level. He’s filling gaps they leave. Tell me, would Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard have done that at their prime for England? I doubt it. And I put that down to Gareth Southgate, who has glued this team together with charm when not long ago people were really doubting him. Kudos to him.
It’s been emotional. We’ve experienced years of disappointment, which has seen England implode spectacularly with squads packed with talent (thinking of the 2006 World Cup), the scandals, the reliance on one player (Beckham and Rooney come to mind), the hype, the egos, the arrogance, the wags, the nerves, the weak mentality, the injuries, the red cards, the desperation, the stabs in the dark by employing foreign coaches who were deemed saviours to English football but knew little about the English mindset nor the culture. And all along we had the players and coaches sitting under our very noses. The number of times I’ve taken to my blog to vent my rage at a crumbling football team and another failure, and it feels refreshing to write positively. This isn’t a team that wants revenge or is belligerent. It’s a team that just wants to win, no matter the opposition.
For many years there has been a loss of connection between the fans and the players. Arrogant players and the disjointed performances do not represent what the English want or are about. We want to see good football with positivity. For the last couple of years, from afar, I’ve witnessed a divided nation politically, thanks to Brexit; a mess caused by the arrogant political elite which is still leading the country down a lane of insecurity. Yet seeing the people celebrating again, being happy, willing on the team on; it’s very emotional and a great stress release. Okay, storming IKEA and jumping on ambulances is a little too far. But the elation and release is terrific to see. Our politicians have shown they can’t solve their disputes over Brexit for the good of the people, but the team and fans battle on; it’s a wonderful distraction for something worrying lurking in the backs of everyone’s minds. It’s not going to solve questions over the country’s finances, Scotland or Northern Ireland, but the team are playing well and we’re happy. No doubt there will be calls to replace Theresa May with Gareth Southgate. No. Wait. Add him to the throne. Shift over Queen Lizzie 2; we’re bringing on your sub.
For Hondurans, I suppose you had a similar feeling when La H qualified for the 2010 World Cup during the political crisis in 2009; that wonderful chaotic feeling that people still tell me of almost a decade later.
We haven’t won anything yet. Nor have we beaten a top, top team. No doubt France and Belgium possess more talented squads. And we face the hardest test against Croatia. England believe, not arrogantly, that it can make the final. Yet it feels like the team is still taking strides. It’s a dawn, maybe a false one, but one where we have witnessed our youth teams win international championships and it will soon be time to ween them into the senior team. A lot of work is being made by the Football Association to introduce new quality talent, but this must be recognised by the Premier League. The transfer window has opened and the top clubs are automatically looking at talent from abroad rather than having the patience to promote from within. Only Tottenham and a little from Liverpool have been focusing on England’s talent. I hope the FA’s work doesn’t end up just as that: sweet FA.
As for Croatia. We’ll see ….