So now we are here, in this place where we never dreamed we would be, do we look up or do we look down? Do we gaze up to the stars like the cosmonauts whose faces adorn the sides of the shabby tower blocks that line the dual carriageway running between the centre of this city and the arena where England reached their first World Cup semi-final for 28 years.
Do we give thanks for what this unheralded group of young men are doing in this tournament and accept that this is as good as it is going to get this time? Do we remind ourselves that we have measured out our lives in England disappointments at tournaments and that we had given up on ever seeing the likes of this again?
Do we give thanks for what we have got and accept that this is a team that has over-achieved by getting to the last four, that it has been an emotional journey that has helped to unite a riven country and that it does not really matter if we fall at the semi-final stage on Wednesday night?
This England team can reach for the stars after reaching the World Cup semi-finals on Saturday
Do we say that we do not really belong in the same league as Belgium or France and that, if we do get to the final, we will lose to them anyway. Do we submit to that old defeatism that has damned us so often in the past.
Do we protect ourselves from the mockery of those who would mock us because we are so excited by what Gareth Southgate’s team are achieving in Russia and acknowledge that the adventure is coming to an end?
Or do we rail against that lack of ambition? Do we say: ‘You know what, let’s stop apologising for ourselves. It is how we fell in the first place.’
Do we do what Southgate has done and look to the skies? Because now we are here, there is a feeling that we can go further and that this team who were supposed to hit their ceiling in the quarter-finals, is hitting its stride and growing into the tournament.
Now, we should all do what Gareth Southgate has done and look to the skies and dare to dream
In a quiet way, England were excellent in Samara. Jordan Pickford was outstanding in goal, producing three brilliant saves. The defence, which kept its first clean sheet of the tournament, is getting better and better.
It is not just effective, this three-man unit of John Stones, Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker, it is something to be admired and cherished, a symbol, Southgate said, of what he wanted to achieve when he took the England job.
Jordan Henderson, once again, anchored midfield superbly. Dele Alli vindicated Southgate’s selection of him even though there are doubts about his fitness with the second goal that killed Sweden off. Raheem Sterling has still not scored but his pace and his intelligence stretched the Swedish defence out of shape and softened them up for the decisive blows when they came.
England look settled and content. They are together and they are strong. They have a routine they like and a camp north of St Petersburg where they feel at home. They get on well. There is harmony between the players, no splits, no divides. They are a team getting on with business.
England were brilliant from the back to the front with Jordan Pickford in inspiring form
Raheem Sterling has still not scored but his pace and his intelligence stretched Sweden
Rarely has an ordinary match like England’s victory over the Swedes brought such an extraordinary outcome. Rarely has a match so devoid of drama, so stripped of tension, yielded such a momentous result. But that is the way England and Southgate want it. No fuss. No stars. No prima donnas. Just a team feeding off each other’s determination and will.
When the final whistle went, there was no sense that a goal had been reached. Stones punched the air and jumped into the arms of Maguire but he was the only one who celebrated immediately.
The rest shook hands with their vanquished opponents and then went to salute the England fans behind the goal. The jubilation began to show then but there was still a sense that they have not yet achieved their goal.
Southgate struck the same note. When he came into his press conference, he listened to the first question which invited him to reflect on his own personal achievement in becoming only the third manager after Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson to take an England team to this stage of the World Cup. Instead, he began to recite a list of names.
There was jubilation at the end but there was still a sense that their goal has not yet been met
The men he wanted to mention, the men he praised first, were not the men who had just taken England to their first World Cup semi-final since the last century. Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck, Nick Pope, Jack Butland and Danny Rose were the first names on his lips. It was the bit-part players, the men in the shadows.
He talked about how important they were. He said that if you had bad characters in a squad, you tended to find yourself going home very soon. So victory over Sweden and all that it meant, he said, was as much about the support acts as it was the leading players. Southgate meant it, too. This was more than just lip-service to team spirit.
When he was invited to talk about himself again, he went off-piste again. He mentioned the wives of Jones and Fabian Delph, who had given their blessings for their husbands to return to the squad after they had given birth.
Southgate deflected his own personal achievement to praise the players in the shadows
‘It is about the collective,’ Southgate kept saying, over and over again. The strength of the collective, the will of the collective, the willingness to work hard, the desire to improve, the desire to keep improving.
It explained, he said, why the least experienced squad in the tournament, a team without world-renowned stars, a team picked from only 33 per cent of Premier League players, is now one match away from playing in the World Cup final next Sunday.
‘We’re not the finished article,’ said Southgate. ‘We don’t have renowned world-class players yet but good young players who are showing on a world stage that they can be brave with the ball, try to play the right way and who have shown some mental resilience.
‘We know that, in years to come, they’ll be stronger. But today was a huge opportunity for us. Not something we wanted to miss out on.
The England boss insisted they are not the finished article but want to seize this chance now
‘We’ve worked hard at establishing a clear identity in the way we play. We’ve got an outstanding mentality with the group of players. There’s a humility about them, a recognition of where they were 18 months ago and the work that was needed to get them where they are now. We have some really excellent characters.
‘When you’re away as long as we’ve been, that’s really important. That can put you out of a tournament really quickly if you don’t have the right type of people. Super players with the right mentality, really promising talent. The players need to keep working as hard as they are for each other and playing with the quality we believe they have.’
The reality is that this team is not the equal of the 1966 team or the 1990 team in terms of its individuals. The first was stocked with players of the calibre of Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Alan Ball. The second boasted Gary Lineker, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne.
But the fact that this England team does not have renowned players like that makes what it is doing all the more remarkable.
So let’s stop apologising for ourselves and what we have achieved. Let’s ignore the talk about the easy route we have had. Let’s not forget that Sweden beat Italy in a play-off to get to this tournament. Let’s not look down. Let’s look up.
This side is different and has not got the star players like the 1966 World Cup-winning team had
It’s worked because there are no stars, so lets stop apologising and start looking up not down
Author: Nancy Parker
Nancy Parker is a five time Emmy Award winning journalist and seven time Emmy nominee who has spent almost twenty five years covering news in South Louisiana. She has anchored every prime time newscast at WVUE FOX8 during her twenty year tenure in New Orleans.