The clock that hangs in an FA office will continue to count down to the 2022 World Cup, marking the time when the organisation have long looked to travel to a major tournament more in expectation than hope.
But once the bitter disappointment of this defeat to Croatia has subsided, once England can take the positives from a World Cup semi-final they actually led for more than an hour, savour the moment when Gareth Southgate and a side that was so much greater than the sum of its parts invited us to dream the impossible dream; to dare think that, after more than half a century of hurt, football might indeed be coming home.
Gary Lineker told them to forget this World Cup, sharing the view that was part of the FA’s grand plan when they identified a winter tournament in Qatar as England’s target.
Gareth Southgate took the latest step in his remarkable career in Moscow on Wednesday night
The 47-year-old manager led England into their first World Cup semi-final for 28 years
Southgate is more than a manager to this England team, he is their mentor, guide and saviour
Southgate, however, was not listening. No, England’s manager had different ideas, rolling up his sleeves way before he pulled on his World Cup waistcoat and convincing his players to trust him when he told them that they could be contenders; believe him when he said that this, not some faraway event in air conditioned stadiums in the Middle East, was worth a proper crack.
Persuading them to share in his vision, in a plan devised first over a meal in Sochi with his super-smart assistant, Steve Holland, is perhaps Southgate’s greatest achievement thus far.
After all, he did not boast the record of the men the FA had tried in the past to make their manager. He was not Jose Mourinho, he was not Arsene Wenger. On paper he was not even Sam Allardyce.
But here in Russia he has grown immeasurably in stature, standing as tall as Spartacus outside the Spartak Stadium; cutting the figure of a man who, in the eyes of his England players as well as many supporters, has achieved an even higher status than any coach the FA might have considered before him.
Southgate on the touchline as the England Under 21 side play in the 2014 Toulon Tournament
As recently as 2016, Southgate was managing on crooked wooden benches in empty stadiums
He has brought players like Harry Kane (right) and Eric Dier (second right) through the ranks
GARETH SOUTHGATE’S UPRISING
August 2013: Becomes England U21 manager
June 2015: England U21s are knocked out of the Euros, finishing last in the group
May 2016: England U21s win Toulon Tournament for the first time in 22 years under Southgate’s stewardship
September 2016: Becomes interim manager of England’s senior team following Sam Allardyce’s departure
November 2016: Signs four-year deal to become permanent England boss
He is not just their manager but their mentor, guide and saviour and they hang on his every word, buying not just into his football but his philosophy.
As they sunk to the ground at the sound of the final whistle, some of them shedding tears, remember where they were.
Remember that day in Chantilly only two years ago when Roy Hodgson had to be forced to reflect on a defeat to Iceland, a broken man who had just walked away from a broken team.
‘They now have a major bridge to repair,’ said Hodgson, and what a massive task his successor faced.
Allardyce was first invited to begin the process but it was Southgate who then emerged as the architect of the England rebuilding project, delivering on a Wembley-size scale.
Evolution came before revolution, Southgate and Holland making the minor changes that guaranteed passage to the 2018 finals before deciding in a restaurant on the Black Sea to tear up a very English blueprint and start again. It wasn’t just a change in culture and attitude but a change in formation, one that led to the transformation that has carried them all the way to this point.
He became England boss in November 2016 after taking charge of four games as interim boss
The team building trips to military camps made headlines, but also built crucial relationships
It took Southgate 18 months of work to turn England into the exciting team we saw in Russia
Out on the pitch on Wednesday night at the Luzhniki was evidence of Southgate’s shrewdness and intelligence, not least in the form of the players he has promoted to the senior ranks. Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford represent major discoveries for the national team, and typify the narrative of Southgate’s England with their journeys from the lower echelons of the English game to the grandest stage of all.
What a journey it has been. From Harry Kane’s stoppage-time winner against Tunisia to Jesse Lingard’s wonder goal against Panama. From Pickford’s penalty save against Colombia to Eric Dier’s ice-cold heroics moments later. Never mind Maguire’s towering header against Sweden and the quite wonderful free-kick from Trippier in this semi-final.
As the Tottenham full-back remarked only last week when he was compared to David Beckham, ‘not bad for a lad from Bury’.
It meant they were ahead for 63 minutes, for a large chunk of that time also dominating their opponents only to succumb to an Ivan Perisic equaliser that took this contest into extra time.
Twenty years on from his penalty miss at Euro 96, Southgate was the toast of the supporters
His international career is defined by what he achieved in this crazy, bone-dry summer of 2018
Faced with another 30 minutes of battle Southgate addressed his players once more, going first to John Stones and then to Ashley Young, Kane, Kyle Walker and Jordan Henderson.
In the end it was not enough. In the end another momentary lapse in concentration was punished by Mario Mandzukic and it is to Croatia, not an England dead on their feet and down to 10 men in the final minutes because of an injury to Trippier, who now return her to face France on Sunday.
But Southgate is no longer a football man whose international career is been defined by that penalty miss at Euro 96. It is defined by what he achieved in this crazy, bone-dry summer of 2018, and by what he has suddenly made seem possible.
England’s journey does not finish here, even if the last thing anyone wants is another meaningless encounter with Belgium this weekend.
For Southgate and his team it continues way beyond that. It continues with the development of this side, with the promotion of young players claiming major prizes for England’s junior teams, and a push towards Euro 2020 and a possible semi-final and final at Wembley.
And it continues, surely, to the next World Cup. The clock is already counting down, but it does so now with a far greater sense of purpose and with Southgate and his players moving forward as one.
Southgate and the England players applaud the fans who have followed them around Russia
The Englad boss has only just begun his mission to transform England into tournament winners
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.