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Before a ball had even been kicked in Russia, England fans across the land were saying that football is coming home. In 99 percent of cases, this was done ironically. Yet with each victory, the optimism levels crept up to a point where most of the country genuinely felt we could finish the job. We got so very close and despite the agonizing manner of the semi-final defeat, this young England squad have done their nation proud.
The groups were navigated with some ease. A hard-fought win over Tunisia, a straightforward three points against Panama, and a narrow defeat to Belgium made sure that we made it into the last sixteen comfortably; already an improvement on four years ago. The argument had been made that we hadn’t yet beaten a top side, but we’d be in for a tough challenge in the second round.
It started well against Columbia with Harry Kane making no mistake with his penalty in the first half. Conceding so late in the match could have caused us to collapse going into extra time, yet we held our own and took the game to penalties. Now any England fan, no matter how old they are, knows the history of penalty shootouts. I was feeling sick to the stomach at the thought of another shoot-out and when Jordan Henderson saw his spot-kick saved, my heart sank. It looked as though it was going to be Italia '90 or Germany 2006 all over again, then came the time of Jordan Pickford. The man from Sunderland made a terrific save to hand Eric Dier the chance to seal our place in the quarterfinals. The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder calmly slotted home past Ospina and the England World Cup adventure went on.
An all European tie was our reward in the last eight as we came up against a Sweden side who had topped their group and knocked out Switzerland in the previous round. Victory here was a bit more straightforward and Harry Maguire got things going with a proper defender’s header. He was one of the many players in the squad making his tournament debut but he, like many others, played as though they were seasoned veterans. Maguire and his defensive partners needed to dig in and Jordan Pickford made some superb saves at the start of the second half to keep England in the lead. The second goal from Dele Alli came at a fantastic time for England, it helped to relax supporters and to a surely lesser extent the player and management staff.
Sweden could have been playing for another week and not scored, Pickford continued to push away everything that was thrown at him and this resilient display made sure that we’d be playing in the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time in 28 years. The nation was ready, and my word what a feeling it was.
Our opposition, Croatia, had made it hard work reaching the last four, with penalties required in both of their previous knockout matches. It was always going to be a tough ask but we came flying out of the blocks and the second Kieran Trippier's free-kick hit the back of the net there was absolute delirium across the land. Football was continuing its journey home and if chances had been taken later in the half, we could have had a much more comfortable lead at halftime.
It was vital to keep feet on the ground, but you’d have to be a stubborn pessimist to not look ahead to a World Cup final showdown with France. The second Ivan Perisic fired home past Pickford, the sinking feeling came around. Our young side never really got going in the second half and the game could have been over in normal time if not for a superb save from Pickford to prevent Mario Mandzukic. As it was, extra time loomed. I was in a crowded pub, but I had an overwhelming sense of loneliness. I don’t mean this in a negative way, it’s just the sense of isolation was something I’d never experienced before. When Mandzukic planted the ball in the bottom corner of our net, I almost felt like crying. The sudden weight of dread made the remaining ten minutes of extra time agonizing and the full-time whistle rang out with an eerie echo. We were so close to a World Cup final but fell just short.
The magnificent World Cup run may be over, but it has been a wonderful summer for English football. We took a young, inexperienced squad to Russia and we surpassed all expectations. We put in some brave performances and England should be proud of their football team. They will return home next week and should do so with their heads held high, ready to return to their clubs. With the success of the youth sides in recent years, combined with the senior sides run to the semi-finals, the future looks bright for our national side; our time will come.