Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson once stated ‘a week is a long time in politics’ – well, after all, he is well-positioned to make such a bold statement, having twice led his country; his first spell, in particular, heralded as one of the greatest periods of social and industrial change in the twentieth century.
Well, if Harold Wilson was a football supporter, he may well have swiftly implied that ‘six weeks in football is a lifetime.’
For it is just six weeks since England were knocked out of the World Cup in the semi-finals against Croatia, and what a turbulent, joyous and momentous ride it was that the national side took us on in Russia.
As the squad was announced, the inquisitions began – the Jack Wilshere and Joe Hart exclusions caused great debate, the lack of experienced goalkeeper concerned most, would Harry Kane really be match fit? The central defensive partnership and all the usual talking points were ongoing, whether that be in print, on radio or just in general conversation, the domestic season was well and truly on the back burner, England at a World Cup had truly started to gather pace, or had it?
While the usual debates had been talked about until the preverbal cows had come home, the general mood of the English people wasn’t much of anticipation, it was of a much more subdued and dare to say it, a more relaxed mood.
Not relaxed in the sense of England winning the thing, far from it, it was a more sense of perceived expectation, basically hinting at what had gone before ‘England getting through the group and getting knocked out by the first good team we come across’ was the general feel of the many, not the few.
Everyone knew our group opponents, the route to heartache and everything else that stood in England’s way long before, it was now down to the squad, a squad not filled with experience, not burdened with fear or failure, a squad going out to Russia on a hiding to nothing, or so it seemed.
Those young red-shirted Three Lions lined up in the last week of the opening group games to face Tunisia, and those opening 45 minutes proved to be a catalyst in how this World Cup would fare for England, for England played brightly, on the front-foot with quick passing, but sorely lacked that final ball when it mattered.
A last-minute Harry Kane header secured three points for the Three Lions, which put cast aside many generations of England starting slowly at tournaments, it was yet another difference to a World Cup that England had participated in.
The Three Lions duly swept aside group whipping boys Panama 6-1, with five first-half goals – it was England’s biggest World Cup win, only the third time England had won their opening two matches at a World Cup and only the fifth occasion that a team had scored five goals before half-time in a World Cup fixture.
Yet still the country wasn’t getting carried away with these young lions, but with opening wins came the debate surrounding what Gareth Southgate should do with his team selection against Belgium.
For the tournament had thrown up some quite shocking results, Germany had lost to Mexico, squeezed past Sweden and got dumped out surprisingly by South Korea, the draw was opening up quite nicely for England, for it was a situation of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ for the England manager.
Gareth Southgate did make changes to the side and England duly lost to Belgium to set up a last-16 tie with Columbia and for the so-called ‘easier’ side of the draw – quite how it could be determined the easier side of the draw is anyone’s guess, England’s tournament record can be laid bare and it does not make fantastic reading.
Columbia posed England’s biggest threat so far (excluding Belgium as the fixture wasn’t with the first eleven and both sides played it like a friendly) and so it proved, the game was like a true war of attrition, with both teams enjoying sustained periods of superiority in the match.
Harry Kane gave England the lead just before the hour mark from the penalty spot and England seemed to hang on for a hard-fought victory, but like England sides of the past, England conceded a goal when it mattered most.
In the dying embers of the the game, Yerry Mina equalised from a corner in the 93rd minute – now, most England sides would have seen heads down and the spirit starting crumble around all involved, but this was different, so much different, and by the time the final whistle blew, a new wave of optimism and a fresh sense of hope would rise from the ashes.
England held firm and got to the end game, an end game that had crushed, and tortured English souls for 28 years – a penalty shootout – for no English side had won a penalty shootout competition in World Cup history.
But this was to be different – the first two spot-kicks for both sides were dispatched with pure poetry in motion, and as Jordan Henderson stepped up, their was a collective sigh, a hush descended, it was almost the country sensed as one, and as we looked through our fingers, the outcome was a very familiar one.
An England international had missed his penalty kick, but something different was in the air, for the next Columbian penalty was stuck against the crossbar, Kieran Trippier stepped up and drew the sides level, and it was a tournament for England of rewriting their own history at tournaments.
Another unsightly record tumbled, Jordan Pickford became only the second goalkeeper to save an England penalty in a World Cup shootout, Eric Dier, the only player not to celebrate Pickford’s heroics, knew that his time had come like so many before him, and for what seemed an age of the Tottenham midfielder walking that dreaded walk to the penalty spot.
Dier placed the ball on the spot and duly tucked his spot kick away, to send the country into an outpouring of pure and utter joy; the penalty shoot-out victory had seemed to capture everyone in this collective elation and relief.
England had done the seemingly impossible and ended their 12-yard curse – England had arrived – the country began to put extra flags out and more expectation began to fill the air, the many, and not just the few had started to believe.
A red hot summer’s day was the setting for the most-anticipated England match since 2006, the quarter-final between England and Sweden, pubs and clubs were packed to the rafters, the scent of barbecue coal filled the air of every street and supermarkets across the nation had been drained of food and drinks.
The stage was set for an afternoon of pure and utter tension against a nation that had long been considered England’s bogey side, but what the national side provided for us was, a rather un-nerving, assured and confident performance, was this really an England side at a tournament?
Well, it was, and now the country was preparing itself for its first semi-final since 1990.
The nation held its collective breath in anticipation, and on the fifth-minute, Kieran Trippier sent the nation into total delirium when his free-kick left Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic completely stranded as England led.
Harry Kane could have doubled England’s lead but Subasic made amense with a superb double-save.
The second half began with England looking weary and with 22 minutes remaining, England succumbed to the growing Croatian threat and conceded an equaliser through the brillant Ivan Perisic, and so to extra-time; a goalless first extra time period gave the nation extra fingernails in which to bite.
And then it happened, the moment England and its nation of supporters had began to dread since the equaliser, with Luka Modric now having a growing influence in the game, Croatia found themselves on top through their most potent goal threat in Mario Mandzukic, England failed to deal with the second ball and Mandzukic found himself in space and drilled his shot under Jordan Pickford to break English hearts.
The World Cup had ended in heartbreak for the national side, but Gareth Southgate and his squad had provided the nation with a renewed sense of collective belief, of hope and confidence that had been so lacking with the national side since 2008.
As like in politics, has that renewed sense of belief, hope and confidence been eroded since the opening day of the Premier League season, has the opening weeks of the season seen a shift back to club matters for all of us caught up in the furore of England’s World Cup adventure?
Of course, club supporters, domestic managers and even the players will slip seemingly back in tribalism that is club football, that goes without saying, but has this World Cup and this young England side changed the national perception of international weeks like it did post-Italia 90?
For pre Russia 2018, International weeks were looked upon with utter contempt, from supporters, club managers and even some of the players concerned; what Southgate has proved since defeat in the Luzhniki Stadium is that he is far from the perceived yes man prior to the World Cup, with the manager making six changes as more youth is drafted in.
What will become more apparent over the next International breaks is whether Southgate and the England national team have changed the collective national opinion – For the many, and not just the few.