SKY NEWS: It’s arguable whether Gareth Southgate’s greater achievement was getting his young team to a World Cup semi-final, or the reconnection with the supporters.
Not just regular football fans but people who normally turn their nose up at the sport shared the pride and lived the dream.
That the dream died in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow is no shame, though there was certainly a missed opportunity. England blew several first-half chances to extend the lead gloriously provided by Kieran Trippier’s early free-kick.
And Croatia – peppered with attacking talents battle-hardened by more top-level club football than their English counterparts – were plenty good enough to take advantage.
In the end, the better team won.
“The dressing room is a difficult place at the moment,” said Southgate.
But he emphasised his pride in his players, adding: “I think the reaction of the supporters to them at the end compared to two years ago tells them that experiences with England can be positive.”
No world football authority had given his team a serious chance of reaching the last four. Yes, they exploited a favourable draw and the unexpected early exit of fancied countries like Germany.
But what a contrast to the underachievements of the previous generation, weighed down by pressure and expectation, unable to find a way to express themselves in the way this group have done, on and off the pitch. “We have connected with the fans,” said Trippier. “And I hope they know how hard we tried to make them proud.”
Southgate was spot on in just about everything – the way he selected and announced his squad; picking the right goalkeeper and the right captain, trusting inexperienced players, backing ability rather than reputations, fostering a “band of brothers” spirit and keeping the fans onside – not to mention emptying stores of waistcoats.
The result: England’s biggest-ever tournament win, a first World Cup semi-final in 28 years, their first penalty shoot-out success in the competition, and Harry Kane almost certain to win the Golden Boot as the top scorer at Russia 2018.
Now comes the hard part.
Expectations will be higher next time, and opponents more aware of England’s strengths.
After Saturday’s unwanted third-place playoff against Belgium, the next opponents include Spain and… Croatia, in the autumn, in a new competition called the European Nations League.
And then in summer 2020, the European Championships, with the semi-finals and final at Wembley.
Football really will be “back home”. Will Southgate and his men rise to the challenge?
“If you look at every other nation that has had success,” the manager said, “they’ve got to semi-finals and maybe not got across the line first time.
“The players have to use the experience – not just tonight’s but lots of other experiences over the last few weeks that definitely will have made them a stronger team.”