World Cup 2018: How Gareth Southgate’s side justified and restored my undying faith in the national team

Years of spiralling from also-rans to a laughing stock just about had me questioning my lifelong following of England, only for this crop to pull me back from the brink

England v Croatia The story of the match from fans around the world

For years, I’ve had a recurring nightmare. I’m in a football ground thousands of miles away, fulfilling a lifelong dream of following England to a World Cup. Only things are going wrong. Badly wrong.

We’re being taken apart by a team we’ve long regarded as our greatest nemesis. I watch as one of our midfielders approaches the ball on halfway. He’s the closest by several yards, but it’s as though he’s trying to run through a lake of molten tar. From nowhere, his German opposite number appears, skating effortlessly on the surface of the lake. He accepts the ball, surges forward up the pitch and crosses to their striker, who has time to flash a Churchillian V of victory to the cameras behind the goal as he puts the game beyond doubt. Only this is a nightmare that doesn’t go away when I wake up.

The ground was Bloemfontein, the tournament the 2010 World Cup, and the sight of Mesut Özil skipping away from Gareth Barry during a 4-1 pasting real. The memory still turns my stomach. Lampard’s disallowed goal would have made no difference – 7-1 wouldn’t have flattered them. At least, I thought at the time, following England can’t get any worse than this. Mercifully, I had no idea how wrong I was.

I’m a football fan, an England fan, I’ve been one all my life. And following a club side, York City, who have only ever ploughed the lower reaches of the leagues, I’m one of those for whom the national side provides the only connection to the top players I’ve always admired on Sky or Match of the Day. Whenever they play a match that means anything it seems as though my whole heart and soul is kicking from left to right in white shirts.

As I approached the end of my teens the future seemed bright. Yes, we’d had Turnip Taylor and failure to qualify in 1994; but then came Euro 96, that moment of Gascoigne genius against Scotland, the obliteration of a Holland side featuring Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert. OK, we had to watch the Germans singing It’s Coming Home while waving the trophy; but we’d only lost to them in the semis on penalties after Gazza so nearly won it at the end. There was no disgrace. We could hold our heads up high.

Then at the next World Cup, we had Michael Owen exploding through the Argentinian defence for a goal of power and beauty that was sufficient to keep hope alive, if not to get us through to the next round; he was only 18, it was certain Golden Boots and glory lay in his future. Every weekend in the Premier League, and weekdays in Europe, we witnessed the genius of Scholes, the mastery of Beckham, indispensable parts of a truly great Manchester United side. The likes of Sol Campbell, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Owen busily went about cementing all-time legend status at some of the world's most famous clubs. Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s it felt as though it was simply a matter of time before they asserted themselves in an England shirt, and the world would tremble before them.

Somehow, however, instead of combining into an unstoppable footballing force, when placed side by side on the field their individual talents cancelled each other out. Gerrard won a Champions League final almost single-handed from 3-0 down in a turn of events that would have been dismissed by Roy of the Rovers plot writers as too far-fetched. Zinedine Zidane, the Zinedine Zidane, called him the best player in the world. Lampard ended up as Chelsea’s all-time top scorer – from midfield, a staggering achievement. Yet it turned out they couldn’t play together for England. Why? No one seemed to know, not the foreign coaches paid the highest salaries in the world by our FA, least of all the players themselves. And so began an unexpected and utterly miserable decline from also-rans to laughing stock. Our stars’ global stature made our humiliation more exquisite, as tournament by tournament we came unstuck while other football powers and philosophies surged past us, leaving side after side bewildered and bereft in their wake. France, with half their team from our Premier League. The 1-0 tiki-taka tedium of Spanish death-by-a-thousand-passes. Inevitably, Germany, showing us what fast, direct and clinical attacking is supposed to look like.

Michael Owen was destined for greatness, surely?

With each humiliation, the burden of underachievement grew bigger. Losing at Wembley to a Croatia team who didn’t even need to win to fail to make the Euros. Özil and Germany putting us to the sword in 2010. Succumbing in the group stages without a whimper in Brazil 2014. Then a new, hellish depth, the daddy of them all, a thoroughly deserved loss to Iceland in the summer we voted for Brexit. At that point, all seemed hopeless, as though finally a curtain had been lifted and we’d been shown just how thoroughly we’d been deceiving ourselves all along about what our country was, insisting we were players while the rest of the world just pointed and howled with laughter.

You could see the fear in our eyes once Iceland’s second goal went in; we could see the prospect of becoming the latest huge disappointment looming, but were powerless to escape its clutches. Wayne Rooney lost the ability to control the ball, or pass over five yards. Somehow, his entire career had come and gone, eclipsing Gary Lineker and Bobby Charlton as the country’s all-time top scorer, but never reaching the last four of an international tournament. It seemed as though we were all stuck in the same nightmare - as though it didn’t matter how many club-level superstars we produced, whether we brought in a winter break, introduced a quota of home-grown players for the Premier League, or had our opponents’ bus diverted to the wrong ground and replaced them with 11 Weebles in football shirts, we were never, ever going to be any good and we’d never even get back to the status of genuine contenders, let alone win anything.

England have finally justified why I had so much faith in them

It was a living nightmare which I grew to accept, because like all fans my depth of rage and shame was matched only by my utter powerlessness to do anything about it. Now, though, finally, for the first time in years, I have woken up. It doesn’t matter that we haven’t won; we have proven we can pass the ball out from the back, that our players do belong on the same pitch as their international counterparts. Perhaps, if this lot continue in a similar vein, I can even start to enjoy watching England play, rather than watch in knotted-stomach trepidation of the fresh humiliation lurking just around the corner. For now, though, I’ll settle for just being awake.

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