Football has come home for England even without a World Cup trophy
For the last month, England has been obsessed with football coming home. The lyrics to the 1996 song, Three Lions, echoed across the country. Despite the ultimate disappointment of missing the final after an extra-time defeat to Croatia, football has still come home.
With Euro96, England hosted its first tournament since 1966. Following the Three Lions success in Italia 90 and ignoring their failure to qualify for the American World Cup in 1994, the country was fully behind the team. World in Motion had been released for the 1990 tournament. When it climbed the charts, a new wave of football songs was released. Hence, Three Lions, with the lyric “football’s coming home “. The tune helped united the country in support of Terry Venable's squad.
Fast forward 20 years and it's easy to see why the song has been revived. The supposed golden generation of English football failed to deliver a semifinal. They didn't even escape the group in a disastrous tournament in 2014. The 2016 European Championship was worse. England progressed but then lost to a nation with a lower population than Bristol. After that slog, a run to the quarterfinals would make for a positive tournament.
This England side largely comprised young stars who have never played in the World Cup. They weren't tainted by past failings.
Defeat to Croatia was devastating for the nation, belief had risen that high in so short a time. The way the game played out made it harder to take. Ahead and dominate for the first half, the game could have been out of sight. England didn’t take their chances and Croatia were by far the better team in the second half and throughout extra time.
The scion of Jules Rimet will not be returning to England but the spirit of the international game will. Football coming home is much more than England winning a trophy for the first time in over 50 years.
Whether it understood what it was doing or not, England voted to isolate itself from its nearest neighbours. Events on the other side of the Atlantic have brought old friendships further into question.
But football has the power to bring people together like no other force in the UK, not even Robbie Williams. Success in rugby, cricket and even the Olympics draws support. Football galvanises it.
The tournament began with low expectations, Gareth Southgate and his players lifted them.
If the first two group games were a fantastic improvement, the Columbia match was a watershed moment. A team not playing well kept going and, to wax a bit Dickensian, banished the ghosts of penalty shootouts past. England finally won one at a World Cup.
Home fires burning
Across every city in the country, big screens erected in parks and squares packed beyond capacity. Never mind the pubs full to the brim.
A young team offered an exciting, new style of play and a togetherness that wasn't seen decades. They had the public behind them and everyone talking about the World Cup.
This is down to two things.
First, English fans are used to failure. While the other so-called big footballing nations all appeared in finals at major tournaments and lofted trophies, England failed to do so. The golden generation was meant to end that downward trend. They accelerated it. Must I mention losing to Iceland again?
The banana skins were lying in wait for the Three Lions across Russia. The squad went much further than anyone expected before slipping.
Second is Gareth Southgate. The quiet, well-spoken young manager was far from the first choice. He only landed the job because Sam Allardyce couldn't shut his mouth and no one else wanted the job. One month has changed everyone’s impressions of the only interested candidate.
He comes across not just as a manager, but as an honest, engaging person, likable to an extent which England fans aren't accustomed.
Southgate and his squad have pulled a nation together. I mean beyond football fans to people who normally would not involve themselves with sport. Of course, that could just be due to Boris Johnson's resignation.
Going forward carrying on the momentum and building on it in two and four years time will be the next step. For now, England is allowed to be positive. A nation has come together over the beautiful game that we all love, regardless of the outcome. This summer won’t be forgotten. Football has come home.