For the second major international tournament in a row, England have made it to the semi-finals. As wild as this is, perhaps the strangest thing is that it feels completely different despite evoking the same unbridled joy. In just three years, it feels as if England and its future has completely changed. This might take some getting used to.
The Summer of 2018
Summer of 2018 has to this point been one of the high points of my life. It was the joyous period post-A Levels where life was split between home, the park, and the pub. In amongst this, was the absolute craziness of a fairly standard England side making it to the semi-finals.
Going into the 2018 World Cup, England felt relatively by-the-by. Instead of Big Sam being at the helm as was planned in 2016, England arrived in Russia under the watchful eye of Gareth Southgate. To borrow a phrase from clickbait adverts, what happened next will shock you.
England won a penalty shoot-out. Crazy. England won a quarter final. Crazy. Over the course of a few weeks the entire country felt like it was under a spell. The sun shone without fail. You began to hear Three Lions in the most unexpected places. Everyone was all in on the fairytale.
As we know, it was defeat to Croatia that was to come next. The fairytale bubble was burst, and we looked back with a certain level of happiness to have just gotten that far.
Now, things are different.
The Here and Now
This time round, the carefree nature of hoping for the best had been replaced by something which feels altogether wrong when it comes to supporting England. Indeed, now there was a broad sentiment of quiet expectation.
Compared to the team of 2018, the talent pool by 2021 had exploded. Teams had wonderkids popping up from all angles, and selection headaches had become selection migraines.
Three years ago, we laughed as England scored ANOTHER goal from a set piece routine, wondering how long the game could run. Now, discourse is a minefield where you can become the joke of the timeline depending on your choice of wingers.
In truth, this is no bad thing. To experience a tournament where your team are one of the big boys is a brilliant and stressful experience. Sure, it brings the uncomfortable weight of expectation, but with that comes the payoff of exploding in Rome against Ukraine.
Going into Wednesday’s game against Denmark, there is a sense of real excitement. The sense, even, that this could be the special year. Personally, I can feel nothing but utter dread and fear for semis, but this is because I am a totally irrational person.
The Man in Charge
The obvious thing that is the same across two tournaments is one Gareth Southgate.
Sure, the waistcoat is gone, in its place rests a knitted tie, but the man remains.
It can be quite hard on the internet to talk about Southgate. The fundamental problems come from the difference between international and club football. At club level I’d say that goalscoring is the biggest concern, and at international, probably the defensive side of the game. Naturally, this causes some friction and annoyance.
If England played a 38 game season I’m certain that they would have to be more attacking. In a tournament, I can see the reason for some of the reluctance. England have such a rich pool of attacking talent that it becomes a viable plan to keep games tight and bank on the talent of Raheem Sterling and Co. to find a solution.
Southgate seems well aware of the criticisms. It is in this area that I will wax lyrical about him. In terms of openness and having the tact to say the right thing, Southgate is one of the best. He’s comfortable explaining his selections, and it’s clear how much respect he commands from his players.
This is by far the happiest England squad I have ever seen. The atmosphere seems to be that of a gaggle of brothers on holiday, with club rivalries having totally evaporated. Off the pitch this can be seen in the constant antics between Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish, and Ben Chilwell. On the pitch, this can be seen in the unbeaten defence being all Manchester, but half United and half City.
England the team seem truly happy, and this is infectious.
When I pull on my replica Jack Grealish shirt on Wednesday, I will be filled with every emotion in the world. I’m hoping that the tournament continues like clockwork. This being that The Telegraph leak the team in the morning, we huff and puff about it, then England win. That sounds like a perfect day to me.