The summer of 2018 will forever be remembered fondly; an enduring heatwave, Danny Dyer calling David Cameron a twat live on TV, and most of all England progressing to the semi-finals of a World Cup. (England’s semi-final has not been played at the time of writing.)
Having not been alive for 1966, 1990 or even 1996 I have never experienced this feeling before. Pure, unbridled joy watching England play – with genuine hope and belief in them. No-one needs to be reminded of England’s failures at recent tournaments but it is worth pointing out that they bombed out to Iceland two years ago (who, if you haven’t heard, have a tiny population) and even at the start of Southgate’s reign the national interest in the England team was at an all-time low.
To turn this round in such a short time is a remarkable achievement from Southgate. His modesty, humbleness and overall likeability have made him a breath of fresh air compared to some previous England managers.
I was not born into a footballing family. I didn’t grow up going to the terraces each week and supporting the local team up and down the country. Instead when I was six years old I arbitrarily chose one of the three football teams I had ever heard of and decided to support them. Despite following this team for the next 15 years I don’t think I had ever experienced what the fans who are born into football feel. The genuine anguish when you lose and the utter elation at a win.
The only time I have ever felt close to this is following England. Some of my fondest memories are watching the 2006 and 2010 World Cups with my family. Running out to the garden with my brother and our vuvuzelas when Lampard ‘scored’ against Germany. Or crying in my room for hours after Ronaldo and Portugal knocked us out on penalties in 2006.
Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane and everyone else involved in the England squad have managed to rekindle that passion and enthusiasm in the national team. It does truly feel like they are slowly but surely bringing a fraught nation back together.
Southgate’s media and off-the-pitch player management has been impeccable. Compare him to Fabio Capello in South Africa 2010 with his brutal, high-altitude training camps or the insipid Roy Hodgson and it shows just how modern and exciting Southgate is. Even the small details such as photos of England players messing around on inflatable unicorns between games or Harry Maguire’s funny tweets all play the part in bridging the gap between player and fan.
In this divisive political climate, it is refreshing to see the whole country united behind one, singular cause. Be it the memes, the fact that Germany got knocked out in the group stage or the simple fact that England have actually been good doesn’t really matter. It is about making it ok to be patriotic again, to love and be proud of your country. It’s about seeing an England flag on a car and not automatically assuming it belongs to a member of Britain First.
Win or lose on Wednesday this young, inexperienced England squad have done more than any of their recent, more glamourous predecessors. They have renewed the national love of football. With their plan and system and quiet confidence they have restored the belief. The compete joy of watching your country achieve. Hugging strangers in the pub. Cars beeping their horns up and down the road. People crowded round tiny TVs. This is what the World Cup should be about, and thanks to Gareth Southgate and his team that is what we’ve got.
Summer of 2018, I absolutely love you. Never change.
Written by Dom Clarke.