England vs Croatia: Why the memory of Kieran Trippier’s World Cup free-kick will last even in defeat

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England vs Croatia: Why the memory of Kieran Trippier’s World Cup free-kick will last even in defeat

Kieran Trippier’s first professional goal, for Barnsley against Leeds United back in February 2011, was a curling free-kick from 25 yards. His second, against Doncaster, was a curling free-kick from 25 yards. You can watch that one on YouTube. As Tripper prepares to shoot he receives some sage advice from the fan behind the camera – “Just on target, low and f***ing hard” – before nonchalantly sweeping the ball over the wall and into the top corner.

It was identical to his free-kick against Croatia, curling half a yard inside the upright too fast for the goalkeeper to stop. The 27-year-old’s career has been a slow burner, showing promise at Barnsley, quietly impressing at Burnley, patiently waiting at Tottenham, and as the ball hit Danijel Subasic’s net on Wednesday night an optimistic thought came to mind that this was probably another one of Gareth Southgate’s careful plans, to keep quiet the best right foot in English football for the past seven years in order to unfurl it in all its glory in the fifth minute of a World Cup semi-final.

The goal seems a little meaningless now, lost in the hectic fog of the night, but it represents the greatest triumph of England’s journey, the ability to make unbridled joy ripple out from one player’s boot or glove or forehead to the parks and pubs of England. No one knew it would ultimately be for nothing, just as no one knew how far England’s run would go when Harry Kane saved the day against Tunisia, or when the goals rained down on Panama, or when Eric Dier’s penalty beat David Ospina’s fingertips, and so it evoked a feeling of infinite possibility.

The goal was the final, liberating vindication of Southgate’s work. Trippier was only in the team because Southgate broke the mould 12 months ago, shedding a traditional four-man defence to play wing-backs and moving Kyle Walker into a back three which raised eyebrows at the time. Every England player on the pitch in Moscow has benefitted from Southgate’s management in some way, and none more so than Tripper, whose right foot was weaponised so effectively to leave his name among Neymar, Kevin De Bruyne and Luka Modric as one of this World Cup’s most creative players.

Kieran Trippier scores scores his team’s first goal (Getty Images)

It is a seemingly infallible right foot, one which doesn’t smash straight through the ball nor gently wrap round it but instead finds some impossible sweet spot in between. Trippier’s set-pieces have consistently found their way on to throbbing English foreheads, while his effortless volley-cross midway through the second half was one the best pieces of technical skill England produced.

You could conclude from the volume of chances he created that England are over-reliant on corners and free-kicks, and lack creative spark elsewhere in the team. The stats say they mustered only six shots on target from open play throughout the tournament and it is tempting to wonder whether Gareth Southgate was wholly satisfied with the output from his front four, despite their obvious talents, and to consider what difference Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana might have made had they been fit.

Those are questions for another time and perhaps that is the most exciting thing of all right now: that there is another time, that there might be more to come, that this is a manager coaching in his first World Cup just as many of his players were experiencing theirs. They will be back. History may look back at Russia 2018 as the tournament when Southgate earned himself the time and trust to build an era of consistently realised potential.

As a fan that is all you can really ask: the chance to imagine our potential. Just as it was the hope that killed you all those times before, it was the hope that made you feel alive this time. It was the hope that Trippier’s free-kick conveyed: a blissful moment when it felt like anything was possible, when it felt like these players would bring football home. Alas it was not to be, but in the end all sport becomes is a collection of memories, and the sheer joy that Trippier’s free-kick stirred is a memory to endure even in defeat.

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