It was coming up for 1am local time when Gareth Southgate walked back out to acknowledge the England supporters inside the Luzhniki Stadium who were refusing to leave until he gave them one more appearance. He waved politely. He dropped his water bottle and applauded back. Briefly he scratched his head and blew out his cheeks a little, as if he could not quite believe they were still there, waiting for him, singing that song again. He waved again. He bowed. But it was unmistakable sadness etched on his face.
Over time, when the pain subsides a little, he will reflect that England have come a long way since Euro 2016 ended with chants informing the players they were not fit to wear the shirt. England’s previous World Cup campaign was wrecked by two defeats in the first week. This one made it to day 28 before the killer blow in extra time of the semi-final. England had scored more goals than the team of 1966 and shattered their reputation as tournament football’s Slapstick XI.
That is progress in anyone’s language when there are so many wearers of that shirt with entirely different experiences. “People may have had a feeling that playing for England was always misery and regret and recrimination,” Southgate said. “Now, I think, they have seen it can be enjoyable.”
At the same time there is a risk here that the tidal wave of goodwill is threatening to submerge a difficult truth: that England were a goal ahead, 25 minutes from a World Cup final, before it all became too much for them. Croatia wore them down with a superior mix of football knowhow, durability and the rare form of competitive courage that had Juraj Vrdoljak, a columnist for Telesport, likening the comeback to an “adrenaline-charged man lifting a truck to save his child”. But it was still the case that England badly lost their way and, in fairness to the manager, he was willing to accept that fact.
In the dressing room afterwards Southgate told the players everything you would expect about being proud of their achievements, thanking them individually and pointing out the warmth of the England supporters at the final whistle. First, though, he felt compelled to point out what they had to do better in the future. Even in the rawest moments, with many of the players tearful, he wanted them to listen.
“I’m not sure it was perfect by any means because the whole place was desolate,” Southgate reflected, the morning after the night before.
“But what I did say was that they have to learn from the moments that matter. There was a period when it looked like [our approach was] ‘we have the lead and don’t want to give it away’ rather than ‘we keep playing’. Against the top teams they are the moments in which you continue to play and you keep being brave.”
Instead England looked what they were: a team that would give you everything, with some fine players and, indeed, some excellent ones, but lacking the mentality the elite sides possess when it comes to the biggest occasions. “We just lost a bit of composure,” Southgate said. It was a “cruel lesson”. He maintained eye contact even in the hardest moments of reflection. But he spoke so quietly at times you had to lean in to hear his voice.
If the immaturity of the team cost England, do not be too critical. Or at least remember it was the inexperience and freshness of this group of players that helped make them so attractive in the first place – unless you want to go back to those days in May when the nation was bickering about the non-selections of Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey and it became clear why Southgate had not used his Twitter account since April 2015.
At the next World Cup almost all these players will still be available and, in theory, better for the experience. Jordan Pickford will be 28, approaching the age when goalkeepers are supposed to peak. Marcus Rashford will still be young, at 24, but armed with another four years’ experience. Raheem Sterling, at 27, should be a more competent finisher than he is now. Harry Kane will be 28, Dele Alli 26, Jesse Lingard 29, John Stones 28, Harry Maguire 29, Ruben Loftus-Cheek 26 and Trent Alexander-Arnold 23.
Jordan Henderson, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker will be in their early-30s but still of an age to play at Qatar 2022. It is only Ashley Young, Gary Cahill and Jamie Vardy who can probably be discounted on grounds of age. “We have one of two paths to go,” Southgate said. “This is either a moment of rare hope and we sink back. Or we build in the way that Germany did in 2010.”
Unlike 1990 with Bobby Robson, or the team Terry Venables guided to the semi-finals of Euro 96, the England manager will also be sticking around. “The team will be better in a couple of years,” Southgate continued. “We have to build. We have some good young players coming through. We’ve had success at youth level. What we’ve done over the last few weeks has shown what is possible. We want to be in semi-finals and finals and we’ve shown to ourselves that can happen. Now we have to use it as a springboard to reach the latter stages of tournaments consistently.”
That, in turn, will mean new expectations. The next European Championship will culminate with a Wembley final on 12 July 2020, and suddenly it will feel a let-down if England do not reach the semi-finals at least. But there should still be France, Belgium, Germany, and Spain to encounter, as well as Croatia and more. England have beaten only two sides from the top 20 of Fifa’s world rankings on Southgate’s watch, and those were Colombia in 16th and the worst Netherlands side for many years in 17th. “At the moment we have to be realistic,” he acknowledged. “All the games we’ve had against the bigger teams we haven’t managed to win yet.”
The other problem, in line with a succession of England managers, is that he has no way of influencing the leading Premier League clubs to accommodate the players who are pushing through. Will Phil Foden, for instance, get an extended chance at Manchester City? Southgate would like to think so but these reflections came on the same day that City held a press conference to display Riyad Mahrez as their latest signing.
That is Mahrez, Sterling, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sané, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gündogan whom Foden may have to get past for a regular run in the team. All of which brings to mind Roy Hodgson’s old complaint – referencing Loftus-Cheek and Chelsea’s preference to “go racing out to buy the latest Dutchman every time someone goes down injured” – that the academies were producing players who were in danger of becoming “too good to sell and not good enough to play”.
Southgate frequently mentions England’s next generation but is very aware the “pathway”, as it is known, tends to be closed at some clubs.
He was also reluctant to talk too much about what could happen in the future when he was acutely aware the World Cup may never open up with so many possibilities again.
Southgate did not need reminding that it might have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and, as such, Sunday’s final will feel like a form of torture. This is a man who hates losing so much he says he could sit for hours in a game of Scrabble trying to find two- or three-letter words that he suspects probably do not exist. Southgate still remembers a 1-0 defeat for Crystal Palace at home to Blackburn Rovers on New Year’s Day 1994, when he was at fault for the goal and the misery, living alone in a flat, of it churning in his mind. “It has never changed. I’ve always been a terrible loser. Defeat wrecks my head.”
His only comfort is that he sees a brighter future and a different attitude among the players than when he was accumulating his 57 England caps. Back then, he says, he found it “difficult to watch guys [focusing on] avoiding mistakes”. It is different now: a new team with a new outlook. But it did not need long in his company to realise that, hell, he will need a while to get over this one.