As the dust settles on England’s World Cup campaign, we can now only dream of what could’ve been.
While last night’s semi-final defeat to Croatia was gut-wrenching, heartbreaking and tough to accept, the overriding emotion should be pride.
Pride in the sense that the side unified a deeply divided country.
Pride that the youngsters shouldered the pressure and enjoyed their football.
Pride in Gareth Southgate, a manager whose appointment to the Three Lions hot-seat was initially greeted with skepticism, as he wore his heart on his sleeve and instilled faith into his men.
Pride that while football didn’t come home in the way we all hoped, it still returns with the spirit and love that so many fans felt while cheering their team from pubs, parks and homes.
And pride, of course, in the way Southgate wore his waistcoat.
England fans never truly expected to see their side reach a semi-final. While the route to the match was easier than we may have thought, you can only beat what’s put out in front of you and, barring Belgium and Croatia, that’s what happened.
We muscled with the Columbians, won a penalty shoot-out against all the odds, and we gave it a go against an experienced Croatian side with this World Cup being the last chance for many of their cohort.
The same can’t be said for the Three Lions, though. Harry Kane is still only 24 yet played with the maturity of a player much older, and players like Kieran Trippier, Jordan Pickford, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Harry Maguire, Raheem Sterling and John Stones are only going to get better.
Their grounding in English football’s lower leagues has given them the desire to push themselves harder, with players plying their trade at the likes of Barnsley, Leyton Orient, Millwall and Sheffield United. Jordan Pickford alone played for Sunderland, Darlington, Alfreton Town, Burton Albion, Carlisle United, Bradford City and Preston North End on his route to becoming Britain’s most expensive goalkeeper. He’s put in the hours, done the hard graft in the lower reaches of the football ladder and is a better man for it.
While a lot of football has to be played to get the same opportunity in a World Cup, you sense this is only the beginning.
The success at youth level will, hopefully, begin to integrate into the first team, and this is a squad that aren’t at the end of their careers. They’re fresh, hungry and, most importantly, play for each other.
They progressed further than Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Spain. Not many would have predicted that.
For some England fans that will be their first World Cup experience. The players have begun to make their own history and, as long as we don’t have to wait another 28 years for a chance of making football’s biggest game, they’ve restored the pride back into the Three Lions shirt.
While nothing can be said that will make this defeat hurt any less, there is at least optimism around this youthful England side.