Columnist Ian Hart praises Southgate and believes football's coming home
As I pen these jottings at 6am on Tuesday morning, the legendary Geoffrey Boycott springs to mind as I find myself in that corridor of uncertainty.
By Thursday morning, it will either be agony or ecstasy. I will be sat in my hotel room in Moscow contemplating how I can get back to Blighty in time for work on Friday or hopefully be frantically travelling around the Russian capital trying to secure a World Cup final ticket.
As stated in last week’s column, this tournament has exceeded all expectations, not just overall, but specifically England.
Show of hands, please? When Sam Allardyce was sacked back in 2016, who reading this thought that Gareth Southgate’s appointment as England manager was a ‘soft’ FA move?
An unremarkable candidate who would toe the FA line and as a result the England team would continue to underperform and underachieve on the world football stage.
Quite a few hands going up I’d imagine, mine included. But how wrong we were.
Win or lose against Croatia, Gareth Southgate’s place in English football folklore has already been set in stone.
The ‘unremarkable’ manager has come in and transformed the England squad, the ‘retiring’ of Wayne Rooney and the jettisoning of Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere were brave calls but ultimately have been vindicated.
Unfortunately Hart’s time, after his fall from favour at City, was clearly up at international level, and I saw a telling quote on Twitter Saturday evening after Jordan Pickford’s superb quarter-final display against Sweden which said: “Pickford is now the keeper that Joe Hart thinks he still is”.
And would an injury-prone Wilshere have added to this squad?
Some think Wilshere was hard done by with his World Cup exclusion but Southgate, in the eyes of most England supporters, clearly called it right.
So it’s now worst case or best case scenario.
Let’s get the worst one out of the way first.
DEFEAT TO CROATIA
A last four finish represents an excellent tournament. Before the first game, I’d predicted a quarter-final place with the possibility of the last four.
But to reiterate, England’s performance in Russia has exceeded most people’s expectations. Southgate and his coaching team have shown what can be achieved by getting a young, relatively unknown (outside Europe) squad together and working with them, almost under the radar.
It bodes well for the future, with arguably this being a golden generation that will deliver in the upcoming tournaments over the next two to six years.
With the potential this young squad has, if they stay injury free and on top form don’t be surprised to see last four finishes in the next two Euro’s and the Qatar World Cup finals. And now the best case.......
VICTORY AGAINST CROATIA
Whilst the level of expectation has reached fever pitch, having witnessed the 1973 exit at home to Poland on ITV as a nine-year-old, I never dreamed 45 years later I’d be in Moscow watching England play in a World Cup semi-final.
Both my heart and my head think that we have what’s required to overcome Croatia. It will be a tight game, but I really think come Sunday at 4pm the Three Lions will be lining up to sing the national anthem in preparation for the greatest football show on earth. And be it France or Belgium, I’ve seen nothing so far to say that England are out of their depth with any opposition.
So prediction time.....
I think we will win the semi 2-1, and then on Sunday, I’ll finish with the words of Baddiel and Skinner....
“I STILL BELIEVE THAT FOOTBALL’S COMING HOME”.