Matt Lawton in MOSCOW
THE clock that hangs in the English FA office will continue to count down to the 2022 World Cup, marking the time when the organisation have long looked to travel to a major tournament more in expectation than hope.
But once the bitter disappointment of last night’s extra-time defeat to Croatia has subsided, once England can take the positives from a World Cup semi-final they actually led for more than an hour, savour the moment when Gareth Southgate and a side that was so much greater than the sum of its parts invited us to dream again, they will realise football might, indeed, be coming home.
To dare think that, after more than half a century of hurt, it had to come to this, a 1-2 extra-time loss to the Croats standing between them and a World Cup final, was incredible.
In the first half last night, it could have been game over for Croatia had England taken their chances after Kieran Trippier had given them an early lead with a peach of a free-kick.
Captain Hary Kane missed a chance he would normally take, Jesse Lingaard directed his effort wide from a promising position and there were signs Croatia were being overrun in that half.
Then, Ivan Perisic found a way to equalise in the second half, his effort close to being called illegal for the high foot, and the Croats again hit the post as they found another gear.
Regulation time could not separate the two teams, with the score tied at 1-1, until Madzukic found a way to score the winner.
When they said this was an experimental tournament for a young England side, Southgate refused to swallow that.
He rolled up his sleeves way before he pulled on his World Cup waistcoat and convinced his players to trust him when he told them that they could be contenders.
Believe him when he said that this, not some faraway event in air-conditioned stadiums in the Middle East, was worth a proper crack.
Persuaded them to share in his vision, in a plan devised first over a meal in Sochi with his super-smart assistant, Steve Holland, is perhaps Southgate’s greatest achievement thus far.
After all, he did not boast the record of the men the FA had tried in the past to make their manager.
He was not Jose Mourinho, he was not Arsene Wenger.
On paper he was not even Sam Allardyce.
But here in Russia he has grown immeasurably in stature, standing as tall as Spartacus outside the Spartak Stadium; cutting the figure of a man who, in the eyes of his England players as well as many supporters, has achieved an even higher status than any coach the FA might have considered before him.
Out on the pitch last night at the Luzhniki was evidence of Southgate’s shrewdness and intelligence, not least in the form of the players he has promoted to the senior ranks.
Trippier, Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford represent major discoveries for the national team, and typify the narrative of Southgate’s England with their journeys from the lower echelons of the English game to the grandest stage of all.
‘’At the moment we all feel the pain of the defeat. Did we expect to be in this position? I don’t think realistically any of us did,’’ he said.
‘’But when you’ve got to this point and you’ve played in the way we have and played as well as we have in the first half you want to take those opportunities in life.
“The dressing room is a very difficult place at the moment.
“But what I will say is I’m remarkably proud of a group of players who have really advanced. I think the reaction of the supporters to them, compared to two years ago, tells them that, first and foremost, that experiences with England can be positive, the country are very proud of them and the way that they’ve played and there will in time be a lot of positives to take.”
What a journey it has been.
From Harry Kane’s stoppage-time winner against Tunisia to Jesse Lingard’s wonder goal against Panama.
From Pickford’s penalty save against Colombia to Eric Dier’s ice-cold heroics moments later.
Never mind Maguire’s towering header against Sweden and the quite wonderful free-kick from Trippier in this semi-final.
As the Tottenham full-back remarked only last week when he was compared to David Beckham, ‘’not bad for a lad from Bury.’’
It meant they were ahead for 63 minutes, for a large chunk of that time also dominating their opponents only to succumb to an Ivan Perisic equaliser that took this contest into extra time.
Faced with another 30 minutes of battle Southgate addressed his players once more, going first to John Stones and then to Ashley Young, Kane, Kyle Walker and Jordan Henderson.
In the end it was not enough.
In the end another momentary lapse in concentration was punished by Mario Mandzukic and it is to Croatia, not an England dead on their feet and down to 10 men in the final minutes because of an injury to Trippier, who now return him to face France on Sunday.
But Southgate is no longer a football man whose international career is been defined by that penalty miss at Euro 96.
It is defined by what he achieved in this crazy, bone-dry summer of 2018, and by what he has suddenly made seem possible.
England’s journey does not finish here, even if the last thing anyone wants is another meaningless encounter with Belgium this weekend.
For Southgate and his team it continues way beyond that.
It continues with the development of this side, with the promotion of young players claiming major prizes for England’s junior teams, and a push towards Euro 2020 and a possible semi-final and final at Wembley.
And it continues, surely, to the next World Cup.
The clock is already counting down, but it does so now with a far greater sense of purpose and with Southgate and his players moving forward as one. — Mailonline.