“It’s coming home, it’s coming home” may well have been a chant from the terraces over the past four weeks. But what is the reality of football and Russia 2018? Has it really come home?
There's been so much debate about what this England team have achieved, from the sublime and over achievement, to the wasting of an opportunity that some say will never present itself as such as easy route to global triumph again.
In reality, what has arisen from the cooling ashes of Russia 2018 is that the mass public has experienced an incredible reconnection to international football. Don't get me wrong, I am in no doubt that the bandwagon of entertainment that the Premier League has become will steamroller this in the coming weeks; but this World Cup has been about passion, the team and the collective reward for hard work. To such an extent that that lack of so called superstars since the quarter finals was hardly noticed, and the few who remained within the Belgium camp were dwarfed by the excellent work of Martinez, who finally succeeded where everyone else had failed in mouldering a generation of excellence into his team (all be it 4-6 years too late for their own ‘golden generation').
From England's perspective there is so much talk about over-achieving or that we should have won it. All are well-voiced opinions, but nothing more then that. The hard facts are simple: the FA have invested in a plan and vision to win the World Cup in 2022. Part of that plan is to develop an environment that enables players to deliver with a team-focussed element, improving performance, and ultimately winning tournament football - something that previous managers (and players!) seemed to have missed.
'England has experienced an incredible reconnection, not just to international football, but to their team. A sense of national pride (both of the team and from the international media's 'very unusual' appreciation of individual players... not the Messis and Salahs, but the Kanes and Pickfords... our ones) and hope that was long but forgotten - if not remembered as a somewhat downbeat joke.'
This, undoubtably, is the first positive to be drawn. Gone are the old adages that success is about the quarter finals. As a collective unit, there was a togetherness. The whole world could see it. We went there to win, and had a plan within the team's capacity to do so. The English National Team had finally stepped into the spectrum of performance sport and the likes of Southgate, Ashworth and Reddin should take credit for this.
Personally, having successfully delivered on a vision at multiple Olympics, this shift in mentality is the first important step to making a vision a reality. A collective desire to win championships enables the end outcome to deliver a reflective review of reality and needed improvements. In other words, England will clearly now know where they fell short and what is needed; a review job that Southgate and his team will act upon.
'Aiming for the quarter finals gives you nothing more than being a top 8 team. To be the best, you need to set the bar at the top, to aspire to be the best.'
Secondly, for the first time since the 1990’s, England appears to be picking the team based on strategy and plays. They're no longer trying to conjure bigger names into the team, without first thinking how the players will work together. This team was bigger then the people in it, creating pressure for places and raising the bar. Southgate also created a level of trust. Every player knew that if they had a strong prerformance and fit into Gareth's strategy, they could play for England. This gave them clarity and transparancy of expectations; they knew the possibilities and that pulled the team together.
However, the biggest and most crucial factor of the whole 2018 World Cup was that the team element dominated and the big players all went home early. The exception being Belgium, where Martinez's work could easily rival that of Southgate. Many would argue that this detracted from the success of the tournament, but I disagree. If anything, it made it more compelling and brought football back to its routes. The problem is that this is a far cry from the entertainment version of football that the Premier League, with all its money, dishes up. The more money and 'global' and 'branding' appeal it has, the further football gets from reality - they want the big names, more money and viewer appeal - and, sadly, that means fewer opporunities for English players.
So, coming back to my question: where does Russia leave England? Well, in a strong place. The tournament has shown holes, but those holes are for Southgate and his team to identify. If the team can hold together, the experience England got will multiply ten-fold. England have a new direction, and a new-found connection with the masses, to build upon and that's exciting. The next step is to encourage the younger players to focus on playing opportunities and not the money-rich contracts for sitting in the stands as bit part player. For that, Southgate needs to stay true to his word and continue to make England accessible to all players, based on consistency and performance.
The Euros will bring the next challenge and expectation will be high and no doubt super hyped by the media, but we must remember: the vision is 2022 so don't be surprised if 2020 is not golden, but progress... it's coming home.