This weekend England play Sweden in the quarter-final of the World Cup. Before the tournament, the press were collectively eulogising that we should get out the group but anything more, given the inexperience of what was rather unfairly called a development squad for the 2020 Euros, and we could consider that a successful tournament.
Colombia was a tough test. They niggled and fouled and practiced the dark arts on an honest bunch of young footballers playing with a freedom we haven’t seen for years, if ever. But in the end, football won over anti-football. They dug in, soaked up some serious pressure in extra-time after the disappointment of conceding four seconds from the end of normal time and then it happened. The ref blew his whistle. Two hours. No winner. Penalties. The English Achilles Heel.
Radamel Falcao (COL) – straight down the middle: 0-1
Harry Kane (ENG) – low and hard to the keeper’s right: 1-1
Juan Cuadrado (COL) – sweet pen, top left corner: 1-2
Marcus Rashford (ENG) – hard in the bottom left corner: 2-2
Luis Muriel (COL) – very calm, strokes home: 3-2
Jordan Henderson (ENG) – good pen, great save: 3-2
Mateus Uribe (COL) – went for power, back off the bar: 3-2
Kieran Trippier (ENG) – best of the lot, top bins: 3-3
Carlos Bacca (COL) – Pickford with a worldie: 3-3
Eric Dier (ENG) – Calm personified. No nonsense, bottom left: 4-3
That was how it played out. England won a knockout-stage shootout for the first time ever. The nation rejoiced. In one five-minute section of the ITV broadcast during the penalties it was estimated that 81% of the British television-watching public were glued to their screens.
This Blog Is Not Really About Football…
Granted, from reading the first section you could be forgiven for thinking it was. Since the World Cup is on and the England team gave the nation one hell of a hangover on Tuesday morning, one question keeps being asked – HOW did England win after so many years of not winning?
Be honest, when Hendo missed, how many of you thought ‘oh no, here we go again?’ Our extremely non-scientific guess is around 100%.
Let’s be honest, taking a penalty isn’t a true measure of footballing ability. Most footballers – from drunk Sunday League pie-eaters to the elite our nation has to offer – can take a penalty.
More so, it’s a testament of what this group of 23 multi-millionaires barely out of their teenage years has become. A team with belief and unprecedented leadership.
Cristiano Ronaldo carried a poor Portugal side, eventually losing to a Cavani brace against Uruguay. Lionel Messi didn’t show up and was carried by a poor Argentina side, eventually losing to a brace by the pretender to the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly, Kylian Mbappé, the French Flyer. That lad is rapid.
We’ve got Harry McGuire, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Fabian Delph, Nick Pope and Trent-Alexander-Arnold. All outstanding players, well worthy of representing England but for now, not very well known outside the Premier League.
But they are vitally important components of the squad which now has a winning mentality, drilled into them by Gareth Southgate and his incredible team. Whatever happens against Sweden (and they will be a dog of a team to play against), the gaffer has developed a positive mindset afforded equal importance to that of God-given talent.
…It’s About Leadership and Belief
And this is why it’s not about football. It’s about learning from what has come before and ensuring the same mistakes aren’t made again.
Southgate said that ‘plenty of work’ has gone into practising penalties. He spoke in his post-match interview about making sure the players ‘owned the process.’ Speaking a few minutes earlier, Kieran Trippier was asked what was different about this shootout than the times we lost to West Germany in 1990, Argentina in 1998 and Portugal in 2006 and he said, beautifully simply; ‘we practiced.’
Gareth Southgate is an exceptional football coach and one of the best man-managers our national team has had for years after the debacles of Keegan, McLaren, Capello, Hodgson and Allardyce. Perhaps the last proper man-manager we had was Terry Venables.
He has taken lessons from the past and learned from them. These boys are still learning their trade but under Southgate they’re doing it in the right way. They are constantly improving, both as footballers and as men.
After he took the top job, he told the press that one of his main objectives was the address the disconnect between the players and the fans. If that could be repaired (and what a remarkable job he’s done on that score), then they would get behind the team and give the boys a much-needed boost. He gave the fans a reason to believe in and offer a full-throated support of his team.
‘We’re building a team that everyone back home can see are passionate to play for England, want to win every time they go out, and are improving every time. We’re trying to develop a winning mentality. I can’t imagine a situation where I talk to the players about anything else. It wouldn’t be authentic for what we’ve been trying to build for the last two years.’
Speaking to The Times back in May, Rio Ferdinand said that club rivalries ‘killed’ the 2010 England team, the so-called ‘Golden Generation.’
‘It overshadowed things. It killed that England team, that generation. One year we would have been fighting Liverpool to win the league, another year it would be Chelsea. So I was never going to walk into the England dressing room and open up to Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, John Terry or Joe Cole at Chelsea, or Steven Gerrard or Jamie Carragher at Liverpool.
I wouldn’t open up because of the fear they would take something back to their club and use it against us, to make them better than us. I didn’t really want to engage with them.
I didn’t realise that what I was doing was hurting England at the time. I was so engrossed, so obsessed with winning with Man United – nothing else mattered.’
There’s none of that in 2018. That legacy is dead.
There is a togetherness that we’ve never seen before. They players are engaged with the media, playing darts and pool with the journalists almost on a daily basis. They are mature, they understand their responsibilities both as young rich footballers and representatives of a hopeful nation and they have shown a collective maturity that buys into the manager’s vision.
We may not win it but Gareth Southgate’s England team has done what no other England team has done – they have looked at what happened and have taken positive steps to not let those things happen again.
OK, it was a little bit about football but more importantly, it’s a metaphor for life.
Winners know what losing is like. It’s how you overcome the adversity of defeat or disappointment which is the measure of who you are. In work, in life, in relationships and in all aspects of your life, if you persevere, no matter how many times you fall down, one day you’ll stand up and win a penalty shootout.
Catch you soon.
The Liquid Team