We’d seen it all before, hadn’t we?
Questionable refereeing decisions. A lapse in concentration in injury time when it mattered most. Going down in the penalty shootout.
Except this time there was a twist in the tale.
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It’s almost impossible to isolate one legend from last night’s heroes, but one man in particular deserves all the recognition he can get.
Nearly two years ago I dismissively described Gareth Southgate in a WhatsApp group chat as the ‘safe and vanilla’ option after the Sam Allardyce debacle.
Fast forward two summers and the meek, unassuming former Middlesbrough boss has blossomed into a tactical giant, united a nation and brought the fun and hope back to English football.
Because Southgate gets England.
There’s just something so pleasingly symbolic that it is he who engineered England’s first ever World Cup shootout victory 22 years after his miss against Germany at Euro 96.
And he’s not done yet.
Southgate is rapidly becoming the most iconic and popular living person in the country.
There’s now an Atomic Kitten song moulded around his genius. Marks and Spencer have recorded a 35% increase in their waistcoat sales.
Men want to be him and women want to be with him.
All because he’s not only got our boys playing with such verve and swagger, but also instilled a confidence among them that became so apparent last night when it mattered most.
English fans are programmed to dread taking chances out of the back but Harry Maguire, John Stones and Kyle Walker were the coolest men on the planet last night.
Even when an incredibly stoic Colombian side snuffed out their tactical advances England persevered with the same methods.
There was never a sense of desperation, never a resort to humping it long in hope.
Pass and move. Pass and move. Recycle. Start again.
Southgate’s meticulous and granular approach is translated in his team, who instead of panicking after Yerry Mina’s devastating equaliser remained composed and looked the most likely in extra time.
His tactical open-mindedness took him to American Football which is so evident in all of England’s intuitive set pieces.
Make no mistake, this is Southgate’s influence.
Despite Golden Generations and star-studded names in the past 20 years England are playing their best football since the 90s.
England have a distinct and recognisable brand emerging as one of the best teams at a World Cup – when was the last time we were able to say that?
So here’s to you, Gareth.
Regardless of what happens in the rest of the tournament. Regardless of whether he only drinks water during the week. Regardless of what he does with his pizza.
England has a new hero and we’ll all march to the very end for him.
Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on, football’s coming home again.