As a teenager, I used to watch football with my dad, often found in all weathers cheering on my local, perennially under-performing, team. Perhaps it was the constant disappointment, perhaps that business overwhelmed the supposedly beautiful game. Over subsequent years I rather fell out of love with football and drifted away from it all, taking my heart to a game with an odd-shaped ball and men that kept playing when their arms were hanging off and not writhing around in agony because someone looked at them in the wrong way.
To be honest I was sick of hearing about the World Cup before it had even begun, and just wanted it to be over.
Under sufferance I watched England’s opening match in Russia though, and found myself enjoying it. More disconcertingly, over the course of the group games, much to my amazement, I actually found myself caring about England again, unwittingly climbing on board for the roller-coaster ride to the point where I sat in a hotel room just outside London on Tuesday biting my nails down to the elbow through the torment of another World Cup penalty shoot-out.
With my nerves already in tatters, when Jordan Henderson missed my heart sank and that dreadful sense of ‘here we go again’ loomed large. My beleaguered brain cell gloated that this had been a ‘bad idea’ and I was already imagining the next generation of Mickey-taking Pizza Hut adverts, the kind that England’s dapper manager Gareth Southgate knew only too well following Euro ’96.
The nation’s collective expectations and hopes plummeted to the ground quicker than Neymar being breathed on. We needed a miracle, a hero… and for once it came. In the unlikely, and rather less than imposing, figure of our goalie, the one who’d been maligned all week for being too short. Jordan Pickford’s magnificent save stunned Colombia and his own fans alike.
From our team, so often the victims of self-destruction, a steely determination emanated instead. Heads were held high rather than dropped, while nerves held like steel, not turning to jelly. Suddenly the unthinkable, the unimaginable was happening. Right before our disbelieving eyes England achieved something even rarer than winning the World Cup.
Squeals and tears of joy, scenes of utter delight ensued, and that was just in my room. The sheer happiness and pride of that England team and the delight of the entire nation was a true sight to behold. A piece of history I was glad, and indeed proud, to be a small part of.
I am genuinely thrilled for Southgate, England’s quiet, unassuming, waistcoat-wearing leader. The man who steadied the sinking ship and on Tuesday he exorcised the demons of that semi-final miss in 1996 by giving his country a very special gift. It wasn’t just a World Cup penalty shoot-out victory, it was something much more significant. It doesn’t matter whether England go any further or not now, on Tuesday they restored a glimmer of hope and belief in a rather dusty, 52-year-old dream.