And so, finally, they fell. And so, finally, this young team and their fine young manager who have surpassed all our expectations and worked their alchemy by turning a summer blighted by political discord into a summer of love and joy, could go no further.
England’s unexpected journey through this tournament to the very brink of the final was, like 1990 before it, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. It saw new heroes emerge, none greater and more affecting than Gareth Southgate whose human qualities, whose compassion, whose generosity, seemed so unexpected and so unusual in these turbulent times.
The tournament reconnected England footballers with their fans. It gave international football in this country new life when it seemed moribund. It carried us away. It made us think football was coming home. It captured us completely. And because we had started to believe, it hurt even more when the dream died.
Midfielder Jordan Henderson was one of England’s finest players in this summer’s World Cup
Henderson may have lost the armband to Harry Kane but he remained an influential figure
It ended, as these things usually do, in tears of frustration and pain. It ended with Kieran Trippier, one of the revelations of the tournament, hobbling down the touchline to the bench, injured, and sitting there distraught and inconsolable. It ended in impotent fury. It ended with us wondering whether we will ever get a better chance than this to emulate the Boys of 66.
‘Football is today,’ Chris Waddle told me last week. Seize the chance when it is there, no matter how improbable that chance seems, because you never know when it will come again, when other teams will emerge. England took this as far as they could until that final whistle ended it.
It ended with John Stones falling to the ground when the final whistle went as if he had been felled by some terrible blow, as if that whistle had the force of a cudgel. Welcome to England’s Desolation Row, where every now and again a brave, brave effort transports us into a dreamland and then falls just short.
Liverpool star remained steadfast and remained a leader on the pitch during the World Cup
Welcome to 1990, where it felt as bad as this. Welcome to 1996, where the pain of losing in that penalty shoot out may have been even worse because of the fervour that had consumed the country. Welcome to coming so close that the pain is almost unbearable.
The truth, sadly, is that England threw a golden chance away against Croatia. They should have been out of sight by half time but they blew a series of opportunities and allowed their opponents the chance to regroup. And so at the end, it was the Croatia players crying with their partners in the stands, the Croatia players on the pitch with their kids, abandoning themselves to joy.
But even in the moment of defeat, it is worth remembering what these players have brought to us this summer, the way they have restored our faith in much that lies beyond football. They have shown us the power of camaraderie and hope and the power of youth and optimism.
They have shown us what can be done with teamwork and with togetherness. They have come an awful long way in a very short time. They have brilliant midfield runners in Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard but they lack a creative genius like Luka Modric. They disguised that lack of a playmaker well for a long while in Russia. In the end, though, Modric would not be denied. In the end, England’s midfield had to yield to him.
Henderson faced down Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic superbly in the first half in Moscow
The irony in that is that Jordan Henderson has been one of England’s finest players in this tournament, a man whose authority grew and grew and who faced down Modric and Ivan Rakitic superbly in the first half at the Luzhniki Stadium.
A couple of months ago, when even a World Cup semi-final was a distant dream, something that we imagined was destined for others and not for us, Henderson sat on a sun-kissed terrace in the hills above the resort town of Marbella talking about his view of captaincy and how, sometimes, it meant doing the duties others did not want to do.
It was ten days before Liverpool played Real Madrid in the Champions League final in Kiev. We are still accustomed to our clubs excelling in the most prestigious competition for them even if, until now, we had lost the habit with England and Henderson spoke then about how he and his Liverpool teammates wanted to write their own history with Liverpool, not just follow in the footsteps of Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Kenny Dalglish, Steven Gerrard and the rest.
At that stage, it was assumed that either Henderson or Harry Kane would be made England captain. Many thought Henderson would get it. He has made a huge success of the job with Liverpool, following an icon like Gerrard and it was expected that Southgate would hand him the armband, too.
Henderson’s job is not flashy but he does it incredibly effectively for Gareth Southgate’s side
The midfielder is commiserated by the England manager following the defeat in Moscow
But early the next week, Southgate called him to tell him Kane would be skipper. At the end of that week, Liverpool lost the Champions League final courtesy of a couple of Loris Karius mistakes and a sublime overhead kick from Gareth Bale. It feels like ancient history now after a World Cup that has produced so much drama.
But one thing endured: Henderson remained steadfast. He remained a leader on the pitch. He said that afternoon in Marbella that it would not affect him one iota if Southgate handed the captaincy to Kane and he was true to his word. Kane wore the armband in Russia and was a fine, steadying presence but the biggest voice on the pitch belonged to Henderson.
He is starting, at last, to get a little more credit for the job he does but there remains much of the unsung hero about the performances he puts in. Henderson’s job is not flashy but he does it incredibly effectively.
Here, amid the crushing tension of the Luzhniki Stadium, as England tried in vain to achieve something they have not achieved for 52 years by reaching a World Cup final, Henderson was at the very heart of England’s excellence in the first half.
The England midfielder consoles Kieran Trippier following England’s heartbreaking defeat
Henderson is pictured alongside his young family in the aftermath of England’s World Cup exit
So much of the pre-match talk had been about the dangers posed by Modric but Henderson helped to ensure that Modric’s influence was close to negligible. He did not do that alone. Dele Alli worked tirelessly on the defensive side of his game to blunt Modric, too, but when Modric sought the space between the lines upon which he thrives, it was Henderson who frustrated him time and again.
Henderson is more than a destructive player but he broke up Croatia’s attempts to inject some fluency into their game to the point where Modric began to look demoralised. Henderson never stopped chasing, never stopped closing down, never stopped talking to his teammates, encouraging them, chastising them, urging them on. Quiet and laid back off the pitch, he is a human dynamo on it.
Some spoke before this World Cup about how this England team lacked leaders but as their adventure to the final has progressed, but it that was true once it is definitely not true now. Tournaments speed the evolution of football teams and some of the young men in this inexperienced side have emerged as fine leaders during the tournament.
Henderson cups his mouth with his hand as he tries to come to terms with the 2-1 defeat
We knew about Henderson already but if he commands midfield, Stones does the same job in defence. After a difficult season with Manchester City, Stones has been brilliant at this tournament. He looks every bit the classy, cultured, assured, ball-playing defender that everyone always hoped he would be. As it has been for many of his teammates, this tournament has been his coming of age.
As the second half, progressed though, Croatia gradually began to gain a foothold in the game and Modric and Rakitic started to control the match. Henderson had run himself into the ground and after Croatia equalised through Ivan Perisic, he struggled to keep Modric and Rakitic at bay.
They passed the ball round him and several times he was caught in possession. The equaliser breathed new life into Croatia and sapped England of their energy and seven minutes into extra time, the Liverpool skipper was replaced by Eric Dier. The way he played in Russia was a symbol of how England rose to this challenge and gave us so many wonderful memories. The end is always cruel, as Henderson knew from Kiev, but this has been a month of magic that, just like 1990, has breathed new life into the English game.
Source: MailOnline | Copyright © MailOnline, All Rights Reserved