Russia 2018: England and why it's probably not coming home

On England, Baddiel and Skinner, Southgate and why you can't change history

It’s England mania and it’s sweeping the nation, from Gareth Southgate to Germany’s hasty exit, an iconic song and a less than perfect history against South American teams; England.

Germany are out, it’s coming home!

You might have missed it but Germany are out of the World Cup… who am I kidding, you haven’t missed it. How could you with all outlets pouring their demise down the collective gullet of the nation over the last 36 hours?

On a day when Japan were playing Poland as Senegal took on Colombia, Tunisia faced Panama in dead rubber and England came up against Belgium it was impossible to escape Germany. Tune into the BBC before the Group H matches and what was mentioned? Germany. Flip over to ITV for the conclusion of Group G and there they were again, the defeated World Champions.

England talked about ahead of their game but, good golly, the Germans, those pesky Europeans are out of the World Cup… surely, Gary Lineker began to rub his hands with glee, the Walkers spokesman poised to remind the nation that it was coming home.

The World Cup knock-out stages without Germany, as unthinkable as the tournament without Italy or the Netherlands… never mind.

Could it be possible, could the stars be aligning in England’s favour? England those loveable clean-cut rouges who’ve captured the public’s imagination of a thorough dismantling of Panama. Yes, it’s true England looked like demigods against a Panama team who looked about as ready to play a football match as the starting XI at the Eastbourne Sunset Nursing Home.

With Wonderboy Harry Kane and his freak deflected goals and penalties, there would surely be no stopping England.

Three Lions on a shirt (it’s coming home)

Did you know it’s coming home? Well, now you do. Put it in an IV and hook it up to my veins, it’s coming home.

The sweet pure naivety of the sentiment has whipped the internet into a frenzy over the last two weeks, so much so that in an online poll of who’s been the best team in La Liga this season, It’s Coming Home is even more likely to win than Arsenal.

The line, of course, comes from one of the most iconic football songs of all time (in England at least) and the battle of Three Lions ’98 vs World In Motion continues to this day. David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and that guy from the Lightning Seeds that looks like he could be Baddiel’s brother, sorry but no John Barnes rap, no party.

The original version from 1996 spoke to the English public, the first song that captured the feeling of the football fan on the street, the biennial misery of knock-out football and the optimism that failed to go away. The song paid homage to the World Cup winning side of ’66 and the oh-so nears of Italia 90, the tune rising into a crescendo of hope for the first time England hosted the Euro.

One way or another, football came home that summer, England’s semi-final exit to Germany on penalties, the most predictable heartbreak. Gareth Southgate’s weak penalty saved by Andreas Köpke at Wembley, his place in history confirmed as the Germans went on to claim more silverware.

Of course, Three Lions had been such a hit that it was revived two years later for France ’98, new lyrics in place, the footage of Southgate’s penalty miss, the reaction from the player as well as Terry Venables.

The song probably the only chart-topper to feature Jonathan Pearce commentary – a feat in itself.

Picking up from the agony of the semi-final, the song leads with more positivity, a fantastical match between England and Germany fans enough to decide the winner.

The iconic line of, “It’s coming home” buried in the chorus with the updated line of, “No more years of hurt, no more need for dreaming.” But of course, the last 20 years of English football have been a recurring nightmare of dismal performances, failures to get off of the ground and a growing discontent.

Be it the media or the fans, we’ve grown tired of the England team, the disappointments and poor managerial appointments.

Tears for heroes dressed in grey, it’s finally coming home

For the first time in a long time – or in living memory for the majority of the 23-man squad for Russia – the optimism was back. Gareth Southgate, Mr. Nice was leading a revolution, media were brought in close to the team, years of animosity left in the past as Southgate and his team forged ahead.

David Ornstein, a journalist turned into a meme by Arsenal fans was videoed playing darts with Jordan Pickford, there as to be no bad blood this summer, creases smoothed out, Southgate the proverbial iron.

Southgate with his gentle smile and tightly buttoned waistcoats looking as much a football manager as a pensive English teacher about to tell you that your haikus lacked soul. Smiles, waistcoats, the beard of a new dad, Southgate has never dazzled, he’s had none of the character associated with Sam Allardyce, Fabio Capello or Sven-Göran Eriksson.

He’s seemed more sensible than Roy Hodgson, showing enough fortitude to pick his squads on current form rather than historical inclusion. He’s been a breath of fresh air but maintained an feel of a man just about running on time for his first lecture of the day.

His record coming into the tournament was admirable, ten wins, six draws and two losses and not a single competitive defeat. The loss dealt by Belgium the first Southgate has felt at a manager since a friendly against France in Paris last June, his run of 12 matches unbeaten brought to an end in Kaliningrad.

There has, unfortunately, been nothing spectacular about England, the wins against smaller nations, the historically bigger dogs held by Southgate’s Lions. Germany, Brazil and Italy all without a win at Wembley from November 2017 to March of this year – although looking at Germany this summer and Italy’s inability to qualify, maybe those results mean less than ever.

But somewhere between Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart being left at home, Pickford showing his skills at the oche to a last-gasp winner against Tunisia at the midge-infested Volgograd Arena, something happened.

People began to believe once more, like they had when football came home (albeit just for the summer) in ’96, or as they had ahead of that fateful night in Turin at the start of the 90s.

A whole new generation ready to drink in the spectacle of England playing well (a relative term) at a tournament, the country becoming drunk on the Three Lions.

The delirium rising from Monday of last week, England had won their first match at a major tournament since 2006, the summer seeing the last time the Three Lions won a knock-out game. Then Sunday and a thrashing of Panama, the first time the men had scored six in one World Cup match, Kane the hat trick hero. The hysteria had peaked.

It’s coming home, as long as we lose to Belgium

The group was set, England were through with a match to spare… what, what was this new feeling? Oh, how long it had been since England had been feeling so secure at a tournament. It was certainly coming home, how could it not be?!

With England guaranteed a spot in the round of 16, the focus shifted to the best route to the final for England – because it’s coming home – a tactical loss maybe? Colombia had looked good against a well-below average Poland, were they the team to avoid?

On Monday, Uruguay showed their calibre against Russia as Portugal avoided a controversial loss to Iran to see them through. Tuesday brought about the first 0-0 of the tournament as France and Denmark attempted to lull the 78,000 spectators at the Luzhniki Stadium to sleep, Peru’s first win enough to see them deny Australia a spot in the knock-outs as Group D had everyone’s heads spinning.

Drama by the bucketloads, enough to make you need to change your shirt (and your trousers), Argentina through by the grace of Marcos Rojo, Nigeria and Iceland out, Croatia the real deal. Wednesday saw Brazil find two goals against the run of play against a Serbia team who couldn’t find the damn net as Bryan Ruiz’ not-quite possible penalty denied Switzerland a win though not a spot in the knockouts.

More delirious drama preceded with Germany running out of steam and ideas against South Korea as Sweden stunned Mexico.

One thing was for certain, the draw was getting more and more stacked, Southgate denied any ideas of taking a dive against Belgium, a win all that his camp was focused on.

Roberto Martínez cuter, there would be changes for the Red Devils, wholesale changes, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing if Belgium found themselves as group runners-up. England had to go for glory, there could be no other way the pundits proclaimed.

Thursday rolled around, bringing more drama with it if not a touch of scandal too, Poland’s win over Japan enough for three points but not enough to keep the Asian side from progressing as Colombia saw off Senegal. Little to be feared with a match against Colombia surely, they hadn’t played well, in fact they had been played off of the park in the first half… but again the nerves from some.

For all the talk, England appeared to want to win in Kaliningrad as much as Belgium did, the match as subdued as any at the tournament – though not as bad as the last fifteen minutes of Japan vs Poland. England rotated and refreshed, the defence continued to wobble, Pickford’s record of zero clean sheets from three in Russia, not the most comforting.

A touch of class from Adnan Januzaj saw Belgium take the lead early in the second half – was that a good thing or a bad thing? Needing a goal, Southgate introduced Danny Welbeck; fans begged for Kane (and possibly another bizarre deflection). Welbeck but no Jesse Lingard or Raheem Sterling brought on to liven the midfield.

For the Red Devils, Vincent Kompany was given a run-out and so too Dries Mertens, presumably to keep the Napoli man ticking over ahead of the next round. The match little more than a glorified friendly. 

A win, a loss, you can’t stop it from coming home

It had happened, England had lost to Belgium for the second time in their history and first time since 1936 but we were better off for finishing second in the group… maybe. The pundits on ITV were at a loss, the performance had not been good.

There had been no sly smile from Southgate in his post-match interview, no, “Well we lost but,” *wink* “thems the breaks.”

The manager had, in fact, carried the demeanour of an Englishman who’d just been told that there was no tea or beer left in the house, suddenly unsure of what his next move was… maybe some juice? Maybe Trippier back in the starting XI?

After the drunken euphoria of a win over Panama, Belgium had been the sobering coffee that hadn’t mixed at all well with that 3am doner kebab. England were back to being unspectacular against a team who’d not looked too interested in winning, a tactical loss but the manager didn’t seem happy.

Maybe it was all a front and Southgate was doing mental backflips, if so a potential acting career may await the 47-year-old.

Pundits and fans alike happy to avoid tournament favourites Brazil and Euro 2016 finalists, Portugal and France on the other side of the draw. Colombia represent another match in Moscow and another day’s rest though will surely be a tougher opponent than Japan.

Get past Colombia and it’s Sweden or Switzerland – a mouth-watering prospect for fans and pundits getting swept back up in the football frenzy. Samara will be uncomfortably hot but the opposition? Nothing to worry about then it’s onto Spain/Russia/Croatia/Denmark in Moscow in the semis, win that and England are in the final.

It’s coming home, it’s…

Bottle off, it’s coming home

Across the last sixteen there is frailty and weakness, teams who’ve flown by the seat of their respective pants, whether Argentina pulling themselves back from the brink or the Swiss living a curiously charmed life.

Mexico advancing through Germany’s failure or Spain deciding to sack their manager on the eve of the tournament and looking less than perfect for it. Each team has had questions asked of them, often with flimsy answers, all the easier for England to win the whole damn thing right? And did we mention, GERMANY ARE OUT?!

This is where it gets serious folks and this is where England historically slip up (if England haven’t already slipped up in the groups or in qualification, that is). In 23 tournaments, out of 23 matches England have won nine knock out games (three of which were in 1966), and only five were won in 90 minutes. Worst still is England’s form against South American teams, having been knocked out of five tournaments by CONMEBOL nations (Brazil and Argentina twice as well as Uruguay in 1954).

A team regarded as the dark horses of Brazil 2014, Colombia haven’t set the world alight with their performances yet this summer, the nation with just won piece of silverware to its’ name – a 2001 Copa América title. A loss to the hosts four years ago dumped Los Cafeteros out of their first World Cup for 16 years and they are likely to be the toughest opposition England have faced yet.

S weden or Switzerland at the Cosmos Arena awaits but too many have seemingly already booked their tickets to Samara, eyeing up two further matches at the Luzhniki.

A cautious person would suggest people don’t shouldn't start counting their chickens before they hatch, even if England were to get passed Colombia, each further round comes with its dangers.

The sweltering conditions in Samara to be factored in as much as the opposition, a potential meeting with tournament hot-shots Croatia a likely enough scenario for those who progress from match 60.

In the heat and the uncertainty of this World Cup against smaller nations producing wonderful football and bigger sides failing to live up to expectations, the optimism around England should be that of caution.

Southgate’s new refreshing team massively untested at this level, unaccustomed to major tournaments, Southgate himself breaking new ground each day. The football still pedestrian – bar a Lingard rocket – the side untested against a team that can hurt them, maybe it’s time to step away, to put the bottle of It’s Coming Home (40% Vol.) down and remember going out of tournaments is what England excel at. 

It's the optimism that kills you, maybe there's not a shoot-out loss to Germany down the line but sooner or later, England will come home.

Their luggage far more likely to contain Russian nesting dolls and some exceptionally strong vodka rather than Silvio Gazzaniga's famous trophy.