In the end, it was another ‘oh so near’.
The World Cup once again proved itself to be like that boy (or girl) you shouldn’t go back to but always do. You know not to invest your feelings. You know it will only hurt you in the end. But gradually you get sucked back in and before you know it you’re love-drunk on the belief that this time it will be different before it breaks your heart all over again.
Harry Kane summed up the thoughts of the nation and got me right in the feels when he tweeted “it hurts a lot, it will hurt for a while.”
And it will, because anyone who says these past few weeks haven’t been up there with the best few weeks of their lives is a liar. It’s been a rollercoaster. We started off wondering if we’d beat Tunisia, and we ended up with beer in our hair hugging strangers and contemplating getting a tattoo of a Leicester City defender we didn’t even put in our last fantasy squad.
We fell in love with this team. Our team, the youngest in the entire tournament and the first England squad to reach a World Cup semi-final in 28 years. We were euphoric as we celebrated Kane’s penalties, Maguire’s headers, Trippier’s free kicks and Pickford’s saves. We sang It’s Coming Home like we’d never stop.
It wasn’t just the football. We liked them. Southgate for being the nicest man in football and quite possibly the world. Harry Maguire for turning himself into a meme. Pickford for shouting ‘for fucks sake’ in his Geordie accent like he was one of us. All of them for messing about on inflatable unicorns. It was the way they seemed kind of normal; a ginger prince in goal, a few blokes from Yorkshire at the back and that one mate who’s trying out the hipster beard (Kyle Walker, I’m talking to you.)
Did football come home? Not this time, and I’m gutted. But it nearly did; and it made an entire country really bloody happy for a summer. It gave us a surreal, delirious month where the sun shone constantly; where every game became the best night out you’d had in ages; where strangers talked to you on the train and in bars; where for the first time in your life you felt proud – like really, really proud – to be English.
Because we’re not used to pride, not really. We’re told constantly that times are hard, we think our government is shit, half of the population is worrying about a Brexit they never wanted while the other half is slowly coming to the realisation that they were tricked by a bus.
But it was like we all forgot for a second that things can be rubbish, that there was right or left, or leave or remain. We were a country united by one man and his waistcoat – and we believed. We believed in this young, unheralded bunch of lads who exceeded all our expectations, exorcised our World Cup demons and achieved what those ‘golden’ footballers from our past never could. We reached the semi-finals. We scored six goals in a single game. We lasted longer than Argentina, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Brazil. We won on fucking penalties.
This time, for the first time, when we sang ‘it’s coming home’, we meant it. We booked the Monday after the final off work. We dared to dream.
And in the end, this time at least, a dream is all it was. But it was a dream that meant hope, it meant inspiration, it meant rising from the ashes and achieving the impossible. It meant a man who was ridiculed and written off 20 years ago becoming the man England fans waited 70 minutes just to see walk out of the tunnel so they could cheer him even in defeat. It meant 23 men who no one put much faith in, defying the odds and making an entire country believe and fall in love with England again.
It is only football. But it felt like so much more.
So leave out the flags. Order another jagerbomb. Cheer for England on Saturday as loudly as you’d cheer for the World Cup final that wasn’t to be. We expected nothing, we hoped for everything, and we leave as one of the top four teams in the world.
Maybe it didn’t come home, but it brought us together, it re-ignited our belief in the England team, and it made us feel proud.
Really really fucking proud.