England in Russia: The good news is, this is only the beginning
Whatever happens tonight, this summer feels like the beginning of something special.
England have reached the semi-final of the World Cup with the youngest and least capped team in the tournament, and in doing so, have repaired their damaged relationship with a nation.
Gareth Southgate is a young(ish) manager, particularly on the international stage, which is these days populated by older coaches winding down their careers.
It’s been a remarkable journey so far considering how little expectation there was heading into this tournament – the “It’s coming home” phenomenon started out with tongue firmly in cheek remember.
The abject defeat to Iceland just two years ago was arguably the nadir of English tournament football, but sometimes you have to reach the bottom of the ladder before climbing back up it.
You could argue the FA were lucky to stumble upon this winning formula, and it’s only thanks to a sting from the Daily Telegraph that we have the waistcoated one instead of Big Sam.
Southgate has united the nation because he’s a thoroughly decent man, an intelligent and modern coach who understands young modern footballers. Sam Allardyce? He is more of a traditionalist, so under him England would have probably been knocked out on penalties in the quarter-finals, as is tradition.
But there is also an argument that this first World Cup semi-final in almost three decades is the conclusion of an FA drive four years in the making.
Dan Ashworth will be well-known to many in these parts. The FA’s technical director made his name with a successful stint at The Hawthorns before being lured away in 2012.
Four years ago, after England were knocked out of the last World Cup in the group stage, Ashworth launched an FA manifesto aimed at creating an ‘England DNA’ at St George’s Park.
Inspired by Germany and presented to 1,500 coaches throughout the game, the idea was to create a clear identity between all age groups. “Only the size of the shirt will change,” he said.
Last year we witnessed the England DNA starting to emerge in stunning fashion.
The U17s and the U20s won their World Cups, the U19s won their Euros, the U18s won the Toulon Tournament, and the U21s reached the semi-finals of the Euros.
There was hope, at the time, that some of these players with experience of winning tournaments would help the senior team in the future, but the impact has been felt sooner than many expected.
That is down to Southgate. As England U21 coach, he launched the England DNA in 2014 alongside Ashworth, and has been one of the driving forces behind it.
Many of his current players played under him at that level, and even won trophies with him.
Two years ago Southgate won the Toulon Tournament with a side that included Jordan Pickford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Finally, we have men in the key roles at the FA who are employing some joined-up thinking and planning for the long term. Whatever happens tonight against Croatia, the future is bright for England, and that’s something to be extremely excited about.