Emotionally, I’m absolutely spent.
When the final whistle blew and England’s hopes of reaching the final of a major tournament for the first time since 1966 were crushed by a brave Croatia, I have to admit that tears began to roll down my face as I burried my head in my hands.
Croatia were more than worthy winners of the contest, fighting back from a one-goal deficit to steal a winner in the second half of extra-time when Mario Mandžukić reacted quickest to a loose ball in the penalty area and hammered a half-volley past Jordan Pickford.
Whilst England had their chances in the contest – and with emotions still running high in the aftermath I would query the lack of yellow cards flashed during proceedings – ultimately their wastefulness in front of goal during a dominant first half came back to haunt Gareth Southgate’s side.
As a journalist, it’s my job to try to put emotion to the side, to disregard my feelings in pursuit of truth, insight and a compelling narrative in an attempt to provide an analysis and put a bow on the semi-final.
But I can’t do that right now.
I’m not writing this as a journalist, I’m writing this as a fan of England.
Of course, I was cheering on Australia in the opening stages of the World Cup – I would have been thrilled to see the Socceroos ride their luck into the knockout stages of the tournament and possibly beyond – but my heart always lay with the Three Lions that have adorned my breast during every game I have watched them in this tournament.
When I was a kid, I had a VHS that recapped the last World Cup that England reached a semi-final in, Italia 90.
I would watch that video again and again and again, often in the days leading to training or games with my junior club. I would watch the heroics of that Sir Bobby Robson led side as they rode their luck to the semi-final and marvel. So great was my affection for that tape, I distinctly remember interrupting a dinner party that my parents were hosting with my junior coach, David Stevenson, to demonstrate to the assembled table my impression of David Platt’s late winner against the Belgians in the Round of 16.
Being a youngster though, I never really connected with the tears of Paul Gascoigne following England’s penalty shootout defeat against West Germany in the semi-final.
I knew it was a sad occasion, but it had happened two years before I was born; how was I supposed to truly comprehend it?
Even my previous greatest heartbreaks as a sporting fan – Australia’s draw with Iran at the MCG in 1997 and the Western Bulldogs preliminary final defeats at the hands of the Adelaide Crows in ’97 and ’98 – came too early in my life for me to have the proper emotional development to comprehend what was going on beyond that my team had lost and that made me sad.
Since then, I gravitated to England in the same manner that I expect many of the victorious Croatian-Australian supporters gravitated to Hrvatska; my familial connection forging a bond that meant, regardless of how I wanted to feel about it, I was always more invested in England games than any other.
Until this tournament, I never really had a signature moment of victory or defeat to define my England fandom. England’s greatest success in my lifetime until now might well have been, depressingly, a 5-1 win over Germany in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.
Disappointments had been numerous, but never heartbreaking. During my lifetime England had never quite captured the imagination in the manner that Brazil, Spain, Germany or France have done. Progression to at least the Round of 16 has normally been at least a safe bet, but the all too predictable letdowns soon followed from there.
This time was different.
Southgate’s 2018 squad just felt different than all the England sides of the past.
It was young, it featured a highly likable group of players that were comfortable with both social and traditional media and it played a brand of football that made you excited. It wasn’t hard to fall in love with this group.
And while I didn’t expect anything greater than our normal run to the Round of 16/Quarter-finals coming into this tournament, I was excited about what England was bringing and thought that the Three Lions would turn heads in this World Cup.
But then England did a funny thing; they kept winning.
Despite numerous critics, be they simply misinformed, all too happy to engage in some cheap point-scoring against a national side in pursuit of clicks and listens or a combination of the two, England went out and played in a manner that led you to believe.
And, perhaps against my better judgment, I got totally invested against Croatia; no walls of cynicism, doubt or pessimism – just belief.
I roared when Kieran Trippier scored after only five minutes of play to the extent that I wouldn’t be surprised if I was to receive notes of complaints from the neighbors.
I left my feet only once after the second-half kick-off – much to the chagrin of my dog, who would rather have slept than felt compelled by honor to join me in my alertness – slumping to the floor when Ivan Perišić tied the game up in the 68th minute.
Then when Mandžukić scored I went numb, desperately lying to myself that England only needed one set piece or one moment of brilliance from Harry Kane to bring us level.
There was to be no leveler though, no glorious comeback to be written into World Cup folklore, and once the final whistle blew… well, let’s just say it’s now 7:50 am and the tears only dried up about 20 minutes ago.
Notwithstanding the sadness, however, I am still monumentally proud of what England has achieved in Russia. Despite some of the aforementioned critics declaring England weren’t even certainties to get out of their group, we reached the semi-finals of the World Cup.
Those same critics might point to England’s path to this point, but you can only beat those that are in front of you and the history books will now record that England outlasted the likes of Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, and Portugal in a tournament that the likes of Italy and the Netherlands couldn’t even qualify for.
England fans can – and should – feel nothing but pride in the men that pulled on the Three Lions shirt in Russia, because every single one of them certainly did that famous badge proud.
I’ll be at a press conference in just over 90 minutes wearing my England shirt and I’ll be wearing it into the studio to record an episode of the Daily Football Show later today because despite the raw emotions of the defeat, I know that this is an England side that gave it everything they had.
I also know that this is a squad that will be together for a long time to come.
Almost every single one of England’s key contributors during this World Cup was either 25-years-old or below. They are all playing first-team football in the best league in the world, under some of the best managers in the world and they will all keep improving. Southgate has shown that he has what it takes to lead a side deep into a tournament, and his acumen as a coach will only be improved by Russia 2018.
I look forward to the 2020 European Championships and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, because I know this England side will be even better in those tournaments.
It might not have happened in Russia, but we still believe.
Football will come home.