Darren Gough: Challenge already on to ensure England continue to grow

IT IS hard to criticise England after their World Cup run ended '“ no one expected us to get to the semi-finals.

NEXT TIME AROUND? England manager Gareth Southgate and players applaud fans after losing the World Cup, semi-final to Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA
NEXT TIME AROUND? England manager Gareth Southgate and players applaud fans after losing the World Cup, semi-final to Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA

But you also cannot help but think of it as a genuine, missed opportunity too.

Wednesday’s semi-final exit to Croatia left you feeling a little bit sick at the end of it all. I and thousands of others at the Luzhniki Stadium certainly felt that way along with, no doubt, the millions watching back in England.

The day after it started to really hurt and it was hard not to think that, with the draw we were handed, it was a great chance to end all those years of ‘hurt’.

For example, look at Croatia’s defence – the one we ran ragged for the majority of the first half on Wednesday night – it is now in a World Cup final.

That’s hard to take, but you have to admit that their midfield is unbelievable and is certainly their biggest strength. As a unit it is maybe the best in the world right now and, sadly, on the night we had no answers.

Overall, yes, it was a successful tournament for England. But the question is how do we improve that team now?

You look at people like Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who are midfield options, and it will be interesting to see what Gareth Southgate does.

START ME UP: Do you agree with Darren Gough's team of the tournament? Graphic: Graeme Bandeira.

The manager will take some praise and it is good to see he is getting it. He gave Harry Kane the captaincy when some questioned it and left Gary Cahill out of the starting 11 when he was maybe the obvious choice. He also helped move Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney out of their positions.

He made some bold decisions and got the team all wanting to play for him. But unfortunately we seemed to hit a brick wall when it really mattered.

I was speaking to the likes of Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce after the match on Wednesday and we were saying we still don’t know how good England are, as we did not come up against any of the major nations.

Colombia was a challenge as they were a messy side who tried to knock us off our stride and Sweden were poor against us, although they did knock three goals past Mexico, a team who some thought were dark horses.

CREDIT: England fans ahead of the FIFA World Cup, semi-final against Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA

We missed the likes of Holland, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Brazil and Germany and cannot really say what will it be like for us moving forward.

Are Spain going to be as bad at the next World Cup? What about Argentina and Brazil and German – will they come back stronger? Italy and Holland will also surely be coming back after missing out this time around. Will it be another 28 years for us to qualify for another semi-final?

The European Championships has got to be the one in two years’ time where we are properly gauged.

In terms of achievements, this World Cup did see a nation come together. Whether you were abroad as an ex-pat or in London, Newcastle, Leeds or Sheffield – our run saw us unite and that is what football can do more than any other sport.

It is totally different to cricket. I remember when we won the Ashes for the first time and it was somewhere near this, but football still does things to a nation that no other sport dcan come close to repeating.

The England fans should be proud of themselves. Everyone seemed to have been put off going to Russia initially, partly through the fear of us not performing once again when it come to a major tournament.

But after that first game against Tunisia, the vibe came back and thousands were wanting to get out to Russia, even though the flights were expensive.

I was in Red Square on Wednesday and there were 10,000 England fans which was amazing. There was such a fantastic atmosphere before, during and after the game.

After the game, the players stood there for 20 minutes applauding the fans. Well done, Gareth and the England team, but also the fans.

As someone who works in broadcasting, I was lucky enough to be there and it was a fantastic occasion, despite the result.

For me, looking at England football overall, the future should be bright, when looking at the past 12 months.

The Under-17s won the World Cup and the Under-19s were Euro winners and the Under-20s also won the World Cup.

The Under-21s, meanwhile, got to the Euro semi-finals and now the seniors have got to the last four of the World Cup.

Looking at the final, you have to say that France have improved as the tournament has gone on after a slow start.

Didier Deschamps has got them playing together and, in the last two knock-out games, they have been absolutely spot-on in a defensive sense.

It is about winning games for them – not beautiful football.

Anyway, as the World Cup draws to a close tomorrow, it is a good time to reveal my team of the tournament.

In goal, I have gone for Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois with a back three of Harry Maguire, Raphael Varane and Jose Giminez.

On the right, I have chosen Kieran Trippier with N’Golo Kante and Luka Modric in the middle and France’s Lucas Hernandez on the left.

Then, I have picked Eden Hazard on the left of an attacking three, with Romelu Lukaku down the middle and Kylian Mbappe down the right.