Richard Sutcliffe: World Cup is not coming home, but English game is the winner
‘And when Trippier scored’ not only fits the infectiously catchy chorus of Three Lions but those four words seemed a timely update to the original homage to England’s last goal in a World Cup semi-final.
That had come 28 years earlier via the ever reliable left boot of Gary Lineker but, if anything, this felt even more important.
So exquisite was the curled free-kick from Kieran Trippier to put England ahead last night that Danijel Subasic in the Croatia goal gave up any pretence of getting his hand to the ball long before it had hit the net.
Instead, he was fittingly already on his knees long before Trippier disappeared under a scrum of white shirts as 10,000 England fans partied wildly inside the Luzhniki Stadium as tens of millions did the same back home.
That most peculiar of celebration so beloved of the millennial football fan – the launching of pints into the air – had erupted across the country.
Hyde Park led the way with surely the biggest of all beer showers, helped by the game only being five minutes old so most plastic glasses belonging to the 30,000 capacity crowd were nearly full.
But identical party scenes were played out from Sunderland to Southampton and all points in between. Even those in Newcastle who had been asked to stump up £22 – £17 more than the group games – to watch the tie in the city’s Times Square must have thought the expense worth it.
Already dubbed the ‘Bury Beckham’ on social media thanks to his pinpoint set-piece delivery in Russia, Trippier – this unassuming Lancastrian who took his first steps in professional football with Barnsley in the Championship – had suddenly become the most popular man in the country.
Sure, there were still 85 minutes to play but football really felt to be, as Baddiel and Skinner had first suggested in 1996, coming home.
There was little to dissuade such a notion for the rest of the first half.
Having started at a cracking tempo and taken the lead via a goal worthy of winning any semi-final, England were determined there would be no let-up.
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic had rightly been pinpointed as Croatia’s big threat from midfield beforehand but neither mustered a kick of note in those opening 45 minutes.
Jordan Henderson, on the back of an outstanding World Cup, had much to do with that with his shepherding of Modric away from danger shortly after Harry Kane had missed a gilt-edged opportunity at the other end on the half hour, masterful.
With Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard also full of energy and Raheem Sterling’s pace terrifying a creaking Croatian defence in which Dejan Lovren had regressed to the gibbering wreck that Jurgen Klopp had been forced to substitute after just half an hour of Liverpool’s 4-1 thrashing by Spurs at Wembley last season, the tie could have been over by half-time.
Trippier’s first international goal should have been followed by Kane’s seventh of the tournament. Lingard also wasted a fine opening during a first half that the Three Lions dominated and the only fear at the interval was Croatia could punish such profligacy.
History suggested not, with only Italy in 1990 having led at half-time in a semi-final and not gone on to book a place in the final.
Croatia, however, proved otherwise with a fightback that meant Zlatko Dalic’s men and not England will deservedly face France on Sunday in Moscow.
Sime Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic were the key, the two full-backs’ willingness to get forward at every opportunity meaning Modric and Rakitic suddenly had the numbers around them to start hurting England.
Ivan Perisic also started to do damage to a tiring England and it was no surprise when he fired Croatia level.
Only the post then prevented Ivan doing something truly terrible to the Three Lions but the tide had turned. England, so lively and inventive in the first half, were spent and Mario Mandzukic duly punished heavy legs by smashing in the winner.
England had suffered another of those ‘oh so nears’ that Baddiel and Skinner once bemoaned had worn supporters down through the years. Or so it seemed in the immediate aftermath of referee Cuneyt Cakir blowing the final whistle.
It doesn’t, though, have to be that way. This can be the beginning and not the end for a squad so young that most of those who went so close to emulating the boys of ‘66 were not even born when the country’s last taste of a World Cup semi-final had ended with Gazza’s tears and a soon-to-be familiar shootout exit to Germany.
This is a group that can grow under a manager who has already made the country fall back in love with its football team, no mean feat considering the chasm that had opened up with a disaffected public over the past decade or so of abject failure.
Gareth Southgate admitted on the eve of tackling Croatia that he hadn’t been able to listen to Three Lions for 20 years following his penalty miss at Wembley.
The past month has brought a change of heart for the England manager, which is probably for the best as he could well be hearing a lot more of it come Euro 2020 and the World Cup in Qatar a couple of years later.