SIMON CARTER: Southgate and Co have made us fall back in love with England

Still the greatest - the Boys of ''66
Still the greatest - the Boys of ''66
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It wasn't supposed to be like this, was it? 

Sunday, July 15, 2018 wasn't meant to be 'just another summer's day'. No, it was to go down in history alongside that of Saturday, July 30, 1966, and, er, well just that solitary date actually.

Unforgettable - Nobby Stiles's jig of joy on the Wembley lap of honour in 1966

Unforgettable - Nobby Stiles's jig of joy on the Wembley lap of honour in 1966

The World Cup final, Moscow. England v France. Years of hurt, 52 of them, all gloriously over, all wonderfully forgotten.

Not Bobby belting the ball, but Harry. Not Nobby dancing, but Jordan. The day football casually strolled back up its own garden path, tapped on the front door (in all the excitement of lifting the World Cup it had lost its keys), and chirped: 'Honey, I'm home!'

And for more than an hour on Wednesday evening – 63 minutes if you were counting, and I was – that was indeed the script that the sporting gods were frantically bashing out on their laptops, or tablets, or whatever it is sporting gods type words on these days.

But we know now the script a success-starved nation had prepared in their heads had a different ending, one that will see the phrase '56 years of hurt' make an appearance by the time England next compete in a football World Cup. Provided we qualify for Qatar 2022, that is. Don't forget, after all the immediate post-1990 hullabaloo when England last reached the last four of the World Cup, we didn't qualify for the 1994 tournament.

England on their 1966 lap of honour with the Jules Rimet Trophy (l-r) Banks, Wilson, Ball, Charlton, Moore and Cohen. Picture: Allsport Hulton/Archive

England on their 1966 lap of honour with the Jules Rimet Trophy (l-r) Banks, Wilson, Ball, Charlton, Moore and Cohen. Picture: Allsport Hulton/Archive

However, as someone who can easily remember Italia 90, this feels different. Bobby Robson had a very experienced side 28 years ago. The same cannot be said of Gareth Southgate's Russia 2018 squad, 17 of whom (out of 23) had not even been born when the tears started cascading down Paul Gascoigne's cheeks.

Guys who are now household names – Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier and Jesse Lingard – had not even won a senior cap this time two years ago. Going into the World Cup, the first three of those players had only made 15 international starts between them. And despite that inexperience on the biggest stage of them all, they were 22 minutes away from the World Cup final, the biggest single sporting event on planet Earth.

A nation spent weeks singing Football's Coming Home, a line from the Baddiel and Skinner Three Lions song released before the European Championships in 1996, which were held in England. Memorably, for the past month, 'Football's Coming Home' was the simple, three-word answer given when anyone asked you if you thought England would win the World Cup. In reality, though, it was more than that. Even before the heartbreaking defeat to Croatia, football had already, gloriously, surprisingly in some way, come home. 

On hearing football knocking at the front door – 'Honey, I'm home' – the long-suffering wife would have certainly replied: 'Took your time, love – 52 years to get a packet of fags and two tins of Spam from the corner shop!'

A country united - briefly. England fans celebrate Kieran Trippier's goal last Wednesday.

A country united - briefly. England fans celebrate Kieran Trippier's goal last Wednesday.

You didn't have to look hard for proof that it had, indeed, come home. There it was in the TV pictures from towns and cities all over the country where sun-drenched supporters, many of whom had never seen an England side travel so far in a major tournament, gathered in front of big screens ready and waiting to chuck their expensive pints into the balmy summer air whenever we scored.

And there it was if you read the national papers, whose tone was far different from previous tournaments.

There was no ridiculing of the manager or players, nor thankfully any blatant jingoism. Remember Euro 96 and the Daily Mirror's 'Achtung Surrender – for you Fritz, ze European Championship is over' front page prior to the semi-final (which we lost to Germany on penalties)?

For once, there were no stories of England fans embroiled in hooliganism abroad, and when was the last time you could say that? Indeed, everyone who travelled spoke of the total opposite – friendly locals, friendly opposing supporters. And all of a sudden, the 1980s seem a long, long, long time ago. 

Honour in defeat, but Gareth and Co have restored some of our faith in the national game

Honour in defeat, but Gareth and Co have restored some of our faith in the national game

I wrote in last week's column that I still love many aspects of that decade, but being treated like a social pariah if you freely admitted to liking the national game is not one of them.

Back then, the racist element that attached themselves to the England team refused to celebrate goals scored by black players such as John Barnes, the opposition's national anthem was routinely jeered, and the tabloids were full of images of hooliganism both inside the stadiums and out. The differences between then and now, the cultural advances we have made, are staggering. 

Gareth Southgate and his squad's biggest achievement of this World Cup was not, against all the odds and the expectations, to reach the semi-finals. No, instead it was, in the space of a few unlikely weeks, to make Joe Public fall back in love with the England team. Given recent history – it was only two years ago we were humiliated by Iceland at Euro 2016 – that  is, fingers crossed, the wonderful legacy of Russia 2018.

Let us be under no illusions here. Post the June 2016 EU Referendum, we are living in times of huge political turmoil. The ramifications of Brexit will not impact solely on today's generation, but on many future ones. The News' letters pages are regularly full of Brexit-related opinions. Do not expect that to end any day, any month, any year, any decade, soon. We are a hugely divided country, in terms of class, politics and wealth.

'In the next 10 years we will have to continue to make changes which will make the whole of this country a genuinely classless society.' John Major said that, shortly after taking over as PM from Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Bad news, John, the changes didn't work. All these years on, we're more divided than ever. Which is why even those who don't like football should celebrate the fact that Southgate and co managed to glue our fractured society back together, if only for a month or so, if only for a handful of evenings of launching your pint into the air. 

Soon, Russia 2018 will be just a memory but, like Italia 90, one to treasure. One to hold on to in the knowledge that this young, energetic, down to earth England squad have only just started their X-Factor-type journey. This has to be the beginning, rather than the end of another false dawn.  

That is the hope I take from the past few weeks, even if I know all too well that's what eventually kills us...