WORLD CUP COLUMN: Gareth Southgate's biggest victory so far ....

Gareth SouthgateGareth Southgate
Gareth Southgate
Memo to football. If you are coming home, it's best to avoid Monday mornings on the M27 between Hedge End and Whiteley, you'll be stuck in traffic and you'll get annoyed and frustrated.

Also best to stay clear of the Winnall junction near Winchester on the M3, and I wouldn’t recommend the A3 Hindhead Tunnel either.

Take any of those routes and you’ll be delayed for half an hour or so at least. Having said that, we’ve waited almost 52 years for you to come home, so I guess an extra 30 minutes doesn’t really matter ....

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So, now we’re getting ready for the semi finals of the 20th World Cup. Crikey. Days like Saturday’s win against Sweden don’t come along that often, do they? In fact, they had previously only come along on July 23, 1966, and July 1, 1990, in the entire history of the England national football team (first game 1872 - 146 years ago, in other words). Those were the only two occasions, prior to July 7, 2018, that this nation of ours had won a World Cup quarter final.

Football, so everyone is telling me - and in fairness I’m telling everyone - is coming home. What, then, do we mean by that? Will it only ‘come home’ if we win the World Cup final, or is there a more general meaning to the phrase? Someone said on Saturday that England’s World Cup campaign will boost the popularity of the game in this country. But this is not 1990, this is 2018 - the sport has been enjoying a boom period ever since the Premier League was formed in 1992. For the last few years, Premier League games have been perennially close to selling out. Most of the 92 clubs in the top four divisions now boast higher average attendances than in the year England last reached the World Cup semis.

There is a major difference between 1990 and 2018. Back then, catching the wave formed out of Gazza’s tears, England’s success in Italia 90 helped bring football out of the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, when anyone who actually attended games was viewed by many as a social pariah. If anything, 2018 will hopefully go down in history as the time when vast swathes of the public fell back in love with the England national team, as opposed to the sport itself. That is the legacy Southgate and his squad could give us.

I have often thought that following England - actually going to watch the games, as opposed to seeing them on a tv screen - is a fairly joyless experience. Expensive tickets, generally dull matches with players too scared to make mistakes, and if you go abroad a collection of local hooligans happy to kick your head in. There have been some high points in the 40 years I have watched games, but the end result always the same. Remember 1990? Though we were but a penalty shoot-out away from the World Cup final, the tournament didn’t herald a glorious new chapter for the national team. Anything but. We didn’t even qualify for the next World Cup, and Graham Taylor’s time in charge is best remembered for a turnip being super-imposed on his head by a national newspaper and his rants at linesman and journalists in the ultimate car crash documentary, The Impossible Job.

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And so it has been viewed ever since. An Impossible Job for everyone, or so we presumed. Be they ex-England internationals or foreign coaches parachuted in because there was no Englishman considered good enough. Why, one of Taylor’s successors was given the unflattering sobriquet ‘Wally with the brolly’ after failing to qualify for the 2008 European Championships. That was Steve McClaren, a former Middlesbrough manager who had taken the club, improbably, to the UEFA Cup final. Gareth Southgate is another ex-Boro boss, but there were no European glory nights for him - just relegation on his CV.

But, possibly against many people’s expectations, it is Southgate who is now a national hero, win or lose on Wednesday against the Croatians. Along with his team, he has given our nation back what many thought we had forever lost - pride in the Three Lions and the players lucky enough to wear the shirt. Forget beating Colombia on penalties, forget beating Sweden, and in all honesty forget a possible win against Croatia. For giving a nation back their pride, in these confusing post-EU referendum days, is the current England’s team greatest victory so far ....