England and Southgate slay their dragons

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
July 4, 2018
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There are nights that you never want to end. Tuesday night was like that. Tuesday night was perfect. Responses to Eric Dier’s winning penalty will have differed according to levels of England exposure over the years, but for those who have taken the full punch of misery, the feeling was a deep, overwhelming catharsis. It buckled your knees and pulled at your heart. Something was finally over.

It’s said that the depth of suffering is never really understood until it disappears and if that’s ever been true then it was for this. To see those England players dance away in victory was also to remember those who didn’t and to understand just how substantial the cumulative misery had become.

Even in England, the simple act of winning a World Cup game on penalties only carries a certain weight. Instead, it was this night’s emotional balance which will allow it to live for so long. There’s very little in the world which is affecting as the belief that you, wherever you may be, are sharing in something of equal worth to a lot of other people. That’s particularly true in this country. This is a divided society, its landscape is scarred by quarrelling and hostility, but for those seconds those cracks were filled. You see the fans in the stadium. The people in the bars and at the public screens. You even hear the uninhibited joy leaking from the flats above and below you. Dwell on it and you realise just what a magical few seconds that is to experience.

Colombia themselves were not a magical experience. They were niggly and horrible, and their roughhousing approach made them the evening’s villain. Needs must, perhaps, but it reduced what might have been an absorbing contest into a street fight.. Did England deserve to win on the balance of play? Who knows, but they were a righteous winner. As the evening progressed, the sense of injustice bubbled towards boiling point. Before half-time, Wilmar Barrios should have been dismissed and, between the tackles and the complaints, the scuffing of the penalty spot and the ceaseless bitching, the Colombians deserved to feel the sting of penalty defeat.

But then, that’s a familiar part of the script. England’s most haunting defeats have almost always come at the end of performances which entitled them to more. They were largely excellent in 1990, very good again in 1996, and so bravely defiant two years later. They deserved to win inside 90 minutes on Tuesday. Yerry Mina’s equaliser was a fine header, but it was from a lottery ball which came good. The momentum it provided, which England somehow resisted through extra-time, was so thoroughly unearned as to make what would happen next seem inevitable.

Over time, the memories have created an involuntary reflex; whenever England deserve to win, the country knows it has to brace hard for disaster. But in Moscow that changed. We braced, but it never came – and the relief was enough to bring tears to the eyes. It was like surviving a minor health scare, not witnessing triumph in a sporting event.

But then England are always more than just the tournament they’re competing in. The current team is treated as if insulated from the past. It is a separate entity built on humility and decency and, ultimately, from the mistakes which have fostered this new culture. Yet still, it’s impossible to disentangle it from the history. To see them win, to see them do so under those circumstances, was to feel a very strong sense of correction.

Predominantly for Southgate himself. Ask fans for their favourite England moment, and many would nominate Stuart Pearce’s redemption in 1996. Of course. It lives on because it was so private. In those moments, Pearce was exorcising something deep inside his soul, something very personal.

“Nobody wants to see him miss.”

Brian Moore was right: Pearce needed to score. And people needed to see it. It was so obviously right.

In years to come, perhaps Southgate’s own moment last night will ascend into that same pantheon. The nature – and probably depth – of his trauma is different. England’s momentum was so great at Euro’96 that, rather than just a penalty miss, his failure to beat Andreas Kopke was almost an obstruction of destiny. The public may have forgiven him almost immediately, but twenty-two years is a long time to carry something like that, all the while knowing that it can never be put right. No, Moscow hasn’t erased the memory, but it offered relief by proxy.

When the game was finally over, he almost had to be held up by his assistants. A measure of the toll taken by a night full of highs and lows, perhaps, but likely also something with roots deep in the past. Finally he approached the England supporters, standing beneath them and roaring with delight. Southgate and his quiet reserve have been near-constants in the game for over two decades, but nobody has ever seen his face contort quite like that. He is a statesman manager, a head-coach who carries himself with great dignity, but last night – really – he was Stuart Pearce.

For him, that was the completion of a circle. To look even deeper between the lines, some will have noticed that Dier’s winning penalty last night was a carbon copy of the one his manager had taken all those years ago. Watch them again, side by side. It was a coincidence, of course, but it takes a hard heart to resist that symbolism.

But why the need to resist it? After all, this was a night of healing. For the players who have had to shoulder that dreadful legacy and labour under it, for the manager who will forever be intertwined with it, and the supporters who have lived through it. While that jubilant mass of bodies celebrated on the pitch, English football’s neurotic angst was venting out into the ether.

Today, everyone feels just a little bit lighter. Everything that needed to happen did; finally England are free of their past.

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