SAMARA, Russia — Gareth Southgate is now in miracle-worker territory. Not only has he guided England into a World Cup semifinal, becoming only the third manager to do so, he has also made the team likeable again.
Two years ago, after Roy Hodgson’s team were beaten by Iceland in the round of 16 at Euro 2016, England’s footballers were down there with politicians and estate agents when it came to the public’s affections.
Overpaid, overrated underperformers was the thrust of it. England supporters had pretty much grown sick of watching their players produce lacklustre performances while on international duty, especially when they would be backed by thousands of travelling fans spending their long-saved money to watch yet another disappointment unfold.
France 2016 was no different to Brazil 2014, Poland-Ukraine 2012 or the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, so why would Russia 2018 be any different?
The disconnect between the team and the fans had become so wide that the hordes of fans who travelled to all of those tournaments gave up hope for Russia, to the extent that fewer than 5,000 were in Samara for this quarterfinal victory against Sweden.
Yet England are now one win from a World Cup final. A nation now believes that football really is coming home (whatever that actually means) and, perhaps best of all, it is being achieved by a manager liked by everyone and a group of players who, while perhaps not all son-in-law material, are the type of lads everyone wants to see do well.
Harry Maguire, who scored England’s first goal in the 2-0 win against Sweden, was part of the travelling army of fans in France two years ago, watching the games with his friends.
Now he is part of the team that is now preparing for a World Cup semifinal, and Southgate believes that Maguire is one of the reasons why the country is now, without question, all behind the team.
“I think we’ve got good people,” Southgate said, when asked whether the newfound affection for the team is about more than just results. “There’s also no question that their willingness to speak to the media and be open about their stories has been a help.
“They’re all England fans. Some [Maguire] have been at tournaments as supporters. They’ve all worn the shirt as kids and are now proud to wear the shirts as players.
“It hasn’t always been like this when representing England. Probably 18 months ago, I said to them that having success with England would be so much bigger than any success with their clubs. That is maybe starting to register now.”
The reconnection with the fans, the belief, or hope, that “football’s coming home,” is about more than winning football matches, although that obviously helps.
Southgate’s humility — he made a point of correcting himself in his post-match media conference in Samara by making sure he talked of the “English FA” rather than merely the “FA” — has been evident ever since he took the job, at a time when nobody else wanted it in the wake of the Sam Allardyce fiasco.
Allardyce, sacked after one game following a newspaper sting, has shown himself to be a divisive figure at most of the clubs he has managed, but Southgate is anything but.
And Southgate’s personality has rubbed off on his players, who are not the ego-driven prima donnas of the recent past.
“As a group, they’re tighter,” Southgate said. “A lot have come through the junior teams together, and they’ve been able to park their club rivalries at the door.
“We are privileged to be out here representing our country. The chance to connect everyone through football and make a difference to how people feel is very special.
“All these players come from different parts of the country, and they’ll be inspiring youngsters back home. That’s more powerful than what we’re doing with our results.
“But I go back to the fact that it isn’t about me. It’s about the whole group. To be in charge of a group of people who give as much energy and give me as much as they have over this period of time is very special.”
Fabian Delph, the Manchester City midfielder, has experienced the frenzy back in England having returned home for the birth of his third child, and he admits he has been struck by the change in tone among the public.
“It is hard to put into words,” Delph said. “I tried to explain to some of the boys what [it’s] like back home because we are in our bubble out here.
“But it is scary. Even people who are not into football. I was getting stopped on the school run!”
Whatever happens now, whether England win the semifinal, lose it or go all the way to glory in Moscow, Southgate and his players will return as heroes.
They have lifted the mood, changed perceptions and given a football-crazy nation a summer to remember.
But it is not over yet. Moscow now beckons.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_