This isn’t England. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. That late equaliser from Colombia was supposed signal the beginning of the end of a brave fight from our boys. The same old story.
But this is a very different England, lead by a very different manager.
Gareth Southgate’s appointment was seen as a safe option and in many respects it was, but what it did was enable the continuation of the England DNA path set by Dan Ashworth, the Director of Elite Development at the FA and his team. Not that Southgate isn’t his own man, but he became an important part of a jigsaw, not just a figurehead of the senior side.
Like many others at the time, I couldn’t see what he would bring to the England set-up but it’s abundantly clear that he brings more than just technical and tactical football nous. He has surrounded himself not only with the likes of the much-respected Steve Holland, but also Alan Russell, a specialist in set-pieces and in coaching strikers.
It’s this kind of forward thinking approach that has helped him get so much out his players, individually and collectively. I began writing this before Tuesday night’s game because the result wouldn’t have influenced my opinion that we are on the right track.
Even Southgate himself alluded to the shift from apathy and paper aeroplanes, to an environment of inclusiveness and optimism. From the ‘I’m not wasting another minute of my time on this lot again’ to a genuine will of the players to do well, not just because they’re English, but because they’re a likeable bunch of lads.
The way England have been playing their football has been a refreshing change - bravery being shown in possession of the ball, not just in physical battles. They stood up well to the physical and mental provocation of the Colombians; valuable lessons learned for the future.
But it hasn’t just been about the way the team has been coached, it’s the way Gareth Southgate has managed them as men, as people. He has treated his players impeccably and the trust he has given them by doing so has been returned in spades.
He always said it was important to have good tourists in the squad, as well as good players, and the squad he has assembled seems to have both. In making changes for that Belgium game, he taught the squad that they was no separation between those who played and who did not previously. They were all in it together.
There was another message he sent out to every player this week and, for me, it’s the most important of them all.
In allowing Fabian Delph to be at his wife’s side for the birth of their child, he was doing more than show understanding as a manager. You might think that making such allowances would be a straight-forward decision but as we know in football, conventional thinking becomes skewed.
Such life events away from football often take a lower position on the ladder of priorities compared to the beautiful game. Incorrectly, of course, but it’s a warped business. I still can’t believe I missed the funeral of one of my friends a week after I joined Aberdeen. It’s just one of many regrets I have had in life, but it’s one that I regret the most.
I could just put it down to avoidance of dealing with the reality of what had happened. I’m good at that. But the truth is I’d convinced myself, not for the first time, that I had to put football before everything else and risking my preparation for an upcoming game by spending 10 hours on a train wasn’t the right thing to do.
Of course, given that time again, I wouldn’t have waited until two months later to visit his grave. I’d be on the the first train out of Aberdeen. I remember every word of our last conversation days before I moved north. The guilt never dissipates, never goes away.
The lesson from this and Gareth Southgate’s handling of Delph’s situation is there are so many more important things in life than football, and once you free yourself from the self-imposed shackles of pressure and expectation, then you are free to perform at your very best.
Tournament after tournament, we have become paralysed by the over-exaggerated importance we place on football and what the consequences of defeat may mean. Without the words in his press conference directly, he relieved the pressure from his players.
Results aren’t immaterial but performances are more important and while Tuesday’s wasn’t perfect, we controlled a game of football for much of it. But for a late wonder save and the resulting equaliser from the corner, Jordan Pickford had been largely untroubled.
The maturity of Southgate in his calming of his side, led to a mature performance from a young side. Finally, it looks like we have a manager who is getting us to deal with football with our heads as well as our hearts, and that is something that’s long overdue.
So whatever happens against Sweden on Saturday, we might not be exactly where we want to be, but our DNA is definitely changing.