England fall short but open the door for football’s honours to follow them home

From the very modern video reveal of the squad, England’s youngest at a World Cup since 1958, the FA’s message has been to reconnect with the nation. Box parks grew, while the inclusion of a designated YouTube channel, the Lions’ Den, had players speaking daily to their supporters.

We have all had our favourites from this band of brothers, from Jordan Pickford getting the rave on and Telford kitman Pat Frost putting up his flag before matches, to Harry ‘Slab Head’ Maguire telling his girlfriend Fern Hawkins to remember the bins on Monday.

Gareth Southgate’s rallying cries after Colombia and Sweden will live long in the memory for those fans whose journeys from Europe’s backwaters – from Valletta, Vilnius, Ljubljana – wound up here at Moscow’s Luzhniki.

They saw a moment of history in the Battle at Spartak Stadium, the impossible made possible by Pickford’s big left hand clawing away Carlos Bacca’s penalty, a first World Cup shootout win.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGSweden were swept aside with such ease never experienced before in a tournament quarter-final. Versions of ‘Three Lions’ designed to be tongue-in-cheek – we’re here for a good time, but not a long time – took on a more visceral meaning. Football had already come home.

A 20-year-old Gary Neville was told by Stuart Pearce in the aftermath of the penalty shootout defeat to Germany at Euro ’96 to ‘enjoy this while you can. It may not happen again.’

The hope is that this is just the beginning, but the likelihood is that they will never get a better opportunity, a better fall of the draw to reach a World Cup final. If it was measured on world rankings, it would have been the fourth easiest route to a final in the tournament’s history.

They will return home heroes, but we will all be thinking of that window in the first half when it looked like England could have blown Croatia away. Ultimately, superior quality told. The brilliant Ivan Perisic punished a flat-footed Kyle Walker and wanted it more than Kieran Trippier in setting up Mario Mandzukic for the hammer-blow.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGIt was England who tired first, and it goes back to naivety and experience. The initial high tempo led to them, not Croatia, looking more fatigued despite not being the side in their third successive period of extra time.

England players covered just under three miles more than Croatia (91.8 to 89), but they covered less when in possession of the ball (28.9 to 33.8), while England covered 38.2 miles without the ball compared to 31.3 miles by Zlato Dalic’s men.

England’s top speed during the match eclipsed that of their opponents (20.7mph from Raheem Sterling compared to 19.9mph) but 530 sprints from Croatian players to England’s 488 again pointed to the fact that one team was far more economical with their use of energy than the other.

Luka Modric began to dictate, 10 minutes into the second-half. Walker’s booking for dissent seemed to affect his game. The average positions for England players showed that both wing-backs played deeper than in previous matches, while Harry Kane was effectively a midfielder come the final 20 minutes.

England v Croatia: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaCroatia had shown too much respect for England in the first-half, but come the second period, Sime Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic played in more advanced positions.

England had the chance to be bold and push forward, but they found themselves increasingly pinned back as more and more regains were picked up by those in black and blue shirts. There was a shift in composure.

Kane is set to win the golden ball, but his performances dwindled since the group stages. The abiding memory will be his chance here after 29 minutes, long before Croatia grew into the contest. VAR will have ruled either one of his shots onside had he stroked the ball past Danijel Subasic. It was the double-save of the tournament never officially recorded.

Kane didn’t recover thereafter, and Croatia relied on their team ethic to overcome inexperience. England ultimately lacked the creativity in midfield, where Ivan Rakitic and Modric increasingly looked like they had the game in the palm of their hands as Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard ran out of legs.

Possession dropped from 47 to 35 per cent in the second period as Croatia turned the screw, streetwise, targeting space vacated by Young down England’s left side. Eleven shots on goal, half the number managed by Croatia, with just two on target and 25 crosses fewer than their opponents tell you that England fell short.

England v Croatia: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaLingard and Kane failed to make an impact, while Raheem Sterling was hooked prematurely, making way for an out-of-sorts Marcus Rashford. Too many players just didn’t turn up on Wednesday night for England in an attacking sense.  Croatia deserve their place in the final, despite an improvement from Southgate’s side in extra time.

But the reflections of Walker the morning after the heart-breaking end of the dream encapsulates the overriding mood from this ‘glorious, beer-soaked Russian summer,’ as the Daily Telegraph’s chief football writer Sam Wallace described it in the opening bar to his match report.

Walker wrote: “I’m still heartbroken and never felt so gutted. But there’s something I want to say. This past month, I’ve seen videos going around, photos been sent to me. That felt so good for us here in Russia, and united us more and more, just like it did in our country.”

He continued: “We might live in a time where sometimes it’s easier to be negative than positive, or to divide than to unite, but England: let’s keep this unity alive. I love you.”

England players arrived back at the ForRestMix Hotel at 6.30am on Thursday morning. Exhausted but in the knowledge that psychological barriers had been overcome during the course of the past three weeks.

GettyImages-996390742.jpgBelgium, again, on Saturday could well be a re-run of matchday three. It’s an opportunity for some of the players with fresher legs who have been part of the journey to show their qualities, to even put right their defeat to Roberto Martinez’s reserves in Kaliningrad.

The manner in which England faded in the second period suggests a return to an experimental side is the only way they can hope of achieving bronze, regardless.

The energy of Danny Rose and Trent Alexander-Arnold down the flanks, with Fabian Delph alongside Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Eric Dier in midfield behind Rashford and Jamie Vardy up front would make a lot of sense.

Furthermore, the FA will be under pressure from Premier League clubs to allow Southgate’s first-team players to gain rest before the new domestic season starts in less than a month.

Trippier is unlikely to remain in Russia for another four days after hobbling off at the end of extra time, while stalwarts John Stones and Maguire may also step aside, but in shuffling the pack, England wouldn’t be conceding the contest as a dead rubber.

GettyImages-996430268.jpgWe all know what happened after Italia ’90, and the unexpected failures at the following European Championships and no-show at the USA ’94. The success of the junior teams can’t be lost on the senior squad.

The hard fact is that a group-stage exit in 2014 has been followed by a semi-final defeat after extra time, and this cannot become viewed as an isolated, beautiful break from the norm.

Academy coaches should be encouraged to blood players through rather than taking on those from abroad, while managers should look to English youth more in the belief they don’t have to spend big money on foreign imports.

The hope is that the dwindling number of English players in the Premier League – clocked last season at around 30 per cent – now experiences an upward curve, while British managers will also take courage from Southgate’s achievements.

How these brave young men emulated Bobby Robson’s boys of 28 years ago will not be remembered for avoiding one of the world’s great footballing superpowers, but for the camaraderie built in the forests of Repino.

For the inflatable unicorn races and fans bleating out Oasis’ hit Don’t Look Back In Anger behind the goal long after the final whistle, and those up and down the country who dared to dream that football, unexpectedly, was coming home.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGSeven of England’s starting XI last night will still be in their 20s when the next World Cup comes around in Qatar 2022, while 12 of Southgate’s 23-man squad could play in the next two tournaments. They now understand the preparation that goes into such a slog.

Small details have cost England at the penultimate hurdle, but optimism remains for the future. The parade has been put on hold, at least four another two years, but the reception at Heathrow next week will resonate more for its spontaneity and raw emotion.

There will be no choreography needed. There’s no stopping fans from flocking to the streets to hail their national treasures. With the final of Euro 2020 scheduled to take place at Wembley, the challenge now is to handle the desire for more.

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Silva yet to make a signing but keeping hold of Lookman would be Everton’s shrewdest piece of summer business

The summer of 2017 was like no other in Everton’s recent history. The club had just finished seventh under Ronald Koeman, and while all the talk was of Romelu Lukaku being sold after the bombshell of him not signing a new contract, Everton were on a huge spending spree.

What followed was the creation of a bloated squad, leading to the need for new manager Marco Silva to offload players, ship out deadwood, and start again under a restructured recruitment drive. Everton want to learn from the mistakes of last summer.

Nurturing youth is at the heart of this new transfer policy. The Blues have already sold Wayne Rooney to DC United, released goalkeeper Joel Robles and offloaded Ramiro Funes Mori to Villarreal, while the future of Kevin Mirallas remains uncertain after he returned to pre-season training following his loan spell at Olympiacos.

These players have served Everton well at times, but they won’t be those who take the club onto the next level.

RB Leipzig v VfL Wolfsburg - BundesligaThere are likely to be more departures as Silva shapes the squad in his image but in rejecting RB Leipzig’s starting bid for Ademola Lookman, the Portuguese has given the first indication that he is ready to make use of the talent already at his disposal.

And Lookman has plenty of talent. Quite often under David Moyes, it was said that on leaving Everton, the only way was down. But Lookman can quite reasonably argue that his career has stalled since his £10m move from Charlton in January 2016.

His impact was immediate, coming off the bench to score in the memorable 4-0 win over Manchester City, the highlight of Koeman’s tenure, but he was subsequently mismanaged and under-appreciated at a time when fans were craving the sight of a young Englishman in the side.

Everton were in no real danger of being relegated, out of all three cup competitions, and still licking their wounds from the worst Europa League campaign from an English side ever. Giving Lookman – who had shown his undoubted ability in the 3-0 win over Apollon Limassol in December – half a season to make the left side of midfield his own was denied.

GettyImages-957652064.jpgBut, unlike those who looked elsewhere often under Moyes, the youngster chased down a Champions League berth at RB Leipzig and thrived away from what was known to be a tense environment at Finch Farm.

Silva has belatedly arrived at the club and his first port of call has been to assess his squad, but streamlining was a necessity, freeing up funds with the removal of players beyond their peak from the wage bill.

Everton plunged an inordinate sum of money courtesy of their billionaire owner Farhad Moshiri last summer on players that have yet to provide a return, barring the notable exception of Jordan Pickford.

Davy Klaassen has reiterated his determination to make a success out of his £24m move from Ajax a year ago, while the hope is that Theo Walcott and Gylfi Sigurdsson can build on promising moments last season to produce the level of consistency needed to challenge for the European spots.

Everton v West Bromwich Albion - Premier LeagueNews of Everton’s hands-off message to Leipzig over Lookman comes in the same week that the club have underlined their position on Mason Holgate’s future, with the defender seen as an important member of the first team squad.

The sale of Funes Mori and advancing years of both Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka mean that Holgate is expected to feature more in his preferred position of centre-back, but restructuring the defence is at the forefront of Silva’s plans.

Michael Keane experienced a difficult first season following his £30m move from Burnley, but Pickford’s exploits for England at the World Cup could prove a vital bargaining chip for potential defensive targets this summer.

The signs are that going forward, Everton will need the raw pace and goal threat of Lookman, whose mistreatment from Sam Allardyce was one of the early signs of distrust between fans and their old manager.

Olympique Lyon v Everton FC - UEFA Europa LeagueHis impact off the bench in the FA Cup third-round encounter with Liverpool was one of the few positives to draw from the 2-1 defeat, but after Allardyce had dismissed reports he would be loaned out last January, he insisted on being allowed to sample regular first-team football at Leipzig.

Lookman seemed to be spurred on by Allardyce’s disrespectful comments to the media on the matter, becoming an integral part of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side that finished sixth in the Bundesliga.

Five goals and three assists in 11 league matches tells its own story, and Silva is keen to see how Lookman reacts to the reported £12m bid being rejected. He should have more opportunities under a manager who relishes attacking football.

The pathway to more minutes is being cleared. Mirallas is likely to be sold while Yannick Bolasie has been linked with a move to Turkish side Fenerbahce after a disappointing return from injury.

The winger made an encouraging start to life at Goodison Park, linking up well with former striker Lukaku, but a serious knee injury has taken away the player’s most valuable asset, and pace is what this Everton side need.

Crystal Palace v Everton - Premier LeagueThere were rumours Silva would look to prise Richarlison from Watford even before he was confirmed as the new Everton boss, but Lookman now deserves his chance to make the left side of the three behind a striker his own.

Director of football Marcel Brands has quietly gone about his work during his first month at the club, and the Dutchman has previously spoken in glowing terms about how much he values Lookman’s technical qualities.

He tried to sign him whilst as sporting director at PSV Eindhoven when Lookman was still a Charlton player. Everton are yet to make a signing under Silva but keeping hold of the 20-year-old could prove to be the shrewdest piece of business this close season.

Having taken his chance at Leipzig, Lookman must now do the same at Everton.