There is something bittersweet about the words “final whistle”. The moment of relief and ecstasy or like last night, regret and despair. I watched three of the England games (Tunisia, Belgium and Sweden) at dad’s, and that was the plan for the final. Once we were away from it all (Panama) and twice I was in the middle of a crowd. Topolski’s Bar near Waterloo station in SE1 for the drama of England’s penalties was passionate and partisan, whereas the Fan Park at Liverpool Pier Head had a more relaxed carnival like atmosphere. Perhaps the early goal contributed. For an hour we were just enjoying the game, chatting and generally just chilling.
Yet as the game began to take shape in the second half, a sense of unease began to form in my mind. Perhaps it is just the spider sense you get from watching literally hundreds and hundreds of football matches across a lifetime. Something was wrong. We were losing the initiative we had held and I began to sense we were going to have to change it up, or face the consequences. The ability to make changes proactively, rather than reactively is the hallmark of the top managers, and we will never know if Gareth Southgate was thinking about a change when Ivan Perisic popped up in the 68th minute, to bring our optimism crashing to earth.
I watched the last 20 minutes with a sense of alarm as the Croatians, with their tails up, showed every sign of scoring again. We brought on Rashford for Sterling, gambling ourselves on being able to finish it in normal time, and though he looked individually sharp, it was in the context of a team performance that suddenly seemed panic stricken. When the final whistle went, it was a relief and to some extent we regrouped in the first period of extra time. By now Rose had replaced Young and Dier had come on for Henderson. Like for like changes that made no difference to the shape, but gave us fresh legs, when it felt as though we needed more. I began hoping we could close it out and take our chances on a penalty shootout.
And then it came. That blow to the gut: the second goal that left us staring down the gun-barrel of World Cup exit. At those times, you feel uniquely powerless. Praying for that little bit of magic that will rescue you and wincing at every little piece of ‘game management’ from the opposition that deprives you of those precious seconds as they tick down. The magic never came and when the final whistle blew, we had to contemplate what we always knew was a possibility but never wanted to admit. There would be no final. There would be no shot at glory on Sunday against the French. That opportunity would sit with Croatia and we would have to brave reality and get back to normal life. It had been a wonderful ride, but the carriage had screeched to a halt.
As I caught the train home, disappointed fans were speculating on the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” that I recognised is just a defence mechanism. But I wanted to resist it. There should be no recriminations. We had lost, but as Tennyson famously penned after the death of his friend A.H.H. “It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all”.
One day it will be just another piece of history. But today it was too much to bear. We all went to work. We smiled consolatory smiles at each other. But behind them you could see the sadness deep in our eyes. It’s only football, and it will bring us happiness again and it will bring us pain again, but I will take it every time. I guess like life itself, I prefer my dramas unscripted.