England delirium has Gareth Southgate and his tyros dreaming big | Daniel Taylor
England and Gareth Southgate have picked up the mood at home and talk at their training base has turned to the heroes of 1966 as their semi-final against Croatia looms
“I want to be back home as I hear they are having street parties.” Bobby Robson, 1 July 1990 – Cameroon 2 England 3
So far there is only one player who can vouch that England is experiencing the same kind of football frenzy the country last encountered when World in Motion was in the charts, when there was Bobby Robson and Gary Lineker and Nessun Dorma and let’s-all-have-a-disco and Paul Gascoigne, with that big, chip‑pan grin, until everything went so horribly wrong.
Fabian Delph has been trying to explain it to his teammates after his visit home for the birth of his daughter. Delph kept sharp by training at Manchester City. He flew back in a private jet with the family of Vincent Kompany, his club colleague, and he is being perfectly serious when he says England’s penalties against Colombia brought his wife, Natalie, into labour. Delph was home for four days and, now he is back in Repino, he has let the others know the madness of it all.
“We are out here in our bubble, our circle, and we don’t have outside distractions so we are not aware of what is going on. But going back was incredible. The support was absolutely amazing. Even people who are not into football, stopping me, shouting and telling me: ‘Make sure you bring it home.’ It was crazy, overwhelming. I have told the lads and they could not believe it.”
How, after all, can you do it justice when none of these players is old enough to remember that night in Turin 28 years ago? Are they aware of the survey that estimates one in 10 people is contemplating pulling a sickie for England’s semi-final against Croatia? Or the story from Nottingham’s Theatre Royal about the final scenes from Titanic: The Musical being interrupted by the cries of “yes” from two women in the front row? England’s players have been following through Twitter. But it is difficult, as Delph says, to comprehend unless you have seen it close up. “We are in for a shock when we are finished and go home.”
Back in Repino, meanwhile, the train to St Petersburg trundled through and most of the tweeting came from the birds in the pine forests. The FA deliberately chose this venue for England’s World Cup base because it was so quiet and out of the way. One supermarket, a pharmacy next door and a few miles along the coast, in Zelenogorsk, is the training ground and, for reasons unexplained, a statue of a dachshund in the centre of the village.
Did Southgate get that pint of bitter he said he was craving after the quarter-final victory against Sweden? England’s manager once had a reputation as the kind of man who would paint the town beige, not red. But it was never correct. Above all Southgate wants his players to enjoy these moments and drink it all in. Families were invited into the team hotel on Sunday. The players watched the game together and, behind the smoked windows of the team bus, Southgate had asked every member of his backroom staff to help create a playlist, two songs each. At Euro 96 the players used to sing Three Lions on the way to Wembley. Here they had another sing-along. “The players were actually quite happy,” Southgate reported. “They got us to turn it up.”
It was a happy camp and there was a lovely moment, before leaving the Samara Arena, when a few of us let Southgate know the video of his celebrations with the fans, conducting the England orchestra, was already online. Before that there was the screaming, fist‑pumping “come on” that went viral after the Colombia match. We showed him the footage. “There’s the emotion,” he said. “The fans have paid a lot. They have come a long way and to be able to connect with them … I’d love to be able to do it with the however many millions who are watching at home but the supporters who are here, they’re singing, and I know what they’ve been through.
“I met lots of them before we came. They told me their stories, how many years they have been travelling to watch England and what it meant to them. I played for three clubs and I have a real affinity with all three but England has been the biggest part of my life.” For the first time there was a brief moment when it sounded as if his voice was cracking.
Southgate was a 19-year-old on the books of Crystal Palace, still living with his parents in Crawley, when Italia 90 was alive. He watched the semi-final against West Germany at a mate’s house with a curry and some beers but even then the teenager was learning for the future. Southgate taped all the matches of that tournament. “I videoed it to look at the players, the matches and, as a young player, I guess I wanted to see the best players, the level they were playing and what I could learn from it.”