Football’s coming home. Our beloved boys in white (sometimes red, or sometimes blue), are doing the unimageable – giving England the hope of playing in the World Cup final. And, even more incredibly, giving the country a well-earned distraction from current affairs (who else had almost forgotten that Donald Trump is visiting on Friday… ? ).
But is it just great football, and can we really lift the trophy this weekend? Or is there something else in the water?
Yes, they’ve played better than I’ve ever seen England play in my 30-odd years. And yes, they’ve got a different style, approach and tactics than most of us have ever seen from the three lions. But does their work on the pitch really explain why all of England (and *cough* even colleagues in Scotland) are believing for the first time in generations that football is really coming home?
As Michael Owen tweeted last week (admittedly, before we’d beaten Colombia on penalties): “We’ve scraped past Tunisia, beaten a pub team and got beat by the only decent team we’ve faced. Yet the country is convinced we can win the World Cup! And for some reason I’m starting to believe it could just happen too.”
And the reasons? Media, hope, and perhaps a touch of unusually good weather.
The way the current England set up has handled the media has been extraordinary. We’re accustomed to seeing England managers having scraps, slip ups and blunders with the media – Glenn Hoddle and that interview in the Observer; Kevin Keegan and the general disdain for press (‘I never had one friend in the press…That’s because I don’t trust the press”); Sven Goran Eriksson and his colourful love life; and of course, Steve McClaren’s “wally with the brolly” headline.
But when Gareth Southgate entered the stage, he re-wrote the books on management and style. Sceptics at first thought little of his squad, and pointed to the lack of household names, claiming disaster was on the horizon.
But the scepticism didn’t last long.
First up – and unavoidably – it helped that he fits the picture. An English gent, scarred by bitter disappointment in his own national career. His injustice being reversed by the performance of the team he now manages. It’s an easy story for the press and people to understand, and actually like.
No less critical is his skill at media management. Press conferences have been honest, upfront and without intimidation. He’s broken down the barriers between the press and the players and brought the press in where other managers closed the door. We’re getting unprecedented access to the players: before the match, after the match and in the inter-game lulls. Where previously photo opportunities were managed and staged, we’re getting real life access to Southgate and his team.
Southgate’s approach to management is proving to be a big part of his success. Sending Fabian Delph home briefly for the birth of his third child, mid-tournament (because, according to Southgate, “nothing is more important than family”), has had mothers, fathers, and the media gushing about his values.
And then, of course, there’s Twitter. Social media is nothing new, it’s been a strong platform for the last two – arguably three, World Cups. But at each tournament the power of social media has grown. Players, coaches, managers, commentators, and even famous fans (Kensington Palace, I’m looking at you), have all used social media to connect directly with the rest of the country, in ways that other players and teams in have perhaps shied away from. After each match now, I sit fiendishly refreshing my Twitter feed waiting to retweet the latest meme from the team – and looking at my feed, I’m not the only one.
So while I sit back with friends tonight and watch a glorious game, win or lose, I’ll be eating up the media, social or otherwise, and bathing in the glory knowing that England have already brought it home.