England’s World Cup is over but Gareth Southgate’s team gave us a summer to cherish

The heatwave is over. The hot summer romance with Russia 2018 has ended in a brutal, painful defeat to Croatia and the heart-breaking realisation that no, it’s not coming home.

The final 11 minutes of extra-time, after Mario Mandzukic had put his side 2-1 up, felt like a slow death; those squandered first-half chances seemed like a lifetime ago, back before Croatia took control of the game at the start of the second half.

6:51 Analysis and reaction to England's 2-1 defeat to Croatia in the World Cup semi-final

Mandzukic dashes England dream

At the final whistle, as Marcus Rashford cried into Gareth Southgate’s shoulder and Harry Maguire slumped to the floor, England’s world came crashing down. A glorious chance to reach the World Cup final had slipped through their fingers. That disappointment will hang heavy over the players and their supporters right now.

But with time and perspective, the mood must shift. The summer of 2018 will be one we will treasure in years to come.

England travelled to Russia with expectations lower than they had been at any major tournament in recent memory. Yes, there was optimism that Gareth Southgate and his young squad – the third youngest at the tournament – were on the right path for future success. But many viewed this trip as little more than a learning experience.

When is the third-place play-off?

A valiant quarter-final defeat to Germany or Brazil? How many England supporters would have signed up for that, considering the humiliation by Iceland at Euro 2016?

Yet, as the sun shone back home and temperatures began to rise, so too did the buzz around this England team. The players opened up, told their stories – and the public got behind them.

A last-minute winner against Tunisia in the opening match sparked excitement and a 6-1 thrashing of Panama ushered in a feel-good factor. When a bizarre defeat to Belgium, which saw both teams field their reserves, opened up a favourable knockout draw – and pre-tournament favourites crashed out – England dared to dream.

Supporters packed fan parks and basked in heat and flying beer as England’s next generation banished the burden of the past with a penalty shootout win over Colombia, following a match which put their fire and fight to the test. They passed – and suddenly a route to the final was clearing.

With the most comfortable of quarter-final wins over familiar foes Sweden, England went viral. The set-piece love train. Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat. Harry Maguire’s head. Every social media timeline was jammed with these loveable lions.

And more than anything else, Three Lions.

Southgate salutes overachieving England

The Lightning Seeds, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner were back on top of the charts, as their 1996 hit was pasted into clips from film and television and then shared online. ‘It’s coming home’, the three-most used words of the past month, became shorthand for the feel-good factor gripping the country.

Ian Broudie and co were even on stage in front of 30,000 fans who had won the race for tickets to watch the semi-final with Croatia on a big screen in Hyde Park. Another 10,000 had made last minute arrangements to get to Russia. The country collectively released its inhibitions and allowed itself to get carried away.

When Kieran Trippier whipped in that wonderful free-kick to put England ahead inside five minutes against Croatia, the crazy dream suddenly felt like it might become reality. Perhaps, this time, England would go all the way.

In the end, like many a summer romance, it did not last. Croatia, after recovering from a first-half scare, delivered a cruel reality check.

Set-piece specialists? England’s penalties, free-kicks and corners covered for an inability to create and take chances in open play.

Energetic and athletic? It was England who tired first against a Croatia side which had racked up consecutive 120-minute matches to reach the last four.

Brilliant at the back? Defensive errors left Jordan Pickford exposed on Wednesday.

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This semi-final defeat was simply a reminder of that pre-tournament assessment of this young, promising but developing England squad. The hard truth which got lost in the hot, happy haze of the past four weeks.

What an opportunity this was. Never again will England be presented with such a favourable route to a World Cup final. Perhaps this generation will never make that great step, either.

But there will always be 2018. A time to cherish. A time when a nation divided about so much came together for one team.

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