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Croatia 2 – 1 England

Dear Mr Southgate,

This is a thank you.

Before this tournament, I’d pretty much given up on internationals. Looking back, I’m not sure why. Some of my favourite memories are of times spent with friends watching England in one game or another – from the tortuous 1990 World Cup semi-final defeat at the hands of Germany on penalties, to the tortuous Euro 96 semi-final defeat at the hands of Germany on penalties. Apologies, I don’t mean to bring up bad memories, but it’s important for context, bear with me. Then, of course, there was the 1998 World Cup second-round exit to Argentina. On penalties. Oh, and the 2006 World Cup (Portugal, penalties) and the quarter-finals of Euro 2012. In fairness, that was different – Italy were the ones to beat us on penalties then.

My interest in the Premier League had started to wane, too. Whether right or wrong, it seemed to me that teams had been bought as rich men’s playthings, while agents and money had replaced loyalty and pride as top-flight football’s main drivers. As a young man, living in London, I was effectively priced out of sharing in the tribalism that had defined my childhood support of an often second-division Chelsea.

When I left London in pursuit of stairs and a spare room, I wanted my kids to feel rooted in the landscape of their new home. I took them to Winch’s Field, the home of Herne Bay FC. It was –and remains – an integral part of our lives. I had started to say, when asked who I supported,  “I’m Chelsea by birth”, like a fucking lapsed Catholic or something. I’d then follow up with, “I don’t really watch the Premier League, I’d rather see a grudge match against Whitstable any day.”

That’s not the case any more. In fairness, I’m not sure it ever was. I think I just found the huge amounts of money flooding the game distasteful in a kind of odd, nebulous way and so stepped away from it. I judged football in a completely different way than I would any other form of entertainment – I held it to a much higher standard.

I’ve now been forced to reassess. I have felt so involved in this tournament, it has taken over. Of course, that’s partly due to my brother’s frankly ludicrous idea that I should write a match report – or at least some words, strung together in an impression of meaningful sentences – for every single game of the tournament, but it’s also down to a young team who played their hearts out for each other. A team who looked like they were having the time of their lives; who played as a unit, with confidence and style. And even when they weren’t getting the rub of the green (Colombia last 20 and first half of extra time, Croatia second half), they were still good to watch, comfortable even, at times. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like that watching England. (NB: I don’t count the loss to Belgium and, let’s be honest, neither did you.)

Croatia proved too strong in the end, but your team – our team –  kept on running even when energy levels waned. This team of young, largely untried players, proved to be so much more than the sum of their parts. Back at home, a group of vile, self-interested shitbags sell us off to the highest bidder under the gossamer-thin guise of democracy, blindly negotiating us into an unseen future that their personal fortunes will insulate them from (on the upside, it won’t protect them from hereditary syphilis). Meanwhile, from three and a half thousand miles away, 23 young men managed to do more to unify the country than those wankers ever could. As well as a resounding testament to remote working, it speaks volumes about how much we needed this.

So thank you. Thank you for putting your faith in a young team with bright starts and high heads. Thank you for practicing penalties, for that shootout against Colombia, for expunging the memories of 1990, 1996, 200… oh, look, you get the point.

Thank you for giving that Colombian lad a hug after he missed from the spot. Thank you for speaking thoughfully and eloquently, with grace, intelligence and wit. Thank you for being a stop-gap who now looks a lot like a long-term solution. Thank you for not being Sam Allardyce.

I watched last night's game with my father. It reminded me of afternoons at Stamford Bridge cheering Spackman and Speedie with my dad by my side, my hand in his. My son watched the match with us, first giddy with excitement and then sick with disappointment. He'll get over it, of course. That's the deal isn't it? He was outside earlier, kicking a ball about, practising. It reminded me that I don't really play football with him. I've made a note to change that. 

Thank you, Mr Southgate – and your team – for reigniting my love of the beautiful game.

Best wishes,

Barney Harsent