Wow. What an extraordinary journey. What an extraordinary World Cup.
And now after yesterday’s win over Sweden the story continues. For the first time since 1990, England are in the semi-finals of the World Cup. Yes, it is really happening.
Our team has really played its part in a brilliantly successful tournament. The players, the management and the fans have been fantastic.
So much so they have been widely praised by Russians.
The travelling Dad’s Army of supporters, so-called because their average age is much higher than usual, have had a blast.
And many England fans I have met have said it is the best World Cup they have attended.
I have been to five – starting with Italia 90, then Japan 2002, Germany 2006 and Brazil 2014.
But this tournament has surpassed all expectations. It will be difficult to beat the first one in Italy, when I rather kindly took my wife on our honeymoon.
But this one is going to live long in the memory. The England team have made the fans proud again and have lifted the spirits of a nation back home.
Behind the scenes when you speak to staff, you soon get the message that there are no egos in this squad. Captain Harry Kane and his team really are a “band of brothers”.
There are no cliques, there have been no club rivalries that surfaced so many times in previous tournaments. What a reception they will rightly receive when they finally get home from Russia.
And this isn’t the end. It’s just the beginning. Most of the squad are very young and the future is bright.
The fans certainly know it. There have been so many brilliant moments along the way at this tournament.
I will never forget Darren Quick and his teenage son Harry and their mates inside the Belgium team hotel watching the Germany v South Korea game on TV.
They spontaneously burst into the Sound of Music number “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodnight” on the final whistle as the Germans crashed out.
Then the cheers were ringing out again as Argentina departed against France in the match of the tournament so far. No one here or at home will forget that first half when we scored five goals against Panama in Nizhny Novgorod.
Credit to the Panama support too. Despite the humiliation of the score at their first-ever World Cup tournament their fans started singing: “we’re going to win 6-5.” The Three Lions fans responded by bellowing back: “Are you Scotland in disguise?”
Afterwards outside the stadium, street parties and discos broke out and England and Panama fans joined together in a spirit of friendship.
The night Russia beat Spain on penalties was a “once in the lifetime moment” as Moscow hosted the mother of all parties.
It seemed as if the entire city danced and drank until dawn.
Then, incredibly, just 48 hours later there was yet another once in a lifetime moment as England ended their penalty hoodoo with the dramatic victory over Colombia. I still can’t believe we won a World Cup match on penalties.
Suddenly all the hurt of the past was lifted. I stayed inside the stadium for an hour after the final whistle to finish sending my story home to the Daily Mirror, a Sunday People sister paper.
And that decision left me being able to watch as manager Gareth Southgate returned to the pitch.
He wanted to thank the 1,500 or so England fans who point-blank refused to leave the ground.
As they bellowed his name and sang Football’s Coming Home, Southgate memorably pretended to conduct his orchestra.
It was an astonishing moment.
The England fans have been fantastic. In every city – from Volgograd to Nizhny to Kaliningrad to Moscow to Samara – they have been outnumbered but never outsung.
The pockets of supporters in the stadium managed to join together to sing Football’s Coming Home, Don’t take me Home and God Save the Queen to drown out their rivals.
Everywhere I went I met supporters telling incredible stories of how they got to the venues.
One couple spent a staggering £10,000 on coming to yesterday’s match. They managed to get tickets and were determined to get here, however much it cost.
England vs Sweden
Sarah McDonnell and Steven Bell flew from Hong Kong to Dubai, from Dubai to Moscow then Moscow to Samara. Steven said: “It’s been worth every penny.” And there is a genuine pride in the team. Gareth Southgate is the key difference for many of the supporters travelling through Russia.
“Dignity and class is what he has brought to the England camp,” said Rob Couzens, 56.
“It’s made a real difference and the players look proud to be playing for their country again.”
As Steve Cowles, who is travelling around Russia with his wife Liz said: “I’ve been to five World Cups and this is the best of all.
“The Russians have been brilliant.”
Then he quipped: “I’ve already started looking at booking up Qatar in 2022 – after all we’ve got to be there to defend our trophy, haven’t we.”
Now, on to the semi-finals…
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