As a wave of euphoria sweeps the country to celebrate England’s unexpected rampage into the World Cup semi-finals, it may be tempting to think that Gareth Southgate’s best work is already done.
He has restored the nation’s pride in its football team, reconnected the fans with the squad by selecting a group of egoless, hard-working and passionate players and engendered a genuine frenzy.
With the Three Lions deeper into a World Cup than they have been since 1990, it is easy to think that whatever happens now is a bonus.
Those thoughts creep in because most people’s reasonable expectations have been exceeded, because we should be a better team at Euro 2020, because England’s youth success hints at the next generation being even stronger than the current crop and because, win or lose against Croatia, Southgate and his players have done the country proud.
All of those points are valid. As someone whose first World Cup memory is Ronaldinho’s heart-breaking and implausible lob over David Seaman, who bawled his eyes out after Portugal vanquished England in consecutive quarter-final penalty shoot-outs, before subsequent deeper mediocrity made narrow last-eight defeats almost desirable, this has been the greatest summer of my life.
Another glorious failure like 1990 or 1996 would see the squad greeted by a carnival atmosphere upon their return from Russia, and the acclaim would be deserved.
Yet, Southgate has repeatedly talked about this squad writing their own story, their own place in history.
Winning a World Cup penalty shoot-out saw the Class of 2018 take a major step towards unshackling themselves from the shortcomings of previous eras, illuminating the folly of lumbering this England team with the failures of days gone by.
Yet, to truly liberate themselves from the past, to genuinely alter England’s history and to unequivocally put themselves on a different plane than every squad apart from the heroes of ‘66, this group of 23 must seize their moment and go all the way.
It may be tantamount to sacrilege for a millennial to criticise the squads of 1990 and 1996, but a narrow semi-final defeat on penalties against the Germans was exactly what both of them deserved.
Both groups were packed with more talented players than the current side but they were unable to resist temptations off the pitch, which would have squeezed that extra few per cent out, and that’s what makes all the difference, especially against a side that prepares as meticulously as Germany do.
Gareth Southgate was put through penalty hell at Euro ’96 because he felt obliged to step forward when more experienced players such as Tony Adams, Paul Ince and Darren Anderton failed to, despite Terry Venables and Bryan Robson being completely unsure of whether he had ever even taken a spot-kick before.
By contrast, this England side is squeezing every last drop out of its ability and Southgate and Steve Holland have them prepared meticulously.
With leaders such as Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson, this side would never stitch up one of their own in the same way.
It might be tempting to already be content with England’s work this summer and look ahead to the future, with the prospect of glories in the future, but the Three Lions must take the chance they have now.
This is England’s Leicester City 2016 moment and getting over the line is the only way to genuinely alter history.