It did seriously think about coming home, but I’m afraid it’s not quite made it this time.”
So said Mark Pougatch, the presenter of the ITV coverage of England’s World Cup semi-final last night.
Pougatch was speaking for the hopes and disappointment of millions of people, after England lost to Croatia and failed to make their first World Cup final since 1966.
Under Gareth Southgate’s stewardship the England side in Russia had seemed, suddenly, to be on the brink of greatness.
Few fans had high hopes for England before the tournament began. Its supporters have become almost inured to disappointment and failure over the decades, including several crushing losses on penalties in key games previously.
It never seemed worthy of a country of 50 million people with such a long and proud sporting history, and in particular an entrenched and flourishing footballing tradition.
But the penalty jinx was put to rest last week against Colombia.
It started so well for England last night, with an early goal in a first half that they dominated.
Then in the second half, crushingly, Croatia equalised before moving ahead 2-1 after 18 minutes of extra-time.
There is, amid the agony, much to give hope for Southgate’s side is a young one, and will have its day again.
Southgate himself is a living testament to endurance and optimism, having missed a key penalty in the Euro 96 semi-final that England lost to Germany.
Many people on the Celtic fringes want to see England teams lose in sporting contests, yet such meanness of spirit is rarely shown in reverse by the English when the other national teams of the British Isles play.
Here in Northern Ireland, our first loyalty is to our own football team but there is huge sympathy and support for England when NI is not playing. That was all the more so this last month after Southgate’s players gave us unexpected thrills and joy but didn’t quite get to the final, and within touching distance of the trophy itself.