I was one of those of those England fans who came into this tournament thinking anything better than our performance at the 2014 World Cup would be a success.

Winning a game would be nice, qualifying from the group would be awesome and reaching the quarter-finals would be incredible.

Now, here we are in the last four and we're daring to believe something magical could happen… Football's Coming Home the song says.

And if you believe the hype, the English Football Association headquarters is already dusting off a shelf and ordering an extra bottle of Brasso for when the World Cup finally returns to these shores.

However, the song also says "England's gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away" and for those of us who remember any international tournament since, well, forever, we're more circumspect and now heading into the semi-final against Croatia more in hope than expectation.

There were literally no expectations for this England team — they're too young, there are no superstars and the manager is unproven.

But then England has had experienced superstars and world-renowned managers before and what did the team ever do?

England fans react to the football team's win

The key to all this has been the manager, Gareth Southgate.

As an Aston Villa fan, I fondly remember him as our captain when we used to be half-decent.

We looked after him when he fluffed that penalty in Euro 96.

He's one of our own.

But he wasn't respected by anyone outside of Birmingham, Middlesbrough, where he was player and manager, and whichever part of London Crystal Palace fans live in, where he started his career.

Now, with his dapper waistcoat, polite manners and an ability to speak in an articulate way not normally associated with professional footballers, he's the internet's new best mate/boyfriend.

And that gives me immense pride that the rest of the country has finally caught up with what Villa fans have known about him since the mid-90s.

Gareth Southgate gives the thumbs-up to fans

What's also interesting about this World Cup is the atmosphere it is being played out in back home.

It's an understatement to say the United Kingdom is not a happy place at the moment, with everyone pitched against everyone else because of one thing — Brexit.

It has divided a nation like never before — split families and communities.

The Government is in turmoil and the opposition party isn't much better either.

If the Prime Minister is going to survive in the job much longer, she needs a distraction, but one that is making the country feel a whole lot better about itself.

And now she's got one.

Either by luck or judgement, Theresa May managed to publish what she passes for a Brexit plan on the very same weekend England was united as one.

This is, for her at least, the political equivalent of an open goal.

England fans watch the quaterfinal between England and Sweden in South London

A country divided now has something to rally around.

We're not Leavers or Remainers anymore, we're English against the rest of the world! (Although I think it's fair to say, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have very different views on the success of an England football team…)

Neil Whelan is a Birmingham-based communications manager and Aston Villa fan.

Original Article

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