For the past month, England has fallen back in love with their national team again. Reaching the semi-finals is a huge achievement for this current crop of young, inexperienced players who were given little backing before the tournament - but can fly home now, with their heads held high. A tight, hard fought semi-final which could've easily have been so different on the night, was decided on experience and a little more quality in midfield from the Croatians, yet this young group of English players can now look forward to every match knowing that they have the support of the nation behind them again.
Much has been said about England's potential route to the final. Not even the most hardened, passionate England fan can deny the fact that there may never be another tournament in which so many so called 'powerhouses' drop out of the competition so early on. Bearing in mind that Germany, Spain, Portugal and Argentina all fell out of the draw before the quarters, England slowly started to pick up momentum with a favourable run of fixtures and used this to their advantage. If someone had said to Gareth Southgate before the tournament that you'll have Colombia in the last 16, Sweden in the quarters and Croatia in the semi-finals of the world cup - I'm sure he would not have complained. Having said that, the past also tells us that it's not quite as easy as that - just ask Roy Hodgson about Iceland.
So on reflection, it may have been a slight opportunity lost to reach the final but this time, it really did feel different. The opening match has always been a headache for England. Going into this tournament, 3 of the past 4 opening fixtures at a world cup or European Championships have finished 1-1. It almost looked like history was repeating itself when in the 90th minute Harry Kane scored a winner. England never seem to win matches in the last minute.
Up step Panama, a country unlikely to reach a world cup again - a team with no recognisable faces. This was a match England were always likely to win, perhaps 1 or 2-0 - nothing to write home about, just a good solid win. This time though, England took a leaf out of the Germans ruthless approach to matches and were 5-0 up at half time - another feat, I simply cannot remember england doing.
We could brush aside the somewhat pointless '1st place play-off' against Belgium, although we lost and it still worked in our favour. A surreal match which both managers probably wanted to lose deep down, knowing that Germany were already out. England 'B' lost to Belgium 'B', therefore benefitting from a more 'favourable' route to the semis (at this stage we all thought Spain awaited). This was purely luck, something England have also not historically had a lot of.
As a last 16 tie with Colombia awaited, Englands first real test was all to see. A dogged and clever display of gamesmanship by the Colombians on a mission to cause panic in the England ranks, yet the young lions passed the test without little drama. Think back to Rooney in '06 and Beckham in '98 when a pentulant streak cost us, this time the boys kept their heads. Even after conceding a dramatic last minute equaliser and stumbling through extra-time, the nation with a penalty hoodoo actually won a penalty shoot out. I'll just say that again, England actually won a penalty shoot out.
Quarter finals have in the past, always been tricky. Usually tight affairs which England just lose out on (ie, Portugal, Germany, Brazil etc.) but this time it was oh so different. Our test this time was Sweden, a tough, hard-working side who always make life difficult - albeit without any real class. England won 2-0 and never really looked troubled, it was oh so plainsailing and now we found ourseleves in the semi finals. This just doesn't seem to happen to England.
So, we all know what happened next - but under the calm, collective and clever Gareth Southgate, we have someone building a future for our national team again. We have the youngest squad ever, who are only going to get better with experience and we have a crop of younger youth ranks who are champions of the world, just waiting to burst into the professional game. More significantly though, we now have a nation excited to watch England play again.
Thanks lads, it's been great.