Even though England fell agonisingly short of a place in the World Cup final, something about this tournament felt… different.
Ultimately it was another story without a happy ending, but there were no recriminations for the England squad. Instead, we saw praise and hope for the future and can hopefully avoid a World Cup comedown.
A large part of this must be attributed to Gareth Southgate, who acquitted himself brilliantly at his first tournament as coach of the national football team, and his first ever tournament as a senior international manager - England even won a penalty shootout, for goodness sake.
Over the course of the World Cup in Russia, it felt more and more as though the former Aston Villa defender had become the nation’s collective dad, and his behaviour with his squad and staff only reinforce that feeling.
Jim Lucas, who worked on England’s social media during the World Cup, has shared a photo of a letter he found on his bed when the squad and staff arrived in Repino, St Petersburg, ahead of the tournament.
Upon returning to the city for the third place play-off, Lucas has shared the message Southgate sent him personally ahead of the opening game. It reads as follows:
“Jim, the more I see, the more important it is that when ‘attacking the tournament’ we tell our own story.
“You’re capturing that brilliantly. Keep doing it and I hope this World Cup brings you unforgettable personal memories.
“Best wishes, Gareth.”
We saw the best of Southgate during the tournament, both as a coach who masterminded England’s progress to the semi-finals and as a friend to the squad who would always offer a player a hug when needed.
However, from the letter shared by Lucas, it’s clear the England boss wasn’t just playing up for the cameras: even when no one was watching, he did all he could to make every member of the England set-up feel wanted.
Surely this is evidence, if it were ever needed, that England are in great shape to build on this performance at Euro 2020 and at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.