It was Tuesday 27th September 2016 – the day that Sam Allardyce left his post as England manager after just two months in the role and one match in charge.
England was in turmoil. After losing to Iceland in the Euro 2016 knockout stage just a few months earlier, our national team had become a laughing stock. We seemed to have no plan under Roy Hodgson going into the tournament after such a promising qualifying campaign. Some would argue that we were not challenged enough during the qualifying stages – leading to our fall in France.
Harry Kane on corners proved to be the final straw for some England fans – and a managerial change was clearly needed after the full-time whistle against Iceland. Hodgson resigned almost straight away in a press conference – and it was time for the Three Lions to look to the future.
Could things possibly get worse after being humiliated in France? The scandal surrounding Sam Allardyce made things even worse – and this is where Gareth Southgate’s England story begins.
The then-new manager faced a daunting challenge from day one - with former captain Wayne Rooney’s international career slowly coming to an end. Although it felt like we never really saw the very best of Rooney in an England shirt, his goalscoring record for the Three Lions spoke volumes about his importance to the team. Southgate had to fill this gap – and quickly.
Whilst the former Manchester United brought a lot of experience to the national side, Southgate was on the other end of the scale, albeit managerially.
He spent just over three seasons at Middlesbrough, suffering relegation from the Premier League with the Teesside club before being sacked in October 2009.
After appearing regularly as a pundit for ITV, his future in football management became unclear, although his appointment at England U21’s manager in 2013 proved to be a turning point for Southgate.
This inexperience at a senior level raised concerns amongst England fans, especially when his interim appointment as senior boss became permanent in November 2016. Although he was unbeaten in his four games as interim manager, some of the performances were unconvincing to say the least.
Losing a 2-0 lead late on to Spain at Wembley, in the last game of his temporary spell, also did not help his case.
At a time when excitement surrounding the national team was at an all-time low - we needed something to shout about as supporters. Even though we qualified comfortably for the World Cup, we needed to perform on the big stage after years of disappointment.
What was supposed to be our golden era in 2006, fell apart dramatically against Portugal on penalties. If we could not perform at the highest level with the likes of David Beckham, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, surely our chances of reaching the last four of a major tournament were long gone for decades to come?
Well, what happened in 2018 was a game-changer for Gareth Southgate’s team.
It was so refreshing to see England with a plan after the Euro 2016 disappointment. One of the reasons why the players performed so well in Russia. We had a consistent starting eleven and a 5-3-2 formation set in stone.
I can even recall the lineup now: Pickford; Young, Maguire, Stones, Walker, Trippier; Henderson, Lingard, Alli; Sterling, Kane.
The one thing that stands out about that starting eleven is the fact that we did not look to one particular player to come up with the goods. For years, Wayne Rooney was a player we placed all our faith in. In Russia, everyone played their part.
You could argue that Harry Kane stepped up and filled the void that Wayne Rooney left both in terms of goal-scoring prowess and leadership. He did - that is for certain.
However, right from Jordan Pickford in goal to Kane upfront, everyone did their job to ensure that England fans were given a fantastic summer to savour.
As well as having a plan - England also seemed to be in a much better place mentally - and that is very much down to Gareth Southgate and his staff for their attention to detail. Football is just as much of a mental game as it is physical, so this was so important, especially when you are in the spotlight on the big stage.
One criticism that Gareth Southgate did recur is his decision to rotate his squad heavily for the last group game against Belgium. After winning the first two group games against Tunisia and Panama, whoever came out on top in the third and final match would win the group.
Belgium came out 1-0 winners against Southgate’s men, although his decision to rest key players could have potentially played a part in helping England reach the semi-finals.
Despite that criticism, there was already a feel-good factor back in England. After dispatching Panama in the way we did, as well as grabbing a late winner against Tunisia in the first game, Columbia were set firmly in our sights.
After losing two penalty shootouts in Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup against Portugal, as well as losing again in a shootout at Euro 2012 against Italy, finally breaking the curse was a huge achievement for Gareth Southgate and his side. To come back and win after conceding a last-minute equaliser from a Yerry Mina header displayed how much stronger England were mentally in that tournament, and it showed.
Even the quarter-final tie against Sweden could have been a potential banana skin for England. Even though we were favourites to win that game - we have crumbled under pressure in similar ties in previous major tournaments. A convincing 2-0 win set us up for a semi-final clash with Croatia, although we fell at the penultimate hurdle.
Some people would point out that we were favourites in all the games we won in Russia. However, how quickly Gareth Southgate managed to turn the tide for England was a fantastic achievement.
From our lowest in 2016 after Allardyce’s departure, we finally had something to be proud of after years of disappointment. It was actually a pleasure to watch England play again - and everyone who made a big contribution to that 2018 squad should be fondly remembered.
They lifted the mood of an entire nation in that glorious summer - there is no doubt about that. We can only hope that this momentum is carried through to next year’s European Championships.
Article written exclusively for golear.co.uk