Gareth Southgate called on England’s players to grasp their opportunity to make the nation proud ahead of their date with World Cup destiny.
After years of waning enthusiasm, the Three Lions have captivated a public that had largely become disconnected with its ailing national team.
But this likeable and open group has inspired fans, with England following their last-gasp win against Tunisia by thrashing Panama to reach the last 16 with a match to spare.
Southgate is confident that the second string’s defeat to Belgium’s back-ups has not thrown preparations off kilter heading into the crunch clash with Colombia, with his fearless young players having the chance to “write their own stories” on Tuesday.
“I think life is always about opportunity presenting itself and taking control of it, taking charge of it,” the England boss said in the bowels of the Spartak Stadium.
“We said we didn’t want this tournament to take hold of us and push us around. We wanted to attack it and make sure we were in charge of our destiny.
“Of course, once you get to these games there are really fine margins, so there are games that you know as a team if you want to progress to have success, you have to win these matches.
“All our preparations around that we feel we are in a good place. Now we have to stop talking and go and deliver.”
Southgate’s belief in his team to do just that is palpable. He said his players had “trained like Trojans” and has seen a close bond complemented by no little talent in Russia.
Transmitting that on to the field in Moscow would see England win their first knockout match since 2006 – a long wait that the manager does not believe should weigh heavily on his players’ shoulders.
If anything, self-deprecating Southgate believes it is he that has to give something back.
“If anyone owes them anything it is me,” the former defender said, referring to his Euro 96 semi-final penalty shootout miss against Germany.
“The lads don’t need to worry about it.
“I am not surprised (by the support at home).
“Whenever people say, ‘I don’t care about international football’, that tends to be during the season.
“And when you come to a big tournament it is not just football fans, it is granddad, it is aunt, it is everyone supporting the team. For some reason they like these lads.
“I think that has gained more support. The performances have been good.
“Everyone wants to be behind the national team and I don’t think that will ever change.
“We have all been hurt by disappointment, but maybe some of our expectations at times have been a little unrealistic.
“I think we have had more realism about what we have done this time and we should all enjoy the journey.”
Southgate feels he understands the World Cup hype better than most, given his journey from England defender to manager included pitstops in the media and scouting worlds.
It helps him understand the “festival of football” without getting swept up in the fervour, which has only grown as fans prematurely plot the Three Lions’ path through the seemingly easier half of the draw.
Instead, Southgate and his players are focused on preparing to go up a notch against Colombia in England’s first knockout match since the Euro 2016 humiliation against Iceland.
“We learned a lot from it,” Southgate said of that embarrassing night in Nice.
“It is one of many games that we have unpicked and tried to learn lessons from because it is silly not to look at previous tournaments and previous big matches and try to identify what we can learn from those.
“But that is also true of some of the games that are going on in the tournament – how teams are getting undone, the decisions they are making during games, the set-plays they are conceding.
“I don’t think that game is any different to any of the others, really, and I think the team are in a very different place. They are playing with confidence, the performances have been confident ones.
“Some of the games two years ago were a bit more of a struggle in terms of finding more rhythm.
“I am happy with where they are at, they are excited for the game and we are looking forward to what is going to be a very good game.”