A young and daring England made millions of fans believe the World Cup was “coming home” but old traits of failed campaigns returned at the wrong time to see a historic opportunity to reach a first World Cup final for 52 years slip away.
A long night in Moscow on Wednesday, that ended in a 2-1 semi-final defeat to Croatia after extra-time, could not have started better for the Three Lions.
Kieran Trippier curled home a fifth minute free-kick that would have made his idol David Beckham proud.
It was also the ninth of England’s 12 goals in Russia that came from a set-piece.
Dead balls were just part of meticulous attention to detail from manager Gareth Southgate and his backroom staff that had seen England surpass all expectations to reach the last four for the first time since 1990.
Ultimately, though, Southgate will reflect on what can be done to improve England’s creativity from open play to build on the progress of the past four weeks at Euro 2020, when the semi-finals and final will be played on home soil at Wembley.
The man England would have wanted to get a chance for once fluffed his lines when the tournament’s top scorer Harry Kane shot too close to Danijel Subasic and then fired the rebound off the post midway through the first half.
– Turning point –
That proved to be a turning point that will leave England fans wondering what might have been.
For the first 45 minutes, Croatia looked like an ageing side that had come through two lots of extra-time and penalties just to get to the semi-finals.
England’s campaign had been characterised by fearlessness and an ability to keep hold of possession, in such stark contrast to so many disappointing previous tournaments.
But finally the nerves seemed to take hold of Southgate’s young squad after the break.
Instead of attempting to kill the game off with a second goal, England retreated and allowed Croatia’s midfield ball players, Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Rakitic to wrestle control of the game.
Once Ivan Perisic acrobatically drew Croatia level 22 minutes from time, England’s inexperience started to show as rushed passes failed to find their target and only the post denied Perisic winning the game in 90 minutes.
The performances of Jordan Pickford in goal have been one of many positives for Southgate to take.
Hero of a last-16 penalty shootout against Colombia and man-of-the-match against Sweden in the quarter-finals, Pickford spread himself brilliantly to deny Mario Mandzukic in the final minute of the first-half of extra time.
Yet, Mandzukic was not to be denied with his next effort as he ghosted in behind the England defence to sweep the ball beyond Pickford into the far corner.
When the final whistle blew, England players sank to the floor, some in tears, physically and emotionally exhausted.
However, once Southgate had raised them to their feet, they stood together and were given a rousing send-off by the travelling thousands of fans behind the goal, grateful for the journey they have enjoyed in Russia.
Now it is they, rather than the World Cup, that will be going home — but with plenty to be proud about and hope that the best years for most of this squad are still to come.