LONDON (Reuters) - A World Cup semi-final, qualification for the finals of the UEFA Nations League and a year in which England reconnected with its fans represents an extraordinary 12 months, manager Gareth Southgate said after Sunday’s 2-1 victory against Croatia.
The energy and bravery instilled by the 48-year-old coach this year gave England the power to come from behind with Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane sealing victory against the World Cup finalists at Wembley Stadium.
The result meant they topped Group A4 – also featuring Spain – which Southgate described as the toughest in the Nations League and qualified for the competition’s final phase next year.
“No, I don’t think so,” he told reporters when asked if he could have conceived this year going so well. “I’m hugely proud of all of the players. We’ve grown together, we’ve improved every step and today was another big occasion.
“We’ve had an unprecedented run of fixtures but we’re starting to beat the top teams. If you look at the quality of this group; on form, it is the toughest group and that’s a significant step for us. This was a great opportunity to test ourselves against top teams.
“The quality of performances and the depth of squad that has emerged; we almost take for granted some of the football we’re playing now, which is of the highest quality.”
For much of the opening hour on Sunday, England dominated their opponents with a comfortable defence, a controlling midfield and pace in attack.
But after Andrej Kramaric scored against the run of play, it was Lingard and Kane who rescued England late on with a deserving victory in front of a raucous Wembley.
“Harry’s the best goal scorer in the world,” Southgate added. “We have huge belief in him and he’s so hungry to lead the team on and lead the team further.
“But the most pleasing thing for me is the connection with the fans, I’ve not heard Wembley like that for years. We’ve given our supporters some memorable days this year. If Wembley can be like that for the next couple of years, we’re going to be playing in some significant games.
“Next year looks like a really exciting year to be part of. The feeling around the team is really powerful and we need to build on that.”
When asked how this England team compared to the one his side knocked out of the World Cup semi-finals in July, Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic simply smiled: “Football’s coming home... very soon.”
Reporting by Tom Hayward; Editing by Christian Radnedge