The nearer you were to England’s Russian fairytale, the further away it seemed. With the visiting support scarcer than a hen’s tooth – some frightened by the press, most weighed down by English pessimism – there was little local evidence of the miracle. The dancing on ambulances in England seemed a world away.
Not today. From early morning, the English descended on central Moscow in their thousands. They took up strategic positions around town. First, they occupied the fancy brasseries on Red Square. Then they blocked the alcohol supply roads radiating from it. They staked their conquests with dozens of flags: Wolves, Birmingham, Blackburn, West Ham, Stoke City, York City, and Ellesmere Port.
Many years after the event, Operation Moscow will be remembered for the tales of individual bravery and sacrifice. Of the men – for they were almost entirely men – who received the calling late, and signed up to the cause to travel to the semi-final some time during or after Saturday’s Swedish conquest.
The new recruits were easy prey – for airline and hotel companies in particular. But they knew it, and were not overly concerned. What was a £1,000, £4,000 or £6,000 when history was being made?
“I’m supposed to be on honeymoon,” says Wally Birch, 45, aka “West Ham Wally”. Wally had travelled to Moscow with five hundred fellow West Ham fans, but there was one absentee – his wife. “She’s at home. She says I love West Ham more than I love her. She’s wrong. I love even Millwall more than I love her”
Mrs Birch would come round, says Wally’s friend Danny Robinson, 43. He gulps down half a pint of the local beer. “The whole country is wanting, willing the cup home.”
Around the corner from Red Square, on Nikolskaya Street was the land purchaser Matthew Powell, 37. He too had a story of English togetherness. Within a few hours of starting a new job on Monday, he asked his new employers for a week off. They instinctively understood, he said: “I’m a season ticket holder at West Brom, after all. When else am I going to see something as good as this?”
David Spence, 27, from York, went one step further. Realising he might not get clearance to travel, the electrician decided to call it a day. On Sunday, a message went out to his boss: flight Tuesday, last shift Monday. “I said I appreciated it was inconvenient, but I was off,” he said. Mr Spence has yet to receive a reply.
The English ranks that reached the banks of the Moskva river at Luzhniki Stadium were as strong and determined as they had ever been. Gone were the basement-level expectations following the inglorious 2016 Euro defeat to Iceland. The English were in Moscow in huge numbers for one thing: victory.
Taking up most of one side of the 80,000 stadium, the pre-match predictions of 10,000 plus seemed accurate. And much as the team dominated the opening exchanges, it was the English that dominated the atmosphere. At times, they were also helped by locals, who whistled the Croatian players. The Croatian support had unfurled a banner thanking the hosts. But this was not enough take away from the offence caused by defender Vida’s “Glory to Ukraine” scandal following the quarter-final defeat of Russia.
For a while, it seemed England would continue charting a course away from traditional disappointment. Trippier’s 5th-minute wonder goal gave the Three Lions everything to sing about. But the Croatian equaliser, 22 minutes from time was a bitter blow. It was enough to make everyone nervous, and the story of extra-time seemed a natural conclusion.
The fairytale was over. But for some, a page had been returned regardless.
“Victory or defeat, it’s brought everyone together,” said Jamie Boyle, 35, a jet fighter engineer from Blackburn. “Where I’m from there’s a big divide – but Russia 2018 has closed the gaps. Left, right, Brexit, no Brexit, it’s like we’re a country again.”