“We’ve just lost a massive, massive game,” he said, sounding about as emotional as he has at any point during the last month. “I don’t want to be seen to be moving on too quickly. The dressing room is a difficult place at the moment.”
The pain, Harry Kane admitted, would last for a while. “It hurts,” he said. “It’ll hurt for a while.” Kane also said that he felt England were good enough to win the World Cup, and only in the years to come will we truly get a sense of how golden an opportunity this was. As Southgate put it: “You can’t guarantee those opportunities come again.”
The question of how England contrived to lose, having given themselves the perfect start with Kieran Trippier’s free-kick after four minutes, will haunt England’s players over the coming days. Kane admitted that England probably “dropped too deep at times”. For Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic, it came down to the energetic pressing game that began to wrest control from England in the second half.
“We were the better team in all segments of the game,” he said. “We did not underestimate them. We respected them because we analysed them. We knew what they were doing and where. We played a high press on their back line. We closed down Stones and Henderson. We nullified them. We let the centre-halves play. Modric and Rakitic pressed their backline and we had the ball possession.”
Sime Vrsaljko, the Atletico Madrid right-back, was even more scathing. “The all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield,” he said. “But when we pressed them, it turned out that they haven’t.”
Ultimately, and for all the crushing disappointment of the denouement, Southgate argued England had still overachieved. “Did we feel we would be in this position? Realistically, I don’t think any of us did. But I’m remarkably proud of a group of players who have really advanced. The reaction of the supporters at the end, compared to two years ago, tells them that experiences with England can be positive. That the country are proud of what they’ve done and the way they’ve played.”
He was aware, too, that the squad’s performances in Russia meant it would a long time before England went into a major tournament with expectations this low. “We want to be a team who are hitting quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals,” he said. “We’ve proved to ourselves, and our country, that it’s possible. Now we have a new benchmark, a new level of expectation, a new scenario. But many of these players have come of age on an international stage. I couldn’t be prouder with what they’ve done.”
The pain was still too raw for Southgate to reflect fully on England’s achievement. But he admitted that in time, he would feel a certain pride at what they had done over the last few weeks. “I wanted them to create memories that are with them forever,” he said. “We’ve all had an incredible experience. For me, that’s what sport should be about.
“If we’ve brought joy back home – which I know we have – then that’s been worthwhile. We’re hugely disappointed not to take the country one step further. But, in time, I’m sure we’ll reflect upon the progress we’ve made. We’ve left it all out there. We’ve given all we have.”