All along the plan had been to return home after the quarter-finals. The flights back to Manchester were booked and so were my days off work. I’d already been away for longer than is typically allowed. When people had ‘joked’ before the tournament, ‘What will you do if we get to the semis and final?’ I’d always said that part of me would want to be back in England to enjoy the atmosphere should it ever happen. But now I was here there was not one part of me that intended to leave Russia. I was living my greatest adventure, a combination of everything a travelling football fan could wish for. There was no way I couldn’t go to the semi-final. A quick text letting my boss know my decision and that was that.
Glyn was in a similar position; his flight home was booked to return for his fiancé’s 30th birthday. With some gentle persuasion from myself and Emily being an absolute legend, she agreed he could stay and before we knew it, the search for tickets was on! Bring on Croatia. The dream continues.
IT’S COMING HOME!!
This was where it became useful that Russia had been knocked out of the tournament. Trying to find someone selling tickets for an England vs Russia semi-final would have been near impossible and very expensive. As it was, England vs Croatia was much less appealing to the local fans, who were happy to cash in their tickets for a healthy profit. For the princely sum of £300, I had my ticket to the biggest game in English football for 28 years. Time to relax and enjoy the build-up.
The day before the game, I received a message from my good friend Alec who worked for the BBC. His request was for some England fans attending the game to be interviewed for breakfast TV in Red Square. Be rude not to.
After watching France comfortably beat Belgium in the first semi-final, we followed up with a just a few beers knowing we were due to make a TV appearance. The next morning, we made the very rare move of waking up before 8am. Glyn had purchased replacement hats and canes that had disappeared in the midst of the celebrations in Samara. We arrived at the iconic Red Square to chuckles from the BBC reporter, and she even recollected seeing us in Samara. Our reputation preceded us. I was getting used to the cameras after the documentary for Match TV, but live TV was a new one. We briefly discussed our stories and as the camera started rolling she opened with: ‘So Martin, I believe you may lose your job over this game?’ Quite an interesting start, but the interview went smoothly and we signed off nicely with an ode to Harry Kane.
With it being so early, we set off home for a nap before the party began. Making our way home during Moscow rush hour led to the amusement of a few locals. Once again, I was presented with a badge and bracelet from a lovely Russian guy on the metro, purely just because it looked like I was enjoying myself. This was the umpteenth time a local person had gone out of their way to show their kindness, a common theme amongst the Russian people.
Several hours later and feeling wonderfully refreshed, we headed into the centre to join up with some other England fans and get the party started. Match TV had also requested to meet up to film the pre-match entertainment. The atmosphere was building nicely and after a few beers we made our way to the stadium, singing our way through the metro stations. It was clear that more and more people had made their way over to Russia for this game. Word had spread that it was perfectly safe and a wonderful atmosphere, so for the first time in the competition it felt like there were good numbers of England fans.
Once inside the Luzhniki Stadium I was overjoyed to find I had one of the best seats in the house. For the first time, my actual ticket was in the England section and I was in the third row right behind the goal. The atmosphere was electric, the band was playing, and the songs that had represented the last month of my life were being sung louder than ever. As the anthems were completed, the passion was overflowing from the stands. The whistle went and we were off, our chance to get to the biggest game in world football.
Barely five minutes into the game Kieran Trippier smashed a free-kick into the top corner to send the England fans wild. The tournament that keeps on giving, another epic moment that brought that final closer than ever. The songs got louder and we hoped and prayed for a second to cement our lead. At the halfway stage England were still ahead, but the second half started with Croatia in the ascendency and their improved play paid off in the 68th minute when Ivan Perisic stole in ahead of Kyle Walker to level the scores. The atmosphere amongst England fans became noticeably edgier and nervier. Added to that, the players started to look like they were lacking energy and the emotion and effort of the last month was starting to show.
All was square after 90 minutes and again we headed into extra-time hoping and praying that the boys had enough left in the tank. Hoping and praying for that one moment of inspiration that would be played on TV every four years until the end of time. Sadly, with Modric raising the tempo, that moment came for the Croatians as Mandzukic reacted quicker than John Stones to slot the bouncing ball past Pickford and into the bottom corner. England had 12 minutes to pull something back and keep the dream alive, but our race was run. Croatia held out strongly and ended victorious after 120 minutes, going through to meet France in their first ever World Cup final. Ultimately, we didn’t do enough on the day and it could have gone either way. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.
Despite the result, the moments immediately following the game were amongst the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced in a football stadium. The players stood on the pitch having given every last bit of energy and heart they could. They had worn the Three Lions on their chest with pride and performed way beyond expectation. As they stood heartbroken on the pitch applauding the fans, we sang back at them louder than ever before. The connection between players and fans was evident, something that had been missing from the England setup for years, and something that is generally missing from modern football in general. It was a truly beautiful moment that I will never forget.
The players drifted back to the dressing rooms but the fans remained. Glyn had come down from his seat to join me and as we embraced the look on his face made it hit home; the dream was over. It’s not coming home after all. The camera crew for the documentary were stood just away from our stand as they waited for a final interview and summary. But first there was more singing to be done. For the next two hours we stood embracing, consoling, singing and chanting at the top of our voices. We were determined not to leave until Gareth Southgate reappeared for a final goodbye. When that moment finally came, I couldn’t hold back the emotion and I certainly wasn’t the only England fan with tears in my eyes. This man had inspired the group that had inspired a nation, reigniting people’s passion for the national team.
This had been one of the best months of my life, full of beautiful moments that will live with me forever. The journey was coming to an end and this was our last opportunity to thank our leader and pay our respects to the man who had made this all possible. By the time Southgate left we were emotionally drained. There was time for one last interview to summarise my love of Russia, it’s people, the whole experience and above all, the one thing that makes all these dreams and adventures possible – THE WORLD CUP. THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!!!