Well, what a rollercoaster that was. Four weeks full of thrills, spills, ecstasy and heartbreak which saw England unexpectedly reach their first World Cup semi-final since 1990.
Football looked as if it was actually coming home, especially when Kieran Trippier’s fine free-kick resulted in every pint across the country flying up in the air and over some bystander’s head but, as you know, it wasn’t quite meant to be.
But you only have to go back to October 2017 to see the relationship between the people and the national team was at an all-time low.
Attendances were down (just 61,000 out of a possible 90,000 attended as England qualified vs Slovenia) with fans despondent and dissociated following the failure to to qualify for the 2008 Euros and poor performances at the 2010, 2014 World Cups and 2012, 2016 Euros – the latter of which resulted in an embarrassing 2-1 quarter-final defeat against Iceland.
In truth, when Gareth Southgate replaced Sam Allardyce, who managed to last just 67 days before being sacked following an undercover newspaper sting, it was an appointment that rather underwhelmed with many labelling him an ‘FA yes man’.
Early performances – including a last-gasp draw against Scotland – and the regular presence of Jake Livermore in the midfield hardly got the pulses racing, but within the camp England’s Mr Nice was building something rather special.
That was brought to a halt in Moscow but the players and their waistcoat-wearing messiah, will return to these shores as heroes having carved out a new identity which has bridged the gap between them and the supporters.
Yes, having your best World Cup in 28 years obviously helps – especially when you’re talking about a game that brings out the fickle side of most – but here’s how the squad, staff and even the Football Association (FA) employed new tactics off the pitch by using the power of digital media to reconnect with the fans.
One of the FA’s remit was to appeal to a new generation of fans. So to reveal the 23-man squad they used young supporters to name the chosen ones. The result was not everyone’s cup of tea but, if anything, it became a talking point and engaged with its target audience having been viewed well over 6 million times across England’s online channels.
Often shouldering blame for England’s downfall, the press – minus Sterling tattoo-gate – have been well onside in Russia. Of course it boils down to performances but, just as importantly, Southgate and Technical Director, Dan Ashworth have made them feel almost like an additional member of the squad. From the pre-tournament NFL ‘speed dating’ style interviews with all 23 players, to holding regular open training sessions, news conferences and one of the most open-door policies in decades, the country’s most esteemed and influential journalists spread positive press before a ball was even kicked.
Two years ago, England players were blocked from talking about their own darts tournament to the media. At this World Cup, England players are playing the English media at darts.
— John Cross (@johncrossmirror) June 14, 2018
The Lion’s Den
As the Mirror’s John Cross tweeted, the FA were far from helpful in creating a link between squad and fans as recently as 2016. However, in Russia – due to a change of personnel and vision – English football’s governing body updated fans on a regular basis using their own live online show, The Lion’s Den. The 30-minute daily with Southgate and the players showcased their ‘human side’ through FaceTime Q&As with fans, messages of support and non-football features (example: Harry Kane teaching presenter, Craig Mitch how to play golf). The result: between 100,000-700,000 views per video meaning there’s no question that The Lion’s Den has been a roaring success.
Social media can sometimes get players into trouble, but the England players at the World Cup showed what a great tool it is to translate their emotions and thank supporters. Unlike tournaments gone by, many of the Three Lions players are on twitter or Instagram and expressed their gratitude throughout the tournament. The great thing about these posts is the timing (very soon after the final whistle), meaning they are raw and straight from the heart. The 23 put in the effort on the field and went that extra step off it to appreciate the supporters.
I’m still heartbroken and never felt so gutted. But there’s something I want to say. This past month, I’ve seen videos going around, photos been sent to me. That felt so good for us here in Russia, and united us more and more, just like it did in our country. pic.twitter.com/6pY10XaXZq
— Kyle Walker (@kylewalker2) July 12, 2018
Memes & Hashtags
Although these didn’t come directly from the FA, Southgate or players, the number of viral memes and trending hashtags flying around social media were due to a direct result of how the team had recaptured the hearts of a nation. It almost felt the 90s again with Baddiel and Skinner earning more royalties than the past nine tournaments combined through the #itscominghome craze, while the Southgate-inspired #WaistcoatWednesday might have done enough to extend M&S’s time on the high street.
— David Brent (@DavidBrentMovie) July 5, 2018
Now the FA have exceeded expectations on the pitch and won back the fans, the goal now must be to cherish that relationship by maintaining what they’re doing with their digital channels because the team will only grow by having the people behind them.