As the sun slowly set on a golden Hyde Park, 30,000 England supporters cheered with wild abandon as Kieran Trippier’s early free-kick arced its way into the top-right corner of Croatia’s net.
As ever with the country that invented the beautiful game, it wasn’t to be. But despite the familiar result, this time, it felt different.
Ahead of kick-off, with afternoon drifting into evening, supporters waited patiently as The Lightning Seeds took to the stage and played all the songs nobody wanted to hear.
Finally, knowingly, Ian Brodie belted out Three Lions as the crowd joined in word for word, singing “football’s coming home” for perhaps the first time in this tournament without a hint of irony.
After kick-off – the crowd watching on three supersize screens – nerves quickly turned to jubilation after Trippier’s stunner from 25 yards. For the rest of the half, England dominated, with Harry Kane coming a post’s width from doubling their lead.
As England threatened to extend their lead, dancing fans filled the air with chants saluting Gareth Southgate and Jordan Pickord, while green plastic beer bottles and half-filled pint cups flew through the sky above them, drenching those beneath.
“Really happy with the first half, the boys looked solid, that Trippier goal you couldn’t ask for more,” Ibu Lawson, an England fan, told The Independent at half-time. “I think Harry Kane could have finished that (chance), but I’m not going to complain.”
And the second-half? “I think we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, and football’s coming home.”
But England didn’t keep on doing it. As fear and fatigue kicked in among England’s players, the nerves kicked in among Hyde Park’s fans. When Ivan Perisic snuck in at the far post to get his side on level terms, an eerie hush descended on the thousands below the screen.
Seconds later, chants of “England! England! England!” from one corner brought the crowd back to life. But it increasingly became a watching-through-fingers exercise as Croatia turned the screw.
At full-time, as the sun disappeared behind the horizon, England fans – already sobering up with onsite bars having closed at 8.30pm – began fearing the worst.
Despite being the ageing side, and having played 120 minutes in each of the previous two rounds, Croatia increasingly looked the fitter side. As England sunk back, the Croats pushed on and ultimately forced themselves into the lead with seven minutes to go through the relentless Mario Mandzukic.
For the first time, resignation overtook the crowd. No more flying beer bottles, no more giant footballs being punted from fan to fan, just groans and silent prayers as England attempted in vain to force an equaliser.
Four minutes of extra time came and went in a flash, and suddenly, almost unexpectedly, it was all over. Despite everything, people really had started to believe England’s 52 years of hurt was over.
“We did alright but it wasn’t enough. I think we deserved to win it but we were unlucky. We didn’t take our chances in the first half and that was it,” a supporter, Charlie, told The Independent.
“Croatia were just better than us, I know it’s hard to say but they were better than us,” another fan, Kam, said.
Another said: “We should have done more in the first 90 minutes, but fair play, they properly gave it a go and that’s all we can ask of the team.”
But despite the heartbreak, what started as a ripple of applause spread across the entire crowd as 30,000 supporters saluted Southgate’s men thousands of miles away in Moscow.
Football may not be coming home, but England’s young players achieved something none of their predecessors have done in 20 years. They made the country fall in love with them again.
Perhaps one fan, Patrick, summed up the feeling among the crowd best: “You know what, we can be so proud of those guys, and we can have a s*** time for the next few years, but you know what, we’ll look back in a couple of months’ time and think they did us so proud.”