Heroic failure or just short of the mark? Did well to get there or yet again falling short just when it mattered the most?
Those are some of the phrases that have been floating around the media and social media in the last 36 hours, and there's a big case to be made for both the glass half full and empty brigades. Sitting on the fence, I can see both sides validities and arguments, and yet as a competitive person by nature I have never really been one for silver medals. Some say that runner up is the first loser, don't they? And while that may seem harsh, professional sport is mainly about winning - and you can be sure that Gareth Southgate and his backroom staff won't be slapping themselves on the back - they will be plotting a successful World Cup campaign, and how to rectify any mistakes that were made.
But sport is also about dreaming and hoping, and about experiences. Watching England with the family at my side on telly these past few weeks has been great. Christ, it can be bloody hard work explaining rules and trying to ignore why the wife is rooting Spain for as "Poland isn't in Europe, is it?", but shared joy is brilliant joy. And all you can ask for really is that you get a good run for your money, that your team goes deep into the competition. It keeps the dream alive as long as possible - and we were lucky in that we got to watch our team until the very last kick of the competition. That we were unsuccessful with that kick shouldn't mask the progress that has been made since Iceland humiliated us in 2016.
But progress is one thing: a bit like Stoke City, have mistakes from before really been learned from and addressed? In some ways yes, in some ways, no......but there's plenty to admire.....
A Steady Eddie. A Yes Man. Mr Beige....since Gareth Southgate was appointed in 2016 you will have heard him called something along those lines quite a bit, or even thought them yourself. I know I did. I saw Southgate as another Aidy 'Aidy' Boothroyd - someone with no real track record to be coaching at international level. But behind the scenes, and away from the public glare, didn't Southgate have two massive pluses that we are only now seeing? His leadership qualities and his willingness to give youth a chance.
Some of Southgate's selections and tactics have been anything but beige. Possibly even going towards foolhardy in some eyes, at times: The Grealish substitution versus Denmark; the switching between a back three, four and five; allowing our penalties to be taken by the younger players etc etc......but he does things on his own terms, in his own way. He's not Steady Eddie at all with how he managers the squad - he's his own man with his own mind. He backs himself.
Gareth Southgate, in my worthless opinion, is exactly what the country needs right now as the national manager.
"I want someone who wins stuff", I hear you shout - well, we all do, as do 200+ other countries, including countries well versed in winning stuff. As I said before, second prize for me isn't to be celebrated. But it is to be respected and built upon. And at the current time, after seventeen months that have been a simply awful time for everyone in the country, how lovely it is to see an articulate, bright and honest man on our screens, doing his level best for us. Southgate talks with the calm assuredness of a man who deserves, at the very least, respect and admiration. He's someone who puts others first, someone who cares about those he's in charge of. In defeat and in victory, he is a Steady Eddie - just as a manager and leader should be. If only others copied him.
And in a lot of ways, isn't that the same with our very own Michael O'Neill? A man who came into the club at a toxic time, a time when we were in cruise control on a collision course headed straight for Gresty Road. Steadying the ship isn't ever an easy thing to do. In fact, it's harder when you look at the likes of some far bigger clubs than us who have hit the rocks. Coming in and acting like an over-enthusiastic puppy chasing a balloon in the wind wasn't what the club needed or should have chosen. We needed the bigger picture being examined and steps taken to steady us as a club, not just the first team. And we needed someone with a level head to do that.
We needed high-earning players, those not arsed, those not good enough, those no-one else wanted etc out of the squad. He's made unbelievable progress doing that. That we haven't not got the financial opportunity to replace those players with big names, big money signings isn't MON's fault - and frankly, weren't you sick to death of giving the likes of Berahino a king's ransom for very little in return? Doesn't buying a relatively unknow player with potential excite a bit more? Doesn't the likes of Will Forrester scoring on his debut make you fall in love with your club a bit more?
Which brings me to......
Sometimes you are forced to give the kids a go. Sometimes you aren't. Often, it's a mindset, an ethos, from the manager or above. We're probably having our hands forced here, but over the last 18 months or so we have seen numerous players that have joined us in their teens, or come through the ranks, given a go. Indeed, the highlights of last season for me were twofold: watching the under 23 games on YouTube or seeing players from that group be consistently amongst our best first team players.
There's a fearlessness in youth that excites. They haven't failed before in the first team, they haven't been part of that losing culture. And the likes of Souttar, Campbell, Forrester, Collins (RIP), Bursik, Norton, Taylor etc repaid the faith showed them in bucketloads. We now have another group of players that are seemingly on the fringes of that and who are as I type this over in Belfast with the first team squad. The likes of Coates, Sparrow, Porter etc.....It not only bodes well for the future, it's exciting and keeps a supporter on their toes somewhat.
As stated before, Gareth Southgate hasn't been afraid to chuck youngsters in....but I do think we underutilised a few in the Euros. I've seen a lot of Jude Bellingham, and I really would be basing my midfield around him, I think he's that good. Second half the other night, I don't think we needed a jaded-looking Jordan Henderson coming on. We needed legs, we needed a bright spark, we needed someone who would keep the ball and get us up the pitch. We probably also needed the likes of Sancho and Grealish on earlier too, especially with their two ageing centre halves on a yellow card. But England now have a plethora of young midfield talent and options: Rice and Phillips, Mount (who had a very average tournament for me, and was an anonymous in the final, but who is excellent) and Bellingham - who I think could be our jewel in the crown. I thought the manager put the handbrake on with his subs and lack of subs a little - the game was there for the winning, but it seemed as if we were too fearful of losing it.
Same with MON's subs too - far too reactive rather than proactive for me. Far too formulaic. Far too late, when we have all seen an equaliser or opposition winner on the horizon. This season, do we really think we will go up? Do you see Stoke really finishing top 6 at present? Hmmmm. Not with the squad at present, but that's not a criticism. Yes, we need new signings asap, but would anyone be averse to chucking a few more youngsters in and also playing with a bit more fun, joy and freedom. Which brings me to......
Second half, 1-0 up.....
Game management. A term you never really heard before the last few years really. I see and hear a lot of it with my lad's football, where results are important but aren't the be all and end all. But games still need to be managed. And it's a term you hear mainly when your team is holding a positive result....in the lead or clinging on to a draw - the answer......throw another defender on to protect what you have or maybe an extra midfielder to keep the ball better; maybe a player who wins you free kicks and a bit of time.....but do something!
My main criticism of both Stoke and England in recent times has been game management. Both teams have been winning in key games; key games they have ended up losing. So, surely it's okay to ask if lessons are being learned? And this isn't just about the manager, it's about the players too. And it's also about mentality and learning from previous experiences.
Ask yourself how many times have you watched Stoke and they were winning at half time and you thought to yourself "I bet we sit back from the kick off", or how many times have you seen us concede in the ten minutes after half time in the last few years? And you'll have wondered to yourself just what has the manager said or not said in that dressing room at half time! But it's also human nature to be defensive, to hold what you have, to be cautious. It's also to be expected that decent sides will have periods of dominance during a game, especially one they are trailing in. But isn't they key having plans to counter that? Without going gung-ho, can't you probe for a killer second goal?
From the twentieth minute on Sunday night, Italy dominated possession. Possession for possession's sake isn't pressure or dominance, and at half time I wasn't unduly worried - but if you let quality attack-minded players get on the ball repeatedly, then they will eventually hurt you. We came out second half and let them have the ball. You can't do that for a whole half. And they get on the ball because you haven't got the mindset, plan or maybe even the fresh legs to keep the ball or get yourselves up the pitch. The last thing I want to see when my team is under pressure is my striker(s) dropping deep. Of course, it shows a great attitude and desire, but I want defenders occupied, I want CDM's occupied too. What we ended up with on Sunday was Kane playing in midfield and Mount and Sterling tracking runners back past their own full backs at times. So when we had the ball, we had zero options for an out ball.
And that is often the same with Stoke. Camped on the edge of our box, unable to get out. Forest, Cardiff, Blackburn, Brentford, Swansea, Millwall etc......all games where we set up base camp on our penalty spot second half, with no out ball available. That's when bravery on the ball, bravery of mindset or a Plan B are needed. Which brings me to.....
Games are more often than not won in midfield. Or maybe it's better to say that they are often lost in midfield. Or where Stoke and England were concerned, territory and possession can be handed over in midfield?
Again, I'll reiterate, it's hard to dominate games of football for 90 minutes. The Euros were brilliant as they were so even - I mean, even Scotland won a point! There aren't any easy games really, and so games ebb and flow, and you know that the opposition will have periods of dominance, as noted above. That's just football. But even in victory, I thought England's midfield was a little unbalanced most of the tournament. Sounds crackers, yeah? And it might well be so - but I didn't ever really see our three central players playing as a three. Against Italy, their central midfield dominated ours for over an hour. And as well as ours played individually, most of their good work was defensive-minded stuff.
I thought Declan Rice was excellent in the final, but much of it was doing shuttle runs, closing angles, nicking second balls etc - hence being replaced after 74 minutes. Sorry, but your best central midfielder on the day shouldn't go off at such a key stage and so early unless your team has been chasing the ball for most of that time. It told me that we were set up wrong in that area, and that our most attacking midfielder wasn't getting in the game anywhere near enough, and we weren't keeping the ball. Same with Stoke, I saw a hugely unbalanced midfield at times, one where we had little legs in central midfield after half time, in a league where energy is key. The best way of saving energy is by keeping the ball, not chasing it, and for me the obvious sub on Sunday was Bellingham and or Grealish on? Maybe I'm wrong?
It was so similar to watching Stoke play - good shape, score first, then slowly conceded possession/territory, and eventually conceded a key goal. And when that happens, rarely do teams come back and gain ascendancy. Stoke rarely do, anyway!
Hope, it's what kills you
And that's what we've been given from the last two major tournaments that England have been involved in - semis and a final. Most countries would settle for that, and whilst it's contradictory to say I'm happy with no winning, I did also say that a tournament that we go deep in is usually brilliant for football fans in this country. But as with MON's first six months in charge - expectations and the bar being raised can bring with it its own pressures.
For too many years the national team was both unlikeable and gave us no genuine hope of really winning anything. We have that now. And we have a bunch of players and a manager who are socially conscious of not only footballing affairs, but the world in general. A group who are positive and who you can really get behind. A group not afraid to put racists firmly in their place. Do I expect them to behave like Mother Theresa and Cliff Richard? No. But neither do I want them to throw away the trust and relationship with the public that they have built over the last few years, as well. With Southgate in charge, they won't,
And all I ask of Stoke City is to give us something to believe in, something to give us hope. Whilst our post-New Year form and performances were not what we wanted or expected, I've seen enough from this manager to give me the hope that he will get far more right than he gets wrong. Managing Stoke City is no easy task.
But if they let me down or disappoint me, please let it be because my hopes were raised in the first place.