Before kick-off ITV tried to enhance the excitement by transmitting rallying cries from Joanna Lumley and Prince William, plus footage of Ricky Gervais interviewing a dog. That turned out to be more tolerable than Gabby Logan’s interview with Harry Maguire on the BBC the day before, when Logan was reduced to asking the centre-back whether he liked tea and where he got his head. Uncharacteristic for Logan but symptomatic of a tournament in which the BBC have mostly been outplayed by their rivals.
It was a blow, however, that ITV’s four-man panel for this one did not include Slaven Bilic, the Croatian having asked to cover the match from the stadium. Bilic has created gripping dramatic tension in the studio throughout this tournament, using expansive arm movements to illustrate his points and almost literally to poke those around him, a habit that seemed certain to culminate in Roy Keane sticking the nut on him. Defusing that by allowing Bilic to go to the Luzhniki did the watching millions a disservice.
At least Bilic appeared pitchside, expressing his confidence that England’s “very open football” would play to Croatia’s strengths. “It’s going to be the kind of game we’re good at,” he reckoned.
In the studio Keane was to act as a counterweight to English giddiness - or “to restore some calm,” as Mark Pougatch put it rumly. But Gary Neville, Ian Wright and Lee Dixon were not getting carried away. Wright even opted for his tamest shirt of the campaign, a marine blue number with sharks or dolphins. Dolphins are playful and intelligent. Perhaps some cute subliminal messaging there from Wrighty.
The English trio tentatively predicted a win for the Three Lions. Keane did not commit to tackling that view. “If they show enough courage, they’ll win the game but they’ve been in this position before and messed things up so let’s see,” he advised.
Once the game got going so did Clive Tyldesley, acclaiming “a Bolshoi spin by Lingard” early doors. When England took the lead, the commentator felt no spin was required, just a statement of facts: “It’s in! Kieran Trippier’s first goal for England is in a World Cup semi-final inside five minutes. Dreams do come true.” To which Glenn Hoddle, with not quite the same sense of moment, added: “It was central, as I said.”
Less than 10 minutes later Tyldesley captured the nation’s mood by swooning as Maguire got his head to a corner. “What a threat he carries!” simpered the commentator, who almost choked on his “oh!” when Harry Kane bungled a later chance.
At half-time the lads in the studio were concerned England were not further in front. Keane said sloppiness had crept into their play. “If England don’t finish this off, they’ll never forgive themselves,” he warned. Bilic was nowhere to be seen. But he was probably wrapping his arms round someone in the 68th minute when Ivan Perisic scored. Tyldesley paused before reporting: “Croatia have equalised. Really good cross, good run, good finish. England have got to pull themselves together.” By the 84th minute Tyldesley was annoyed enough to quip: “I thought Croatia were supposed to get tired”, a rebuke to Neville, who had declared “if it goes to stamina, we win”.
Full-time came with the game in the balance but Tyldesley seemed in need of a hug as he cut to ads.
Soon Mario Mandzukic struck Croatia’s second. “Oh, it’s in!” yelped Tyldesley in horror. From then on it seemed he was just waiting for a chance to lie down and sob. Bilic popped up again after Croatia’s win was confirmed. “It’s good for all smaller countries, and also for Wales,” he ventured, mischievously shoving pressure on to Ryan Giggs, standing within arm’s reach to his right.So England were out. But, in a sense, Keane’s tournament was just beginning. This was his time to shine. Wright felt he had been waiting for it all along. “You weren’t happy for us being happy,” he blurted. “I didn’t mind you being happy but you were getting carried away,” retorted Keane.
“You were planning the final, where the parades were, you need a reality check – you’re a grown man!” To which Wright replied by mocking his accent.