It’s time. It’s been almost 2 years since the 2022 World Cup Final in Ottawa, when the 3 dejected lions of England were slammed down to Earth by France’s mighty coq. I step onto the San Siro pitch to see a fluid battle all around the terraces; the crosses of St George jostling with the Tricolores for dominance. Aside from the local Italians, who stay true to form by remaining largely neutral, half of this stadium wants revenge, while the other half wants to show that the result of our last meeting was no fluke. I feel like a fresh faced private, stepping into the front lines of a war that predates me.
I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve given serious thought in the build up to this match to the idea of dropping Project: Renaissance. England are quick, aggressive and exactly the kind of team built to hit an expansive, attacking team like us on the counter attack to devastating effect. The thing that’s stopped me from doing so is the principle: I can’t just drop the system I’ve been stubbornly sticking to for the last 2 years the first time I come against an actual threat. One of the first France matches I’ve overseen that really, truly means something is not an occasion where I consider abandoning my principles an option. Nous sommes la France, the World Champions and we will attack these tea sipping Anglaises with everything we have. If they hit us on the break and score, we’ll go up the other end and bag 2. We will not abandon Renaissance today.
Against Howe’s Bassett-esque 4-4-2, I name an entirely predictable XI: Gauthier in net, Sidibé, Varane, Laporte and Digne across the back, Rabiot and Bakayoko in midfield, Lemar, Pogba and Mbappé ahead of them and Griezmann up front. We’ll go in hard on England’s brilliant but volatile central midfield partnership of Alli and Cook in the hopes of provoking a reaction. The sides line up and the National Anthems are belted out passionately to a man. Let’s get started.
The referee’s whistle blows and France are immediately on the front foot, asserting ourselves on our opponents with fluid possession football and laying siege to their half. Quarter of an hour in Rabiot creates our first chance when he lays the ball off for Lemar and then darts towards the right wing, drawing Cook out of position to give the City winger a clear sight of goal. Lemar takes a step and smashes a shot towards the far top corner – But it smacks back off the angle between post and bar and is headed clear by Juddy Lokando. England try to hit us on the counter but the momentary threat is ended by a superb sliding tackle by Varane on Kane in our third.
10 minutes later we’re being funnelled down the wings and forced to cross the ball in, but Jack Butland’s proving equal to every delivery into the box. The Arsenal man catches 2 in quick succession and then launches another counter attack. This time the ball’s played to young Lynes on the left wing, who hits a hopeful looking ball down the left channel. Luckily Varane has a good 20 yard head start on Webb and gets there first. But then… The next few seconds play out in torturous slow motion: Varane miscontrols the ball as Webb continues to fly towards him. Our defender’s feet seem to turn to stone. He makes 3 attempts to control it but he just can’t. It’s the mother of all howlers. Eventually the loose ball rolls away from him just as Webb arrives to collect it, before baring down on goal, clear of our shellshocked defence. The Chelsea striker gets to the edge of the box and shoots – Straight at Gauthier, who parries it straight back to him. Webb takes a touch, opens his body and places the rebound into the bottom right corner of the goal.
Numbness floods my body as I watch the 11 white shirts sprint away to the corner of the pitch to celebrate with their fans. Varane sinks to the floor inside our box, hands covering his face as Gauthier screams in his direction. What the fuck just happened?
A few minutes later, Jack Butland plucks a cross out of the air from a corner and then catches yet another shortly afterwards. Just as a third successive France attack is beginning with Pogba though, our captain’s robbed by Dele Alli and the English fans roar their encouragement as another counter attack begins. Alli passes to Kane, who hoofs the ball towards the left channel, where Webb nips in once again with that electric pace, squeezing between Varane and Sidibé before dropping the shoulder and turning inside. Webb squares it across the edge of the penalty area towards Harry Kane – And Kane lashes the ball past Leo Gauthier. 0-2. 5 minutes ago we were on top, but 1 absolute defensive howler and 1 clinical counter attack later, it’s 0-2.
I scream instructions from the touchline, telling my players to play through the middle as Butland looks like he’ll catch any cross we throw at him. I want us running at their young defence, using their lack of experience against them. We can drag them around and pass into the space they leave behind. In the 37th minute we look much, much better. Mbappé dribbles inside from the right wing, runs through the centre and lays the ball off for Griezmann, who wraps his unfavored right boot around the ball from 20 yards – And cracks a shot against the far post. Fucking hell.
Before half time it should be 0-3. Redmond passes inside from the right, finding Kaptain Kane, who cheekily backheels the ball through for Webb. Webb runs in behind Varane yet again and tries a first time shot from 15 yards, but spoons his effort well over the bar. We’re saved by the over-eagerness of youth. I can’t help but think if the roles were reversed and it were Kane who’d had that chance, it’d be game over.
“What the fuck is going on out there?” I scream. The French team line the benches with heads bowed in silence, as if in prayer. Even David Bechkoura, my assistant, doesn’t want to meet my gaze and stares at his feet as he leans against the changing room wall. “Are you lads the world champions or have I got the wrong fucking dressing room? Raphaël are you even listening?!” Varane’s sat nearest to me, staring closely at his water bottle. I snatch the bottle out of his hands and lob it across the dressing room floor, sending it skidding into the far wall. The centre back’s eyes do not move up to meet mine and a surge of cold fury rises through my body. “Look at me!” I bellow. He finally raises his head and glances up, but wearing an almost indignant look. “You more than anyone need to shape up, or I’ll get you back on that plane so fast your head will fucking spin!” He acknowledges me with the smallest of nods. “Much better when we get back out there, all of you.” I walk over and kick Varane’s water bottle one more time for luck, before storming out and heading back to the dugout.
I’ve never been this fucking scared in my managerial career. Before kick off I genuinely didn’t know whether I’d feel worse about winning or losing. I didn’t know what the consequences would be either way. Now I know. I’ve never blown up quite like that before. I suddenly feel like my entire managerial career and everything I’ve built over the last 8 years is hanging by a thread. We can’t lose this. We just can’t lose.
England make a change at the break. I can’t say I’m entirely surprised that Howe’s bringing on Brendan Galloway to play as the holding man in a 4-1-4-1, but it does surprise and slightly relieve me that Oliver Webb is the striker to make way. He and his terrifying pace have been Varane’s worst nightmare. In the first 10 minutes of the second half England remain on top, but their only real chances are pot shots from Cook and Kane, both of which are easily caught by Gauthier.
Although England aren’t too threatening at present, we’re being pushed further and further back into our own half and a change is required. Vice Captain Antoinne Griezmann does not look impressed when he turns to see a red number 7 on the 4th official’s board and gives his replacement Moussa Dembélé a quick pat on the back before storming down the tunnel, without even a glance in my direction. I’ll deal with that later. Right now we need a physical presence up top. We need somebody who can make the ball stick in the final third and give the others time to get forward to support our attacks through the centre. This sort of situation is exactly why I’ve brought Moussa along.
Over the next 10 minutes the change works… To an extent. Having Moussa holding the ball up allows us to push back at England and camp in their half, but we still have nothing to show for our efforts. Both sides then make changes, with Kingsley Coman replacing Thomas Lemar for France while Marcus Rashford and John Stones come on for Nathan Redmond and Stu Coleman for the Limies. All like for like swaps.
Then, just 3 minutes later, a glimmer of hope: Cook has possession in his own half but is quickly dispossessed by a superb Rabiot slide tackle. The midfielder exchanges passes with Bakayoko and Pogba as we work the ball through the centre. Then Captain Pogba chips the ball perfectly into the left channel for Mbappé to run onto. The Monaco man outpaces Lokando and expertly brings the ball under control with his boot. As Lokando and Stones try to surround him, Mbappé manages to clip a square ball across the 6 yard box -And Moussa Dembélé arrives to tuck away his first international goal.
“Come on!” I bellow, slamming my hands together in frantic applause as Dembélé picks the ball out of the net and heads back to the halfway line. We’re still in this. We’re still in with a chance. “Come on!” I repeat, unable to think of anything else to say. My head’s fucking swimming.
4 minutes later, we come forward through a packed England half again with Kingsley Coman. “Come on!” I scream, like a broken record. “Make it stick!” Coman obliges, passing to Dembélé, who’s stood with his back to goal 35 yards out. Dembélé holds it up well and then offloads to the arriving Bakayoko, who chips an almost identical ball to Pogba’s, finding Mbappé in the left channel. Mbappé again wriggles away from Lokando on the edge of the box, Stones again comes across to block any potential shot, but it never comes. Kylian squares it past Stones for Rabiot, who slams a shot towards goal – But it bounces back off the post for the third time and into the 6 yard box – A blue shirt gets there first! Go on! POGBA!!!
“YEEEEEEEEES!” Bechkoura’s high pitched scream feels like it almost shatters my ear drum as he jumps on my back. I shake him off immediately as I sprint towards the corner where the blue shirts are piling on top of our captain. I hear a dull thud from behind me as Bechkoura hits the floor but it’s quickly drowned out by the cheers of tens of thousands of French fans. Paul bloody Pogba’s poked in an equaliser! I reach the players and jump on top of the pile on, which by this point also includes substitutes, staff members and a couple of rogue fans. I can only assume Pogba lies broken and bloodied at the bottom, but we’ve fucking done it. We’re level. We’ve clawed it back. Vive la fucking Franj. We do try to complete the turnaround after the restart, but the final whistle signals the end of a 2-2 draw in Milan.
I immediately seek out Raphaël Varane and wrap an arm around his shoulders. He was alright in the second half and I’m happy to chalk his first half performance down to a one-off stinker against a very good opponent. As I then make my way among the opposition players, shaking hands, I catch Captain Pogba’s eye and give him a thumbs up.
Then I make my way towards Moussa Dembélé, undoubtedly the hero of the hour, despite only playing for half of that. I clap him on the back as a mob of cameramen circle the two of us. This lad transformed us today. I’m sure I’ll take some of the plaudits in the press for making the change, but hand on heart, I didn’t think it’d work as well as it did. Moussa got us back into this game. Moussa turned the pressure back onto the opposition. Moussa won us a point.
I’ll take a point too. The French fans seem in good spirits and the English still seem pretty chipper as well, despite their collapse. I hear the somewhat ironic words of Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds emanating from the white sections of the stadium: “It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming – Football’s coming home”, sing the English in unbroken unison. Somewhere in that white mass I imagine Shorey, Jeffers and Bothroyd sneering down at me as they bellow along with the crowd.
“You’re right, lads.” I think with a grin. “But it’s coming home with me.”