Heartbreak once is bad enough, but going through it all over again is just... hard to come to terms with. For England fans, particularly young ones like me that don’t remember Euro ‘96 let alone Italia ‘90, watching the Three Lions get so close - only to fall at the final hurdle - is a new experience.
Sure, there were the gutsy quarter-final efforts of the Sven Goran Eriksson era, going out to Brazil in 2002, Portugal in 2004 and Portugal again in 2006. But that feels a long time ago when more recent years have seen failure to qualify for Euro 2008 and embarrassing exits in 2010, 2014 and 2016.
The sense of nation-wide disillusionment that had begun to surround the England team - and just how much of a break from that Gareth Southgate’s side is - created a feeling of plucky, defiant optimism that almost feels alien.
Comparing that to Reading’s most recent, perhaps most poignant, heartbreak takes a bit of a stretch, but the parallels are there. After years of mounting disillusionment following the club’s relegation from the Premier League, the Royals got to Wembley in the face of all the odds. That team was hard to love at times - outright entertainment was at a premium and thrashings away from home were too common - but it reminded us what it felt like to actually win.
That restoration of pride, that the team not only could but would win shouldn’t be taken for granted. In the same way it’s swept up England over the last few weeks, it did the same for Reading in the first half of 2017.
Can we really go all the way? Can we really win the World Cup? I just think we might.
Can we really go all the way? Can we finally win at Wembley? I just think we might.
It’s the hope that kills you.
Just like a magical moment conjured up that elusive sense of belief for England - a first ever penalty shoot-out win in a World Cup - that special match under the Mad Stad lights on May 16 did the same. England weren’t supposed to win a shoot-out, and Reading weren’t supposed to beat the bookies’ favourites, the pundits’ favourites, the neutrals’ favourites: The Mighty Fulham.
We did it anyway.
When games like those go your way, you feel like the world is at your feet and anything is possible - that this might finally be your year. Although deep down we probably all knew the semi-final against Croatia and the final against Huddersfield Town would end in tears, we gave optimism a chance. It’s a sickeningly cheesy line but, at the end of the day, that’s what football is all about.
When it all comes crashing down, whether to Christopher Schlinder’s penalty or Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time finish, the dejection is all the same. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to get outwardly emotional at times like that - I don’t burst into tears, I just feel empty, like the world has shown you how beautiful football can be before cruelly snatching it away.
In spite of all that, hope remains. We believed that Reading could go one better in 2017, even if that didn’t work out too well, and Gareth Southgate’s rejuvenation of England in 2018 has also brought positivity back.
The pain is hard to get over at first, but the optimism doesn’t go so easily.
Keep the faith.