Years of major tournament disappointment has led to waning excitement around the Three Lions, but this summer has seen hope and excitement return in spades.
England’s impressive group-stage display was followed by a shoot-out triumph against Colombia and surprisingly comfortable quarter-final win against Sweden, propelling the country to a first World Cup semi-final since 1990.
Croatia are all that now stands between Gareth Southgate‘s men and a chance at replicating the heroes of 1966, with Walker aware of just how big a chance the semi-final represents.
“It’s a great opportunity,” the England defender said. “I think we all know that.
“I think it’s the best opportunity that England’s ever had (since 1966), and probably might ever have because no disrespect to Croatia but the other side of the group was a lot more difficult.
“They have got some fantastic players. I’ve played with Luka (Modric) and for me he is one of the best midfielders in the world by far.
“But we have to just adapt ourselves to their game plan, but also they have to worry about us.
“We’ve played well, we’ve played well in the games. I think we’ve shown immense character.
“The goal going in against Colombia and us digging ourselves out and stepping up for the penalties and the five penalty-takers taking them, full credit to them.
“So we have shown character, we’ve shown belief and I think that’s what is going to get us over the line in this game.”
To even be at this stage is a remarkable change in fortunes given it is just two years since the Euro Championship humbling by Iceland – a galling loss compounded by Sam Allardyce’s ignominious exit after 67 days.
Southgate has manfully steered around the ship and Walker does not think the manager “gets as much credit as he deserves” for his work in bringing this group together.
“It’s special,” Walker told IRN. “It really is. That’s the only word I can describe it because we’re all a family.
“I said at the start of this that over this summer, this is our family.
“You obviously have got your family at home and the kids that you need to keep in touch with, keep checking in or the missus might go mad. But this is our family now.
“(We hoped we would have) a long month together, which we have done.
“And we’ve completed a World Cup. We have completed it.
“If we get to the final or if we don’t get to the final then we’re one day short, you know it has been an absolute pleasure of an experience to share not just with the players but the staff, even the media staff and you guys as well.
“Thank you for coming on our ride with us.”
While cosseted away in a forest in western Russia, social media has allowed Walker to get a flavour of the atmosphere and “buzz around the nation” that is unlike anything he has seen in his lifetime.
That fervour has taken captain Harry Kane‘s popularity up a notch, with England’s Golden Boot leader now tantalisingly close to lifting the World Cup .
“Harry is just a goal machine,” Walker said of his former Tottenham team-mate.
“I remember watching him at Tottenham coming up, a few times as a 15-year-old kid and he was just banging in goals then – and he’s just carried that on season after season.
“I remember people saying he’s going to be a one-hit wonder and he’s just completely proven them wrong and blown it out the water.
“It’s full credit to him because the work he puts on and off the field is first class and he adapts himself and dedicates himself to the game, so his rewards are coming from it.”
Walker is also confident that Raheem Sterling will also see his hard work rewarded.
Despite the Manchester City forward looking sharp in Russia, his lack of goals has led to undue criticism from some quarters.
“Raz, he’s a nightmare for us defenders,” Walker added. “An absolute nightmare.
“People think he’s weak but I’ve seen countless players ride his back because he’s that strong.
“He’s quick, he’s dynamic and hopefully the goals are going to come now in these two last important games.”
After dealing manfully with Colombia’s rough-housing, England are in for a tough time against a side whose players, staff and greats have called into question aspects of their opponents’ aptitude and attitude in the build-up.
Former midfielder Hakan Mild has been the most bolshie and claimed England do not have the determination required to triumph as they are “spoilt children who earn a lot of money” – comments that appear to have got under Southgate’s skin.
“I’m a football person,” the England manager said.
“It’s nice within football to affect some things and the players have that opportunity as well because they have a voice and they have influence on young people, especially the young people from the areas they came from.
“They can give hope to them and, like I said the other day, we’re not a team where we just turn up and we’re waltzing around strolling around and we’ve got an entitlement.
“We’re lads who have come from Barnsley and Leeds and Bolton and Blackburn.”
“That’s so important for us on Saturday because I always think Sweden like to point we’re paid this and that, and we’re the team of entitlement, when I don’t think that is the case for this group.
“It’s important we remember Steve (Holland) was at Crewe. I was at Palace when they weren’t quite as good as they are now. We’ve scrapped and fought our way.
“Most of our boys have played in the Championship or lower, whether they started there or played on loan there. They are really important messages for us.
“We are having success because we are really grafting for each other, we are playing some good football but we are really working without the ball.
“No passengers, nobody failing to close down, nobody strolling around. That’s the bedrock of why we are getting some decent results and we have to continue doing that.”
There was no clearer display of that character than England’s recovery from their stoppage-time gut-punch against Colombia, before ripping up the script to win a penalty shoot-out.
“If Carlsberg did development games” was the take of one of the Football Association’s national coaches after a display of skill, smart and maturity that points to an exciting future – and maybe an extraordinary summer.
“We’re far from perfect,” Southgate said. “We’re in a really good position, and we’ve made progress, but we’re still a team which is learning
“I think the players will like the fact that they’re still recognising there’s still a long way for them to go, that they’re still a long way away from their peak.
“But also, this might be one of the best opportunities we ever have and we don’t want to fall short by not being prepared or committed to what we’re doing.”
Southgate could never have imagined being two matches from the Luzhniki showpiece after Euro 2016, when his reluctance to fill the void left by Roy Hodgson was swiftly followed by having to answer his nation’s call.
The former defender was beginning to moot a return to club management until Sam Allarydce’s ignominious exit, finding the job a good fit and feeling emboldened by a confidence he lacked during his time at Middlesbrough.
“I suppose deep down I’ve always held those beliefs and held my own values,” Southgate said.
“But not being confident enough to impose them. Certainly, I compromised a lot of that when I was with Middlesbrough. I wasn’t confident enough.
“You don’t have evidence it works until you’ve achieved results and then going through relegation and the problems that causes is a reminder, hang on a second, there are things there I don’t truly believe in.”
Southgate’s ability to bring together a coherent group and his leadership style has brought widespread admiration at home, where it has been joked he should lead Brexit negotiations.
The England boss refused to get dragged into political chat and laughed off the social media hashtag #GarethSouthgateWould – England’s tailors have also declared Saturday ‘National Waistcoat Day’ in his honour – but he was far more forthcoming when it came to leading his country – what has often been called ‘an impossible job’.
“I think there are really complex, difficult jobs,” Southgate added.
“And also, in life when you look around inventions and records that have been broken that you have to tell yourself that anything is possible but some things are more complicated and difficult than others.
“And I think what’s impossible about it is to keep everybody happy. You know, governments get elected on 38 per cent of the vote.
“We win the other night but I still had a couple of emails – I’ve got to change my address, by the way! – saying ‘really good, but you should be picking this one and that one’.
“So, I think right OK, it’s impossible to please everybody all of the time but you’ve got to just believe that you’re making decisions for the right reasons.”
A win for Gareth Southgate‘s team would mark the Three Lions’ most successful World Cup campaign in 28 years and set up a tie with Croatia or Russia in the last four.
Gerrard, who was part of the 2006 squad that went out to Portugal on penalties in the quarter-finals, thinks England have a good chance of making history.
“I am excited and confident they can go and deliver again,” the new Rangers boss said. “I thought the mentality and the spirit they showed in the last game (against Colombia) was fantastic.
“They have got the country absolutely buzzing and now the pressure is starting to snowball.
“Now they have to stay calm and keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing because they look exciting and the dark horses in the competition.
“They have got a hell of a chance and I don’t think us as a nation will get a better chance of going all the way to the final, so I hope they grasp it.
“I wish them every bit of luck.”
He added: “I have been really impressed with how they handle themselves and I really hope they go all the way.
“I think it would be fantastic for everyone.”