Gareth Southgate has always said this young side is different to their predecessors: rather than being burdened by history, they sense an opportunity to create their own. And here it is: England have reached their first ever Euros final and first tournament showpiece since winning the 1966 World Cup.
Just as some misconstrue the sentiment behind ‘Three Lions’, the biannual summer anthem afforded extra poignancy this time around as it comes 25 years after its debut at Euro 96, the euphoric scenes after England secured a 2-1 extra-time win over Denmark here at Wembley could be interpreted as premature.
The entire squad and backroom staff assembled along the touchline to join in an abridged version of Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’, a more recently addition to the team’s soundtrack, dancing in front of their family and friends, with whom they have had no direct contact for weeks as a result of having to remain in their COVID-secure bubble.
“I’ve not heard this new Wembley like that ever and to be able to share that with everybody and everybody at home is very special,” said Southgate.
Cynics may argue this was too much, too soon — there is no trophy for a semifinal victory after all — but this was not a display of arrogance, it is a team utterly embracing the challenge of tournament football, unified in that cause with a fanbase finally given something tangible to believe in.
‘Three Lions’ is about hope against the odds. That past failings are not insurmountable barriers to future successes. That cycles of disappointment can be broken.
Southgate understands this more acutely than most, occupying an unwanted place in those decades of distress which are etched into the national psyche. Yet the 50-year-old is redefining his own place in history, no longer just the player who missed the penalty on the night England came closest to Euros success (1996) but now also the manager who has led them further in this tournament than anyone before him.
And Southgate talked on Tuesday about his team needing to break down barriers throughout these finals and they have done so at every turn. Winning their opening game at a Euros for the first time, beating Germany in a knockout game for the first time since 1966, earning their biggest tournament knockout win, 4-0 over Ukraine, in last Saturday’s quarterfinal and now this. There were 66,000 fans here — perhaps that was an omen in itself.
Those fans witnessed a team and manager learning from previous mistakes. England reached the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup, beaten in extra-time by a Croatia side who lasted the pace better.
“I think we would acknowledge we could have made changes during that game to improve the situation,” he said. “But equally, we weren’t as brave with the ball once we’d gone ahead… fatigue became a factor definitely in the second half.”
But England were brave here, a point made more significant given they went behind for the first time in the tournament.
After England made a bright start, Denmark began to enjoy a sustained period of pressure which culminated in Mikkel Damsgaard‘s superb 30th-minute free-kick. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who a few moments earlier had surpassed Gordon Banks all-time national record of 721 minutes without conceding a goal, will be disappointed to have been beaten towards the middle of his goal but Damsgaard’s effort was nonetheless brilliantly struck.
This then became a test of nerve, one past England teams have consistently failed. Too often they stop playing, paralysed by fear or technical deficiencies exposed under pressure. But not this time. Here, they kept playing out from the back, stuck to their patterns of play.
Nine minutes after falling behind, Kane played in Saka who squared for Sterling. The Manchester City winger would surely have scored but Denmark defender Simon Kjaer did the job for him, turning the ball into his own net.
Denmark began to tire as the second period wore on. Their coach, Kasper Hjulmand, made five changes to inject fresh legs before the end of 90 minutes while Southgate opted just to swap in Jack Grealish for Saka.
Thoughts began to turn to 2018 again and Southgate’s own admission of conservatism in regards to using his bench but Phil Foden and Jordan Henderson came on five minutes into extra-time with Kieran Trippier replacing Grealish after England had forged ahead.
And they did so by remaining positive. Sterling was excellent throughout, as he has been all tournament. He completed 10 dribbles in the game; only four players have registered a higher number in the entire tournament. One of those ended with a drive into the box and a challenge by Joakim Maehle which Dutch referee Danny Makkelie adjudged was a foul. The Danes protested furiously. Replays also showed a second ball on the pitch which if noticed would have stopped play before the decision was made.
But luck is seemingly with England at present, so much so Kane could afford to miss the resulting spot-kick — surely one of the worst he has ever struck — and still convert the rebound. It was harsh on Kasper Schmeichel, who had defied England admirably, but it was no less than England deserved.
They did not wilt physically, either. Southgate has used 21 players in this tournament to help share the physical and mental load. Even their game management was better, keeping the ball expertly late on in the second period of extra-time — particularly between minutes 116 and 119 — to ease the tension of a watching public expecting this glorious summer to somehow end in the agonising manner of the ones before.
They sang “it’s coming home” before full-time almost as a mantra for self-belief, as if repetition would somehow make it true. They sang it afterwards, bursting with hope stemming from what is before their eyes but equally laced with fear at from what has gone before.
This is the eternal struggle of an England supporter. Only Italy now stand in the way of that being redefined for a generation.