England are in the final of a major tournament. England deserve to be in the final of a major tournament. Pinch yourself – it’s actually happened.
1) This is uncharted territory for so many of us. Most people watching that game of football have never felt this feeling. Most people watching weren’t alive in 1966, many people’s parents weren’t alive in 1966, some very small people – perhaps getting their first taste of major tournament football – will have grandparents that weren’t alive in 1966.
No matter what happens on Sunday, this is a moment to savour; a moment we deserve, not just for the years of football hurt but the 18 months of general pain and suffering we have all endured. The collective heart of the nation, arrhythmic through a pandemic, skipped a further beat as Harry Kane’s penalty was saved by Kasper Schmeichel, before being sent into frenzied tachycardia as the England captain rolled the ball back past him.
2) “I admit if you were my son, I’d be proud of you,” Alan Smith told a 17-year-old Gareth Southgate at Crystal Palace. “As a travel agent or an estate agent, you’d be perfect. As a footballer, no fucking chance.”
It’s a theme that’s followed Southgate into his managerial career: this idea that he’s a good person, even a great person, but not tough enough. He’s softly spoken, articulate and intelligent and those qualities are weirdly perceived as signs of frailty in football circles.
Sure, he can put his arm around players in times of trouble, but can he give them a rollicking when it’s needed? Well, maybe he can, maybe he does, what’s baffling is that anyone considers that very small, archaic part of management to be of any importance at all.
And in a society in which warring factions – the left and right; anti-vaxxers and the woke – jump at the opportunity to shout first and loudest, we should take great solace in the country being united through a quiet, considered voice. Southgate is not the hero we deserved, but the one we need.
He’s the sort of man to strap the Christmas tree to the roof rack of his Renault Espace, pull on the bungee cords and say “that’s not going anywhere”. And having got home this evening it’s comforting to picture him brushing off his wife’s questions about the England performance and saying: “Enough about me, how was your day?”
Such daydreams would again lead many to picture a great partner, a great dad, a great friend, but not a great football manager. But what Southgate has shown is that good guys can finish first (maybe second) in both life and football; you don’t need to ‘man up’ to get ahead.
He’s completely altered the perception of himself – the FA yes-man who got the job by default – and his players – the pampered, arrogant elite, alien to the fans who support them. He and the players should be mighty proud no matter the result on Sunday. We couldn’t be prouder of them.
3) It’s surely no coincidence that so many of Southgate’s England squad are having such a big impact on society. It would be unfair on Marcus Rashford, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling to suggest they would not have done their great deeds under a different England regime, but there’s little doubt Southgate has opened these players’ eyes to the influence they can have on their communities.
And through encouraging such pursuits and speaking so openly and honestly about BLM, online abuse and mental health, he’s created an incredible atmosphere of trust and support within the England squad. That togetherness is half the battle – just ask France – and every England team I can remember heading into a major tournament, before 2018, arrived with guns and bullets but no medical provisions, meaning the battle was really over before it began.
Numerous members of the ‘Golden Generation’ have spoken about a lack of comradeship on England duty, with Premier League and Champions League hangovers a mental challenge rather than the physical one many of us are about to struggle with or are in the midst of right now. They were Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea players in England shirts, with club loyalty so ingrained it became impossible for them to function in harmony on international duty. They were pretending to get on.
And that ill-feeling between the players filtered down. Of course we all wanted England to win, but as a Chelsea fan, I had this uncomfortable preference for victory to be secured in spite of the likes of Steven Gerrard or Rio Ferdinand, not because of them. It was as though them playing well would be some slight on the Chelsea players. It was nonsensical and malicious for someone who wanted so desperately for England to win, but just as it was for the players, such unwavering fealty for club over country was hard to overcome.
But now the likes of Luke Shaw, Jordan Henderson and Mason Mount are England players who happen to play for United, Liverpool and Chelsea. Harry Kane said this week that “winning a trophy with England would always surpass anything at club level”, speaking for his England teammates but also for England fans (or this one at least) whose loyalty is now split firmly in favour of the Three Lions. That’s a wonderful feeling.
4) England came out on the charge. Buoyed by the clamour of over 60,000 fans in Wembley, England teams of old would have cowered. But the first moment of note was Raheem Sterling jinking his way past a couple of challenges and winning a free-kick, and the next 15 minutes saw England in control.
The roar from the crowd at any slight win – a free-kick, a corner, a forward pass – was incredible; the players weren’t just up for it but looked as though they were playing in familiar circumstances. This was just the next challenge for them to take in their stride.
Mason Mount was finding space wherever he could – as is his wont – and as the Denmark back three came out to meet him, England got joy in the spaces they left. Bukayo Saka was doing his “slippery eel” and Sterling – who we will lavish with praise later – was scaring the bejesus out of the Danish defence.
But there were no clear-cut chances of note and what followed was uncomfortable.
5) We’ll come on to the brilliant finish itself in a second, but that was a nonsense free-kick. It was as though the referee thought Denmark’s clever little edge-of-the-box bunching from the preceding dead-ball – which came to nothing – deserved better.
Luke Shaw was adjudged to have brought Andreas Christensen down in what proved to be the perfect place for Mikkel Damsgaard. If that had been given as a penalty, the uproar would have been immediate and impassioned. As it was a free-kick, the anger was more reserved, until the resulting free-kick went in and Harry Maguire delivered a retroactive outcry: “That was never a f***ing free-kick.”
Struck by Damsgaard with his instep, a la Didier Drogba, the ball went up, over the wall and down in an instant. He essentially curled it vertically – it was beautiful and it was not Jordan Pickford’s fault.
6) But it was Pickford’s distribution that encapsulated the sloppiness of England in that 15-minute spell before and just after Denmark took the lead.
The Denmark front three pressed very high and rather than admitting short pass defeat and kicking the ball long, Pickford attempted to find players under pressure and, as a result, kept that pressure on his backline rather than relieving it with one or two of his hefty boots downfield.
That Danish front three were excellent though. In their pressing but also their quality on the ball. Damsgaard and Kasper Dolberg buzzed around, won fouls and were a general nuisance, and Martin Braithwaite – the old hand of the trio – held the ball up expertly at times.
It was undoubtedly the England defence’s toughest test in this tournament and if Kasper Hjulmand had this game back he may well have retained both Damsgaard and Dohlberg for longer than 67 minutes.
7) Soon after that Denmark goal, Kane settled England down brilliantly. Dropping away from ‘where he should be’ in the box to where he’s been so outstanding for Tottenham this season, he dictated play to turn the game back in England’s favour.
First he turned smartly to win a foul on the edge of the box to win his side a free-kick, then he spun in behind to set up Raheem Sterling for the chance he hit straight at Schmeichel, before his stunning through ball set up England’s equaliser.
Many England players could have made that pass, but the benefit of Kane in that position is having one forward feeding another: he knows what he would want the assist-maker to do. The difference between him and the vast majority of top strikers in world football is the ability to play that pass, perfectly weighted through the defence and into the path of Bukayo Saka. Any world class No.10 would have been proud of it.
And Kane was really very good throughout. As well as his excellent linking and hold-up play, he won four fouls in a fashion that suggests he is back to the very top of his game. We needed the best of Kane to win Euro 2020 and we’ve got him.
8) Sterling didn’t score, it was a Simon Kjaer own goal, but he was there, as he was for the chance he should have scored, as he was all bloody night. He was outstanding, again.
Denmark were petrified of him. He squeezed through tiny gaps between defenders with the ball at his feet, we lost count of the number of times it looked as though he was going to lose the ball but didn’t and he consistently beat stricken defenders with pace, skill and strength.
Goals breed confidence and Sterling is undoubtedly a confidence player. Runs off the ball are the Sterling staple – he’ll make them whether he’s in form or not – but you can gauge his confidence through his dribbling and that has genuinely never been better than it was on Wednesday night.
He completed ten of them. Only four players have completed more in the entire tournament. Mason Mount was the next highest in this game with two. He was immense.
9) The penalty was firmly in the ‘could have gone either way’ category. It wasn’t overturned and wouldn’t have been had it not been given; the reverse of the one Kane didn’t get in normal time.
But it was absolutely deserved. England were on top for all but that short jittery spell in the first half, were composed when they needed to be and created plenty of chances. Doubts that the goal wouldn’t arrive came through 55 years of hurt, not through anything we’ve seen from this England team. They’re patiently threatening and it’s working brilliantly.
10) What Denmark have done at Euro 2020 is extraordinary. They were too outside even to be considered outsiders by most before the tournament started. They watched their friend and star player collapse and technically die on the pitch, lost that game and the next one, but managed to catch the crest of the wave of national pride that horror moment produced.
They just ran out of steam. They looked spent after about an hour and were playing for penalties from that point. England had a complete stranglehold on the game and didn’t look troubled. Pickford – a few further dodgy kicks besides – had nothing to do.
Hjulmand turned to his bench but any difference was for the worse. Southgate meanwhile, turned to Jack Grealish, briefly, Phil Foden and Henderson to win England the game. The strength in depth really is astounding and every Southgate move, even the one to remove Grealish for Trippier in extra-time, was justified by the result and the relative ease of those last few minutes.
11) Denmark were England and England were Croatia for that last hour or so: it was very similar to the semi-final in 2018.
While Croatia passed England to death in the Luzhniki Stadium, England did the same to Denmark at Wembley. Difficult though it was to admit defeat in 2018, Croatia were by far the better team, and Denmark will concede the same fact to England.
The five minutes at the end of extra-time was bizarre. Where was the camping on the edge of our own box? Or the waving of arms to get out without ever actually getting out? ‘Oles’ when you’re 4-0 up, as England were against Ukraine, are to be expected. But when you’re 2-1 up in extra-time of a semi-final? It was a serenity the likes of which we have never known from England and we’ll be churning that feeling and spreading it on our toast for breakfast.
12) Schmeichel kept Denmark in the game before he arguably cost them. He produced a truly stunning save to deny a towering Maguire header from a free-kick to force England heads into hands.
This joker questioned whether it had “ever been home” and looked as though he was the one man who could stop its seemingly inexorable path to its new digs.
But he made an error for the penalty: he saved it, but saved it badly. It was the worst penalty Kane has struck in about four years and Schmeichel should either have brought it into his body – which would have been tricky – or pushed it further away from goal. As it was, it fell back to Kane who no-looked it back past him. Schmeichel will relive that moment as much as the rest of us.
13) The England defence was extraordinary once again. They conceded their first goal of the tournament through a moment of genius and limited a team who topped the Euro 2020 charts for shots per game with 17 beforehand to just six on the night.
Any balls into the box were cleared without any hassle, their positioning was generally brilliant and when it wasn’t, Kyle Walker ran to sweep up from where he had previously been running. The guy doesn’t stop.
14) Maguire was so, so good. No disrespect to Tyrone Mings, who filled in admirably, but Maguire’s on a different level; England would not be in the final without him.
He won nine aerial duels – six more than any other player – with four of them in the opposition box. He brought the ball out of defence, pushing his team forward when necessary and passed forward with authority. But it was the tackle on halfway that sparked the great guttural roar from the masses. Man and ball? Yes please, Harry.
15) We’re used to glorious failure, but this glorious distraction could very well turn into actual glory.
Italy are a very good side, but they’ve been one of the two best sides in this tournament and the other is England. Neither has got to the final by fluke. They’re both incredibly well-managed teams with excellent footballers.
And it’s a lovely feeling to imagine people of other nations tuning in and expecting an exciting denouement to what has been a very entertaining summer. It’s normally us nervelessly watching and enjoying, but that won’t be the case on Sunday.
The country will be together as one, or at least pretending to be – drinking from 7am, burning burgers under umbrellas from midday, counting time until kick-off, hoping we can turn that self-deprecating past participle into the infinitive at full-time.
16) It’s not come home yet, but it’s coming.