Gareth Southgate and his England players savoured the moment. They had just achieved what no England side had done before and reached a European Championship final. After beating Denmark in extra-time, they were stood on the Wembley turf in front of the stand containing their friends and family and the celebrations were in full swing.
United, arm in arm – a fitting metaphor for their togetherness through this tournament – they joined in with the songs of their supporters, who remained inside the stadium long after the final whistle. It was a special moment and it had been a long time coming.
It’s 55 years since England’s last appearance in a final but before the game the electric atmosphere stirred memories of Euro 96. Frank Skinner and David Baddiel were on the big screen, Three Lions played through the speakers. It was like someone had rewound the clock.
But the class of 2021 (or should that be 2020?) have surpassed the achievement of that long-celebrated squad. They have written their names in the England record books. But there is one more step to take.
Italy will be their toughest test of the Euros so far. It is set up to be an epic contest between the two standout sides of the competition. Imagine the scenes if Southgate’s side win that one too!
The prospect of making that dream a reality is tantalisingly close for this side now. They have hurdled barriers which have repeatedly tripped up their predecessors. Can they, finally, bring football home?
“Southgate, you’re the one,” sang swathes of England fans, Atomic Kitten’s melody ringing around Wembley with guilt-free abandon.
He is the one who led England to a World Cup semi-final and now he is the one who has taken England to their first major final for 55 years.
“I’ve not heard this new Wembley like that ever. To be able to share that with everybody and share it with everybody at home is very special,” the England boss said, bursting inside but conveying familiar calm.
He is the one who has freed his players from the burdens that were never theirs to shoulder.
He is the one who has replaced disharmony and failure with assuredness and unity.
He is the one who has elevated this England team beyond a collection of footballers and into a potent symbol of a diverse England stronger together.
“He is everything a leader should be,” said Gary Neville as Southgate punched the night sky with both fists.
This tournament, to Baku and back so soon after a protracted Premier League season, always seemed like it would be a test of endurance. It is bearing the fruits of Southgate’s slow-burn but methodical methods.
Football is almost, finally, home, Southgate’s redemption story so nearly complete.
England’s manager, far more than just an eloquent mouthpiece, has been rewarded for his meticulous planning, for his prizing of the unit over the individual, for his clarity of thought and for the culture that he has reset after tears and turmoil.
He has been cautious but driven, steely in his determination not to pander to consensus, insistent that pragmatism – and defensive robustness – would prove king.
“We said we wanted to create memories for our nation, now we’ve got to finish the job.”
Southgate, you’re the one.
There is so much to like about this Denmark side.
As one outnumbered supporter stressed amid bedlam on Wembley Way in the endless hours leading up to kick-off: “We may not be the favourites here in England, but we are everyone else’s favourites.”
Their team rode on a wave of emotion since Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest on the opening weekend, and their journey gripped the entire continent. Whatever happens on Sunday, Denmark have claimed their status as the tournament’s surprise package.
Copenhagen erupted when Mikkel Damsgaard’s majestic free-kick put them in front but their elation lasted barely nine minutes. England made heavy work of this.
Kasper Schmeichel was magnificent. So too was Jannik Vestergaard, who won virtually everything in the air. Simon Kjaer cajoled his team-mates after his own goal, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg was putting out fires but was left furious with the Dutch officials as their fairytale story suffered a dark twist.
Joakim Maehle made minimal contact with Raheem Sterling but Dutch official Danny Makkelie immediately pointed to the spot, his decision standing up to further inspection from VAR Pol Van Boekel.
“It was a penalty which should not have been a penalty,” lamented Denmark head coach Kasper Hjulmand. “It is something which annoys me right now. We are very disappointed.
“One thing is to lose a game, it happens, but losing this way is disappointing because these guys have fought a lot. It feels bitter but we have to digest this before we can discuss these feelings. It’s a bitter way to leave the tournament.”
As England celebrated, the drained Danes consoled their 8,000 supporters in one corner of Wembley. Gareth Southgate’s men face a monumental final hurdle, but Denmark can be proud of their efforts despite the manner of their exit.
Drink it in… England are in a major tournament final for the first time since 1966 after their extra-time win over Denmark at Wembley in semi-final of Euro 2020.
Kate Burlaga is joined by Rob Dorsett, Pete Smith and Nick Wright to discuss an historic night, and whether this ‘new England’ side can go all the way against Italy on Sunday.
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