In some of Gareth Southgate’s very rare idle moments before games, he’s found himself looking at the photos on the Wembley dressing room walls, and realised some things were missing. Few of the pictures are from tournaments. Even fewer are from the new Wembley.
“The history of the stadium relies on those iconic moments,” Southgate said. “David Beckham’s free-kick against Greece is there, and that was a qualifier.
“There’s the World Cup final, big boxing events, but there have been perhaps less of those headline events at the new Wembley. Whereas this tournament, of course, is now one of those moments.”
This match against Denmark could surpass anything seen in England for the past 55 years. It is something that shouldn’t be overlooked, even as everyone inevitably looks to Sunday.
While England now have grander aims than a semi-final – and Southgate said there will now be “disappointment” if this is where it ends – there is still the stark fact that this is the country’s biggest match for 25 years.
All of that alludes to the reality that it has also been England’s biggest barrier over that time.
Semi-finals themselves have been so hard to come by that they have been almost impossible to win.
Even those pictures Southgate spoke of are a reminder of that, too. They show so many players and teams that couldn’t get as far as this squad. Many of them have looked to get in touch with Southgate this week, including Glenn Hoddle.
“We are in a privileged position and it has been great to get so many messages from former players and former managers,” Southgate said. “You are part of a family and a line of people who have a very special experience.”
The last in that line was of course 2018 – with Croatia following on from Yugoslavia 1968, West Germany 1990 and Germany 1996. It could have gone a very different way had Harry Kane squared for Raheem Sterling rather than taking a shot at 1-0, and the striker reflected on this on the eve of the game. You can guess his feelings. No regrets.
“As always with an England team, when things don’t go your way there always has to be a reason why or a moment you look back on,” Kane said. “In that moment, I took the decision to shoot and I thought that was the best decision at the time. When you are in the moment, it happens so quickly.
“I still think I’m an improved player from 2018 in terms of my all-round play but I will always make the best decision for the team. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s just the way football works. Hopefully I get a few chances on Wednesday and will be able to put one way.”
That is something that is very different about this particular semi-final. No England team has ever had the chance to immediately put it right in the next tournament.
Southgate has already made great play out of the fact they are the first since 1968 to reach successive semi-finals.
Whereas that was a group of world champions coming down off a peak, this is one that everyone feels is on the rise.
“We are better for the experiences we’ve been through,” Southgate said. “We don’t have a hoodoo.”
They just have experience of the stage.
“I think three years ago the semi-final was new for all of us, basically,” Kane said. “To be at that stage of the competition and the level of excitement and emotion was a bit different.”
It is why everyone insists there are “no nerves” in the camp.
“It’s more that I can’t wait to get going,” Kieran Trippier explained. “I’ve played in a lot of big games now, so when I come into semi-finals, it’s just excitement.
“You are seeing the place, you are seeing the whole nation. Everyone is buzzing and it’s just good to see smiles on everyone’s faces.”
It’s impossible not to see what is happening around the team. For all the calculation of Southgate’s approach, it has inspired a wave of emotion. England may not end up winning this tournament, but they have that precious and jubilant feeling that runs through a country when their team goes deep into an international tournament. The players become the most famous and feted people in the country for that month. The games become events. There is belief everywhere. It is akin to Italy 1990, France 1998, Korea 2002.
“From our point of view, we try to use that energy to our advantage, especially being at Wembley,” Kane said. “It helped us against Germany. Being at home, it’s a chance to really feed off that energy with the crowd and it’s a great opportunity for us.”
The only issue is that Denmark see it as an even bigger opportunity for them, and are on an even greater emotional wave.
If England are evoking something close to the spirit of 1966, Denmark are evoking the spirit of 1992. And they have actually won this tournament, let alone just played in a final. Kasper Schmeichel made a caustic comment about his father’s achievement when asked in the pre-game press conference. Denmark have a belief all of their own. They feel they can do something impossible again. There are so many parallels. The mood is very much that they are playing for Christian Eriksen, and playing for the country. Manager Kasper Hjulmand is wearing a bracelet for Eriksen. The players are wearing the label of the tournament’s most loved team so well.
It would be a mistake to think this is a mere wave of emotion, though. The dreams are backed up by the reality of results. England couldn’t score against them in the Autumn Nations League games, and Denmark beat them at Wembley. Southgate admitted that was a period he didn’t enjoy, and when he felt the greatest pressure and criticism in the job since Russia.
It's not like Denmark have just gamed their way through the tournament either. The 4-0 victory over Wales was the clearest sign of a team soaring, and playing some sensational football.
For all the talk that England have a forgiving path to the final and haven’t yet been tested, there is the possibility that Denmark are exactly the wrong opposition at the wrong time.
“It’s not a case of, all of a sudden, they have become a great team because of the Eriksen situation,” Kane said. “They were a great team anyway. It maybe gave them a bit more motivation and belief.”
They also have a canniness, fostered by Hjulmand.
“We knew the level of the team, we know the level of the individuals,” Southgate said. “We’ve got an understanding of the coach, his tactical awareness, and I’ve always had a high regard for Danish football.”
It is possible that, for all the talk of emotional waves, this might be the most tactical England game so far. Southgate’s starting XI may never be as important as it is for this game. But that is the other thing about the tournament.
It started with a lot of doubt and debate over whether Southgate even knew his best XI, but has gone into its final week with the manager completely confident – and vindicated – in his “horses for courses” approach. The word from the camp is that there will be changes again for Denmark, but only with Bukayo Saka coming in for Jadon Sancho. It will otherwise be the same team, and the same back four.
That usually suggests Southgate is more willing to attack – and that there is more confidence. That would fit with everything so far, and the way this team has grown into the tournament with so little drama.
“Bless them, the young players think it’s like this all the time with England,” Southgate laughed. “They’ve not had to live through what we’ve all lived through.”
He can point to so many pictures for that. The team can point to a new way – and to a new stage.
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