It is the early autumn of 2016. Several middle-aged men are sitting around a table in a dimly lit dining room at a Mayfair hotel, when one brings up third-party ownership regulations in football and how one might go about circumventing them, if one was so inclined. There’s a pause as the person at the table tasked with tackling this subject deliberates over his answer, and indeed whether he should answer at all. But just as he’s about to, a member of the waiting staff sidles up, breaks the flow of conversation and asks: “Another pint of wine, Mr Allardyce?”
That’s how close we came, everyone. That’s how close we were to not having this. No “Sweet Caroline”. No inflatable unicorns. No old Jordan Pickford tweets. No endless debates over the ironic intent behind “it’s coming home” that make you want to walk into the sea until the salt water fills your lungs. No beer soaking you through to your underwear in Boxpark. No grazing your knees in the beer garden. No falling through the roof of the bus stop. No moment of silent terror when Harry Kane’s penalty was initially saved by Kasper Schmeichel. No eruption of joy, relief and pure release pounding through your chest when he scored on the rebound.
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There would be none of that, none of it all. It’s true what they say. Football at this level really is about fine margins.
You are going to hear a lot about just that over the coming days. You’ll read about all the small, incremental gains which sum up to a long, deliberate process that has inevitably delivered this logical end point. The Elite Player Performance Plan. England DNA. The infantry regiment of data analysts, sports scientists, performance nutritionists and pillow plumpers that have played their part. A bloke who’s not around anymore called Dan Ashworth. It’s true, by the way. All of that has made a difference. There is still that pint of wine, though.
England have reached their first-ever European Championship final by mistake. What a mistake, though, when the Football Association tripped, fell and landed on Gareth Southgate, already the most honourable, upstanding and fundamentally decent human being in the country before today, but now the first England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey to reach a major tournament final, 55 years ago. The right man at the right time for all the wrong reasons, achieving his finest hour yet on a quite spectacular occasion.
The first thing that struck you about Wembley was the contrast between the two crowds. These are crude generalisations but on the left of the press box’s vantage point were beered-up hordes, swaying to Atomic Kitten like a stag do dragged out of a working men’s club and wildly off course. Compare that to Denmark’s end and the high-pitched thrill that rippled out from it on every counter-attack. A younger, more feminine, maybe even more fun to be a part of for the unassuming neutral.
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Except there were no neutrals here. There could not be. And as the minutes ticked by, every corner of Wembley was reduced into one anxious, homogenous mass of bodies walking the tightrope between a dream and a nightmare. This was an evening where the tension wrapped your stomach up like a Curly Wurly and shrunk it to a similarly diminished size. Some players struggled. Jordan Pickford is often spotted bawling at those in front of him for making him do the slightest bit of work. His erratic evening gave those team-mates plenty of opportunities to do the same.
And after an auspicious start for England, it became apparent that there is nothing rotten about the state of Denmark. Despite Germany’s pedigree and the recent history with Croatia, this always felt like it would be the toughest test yet for Southgate and his players. Forget the Christian Eriksen narrative, for a moment. Even without the most gifted Danish player of a generation, Kasper Hjulmand’s expertly-coached players have performed like one of the four best teams in the tournament.
Their pressing was especially problematic. The period leading up to the goal was typical of what you might expect from England’s past. Harried, rushed and ultimately hushed by smarter, more dynamic opponents. Mikkel Damsgaard’s free-kick may have been a howitzer, struck at some 30 yards, but it still felt inevitable, and crushingly familiar. Long, sustained spells of pressure against England always count for something. This was simply more of the same.
What was different, though? The psychology more than anything else. The biggest question mark hanging over England coming into this game after five consecutive clean sheets was how they would respond if they went behind. The answer was emphatic, and everything that we should have come to expect from a set-up that has worked endlessly on dealing with the bad moments. It’s better not to have any bad moments in first place, of course, but that is the utopian fallacy that Southgate’s predecessors have attempted to achieve.
Instead, Southgate is a realist. A pragmatist. He and his players accept there will be those moments. There will be defects. There will be imperfections. There will be suffering. It is about the response. This was not like the Luzhniki three years ago. When the momentum was wrestled from England, they wrestled it back. The period between Damsgaard’s goal and half time was their best, most coherent spell of the game. It was only broken by the half time whistle.
England pressed on and should really have put Denmark away, if only to spare us all the 30 minutes of extra time will have taken considerably more off our life expectancies. Southgate’s attempts to change things from the substitute’s bench were late and largely ineffective, but once salvation arrived in the form of that soft penalty, the dreadful initial attempt and Kasper Schmeichel’s only error of the evening, he was smart. He knew how to see the game out.
Jack Grealish, introduced midway through the second half, was replaced by Kieran Trippier. Wembley’s darling, a subbed substitute. The greatest indignity. Yet it should not be taken as a reflection on Grealish’s performance, but one of Southgate’s. It was the substitution no previous England probably would have made, one not contained in the playbook which has served us so well over the years, but it was the one which saw out those last, long minutes and secured the national team’s greatest achievement in more than half a century.
If things had gone differently in that Mayfair hotel five years ago, it would not have happened. None of this would. No clambering up lampposts. No going into work in the morning and realising everyone’s still drunk. No embracing your loved ones, even if you’re perhaps not supposed to. No sense of dread, fear but faint hope between now and Sunday. This all could have been very different. It is all an accident. But whatever comes next, what a happy, beautiful accident it is.
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