‘Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.’ Andy Dufresne said that in the quotable Shawshank Redemption and England have most certainly been hoping and waiting. 55 years of pain, of ignominy, of hurt, of hope and they’ve finally reached the promised land’s gates.
The gates. Not waiting for it to open, not waiting to enjoy their deserved time inside or even looking for a sneaky way through.
But 55 years to reach the gates of the promised land and for them, in this particular case, it’s the Euro 2020 final in possibly the easiest way. Yet, there has never been anything absolutely easy for England with them suffering the ignominy of humiliation time after time after time after time and it just goes on. It’s been the easy way out for decades and every time they’ve had it, England have leapt on the chance to take the fastest route out of a tournament.
They did it at the 2014 World Cup – finishing dead last in a group with Costa Rica, Italy and Uruguay, then at the 2010 World Cup – a round of 16 loss to Germany, then at Euro 2008 and the 1994 World Cup – where they failed to qualify. The list doesn’t end there with so many more humiliating losses including back-to-back group stage exits at Euro 88 and Euro 92, losing to Iceland at Euro 2016 and a group stage exit at the 1950 World Cup.
That last one included a loss to the USA and it perfectly encapsulates England. A team filled with some of their best players from the country that football apparently calls home and yet they couldn’t beat America, a country that was once a colony under England's rule. But then again, that's the Three Lions and a quick glance of their historic performances at a major international tournament tells you everything. It's definitely not a cure for nervousness that many English fans may need right now but for the neutrals, it’s a fun read.
It’s exactly why you could understand why the English are so nervous going into their final and yet, England have so much of themselves based on nostalgia. Their entire pre-tournament preparations for Euro 2020 was not warm-up games or pre-tournament camps but waves of nostalgia. Or at least that’s how it felt especially as “3 Lions” made it's way back to the fray even before the tournament kicked off. It didn’t turn up until the English were deep into the 2018 World Cup and it shows the difference.
England have been riding a wave of nostalgia and as Kasper Schmeichel rightly asked "Has it ever been home?" It hasn’t with this the first European Championship finals’ final that they have ever reached in their glorious history but that's beside the fact. Because “3 Lions” is based more around their 1966 World Cup triumph although England’s performances on the international stage since hasn't really helped that air of nostalgia look good. More bang average with a hint of mediocrity and a pinch of it could have been better.
Yet walking into Sunday’s final there has been, more or less, nothing but hope emanating from their camp. Hope, joy and an eerie sense of calm at the fact that they’re actually in a final seem to be the way forward with only a handful of fans and critics shocked that England have actually made it. It bears a remarkable resemblance to the 1966 team even if the similarities begin and end at the fact that they’ve both reached finals.
But in doing so both sides showed a measure of coherence and a plan that no English side in between has even come close to showcasing. It’s why there’s so much hope because this is far better than anyone expected. Don’t get it wrong, losing at this stage for the English would be a brand-new kind of trauma that they’ve never experienced in their lifetimes and it will hurt as a few things have ever hurt in the past.
But underneath all that, all the pageantry, bluster, big screens and fan-parks filled with screaming fans, there’s a genuine sign of progress. A second major tournament final, and a first at the European Championship finals, is massive for the English. The FA will indubitably be very very proud and marketing tools will be built around this. A generation of fans will turn into players for the next generation but more than that; selections and everything else including them sticking with Gareth Southgate will have all been vindicated.
It’s why there’s so much hope, no semblance of any pressure and a rare sense of calm around England for once. And that is genuinely lovely to see because for once, a group of English players can walk into a final without the weight of the world on their shoulders, even if it may be there. And yet while Gareth Southgate, his coaching staff and his entire squad deserve all the plaudits they’ve gotten, this absolutely cannot be the end.
Because this is it.
As its go, this is it and there’s a good bloody chance that England doesn’t ever get close to getting this close to it ever again, or at least in the near future. The 2022 World Cup? Brazil seems to have sorted themselves out, France most definitely well, Spain have some semblance of what not to do and Italy, well Italy are perfect. Add Argentina, a random dark horse or two and a few other shocks and it all points to a tough tournament played in the blistering heat.
This means this is bloody it but as mentioned, Italy have been ruddy perfect and a team capable of world domination and thus this is as tough as it gets for England. The Azzurri already had their test in the form of both Belgium and Spain, beating one rather comfortably and the other with a rare shakiness but England haven’t been tested. Out of Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic, the Scots were the only ones capable of holding England to a draw.
That alone says everything with neither Germany nor Ukraine proving to be a big hurdle either although Denmark did give the English a fair fright. But tired legs, match fatigue and lack of big tournament experiences hurt them and yet, all three sides threatened England. Timo Werner and Thomas Muller had chances to put the game to bed, Roman Yaremchuk caused serious issues down the channel between Kyle Walker and John Stones while Mikkel Damsgaard, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Kasper Dolberg proved to be thorns in backsides.
As tests come for Gareth Southgate and England, a coherent Italy might be the hardest hurdle to overcome especially with it played at Wembley against arguably the most tactically astute coach at the tournament. Yet as this tournament has shown us, this is England not like England at all. They’ve shockingly shown a measure of control, maturity and confidence in times where no England side has ever managed to do so.
Tomorrow marks 54,280 days since England's first men's international. We have played in major tournament finals on two of them. I don't think that will truly hit me until the middle of next week, next month and next year.— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) July 10, 2021
Not one has ever managed that. They’ve managed stuck, shocked, jaw-droppingly bad, in-coherent plans, worse than Sunday league football tactics but never this. That has Gareth Southgate written all over it, around it and even under it and over the course of this tournament, the former Middlesbrough boss has convinced many. Not just because of his skill, tactical acumen and ability to lead arguably one of the greater groups of players without losing his hair or mind but because of his ruthlessness.
Who else would bring Jack Grealish on in the 69th minute only to bring him off 37 minutes later for a defender? Or absolutely refuse to give into fan clamour for Jadon Sancho, Jude Bellingham or even Grealish while sticking to his guns? Ruthless and gentlemanly all in one fell swoop; that’s Gareth Southgate and Roberto Mancini, with the similarities between the two bosses very eerie.
Both had major moments at the international stages – Mancini retiring at 29 and Southgate’s penalty miss against Germany – and thus are seeking redemption here in different forms. Both have built their teams on control and maturity but on opposite sides of the footballing spectrum. While Mancini has focused on making Italy more potent while letting his defensive generals do their job, Southgate has focused on making England compact and tough while letting a world-class offensive line do their job.
It’s the perfect narrative game but for England, this is so much more. For them, this is it. Their chance to end 55 years of hurt, to thwart another song, to stop their obsession with melancholy, decaying glory and failure and instead finally make something happen. The easy way to say it would be England need to simply stop contemplating, thinking or singing about winning and just win instead. But if it was that easy, it would already be home, wouldn’t it?