England made history on Wednesday night as they reached their first major final in 55 years thanks to – of all things – a penalty.
Harry Kane, the captain, scored the extra-time winner from the rebound after his spot-kick was saved to send the nation into ecstasy.
On the final whistle, 65,000 fans in Wembley and tens of millions watching on television erupted in an outpouring of collective hysteria, fuelled by millions of pints of beer – and sheer relief.
Gareth Southgate’s side achieved what no other England team had managed since 1966 in winning a semi-final. That they did so thanks to that penalty, having lost two previous semi-finals on penalty shootouts, made the victory all the sweeter.
Southgate said: "The most pleasing thing is that we have given our fans and our nation a fantastic night, and the journey carries on for another four days."
England will now return to Wembley Stadium on Sunday for a final against Italy that is likely to smash all television viewing records and lift the country’s spirits after 16 months of life with the Covid pandemic.
The victory was not straightforward, the game unbelievably tense. In the 13th minute of extra time, Raheem Sterling, England’s star of the tournament, was fouled and a penalty given. Kane’s kick was saved – but he followed up with a rebound that sent the country wild.
England had made history the hard way, coming back from 1-0 down to win 2-1.
Harry Kane (right) celebrates with Phil Foden after scoring the goal that put England into the final
Credit: Laurence Griffiths/Pool Getty
They had not conceded a goal in 450 minutes of tournament football but, in the 30th minute, Mikkel Damsgaard, 21 – the replacement for Christain Eriksen, Denmark’s talisman who had suffered a cardiac arrest in their opening game – scored a free-kick from 30 yards.
Eight minutes later, England drew level thanks to an own goal by Denmark’s captain Simon Kjaer, under pressure from Sterling, to bring Wembley to its feet.
Chances followed, mainly created by England – but the clock ticked down.
In a sign of a return to normality, the 65,000 supporters, almost all of them England fans, gave Kane and his team the boost that got them past their semi-final hoodoo, having lost their previous four.
Kane said: "For once it went our way today. When it’s your night, it’s your night. The first time in our history as a nation getting through to the European final, one of the proudest moments of my life for sure, but we haven’t won it yet – we have got more to go."
As Kane took the penalty, a fan shone a laser light into the face of the Denmark keeper, Kasper Schmeichel. The goalkeeper saved anyway – but Kane pounced on the rebound.
At the end of the game, Wembley broke out into a mass singalong of "Football’s Coming Home", as did every pub, bar and fan zone across the country. Southgate spoke of his pride in his players and the "incredible job" they had done in winning through.
England fans celebrate reaching the Euro 2020 final in pictures
Supporters will hope the song’s most haunting line, written in 1996, that says: "Thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming" can finally be consigned to the dustbin.
Only Italy now stand between England and a first major trophy in 55 years. It is the first time the national side has reached the final of the European Championships.
Paul Gascoigne, whose tears at the Italia 90 World Cup broke the nation’s hearts, cheered from the Royal Box, inexplicably with white plasters on his nose and forehead.
He was joined by the Duke of Cambridge, who is the president of the Football Association, Boris Johnson, wearing an England shirt, and his wife Carrie. Emma Raducanu, England’s new teenage tennis sensation, was there.
Gary Neville, the former England captain, praised Southgate and took a sideswipe at Mr Johnson, telling tens of millions of ITV viewers: "The standard of leaders in this country over the past couple of years has been poor – but looking at that man, he is everything a leader should be. Respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine. He is fantastic, Gareth Southgate."
Gareth Southgate celebrates as England's place in the final is confirmed
Credit: Frank Augstein/Pool/Getty Image
At the end of extra time, the players hugged and waved to the crowd, warned not to embrace family members because of the perils of Covid swamping the squad. Any physical embrace of loved ones will have to wait four more days.
As fans streamed out of Wembley, they could barely contain their emotions. There were tears, fans hoarse from singing and chanting the names of England’s young stars.
Sally Starkey, 47, a nurse who had travelled down to London from Grimsby, was "ecstatic", saying: "I think we’re going to beat Italy, we’re going to bring it home. This is our moment, this is our time."
Amy Haldsworth, 27, an operations director from Blackburn, said: "It’s unreal. It matters because we’ve never won the Euros before – the atmosphere is unbelievable, amazing. Because of the last 12 months of Covid, people are seeing this like a day out from jail – that’s how I see it."
In Trafalgar Square, a traditional hangout for celebrating fans, they sang, drunk on victory, at the specially set up fan zone.
Fans in Trafalgar Square celebrate England's victory
Credit: Henry Nicholls/Reuters
Cliff Ervin, a police officer, who at the age of 61 was one of the few spectators in the zone to have been alive when England won the World Cup, said: "It’s so good to be around to see us go through to the final after watching the 1966 World Cup on the telly as a little boy. We’ll do the final as well. I have absolutely no doubt now that we’ll win the Euros. Happy days."
Rebecca Pritchard, 25, a social media manager, said: "It honestly doesn’t feel real. We’ll just have a massive party now and get the drinks flowing."
Rohan Premnath, 31, an advertising sales executive, screamed with joy. "This is that feeling that you’ve been waiting for your whole life. I’ve not experienced it in my 31 years," he said. "At the moment, there isn’t anything better – but if we go one step further there will be."
Fans had invoked the spirit of ’66 and urged the class of ’21 to win it in celebration of the memories of two of England’s 1966 heroes, Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles, who died last year.
Only four players from Sir Alf Ramsey’s team have survived the intervening years. Sir Geoff Hurst, one of the four, tweeted: "Wow! We’re in the final. Brilliant game. Well done England. Fantastic."
Now a new generation of footballers – quite who won’t be known until Sunday – can be added to the illustrious list of England players who have made it to a major final.