England fans celebrate outside Wembley Stadium after the team qualified for the Euro final
Credit: Zac Goodwin/PA Wire
What a result this was for Harry, England and Saint Gareth. Talk about redemption. Twenty-five years on from his moment of ignominy, when he missed a penalty as England fell at the last, here was Gareth Southgate standing on the same Wembley pitch watching on with the broadest of smiles as his players joined in an ecstatic singalong in celebration of reaching a major final for the first time in – whisper it – 55 years.
England’s manager had talked during this European championship of creating moments, of building history, of delivering a new narrative. His side did that all right. This was drama of the highest order.
The thing Southgate didn’t tell us, however, was that it was going to be quite so nerve-shredding. As I made my way into the stadium, a steward was handing out stress balls.
“You’ll need one of these,” she said.
She wasn’t wrong. By the end of this pulsating semi-final, mine was shredded. Indeed, until the moment in extra time when Harry Kane banged in his somewhat fortuitously awarded penalty on the rebound, across the nation there cannot have been a fingernail left intact.
And what a challenge Denmark gave not only the England team, but everyone watching. Taking a lead from their magnificent goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, constantly defying every known law of physics to keep the ball out of his net, they were collectively determined to ensure that if football was going anywhere, they were taking it back home to Copenhagen.
They weren’t the only ones gripped by a sense of occasion. All day the air round Wembley had been fizzing with possibility.
In the shopping malls that have bloomed around the stadium in the long years since England were last in a semi-final here, huge groups of enthusiasts gathered, giving throaty voice to the full repertoire of England songs. The Danes were there in numbers too, adding to the vibrancy in their Viking helmets and perfect English.
For an hour before kick off, the stadium was a magnificent cauldron of partying. And as the verse of football’s new national anthem Sweet Caroline bellowed out, with its insistence on hands touching hands, it all became clear: never mind the football, for everyone there this was a celebration of the return of what we used to know as normality. We had spent 15 months watching the game played in empty stadiums with fake crowd noise. Now here was the real thing: loud, belligerent and gloriously tune-free.
Except, even as the crowd reached out to touch the return of what they knew before, there was something abnormal about the England side they were watching. They looked confident, determined, sorted. Not like an England team at all in fact. Nothing like the one that flunked against Iceland in the last Euros, only five years ago.
The trouble was Denmark were a team on a mission too. After almost losing their captain Christian Eriksen in the opening game, this was a side cresting a gathering wave of Viking emotion. And they aligned passion with skill, as the young playmaker Mikkel Damsgaard’s sumptuous free kick to open the scoring demonstrated.
As the ball hit the back of the net, as the Danish supporters erupted in joy, the doubts came flooding back: same old England, the gloomsters in the corner of every pub in the land grumbled. Was this to be another night of misery? Another in the long line of heroic failures? But then Raheem Sterling forced an equaliser, giving further demonstration of this England side’s resolve, and the roar of celebration was loud enough to be heard in Aarhus (and next door).
This was a proper match: England bold, creative, determined; Denmark smart, controlled, powerful. And as things progressed, as extra time saw them push forward with ever more insistence, what was obvious was this England are a step change from teams of the past. Here was the chance to watch a national side shorn of the long-forged expectations of crushed hopes and broken promise, an England team that speaks of possibility rather than assumption, of earned success rather than entitlement. One not cowed by the weight of the shirt, but one ready to seize the moment.
That all stems from the man at the top. Southgate is a superb leader, one who understands intuitively how to motivate. He does it not by shouting, but by developing a sense of unity into which all his players invest. These are young men who work hard because they trust him, value his input, have faith in his methods. The social media experts who berated his choices when the tournament began have been proven wrong at every stage. This is a manager who knows what he is doing. As a result his players gave us all a night to savour, a night of delight, a night, if the celebrations erupting around the stadium were any indication, that was going to carry on for some time.
Now all they have to do is do it all over again on Sunday. As Southgate has long insisted: they have won nothing yet.