Gareth Southgate celebrates reaching the final at Wembley
Gareth Southgate has declared he “couldn’t be prouder to be an Englishman” as he prepares to lead The Three Lions into their first major final in 55 years.
The England manager said the historic achievement has been made extra “special” because of what everyone has been through in the past 17 months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
With the excitement and sense of euphoria growing ahead of Sunday’s final of the European Championships against Italy Southgate and his players are increasingly aware of the unifying effect their campaign has had on the country.
“I guess for me it hasn’t really totally registered because I’m not reading those front pages and I’m not tuning into those bulletins,” Southgate, who has immersed himself ‘in camp’ for the past six weeks, said before adding: “But I’m noticing the journey to the stadium, the tooting of the horns, the flags on the cars, so I’m starting to get a feel of exactly what’s going on and I suppose in the back of my mind I know what’s going on but I’ve tried to put it to one side really and keep focused on what we’re doing.
“But to be able to hear Wembley like it was (in the dramatic 2-1 semi-final win over Denmark after extra-time on Wednesday night) and to know how that will have been around the country is, yes, it’s an honour.
“Because we’re a special country, we are historically an incredible country and I know I couldn’t be prouder to be an Englishman. I can’t be prouder to have the opportunity to lead my country so to bring happiness at this time where it’s been so difficult for this period is a very special feeling.”
Remarkably 27.6million viewers, the biggest audience since the 2012 Olympics, watched England’s dramatic semi-final win with 26million – half the population – tuning in for last Saturday’s quarter-final victory over Ukraine with the galvanising effect of the England team’s exploits being felt throughout the country amid extraordinary scenes of celebration.
“This group of players and group of staff, who have been fantastic to lead, have crossed every challenge that’s been put their way,” Southgate said. “So we’ll prepare properly for Sunday, we’ll get the players recovered in the best possible way and we’ll be ready to go.”
The England players took to the Basketball court the day after beating Denmark
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Southgate has always been fiercely patriotic and wrote a moving open letter before the tournament kicked off entitled “Dear England” in which he noted his grandfather – Arthur Toll – who had such a profound influence on him growing up was a “fierce patriot and a proud military man who had served during World War Two”.
Southgate added that “the idea of representing ‘Queen and country’ has always been important to me” but he also wrote: “On this island, we have a desire to protect our values and traditions – as we should – but that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspective and progress”.
Southgate has, for example, been steadfast in his support of the players for “taking the knee” ahead of games as a protest against racial injustice despite being booed by some of their own fans although that has now thankfully dissipated. Southgate firmly believes that a modern, successful England team can help in what has often felt like a fragmented country.
Neither has Southgate been afraid to show his own emotions as he did following the final whistle against Denmark which ended England’s “hoodoo” of four semi-final defeats in major tournaments since winning the World Cup in 1966 – their only previous appearance in a final. The 50-year-old has already become England’s most successful manager, having also reached last four in the 2018 World Cup, since Sir Alf Ramsey.
Gareth Southgate was in a cheery mood at training following England's historic win
“The crowd were incredible in giving us that energy throughout the game and, yes, it was a special moment for all of us,” Southgate said. “So I’m not embarrassed about losing my head a little bit in that moment. Once you step off the pitch you know you’re into the preparing for the next game and everything that goes with that so to be able to have that moment on the pitch with the fans is for me is always the most special part.”
England decided to return to their base at St George’s Park near Burton-on-Trent after Wednesday’s win, rather than stay in London, with the players spending the day recovering. They will travel back down to the capital on Saturday afternoon to prepare for Sunday’s final.
The 26-man squad is understood to have reported a clean bill of health despite the exertions so far in the tournament including extra-time against the Danes.
We are all England at the moment – and it feels special
By Luke Edwards
I wish I was there. At Wembley, amid the noise. Hearing it, watching it, living it. Taking it all in, hitting the save button and filing it in the magical memories folder in my mind.
For those at the home of English football on Wednesday night, what an incredible, remarkable, stunning event to be a spectator. They will never forget it. I’m jealous, but in the main, I’m just happy they were and we could watch it.
What fun. What glorious, life affirming, exhilarating, incredible fun. The joy, the unity, the feeling of belonging. The pride in this team, the players, Gareth Southgate… in this country.
We have spent so many years fighting with each other, bickering and arguing. Divided by Brexit, politics and culture wars. This England team taking the knee was a reminder of the latter, sparking division when there really should not have been.
But this football team took a knee for a few seconds, stood up for 120 minutes and marched into the final of the European Championships. Nobody should be booing them and nobody at Wembley was.
Those schisms, the cultural and political civil war has called a truce. Not now. Not at Wembley.
It was not there in the stadium and across the country, it is on pause. We are all England at the moment, in our hearts and our minds and it feels special. It is special.
A moment in time, when everything and everyone comes together. when history is not dwelled on, but made. These moments do not come around very often, but it is so often sport that provides them.
Perhaps, the only other thing that stirs patriotism and pulls people together, differences forgotten, like this is war, with the threat of invasion and that is a sad, sombre occasion, fuelled by fear, that brings loss of life, pain and suffering. This is the opposite. It is joyous, a cause for celebration.
It happened in 1966, in 1996, the London Olympics in 2012 and it is happening again now.
You can spend an entire lifetime and not experience anything like that. Those at Wembley may never do so again. But let’s hope – and pray if you want to – they do on Sunday against Italy, because England are good enough and we can win. We know that now.
Seeing the fans, delirious, overwhelmed, the explosion of noise. The songs, the chants, the bonding, the intoxicating atmosphere was beautiful to behold.
Harry Kane celebrates with the England fans at Wembley
Watching a multicultural team, black and white players wrapped in each other’s arms in triumph, working, sweating, running through invisible brick walls for each other, the badge on their shirts and the country as a whole, it does not get much better than that. England expected and England delivered.
After months of depressing lockdown, when we have all endured so much isolation from friends, loved ones and people in general, there were more than 60,000 lucky souls there to witness and enjoy it.
They used to say, the conservative estimate of the attendance at Wembley for the World Cup final win over Germany 55 years ago was around five million, given how many of that generation claimed they were in the stadium in the years that followed.
That old joke always tickled me, but it captures something too. In a way, we were all there at Wembley, those that were, just had better seats.
So, I wish I had been there on Wednesday night and I really, really wish I could be there on Sunday too.
Instead I was here. In my house, on my sofa, shouting and screaming at the television. Leaving the house to walk down the road when Harry Kane took his penalty (just as I had done when England beat Colombia on penalties three years ago), running back in when I heard the cheers roaring out of open windows and patio doors when he scored the winner.
I will be here again on Sunday, at home, with my family and maybe some friends. With my son, who at six years old thinks this is all normal, an England team winning a semi-final, just as he thought lockdown was, because he knew no better.
But part of us will still be at Wembley, in spirit and mind, if not body. So those who are going, remember us, shout for us, sing for us. If things get tough for our boys, encourage, motivate and defy the opposition. Let them know we are with them too. Bring it home.