Gareth Southgate will know this was a chance lost, a potent opportunity to write the sort of history we all crave

Credit: Tristan Potter/SWNS

Well now we know, Football’s Coming Rome. The game’s return to the place it was born has been further delayed by at least 18 months, when the World Cup will take place in Qatar. The hurt goes on. England have been defeated. 

Dignified as ever, the team manager Gareth Southgate spoke afterwards of progress and development, of how England have become a proper side, of his pride in their achievement. And he is right. This team deserves the utmost credit. They were exemplary from start to finish, role models in victory and defeat. 

But Southgate will know this was a chance lost, a potent opportunity to write the sort of history we all crave. All day, chants of “Football’s Coming Home” had rung across the country. We hoped these guys were the ones to consign that lament of all those oh-so-nears to the past. This team was different. This was a side of honest workers, bereft of ego, a bunch determined collectively to deliver. These were guys we could all believe in. 

Gareth Southgate applauds the fans after Italy's win

Credit: Carl Recine
/Pool Reuters

The problem was, they were facing an Italian side of some pedigree. Corralled by their manager Roberto Mancini, required by the rain to cover his dapper attire in a waterproof coat, they are a collective of guile and grit, of skill and athleticism. One, furthermore, imbued with an extraordinary spirit, which was given vivid demonstration by the way their captain, Giorgio Chiellini, belted out his national anthem just ahead of kick off. Italy deserved their victory, earned in the face of an almost relentless English effort. 

After the penalties were over, the Italian fans began singing in a manner you suspect will go on long into the night. They had entered the stadium early, their section of Wembley filling up long before the home fans took up their position. The England supporters were apparently otherwise engaged, gathering outside for hours, having the party of their lives. Down Wembley Way, things had been brewing all day. Thousands were there, many without tickets, just to be close to the action. Four hours before kick off, the streets around the stadium were rammed with song and colour. And alcohol. There were many in attendance who would be marking history by becoming so drunk that by the end of this they would have been barely able to recall where they lived, never mind absorb any of the detail.

But there was so much detail to absorb. The girl in the hijab and England shirt dancing to one of the many improvised singalongs of “Southgate Is The One”; the young chap in the cross of St George sunglasses sharing a selfie with an elderly gentleman dressed in full town crier’s uniform; the group of Asian lads banging a bhangra drum decorated in the home flag as they sang “Don’t Take Me Home”. This really is the England team everyone has bought into. And what they have delivered has been a unifying moment on a scale rarely before experienced. 

Politics, tribal loyalties, class, race, even opinions about whether we should all carry on wearing masks in public places, all differences have been put aside as we agree on this fundamental: this England team is worth the emotional investment. 

What was happening outside Wembley was a reflection of what was going on everywhere, from Land’s End to Lancaster, from Dover to Devizes. Never before have so many gathered in such numbers to support their country’s football side. Not least the hundreds of ticketless supporters who bundled their way into the stadium about half an hour before it all began. Without a policeman in sight, they overwhelmed the stewards, quickly finding places to watch, spilling into spaces, from the disabled section to the press box. Scraps broke out when those with tickets discovered interlopers in their seats. It threatened to be mayhem. Except in the end excitement trumpeted anarchy. And the place settled back into its boiling brouhaha.

Just before kick off a huge silver foil replica of the European Championship trophy that was up for grabs was wheeled out into the centre circle, its arrival sound-tracked by – what else – Sweet Caroline. Then some energetic dancers shook two huge replica shirts in the colours of England and Italy. They were politely applauded, but that was not what the thousands had come to see. 

The roar when the two teams came out rattled the ribcage; the noise as the anthems rang round the stadium was off the scale. Though, frankly, it was nothing compared to the seismic bellow that erupted when Luke Shaw hammered home a volley within two minutes of the kick off. Jets flying overhead on their way to Heathrow would have been entitled to complain about the noise. To the left of the press box, a flare was lit, the home fans bounced in sudden joy, insisting that football was indeed coming home. Southgate, meanwhile, the epitome of understatement, merely pumped a fist in quiet satisfaction. He was aware there was a long, long way to go. 

And there was. It was tense. Of course it was tense. Nobody reaches a final expecting a walkover. Even more so, given this was Europe’s form side England were up against. The Italians have been unbeaten for so long at least half a dozen governments have been formed in Rome since they last tasted defeat. 

But against such elevated opponents, England did not show any hint of deprecation. They were controlled, organised, and mature. After taking the lead early in the semi final of the World Cup in 2018 they had looked increasingly agitated, as if certain it was all going to come to a sticky end. Which it duly did. Here, they remained apparently confident, in themselves, their teammates and their tactics. And the crowd drew comfort from their confidence. When they kept possession, passing the ball to one another beyond the lunges of their blue-shirted opponents, huge oles rang out from the home sections. Great mocking roars echoed when Italian shots were missed. Even when the Italians broke through, the goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was there to stand firm.

But we knew it couldn’t last. The Italians scrambled home an equaliser through their grizzled defender Leonardo Bonucci. And suddenly the dynamic changed, the tensions mounted, fear began to grip the home crowd. 

England players comfort teammate Bukayo Saka after he failed to score a penalty

Credit: Carl Recine
/Pool Reuters

So often before we have been disappointed. That’s what England’s favourite football anthem is all about, a lament for our apparent habit of embracing missed opportunity. Was this to be another notch on the bedpost of misery? As extra time came in the stands tension grew. Fingernails were chewed to the quick. There was nothing to do but hope. And chant Jack Grealish’s name, hoping the nation’s superman might be called into action. When he arrived, it was as if the entire home crowd had been given a relief jab. 

“I’m England till I die” came the chant from the home fans. Even as the minutes drifted towards penalties, hope remained intact. But you know what hope does: it kills you. That and the penalties.