England, a team of comebacks, late winners and finals. These are extraordinary times


The scenes at the end will live long in the memory: Ollie Watkins disappearing under a scrum of jubilant team-mates, John Stones falling to his knees with his arms aloft, Jordan Pickford punching the air again and again, Gareth Southgate abandoning his usual reserve and letting out a triumphant roar, celebrating with England’s delirious supporters.

These are extraordinary times for what was memorably described by Time magazine not so long ago as the “world’s most disappointing team”. Suddenly England are synonymous with dramatic comebacks, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, riding their luck, riding waves, winning penalty shootouts, reaching semi-finals, reaching finals.

England, whose only major trophy came when they won the World Cup on home soil in 1966, had never previously reached a European Championship final. Southgate — the much-maligned, much-derided Southgate — has led them to two in succession. This one, against Spain in Berlin on Sunday, will be their first major final beyond England’s shores.

They fell just short against Italy three years ago, beaten on penalties at Wembley, and on Sunday they will face the outstanding team of Euro 2024. But after a night like this, with a dramatic victory secured by substitute Watkins with 89 minutes and 59 seconds showing on the stadium clock in Dortmund, England’s players might feel as if destiny is on their side.

Or, as a Chinese journalist phrased it in a question to Southgate during his post-match news conference, “Why do miracles always happen with this team? Why do subs always become supersubs?”

What a change in narrative, not just from England’s inglorious pre-Southgate history but from that grim 0-0 draw with Slovenia in Cologne a fortnight ago when the manager went to applaud the fans and was shocked to be greeted with jeers and a hail of plastic cups.

They flirted with disaster against Slovakia, 1-0 down deep into stoppage time until Jude Bellingham’s spectacular equaliser. They were unconvincing against Switzerland but prevailed in a penalty shootout, another mental block that has been overcome under Southgate’s management.

They fell behind again just seven minutes into Wednesday’s semi-final against the Netherlands and seemed to have run out of ideas and energy in the second half. But again they dug deep and again Southgate came up trumps with his substitutions, this time by sending on Watkins in place of a flagging Harry Kane.

It takes courage to take off your captain and all-time leading goalscorer when you need a goal. It is something Portugal coach Roberto Martinez was notably unwilling to do with a 39-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, as if imagining it would be iconoclastic to do so, but Southgate has been bold and decisive, replacing Kane in all three of England’s matches in the knockout stages in the belief the captain’s race was run and it was time for fresh legs.

It takes a lack of ego from the player, too, and a commitment to the greater good. Kane was the first off the bench and down the touchline to leap on Watkins at the final whistle. That illustrated the collective spirit that Southgate has always described as this team’s greatest strength. Likewise the celebrations between Pickford and his understudy Aaron Ramsdale and the delight on the face of players like Trent Alexander-Arnold, who would be forgiven for feeling glum at having to watch so much of the tournament from the bench.

England never used to be this kind of international team. In the past, there was the occasional World Cup or European Championship where things would appear to come together for a week or two before the inevitable penalty shootout defeat, but there was never a consistency of performance — or even a consistency of outlook — from one tournament to the next. Under Southgate, they have reached a World Cup semi-final, then a European Championship final, then a World Cup quarter-final and now another European Championship final.

“We’ve had some incredible nights over the last seven or eight years,” Southgate said afterwards. “We’re giving our supporters some of the best nights they’ve had in 50 years. The reason I took this job was to try to bring success to England. To be able to take England to a first final overseas, I’m immensely proud of that.”

He looked more than just proud. He looked overcome with joy, grateful to feel the love from players and supporters alike, in stark contrast to the scenes in Cologne. “We all want to be loved, right?“ he said. ”When you’re doing something for your country and you’re a proud Englishman and you don’t feel that back, and all you read is criticism, it’s hard. So to be able to give them nights like this… .”

Whatever happens in Berlin, if this is to be Southgate’s final week in the job, he will leave behind a highly-impressive body of work, even taking into account the usual caveats about the standard of opposition faced along the way. That England landed on the gentler side of the draw in Germany, as they did at the 2018 World Cup, is beyond doubt. But winning your group, avoiding the kind of mishaps and missteps taken by England teams in the past and by France and Italy at Euro 2024, will often give you that possibility.

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Ollie Watkins talked of not wanting to leave the pitch after the match (Matt McNulty – UEFA via Getty Images)

A final against Spain sounds like a far more serious test than England have faced so far — and they came perilously close to flunking some of those previous examinations. But a semi-final against the Netherlands represented a step up in quality and intensity. They fell behind to a spectacular early goal from Xavi Simons, but what followed, even before Kane equalised by converting a contentiously-awarded penalty, was their best spell of football of the tournament so far.

That is not a high bar by any means, but how refreshing it was to see 19-year-old Kobbie Mainoo setting the rhythm, 21-year-old Jude Bellingham driving forward and 22-year-old Bukayo Saka and 24-year-old Phil Foden flitting between the Dutch defensive lines, running at and tormenting their opponents. In different ways, the first-half performances of Mainoo and Foden were truly captivating.

Foden came close three times before the interval: first seeing a shot stopped on the line by Denzel Dumfries after a mesmerising dribble through a crowded penalty area, then grazing the outside of the post with a characteristic swerving shot from 25 yards, then testing Bart Verbruggen with a similar effort. That Bruce Springsteen-inspired “Phil Foden’s on fire” chant? For the first time at the tournament, it was true.

But the spark went out. England’s second-half performance was unrecognisable from what had gone before. Southgate spoke about the tactical challenges his opposite number Ronald Koeman had set him and his team. He called it a “very complicated game”, one in which England had nearly 60 per cent of the possession but looked susceptible to the counter-attack as the second half went on.

As against Switzerland, their attacking threat seemed to evaporate after half-time. A better team — and Spain are a better team than England have faced so far — would have made them pay. But with Stones, Kyle Walker, Marc Guehi and Declan Rice digging deep and typifying the “resilience and character” Southgate spoke about, they held on.

Again the substitutions proved pivotal. Cole Palmer has made an impact from the bench every time he has come on. Watkins had only been summoned once before last night, in the closing stages of the 1-1 draw with Denmark, but Southgate was right to think this particular game called for the Aston Villa forward’s speed and incisive runs.

Watkins felt it too, telling Palmer at half-time they were going to combine for the game’s winning goal. They did — and how, Palmer playing a ball behind the Dutch defence and Watkins turning sharply before crashing a low shot inside Verbruggen’s far post. Like a last-gasp winner from another Aston Villa player, David Platt, against Belgium at the 1990 World Cup, it will go down as one of the most memorable, most dramatic England goals.

Watkins said afterwards he was “lost for words”. But he articulated it well, the sense of incredulity at what he had just done. “Whenever you score, emotions come through your body,” he said. “But this was just a different feeling. I felt like I was in slow motion when I was running over to the boys. I didn’t want to come off the pitch at the end. I just wanted to soak it all in.”

So did England’s supporters, who stayed behind long after the final whistle, singing, “Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home”. Home isn’t calling yet — or if it is, there might have to be some amendments to flights, awkward calls to home and work and perhaps to the bank to extend an overdraft. Berlin is calling and there are more trains to be booked, more accommodation to be found, more tickets to be bought, more gallons of beer to be drunk and more memories to be made.

That will be how the Southgate years are remembered. The years of hubris, fecklessness and abject underachievement on the international stage have given way to an era of humility, focus, quiet consistency and loud, frenzied celebrations. Their performances in Germany have been far from consistent, but at all except the bleakest moments — and yes, 1-0 down to Slovakia in stoppage time was pretty bleak — there has been a sense, watching them, that if their collective spirit does not quite save the day, a moment of individual brilliance might.

For many years, that sense of hope was absent with England. Southgate and this generation of players have changed the record. The challenge now is to win on Sunday and change the national team’s history by landing that first trophy since 1966.

Can they beat Spain? “We’ll have to get the ball off them first,” Southgate said with a smile. And unlike two weeks ago, everyone laughed along. It had been that kind of night, after which anything seems possible for England. They will need to improve, but we keep saying that and they keep getting through. It’s all very un-English, really, isn’t it?

(Top photo: Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images)



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