Perhaps understandably, some English observers are growing tired of the reaction from some quarters each time England do all they can do and overcome the opposition set out in front of them.
One headline yesterday asked: “Why is everyone ‘useless’ after England beat them?’ There has been more than one article in the London-based press this week dealing with this ‘yes, but’ response to England victories, specifically during this tournament, but also, one imagines, with the World Cup in Russia in mind as well. The same applied then as England progressed to the last four on the back of a string of far from stirring results over mediocre opposition.
This summer has been admittedly more impressive – England have not yet lost for one thing, whereas in 2018 they were beaten by Belgium in a group game. Gareth Southgate’s side are also still to concede a goal, including against Germany, their old, if declining, foes. Meanwhile, a 4-0 quarter-final pasting of a tired Ukraine was clinical in the extreme but, well, there’s that but again...
England have still not beaten a team from the top ten of the FIFA rankings in their last two major finals. Except for Belgium, they have not even played one (Germany are currently 12).
That changes this evening at Wembley. Sound the trumpets, scatter flower petals at their feet: Kasper Hjulmand’s Denmark are the first side England have faced at the knockout stage of the last two major tournaments who feature in the top ten. Sitting in actual tenth place, they are hardly the elite of the elite, but they are, by anyone’s estimation, a very good side. They won at Wembley as recently as last October.
They are a team England cannot and won’t take lightly, unlike the presenter on yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme who asked who England might prefer in the final – Spain or Italy.
It seems some in England will never learn. Fortunately for them, Gareth Southgate is a far better pupil. He has a far better grasp of what’s required. He has read the signs and recognised previous mistakes. He has noted England’s past inability to keep and protect the ball and put players such as Declan Rice and Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips in his team. He has committed to memory England’s inability to adapt to the opposition and taught his players to be fluid, whether in a three-at-the-back formation or a more traditional four. Denmark have played both systems during this tournament as well.
Southgate has resolved to include some flair, though not simply flair for flair’s sake. Hence Jack Grealish’s so far limited game time thus far and Phil Foden’s lack of action since being substituted just after the hour mark against Scotland. Also, Southgate has kept faith in Harry Kane when public opinion was telling him his skipper must be dropped.
Southgate knows better than anyone the tread of failure. He took the long walk back on one of these occasions following his spot kick miss against Germany at the same stage of the same competition at the same venue just over 25 years ago. It’s remarkable that fate has deposited him in a position where, if the score is level at the end of 120 minutes, he will be the one selecting the penalty takers. It’s unlikely he will permit a centre-half to take the last one.
Thirty years of hurt was now a quarter-of-a-century ago. It’s almost reached another thirty years of hurt on top of the anguish Baddiel, Skinner and Broudie sang about in the summer of ’96, when everything and anything seemed possible.
England have still only ever reached one final since contesting the first ever international game alongside Scotland in 1872. Czech Republic, to pick one example, have reached two. Like England they have won one major honour, when known as Czechoslovakia. While it was a long time ago, their European champions title was secured more recently than 1966. It’s teams such as Czech Republic who England must regard as peers, which, depending on your viewpoint, is underachievement on a grand scale or simply proof of the testing properties of international football. As far as some are concerned, Southgate included, there’s no argument; England should be doing and should have done a lot better. “We don’t have as good a history as we’d like to believe,” he acknowledged at last night’s pre-match press conference.
“For a country obsessed with football, England’s tournament record is a national disgrace,” writes Henry Winter in Fifty Years of Hurt, published in 2016. “Wembley stands as part-shrine to 1966 and part-monument to catastrophe.”
Later, Winter adds: “Humiliatingly, this is the country that forgets how to play the greatest game of all. England take their eye off a ball they arrogantly thought they owned, allowing other nations to run off with it.” His book came out on the eve of perhaps England’s biggest major finals embarrassment since that World Cup loss against the United States in 1950 – a 2-1 defeat to Iceland at the last 16 stage of the European Championships in France five years ago.
The darkest hour comes just before dawn and all that. A last four finish, where they were beaten by Croatia, then ranked at 15, at the last World Cup, was deemed a fairly acceptable outcome, particularly after the low of failing to qualify from the group stage four years earlier in Brazil.
If, and it’s a big if, England do something they have not done for a very long time at a major finals and manage to beat a top ten team this evening, they will deserve their place in the final. The standard of opposition then standing between Southgate’s side and the Henri Delaunay trophy certainly won't be in dispute.