Why England may never get a better chance of glory after passing up Euro 2020 golden ticket
As is often the case with hangovers, the overwhelming emotion felt by those England fans waking the morning after the night before seemed to be one of regret.
At least that was the sense gauged from walking around London yesterday. The street cleaners had done a sterling job of clearing up the detritus from the previous day but broken dreams are not so easy to sweep away.
Have England just wasted their best chance to add to their lone World Cup and claim another major title? This was certainly one of the topics under debate in the cafes and bars around the London Bridge area as fans gathered for a hair of the dog.
Less triumphalist, more elegiac choruses of “It’s Coming Home” blended in with the common noises associated with the hustle and bustle of a city trying hard to shake itself into the new week.
With Uefa and Fifa officials bound to take a very dim view of the scenes in and around Wembley on Sunday night, England’s hopes of hosting the 2030 World Cup – either alone or as a UK and Ireland bid – could be over before the launch. Footage of hundreds storming the gates at the final is not a good look.
Although hosting a tournament is no guarantee of winning it, England's first and, so far, only triumph came while they enjoyed this status. While only one of eleven countries staging games at Euro 2020, they were, to all intents and purposes, the home team.
Never mind golden generation, this was their golden ticket. All games, bar one, at Wembley. Teams flying in from abroad to play them – in the case of Denmark in the semi-final, travelling from as far away as Baku – rather than being based in a single host country.
Even in the final, when they were, ostensibly, registered as the ‘away’ team by Uefa, England were at home. The result: Italy 1 England 1 (Italy win 3-2 on penalties) will therefore take a long time to process. They were passed almost to the point of submission in their own citadel.
Southgate emerged yesterday for an early morning press conference looking bleary-eyed. He had, after all, been up much of the night worrying about those who had been pitched into the merciless cauldron of public opinion.
When even MPs cannot be relied upon to think before they speak, can we really be surprised that social media is like the wild west on such mass interest occasions.
Tory MP Natalie Elphicke has had to apologise, rightly, after somehow believing it was acceptable to take Marcus Rashford to task for missing the first of England’s three failed penalties and associate such misfortune with his child poverty reform work. But this was not the worst of it. Racist abuse has rained down on the trio of players who failed to score, with youngsters Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka joining Rashford in becoming the latest England fall guys. After looking after thousands of others, Rashford might need a little tenderness himself.
“We have got to make sure we are there and aligned with their clubs and make sure we are looking after those boys - that’s been at the top of my thinking all night really,” said Southgate yesterday.
The manager has to be applauded for his willingness to face the media. It was approaching midnight when he faced reporters on Sunday night for a post-match press conference that stretched into the hours of yesterday morning. He was in front of the microphones and cameras again little more than ten hours later as he conducted another post mortem. Even then he was still struggling to piece together a jigsaw of a game. Never mind the 120-minute match, a report of the shootout itself could have formed a novella.
“I need to watch the game back,” said Southgate. “It’s two and a half hours where so much has happened that to be able to go through the timeline of all of that now, there’s too much gone on during the game, and since the game, to be able to reflect properly."
There will be a time to analyse the more profound areas of concern, such as the inability to keep the ball for sustained periods. But he knew he would be required to return to the main thrust of the previous evening’s interrogation: What was the thinking behind those penalties - or, more precisely, what was the thinking behind the identity of those asked to take the last three? Southgate reiterated he was to blame.
This tournament was shaping up to become his atonement for his own spot-kick anguish at Euro 96. Instead, in the eyes of some, he has compounded things. How could he push a teenager who has never taken a penalty in his senior career into a pressure cooker situation like that? What was the basis for the Saka decision?
At the same end, into the same goal as against Germany 25 years ago, England – and Southgate – tasted more misery.
“If I didn’t get the calls right last night then so be it, I have to live with that,” said Southgate. Jack Grealish has let it be known, via Twitter, that he was desperate to take one of the kicks but had been overruled.
Southgate explained they had "tracked" Rashford, Sancho and Saka over a long time, at their clubs as well as in training, and concluded that their ball-hitting skills and mentality, combined with the freshness in the legs, made them ideal candidates.
All the science in the world will not guarantee success in such circumstances. As someone pointed out on Twitter, at 19-years-old they were working in Boots and trying not to giggle when asked to fetch tubes of Anusol. Saka was charged with keeping England’s dream of becoming European champions alive as 31 million viewers – the UK’s third highest television audience ever – looked on.
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