As the roaring crowd filled every square metre of Wembley with their cheers, gasps and tears at the Euro 2020 final, the England football team deservedly took centre stage last night for the first time in 55 years.
Until this moment, a heart-stopping international final was a spectacle that crestfallen fans could only stand from the sidelines and watch.
And while we may have fought to the wire, only to lose through every England fans’ worst nightmare – a penalty shoot out – many will still wake bleary-eyed with heads held high today, thanks to a unique mix of players that managed to land us in a final. Something even our god-like icons, such as Gascoigne, Beckham and Rooney, never quite did.
As Captain Harry Kane said after last night’s defeat, ‘It’s going to hurt for a while, but we’re on the right track and we’re building. Hopefully we can progress next year.’
England’s team of 26 ‘unlikely heroes’ have filled the conversations in every school, street, house and every pub in the country since 11 June.
Here was a group of men that made us feel hopeful again – not just after ‘all those years of hurt’ but also following the horrific global impact of the coronavirus crisis.
Fans were desperate for fun, comradery, and good news – and Southgate’s Euro 2020 squad delivered it in truckloads.
‘Covid has caused many of us to feel like we’ve lost a lot of control, had our freedoms restricted and impacted our wellbeing,’ explains psychologist Lee Chambers, who has previously worked in elite football at Everton and Manchester City.
‘The initial response to the pandemic was amazing, but a year later, many of us are jaded by the constant changes and limited chance for adventure and novelty. A tournament where we can all come together as a collective and celebrate is the beacon of light we all needed, and these championships have been just that, a massive dose of positive news and a team that seem more connected and relevant than the government of the country.’
According to Lee – an avid Bolton Wanderers fan – ‘England have been tactically astute and massively proactive with their game management.
‘They have done the basics well, and remained compact, making it challenging for opponents to get shots on target,’ he says. ‘Every player has a clearly defined role, and they are playing as a collective for each other, which has been evident since the first game.’
Following their group stage matches against Croatia, Scotland and Czech Republic, the team continued their mission with a 2-0 knock out victory against Germany, 4- 0 Ukraine, and then the nailbiting semi-final match against Denmark, which saw the squad concede their first goal of the tournament – something they hadn’t done since 1966 – before winning 2-1.
With each step of progression, their model to success within a tournament was clearly working.
‘They were criticised earlier in the tournament for a dull, not exciting way of playing,’ says Pete Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Sport Coaching at Nottingham Trent University. ‘But it isn’t their job to entertain people, it’s to win a major tournament. And they worked towards that in a pragmatic way.’
Aaron Clarke is captain of England’s Beach Soccer team and an academy coach for Arsenal, having worked with Bukayo Saka since he was ten years old.
Talking of his former pupil, he says, ‘He’s done amazingly. Not only did I want to see the team do well, I really wanted to see him do well.
‘I’ve seen all the hard graft that builds up from behind the scenes – not just at the matches – and all the sacrifices that these guys have made to make it to where they are.’
Like many England fans over 30, Aaron can still remember with unwavering clarity one of the most talked about moments in Euros history.
‘One of the most iconic England games for me to watch was in ’96, when Gareth Southgate missed the penalty that could have got England into the finals,’ he remembers. ‘Now he’s the manager that everyone is talking about. The past can potentially haunt you, but if you keep working hard, like Southgate, you could get another chance. I think it’s amazing what he’s been able to do with this team.’
Southgate’s reputation as a humble, smart, respectful coach has gained him a lot of positive attention, both from his team and fans.
‘There’s no simple answer as to why England made it to the finals,’ says Peter Holmes. ‘But one particular factor that contributed to their assent was Southgate’s approach to management. He is research informed and knows that screaming and shouting at somebody doesn’t have a positive impact. The key to his coaching style is relationships.’
According to TV presenter and sports pundit Charlie Webster, Southgate’s man management is exemplary. ‘Let’s not forget he’s known a lot of these players since they were teenagers, it’s all on merit, not what team you play for,’ she explains.
‘All of this means the players can play with courage rather than fear. Roberto Mancini did something similar with his Italian team – a togetherness, a connection – they’ve shed their serious detached approach and England have got rid of the egos. It’s not a coincidence that the two teams were in the final, England and Italy, both adopted this change.’
Southgate’s approach to game strategy started in 2014 when he was coaching England’s Under-21s. Along with Dan Ashworth and Matt Crocker, he introduced new plans for the future of English football, the England DNA philosophy for elite player development. One aspect of the framework went on to be called the 4 Corner Model, looking at the technical, physical, psychological, and social development of a player.
I think what made this team so special is that they all have a good relationship with each other,’ explains Amy Laurence, content creator at Miss Kick and co-founder of RMTV Women’s podcast.
‘There is a perfect blend of experience and youth so when faced with difficult situations throughout the tournament between them they are able to figure out a solution (i.e. going 1-0 down vs Denmark).
‘Another massive factor is that a large proportion of players within the squad understand the high-pressure games, with several being involved in champions league finals, FA cup finals, and premier league title races, so the experience that comes with that really helped as they progressed through the tournament, especially during the knock-out stages.’
‘This team didn’t come out of nowhere,’ adds Peter. ‘Southgate has been working these players using the 4 Corner Model for many years and it’s starting to come to fruition. This is the start of the next ten years of success and the FA, with Southgate, have been moving football forward for quite a few years now.’
Charlie also believes that there is also likeability, connection and ‘normality’ in Southgate’s team, ‘and a lot of that is down to the work away from the pitch,’ she says.
‘In the past and in tournaments I’ve worked on myself there was always a barrier between the team and the public, mainly down to pressure which inevitably leads to self-preservation and that manifests itself in a perception of arrogance and lack of passion. It became Them and Us.
‘The decision of the set-up to encourage the players to show emotion, character and their human side is at last one that understands that to win doesn’t all come down to putting a group of extraordinary talent together and expecting it all to click.
‘We see time and time again this doesn’t work in any team sport, in any business in fact – the past England teams of individuals and cliques – the Chelsea lads, the Manchester United lads and so on,’ adds Charlie. ‘This is a team of ordinary lads that have come from backgrounds like you and me, have gone through adversity like you and me, that have had to work hard, fight for their place and a lot of them have worked up through the lower leagues – they just have extraordinary talent.’
‘There’s been quite a bit of cynicism around top level footballers – all about cars, jewellery, celebrity, and whatever else,’ adds Peter. ‘This group of lads have really broken that steam which has been running for twenty years. In every interview I have seen with players from this team, they have come across as down to earth, demonstrating they’re quite normal.’
It is this normality that connects so deeply with fans. Marcus Rashford, inspired by his hard-working single mum, helped to feed families throughout the UK so no child would go hungry during the pandemic.
Raheem Sterling’s mother and sister kept him grounded, encouraging him to initially stick with a second tier football team, while Harry Kane married his high school sweetheart and now has three children.
Bukayo Saka’s parents migrated from Nigeria to London for work, raising a son that became a ‘model student’ at school. Harry Maguire has happy memories of ‘putting my England shirt on with my brothers and playing in the garden’ and spends his free time watching Peppa Pig with his daughters and dog.
‘They are a diverse group who have bound together to form a family that scaled new heights as a collective in these times of adversity,’ explains psychologist Lee Chambers.
‘Led by a manager who has embraced his own misfortune and vulnerability to create a culture of high standards alongside inclusive support, they are not a team of superstars or a golden generation, but feeling more human and relatable than ever before, creating a feeling of a peoples’ team that represents our shared struggles being overcome.’
In an open letter that Gareth Southgate wrote in The Players Tribune before the tournament, he said, ‘This is a special group. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves.’ It is in from their rooted liberation that we have seen this team stand up for equality, inclusion and justice. Southgate continued in his letter: ‘I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players.’
And use their voices they have – taking a knee before kick offs, wearing rainbow armbands at matches, and speaking out publicly against discrimination and online abuse, these are all moves that have seen their fanbase widen. People who would never have considered themself an England fan happily belted out Atomic Kitten and Three Lions with the best of them.
In an interview with Pink News, Di Cunningham, organiser of the Proud Canaries, Norwich City’s LGBT+ fan group, and a founding member of Three Lions Pride said: ‘I was lucky enough to be at the England match the other day, and I realised I’d never seen such a diverse crowd. Young, old, disabled, able-bodied, all different ethnicities – I’ve never seen that at a competitive match to that degree.’
Lee Chambers says that while it is easy to overlook how the inclusive approach built by the team and coaches, it has been a magnet for a wider appreciation for both players and the game.
‘With the team using the gravitas they have to champion causes that are challenges in society makes them more relatable to those who suffer inequality and makes them more than a sports team,’ he explains.
‘They have started to be seen as an example of diversity and inclusion at work, and a vehicle to champion just what can be achieved when we come together and share our strengths rather than focus on our differences. This social impact is also very relevant for younger fans, who can connect with both the players and the team’s journey and message in new ways.’
‘Every guy in the UK can learn a lot from this group of men,’ says Nick Wilson, founder of the men’s support group, Talk Mental Health. ‘How they go about things, their selflessness, determination, and desire to be the very best version of themselves. It happens by investing in yourself, going out and making things happen, and showing your value to society.’
Nick watched the game from home last night, urging the players on as he said quietly, ‘Fight your fight and come home proud of your achievements, because your country is proud of you.’
He’s just one of the fans that have to also take credit for England’s road to the final.
‘Every press conference Gareth Southgate mentions the fans and comments on the fact he hopes we are all enjoying it,’ says TV presenter Charlie.
After our semi-final win against Denmark, Southgate remarked: ‘For our country I’ve not heard this new Wembley like that ever.’
‘With England in the final everyone felt that buzz,’ says Aaron Clarke, who scored himself a ticket to nailbiting match
Drawing from his own experience as the England Beach Soccer Captain, he understands the vital role that fans can play in a tournament. ‘We are the twelfth player,’ explains Aaron. ‘If we, as fans, get behind the team and not worry about being negative when things go wrong – that just gives the players so much of a bonus.We can make such a difference. We give them a boost, an injection to take them to the next level.
‘Fans are just as important to the players as the players are to the fans.’
Talking prior to the match, Aaron said, ‘What’s not to be excited about? They’re young, their thrilling, they’re passionate. I’ve seen all the hard work they’ve put in, and now, the potential reward is that they are going to win the Euros.
‘Normally, I’m the one getting prepared for a match,’ he added. ‘Now, I’m a fan, and I love being a fan. Absolutely love it.’
Pete Holmes watched last night’s game with his eight-year-old little boy, an avid Leeds support. ‘I remember the days when England didn’t even qualify for tournaments,’ Peter recalls. ‘And my lad not only saw us qualify for a tournament, but get into a final. It’s just fantastic.’
After 18 months of collective trauma for the entire nation, Euro 2020 provided a welcome dose of normality and togetherness for fans. In speaking to the media for the Nationwide Mutual Respect Campaign, Southgate said: ‘We certainly recognise it’s an opportunity for us to bring people together again.’
It’s a statement that cannot be denied with supporters from all genders, nationalities, and cultures, cheering on the beloved team. Many schools are allowing children to come in late today to allow them to stay up late with their families on Sunday. Town centres have come alive with painted faces and flags. Fireworks have lit up the sky.
With 3.4m women and girls playing already playing football in England, the squad has worked hard to tap into this sense of inclusivity, by making it a tournament for everyone. After all, who can forget 10-year-old Belle McNally bursting into tears after she was given a shirt by Mason Mount following England’s 2-1 semi-final victory?
Amy Laurence says there’s no doubt that England’s performance, even though it ultimately ended in defeat, has helped boost the country’s morale massively. ‘We’ve got engrossed in this tournament regardless of whether we’re football fans or not,’ she says.
‘We’ve needed this to bring some happiness back into our lives and the team certainly have done that. The nation feels really united and when you hear the singing in the streets, the flags out the cars it feels like the country has it’s spark back again. We owe those players so much.’
Meanwhile, Lee Chambers explains that the Euros as a competition has allowed us all to start celebrating the things we have missed.
‘Football is powerful as while it is widely followed, this tournament has pulled in more casual fans than ever, with players stories being shared and a quiet expectation rather than the immense pressure normally associated,’ he says. ‘Celebrating is emotionally contagious; nothing brings us together more than a shared cause to celebrate, get excited about and look forward to.’
While England has been plagued with near misses in major tournaments since the World Cup win of 1966, our English trait of pessimism has been increasingly used to protect against disappointment. But this year, after 18 months of a sadness, loneliness, and fear, fans clung onto any hope of a win.
‘While losing the final clearly hurts, we have been through so much this year, it still feel like a win,’ says Lee. ‘We’ll attach to the journey and the emotions, rather than the result.’
Lee predicts that following the rush of euphoria and a burst of national pride after last night’s match, once we’ve licked our wounds, the positivity will contribute. ‘We’ll see a slower burning current of optimism, of hope, for a brighter future,’ he insists.
‘Far beyond the scope of sport into our nation and its journey, and each individual will have that moment of awe as something intangible but ever so powerful finally “comes home”.’
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