England’s passage through to the final of Euro 2020 offers an uplifting narrative in difficult times, with a likable coach and team offering excitement, passion, purpose and hope.
They entered the tournament with plenty of doubters, though, and even in the group stage they took a while to convince.
Group D: 13 JUNE, WEMBLEY England 1 Croatia 0 (Sterling 57)
Raheem Sterling celebrates after scoring. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
In the space of a couple of a seconds, Kalvin Phillips had turned, ridden one challenge and slid Raheem Sterling in for the only goal of the game. It was a goal of infinitesimal margins: the exact run and the exact pass and the exact finish all aligned. And during these 90 inspired minutes, Phillips offered something new and hopeful: a vision of English midfield play based not on Hollywood passes or bloody head bandages or 30-yard screamers, but on quiet, restless excellence.
England seemed to creep into Russia 2018 almost apologetically. As if they were spurned lovers at our door asking us to give them another chance. The subtext to this tournament has been quite different. This is a team surer of itself, more confident in its own skin, less contingent on our approval on and off the field.
How many times have we seen England choke under this sort of spotlight: bewildered, distracted, lost in the noise? Here, instead they outran and outpassed a very good Croatia side, who were supposed to overwhelm them in midfield. And they did it with an unheralded midfielder inspired by the teachings of Marcelo Bielsa. Maybe, just maybe, this time won’t be like the others. Jonathan Liew
Consternation among fans in Zagreb after Croatia, who beat England in the 2018 World Cup semi-final, fall behind (top); England’s Kalvin Phillips beats Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol before laying on the pass to Raheem Sterling to score (above left); Harry Kane is winded after clattering into the goal post; an England fan has belief in her team. Photographs: Antonio Bronic/Reuters; Tom Jenkins/The Guardian; Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Group D: 18 JUNE, WEMBLEY England 0 Scotland 0
Scotland fans party in central London after the match. Photograph: Jeff Gilbert/Shutterstock
Gareth Southgate justified substituting Harry Kane during England’s uninspired goalless draw with Scotland by saying that removing his captain gave his team more energy up front. England’s manager was left with concerns over Kane’s form after his side, who have four points from their first two games in Group D, walked off to jeers at Wembley on Friday night.
The striker was poor again after struggling in last Sunday’s win over Croatia and Southgate felt that bringing on Marcus Rashford would cause Scotland’s defence more problems.
“I felt we needed a few more runs in behind and that Marcus would give us that energy,” Southgate said. “We have to base these decisions on what we see. We’ve got to be better and that starts with me. We didn’t have enough attempts at goal and we need to look at that over the next few days.”
Kane, who was also substituted against Croatia, admitted he could not grumble about being replaced in the 74th minute. “It’s part of the game,” he told ITV. “The manager felt that was the right decision so you just have to take it. It is what it is.”
Southgate did not take issue with the reaction from the crowd. “Our fans are entitled to react however they want,” he said. “We’re disappointed with our own performance. We’re expected to beat Scotland.” Jacob Steinberg
England’s John Stones clatters the upright with a header (top); Harry Kane walks off the pitch after being substituted (middle left); Ben Chilwell (centre) and Mason Mount congratulate their Chelsea teammate Billy Gilmour on his display for Scotland – after Gilmour tested positive for Covid, the two England players had to isolate (middle right); England’s Phil Foden is thwarted by the Scottish defence. Photographs: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images; Matt Dunham/AFP/Getty Images; ITV Sport; Facundo Arrizabalaga/Reuters
Group D: 22 JUNE, WEMBLEY Czech Republic 0 England 1 (Sterling 12)
Jordan Pickford squirts himself in the face, perhaps to stay alert on a night when he faced only one shot on target. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
Scott Murray’s minute-by-minute report
• 90 min + 2: Kane romps after a long ball, but he’s never getting there. Another goalless match for the captain, but at least he got a shot on target this time.
• Full time: England top Group D! They’ve made it through without conceding a goal, and will welcome the runners-up of Group F to Wembley next Tuesday evening! France, Germany, Portugal or Hungary await. The Czechs finish third after Croatia’s 3-1 win over Scotland.
It wasn’t the greatest performance by England, but then there’s no point peaking in the groups. Raheem Sterling scored his second goal of the tournament, after fine work by Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish. Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson got some precious minutes, while Harry Kane finally got a shot on target. They’ll need to take it up a notch for the heavyweight opponents most likely coming up next, but they’ve topped their group, are yet to concede, will stay at Wembley, and have a week to prepare. Life’s not too bad, huh?
Czech players try to tackle Jack Grealish, who set up Raheem Sterling’s winner, as Kalvin Phillips looks to get involved (top); England fans carry a cardboard cut out of England manager Gareth Southgate at the Fan Park in Manchester (middle left); Tyrone Mings stoops to make a header (middle right); England supporters at Wembley get into the spirit of things at a tournament full of singing and dancing. Photographs: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian; Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images; Neil Hall/EPA; Paul Marriott/Shutterstock
The last 16: 29 JUNE, WEMBLEY England 2 Germany 0 (Sterling 75, Kane 86)
Harry Kane has made it 2-0 in the 86th minute, not long after Thomas Müller missed a glorious chance to equalise, and victory is in the bag. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images
There was a surge in the centre, driven by a burst from Raheem Sterling. Luke Shaw produced the perfect cross. Sterling, still not breaking stride, tucked it past Manuel Neuer. In the England end there was a tiny pause, a breath drawn. And then: chaos, whoops, wild chest-beating joy. Bodies tumbled across the seats. Shirtless men reeled around on the tarpaulins at the front. Legs, arms, hands, open mouths seemed to fuse into one single writhing substance known as Deliriously Happy England Fan.
It would take a hard heart not to feel delighted for Sterling, all will and resolve, but a footballer who still has that slightly tender look: head up, eyes wide, a little watchful. He has carried England’s attack at these Euros.
By now this was only heading one way. Harry Kane made it two with a neat finish from a Jack Grealish cross. Cue: delirium stage two, followed by the final whistle.
There were lingering hugs and bellows of joy around the stands, but above all a feeling of relief as the crowd blinked and boggled at this most unexpected chain of events. These England players created a moment of their own, a team playing without fear, without baggage, not haunted by the ghosts of the past, and uplifting in all the right ways. Barney Ronay
Harry Kane finally gets on the scoresheet (top); Jordan Pickford, en route to another clean sheet, stops Timo Werner giving Germany the lead; Germany players react to defeat (middle left); England Gareth Southgate celebrates on the touchline; Germany fans in the Hofbräuhaus on Alexanderplatz in Berlin face up to defeat; David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, who wrote Three Lions with Ian Broudie, enjoy beating Germany. Photographs: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian; Robin Jones/Getty Images; Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; Kieran McManus/BPI/Shutterstock; David Heerde/Shutterstock; Vivo UK/PA Photos
Quarter-final: 3 JULY, STADIO OLIMPICO, ROME Ukraine 0 England 4 (Kane 4 & 50, Maguire 46, Henderson 63)
Jordan Henderson, on as a substitute for his 62nd cap, celebrates his first goal for his country. Photograph: Eltore Ferrari/AFP/Getty Images
Harry Kane back to his lethal best, productivity from set pieces, yet another clean sheet – the fifth out of five at Euro 2020 – and, for the coup de grâce, a first England goal for Jordan Henderson on the occasion of his 62nd cap. This was the night when pretty much everything was picture perfect for Gareth Southgate and his players as they set up a Wembley semi-final against Denmark.
As England came home from Rome it was easy to wonder whether football was headed in the same direction and, certainly, the fans of the team who had made it from across mainland Europe into the Stadio Olimpico thought that way.
Only five times previously have England got this far at a major tournament and the sense that the squad is peaking at the right time is unmistakable. The pre-match expectations had been sky-high after the epic last-16 win over Germany last Tuesday and Ukraine, who had scraped out of their group with three points, were viewed as being straight forward opposition. It was a potentially fraught combination, the excess before a crash, a scenario we have seen before, but England’s focus was faultless. David Hytner
Jadon Sancho making his first start, which illustrates England’s strength in depth (top); Harry Kane celebrates the first of his two goals on the night, after only four minutes; England players celebrate Harry Kane’s second goal, which put them 3-0 up early in the second half; England fans celebrate at Piccadilly Circus while Ukraine supporters in the Kyiv fanzone are aghast at what they are seeing from Rome on the big screen. Photographs: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images; Alberto Lingria/Reuters; Ettore Ferrari/AFP/Getty ImagesAnadolu Agency/Getty Images; Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images
Semi-final: 7 JULY, WEMBLEY England 2 Denmark 1 (Kjaer 39og, Kane 104; Damsgaard 30)
Jordan Henderson leads the congratulations after Harry Kane’s winner against Denmark. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
England’s response to going behind for the first time in the tournament was exemplary. Perhaps Denmark dropped off slightly but the crisp passing through midfield returned and, in turn, Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka emerged. That intensity never really dropped; Denmark occasionally threatened on the break in the second half but fundamentally England dominated. England kept coming, the group-stage caution forgotten.
There the benefit of Gareth Southgate’s squad system was evident. Saka could be replaced by Jack Grealish, Declan Rice could be replaced by Jordan Henderson, Mason Mount by Phil Foden, players coming on who could easily have been in the starting XI. The second half and the first half of extra time represented an hour of steadily mounting pressure, the like of which it’s hard to remember England producing in the past 25 years. The sense was that eventually, if enough balls went into the box, if Sterling and Saka, then Grealish, kept skipping past challenges on the margins of the box, something would give – as, eventually, it did.
And then, perhaps, came the biggest gamble of all: the reversion to conservatism with the switch back to a back three for the second half of extra time, even though that meant the sacrifice of the people’s dribbler, Grealish removed for Kieran Trippier.
And yet it worked, worked to the extent that England, admittedly against a Denmark side down to 10 men because of injury for the final five minutes, were able to hold the ball for extended periods. And that too felt very unexpected, a measure of the change Southgate has wrought. Jonathan Wilson
A congested England penalty area as the players wait for a corner (top); Denmark’s Simon Kjaer puts into his own net while under pressure from Raheem Sterling; Harry Kane turns in the rebound after Kasper Schmeichel saved his penalty; the night closes in at Wembley – and England close in on Denmark and a place in the Euro 2020 final (middle); England manager Gareth Southgate celebrates after the final whistle; Joakim Mæhle reacts to the end of Denmark’s run, which had come despite Christian Eriksen’s collapse; the England squad celebrate in front of the fans after following in the footsteps of their 1966 contemporaries by making it to the final of a major tournament – at Wembley (below). Photographs: Paul Marriott/Shutterstock; Michael Regan/UEFA/Getty Images; Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images; Tom Jenkins/The Guardian; PA Photos