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Gareth Southgate and his players were true to their word in ignoring the outside noise and the national frenzy of nostalgia, and proving that this squad really is unburdened by the heavy weight of previous failures.
Southgate challenged his players to “write their own history” and create unforgettable moments, and they did, clinching a first knockout win over Germany for 55 years through late goals by Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane.
But while the history of the fixture may mean little to these players, it was impossible to the paint the occasion as just another game.
A rocking Wembley looked, felt and sounded more than half full and descended into limb-flailing euphoria after both goals on the biggest night at the national stadium since it was rebuilt.
“I’ve been in here for a full house and I’ve never heard anywhere near the levels the crowd found,” Southgate said. “They were behind every challenge, they were behind every time we pressed the ball, they were behind every run we had. The energy was incredible in the stadium.”
As supporters celebrated during England’s lap of honour, you could feel the emotion emanating from the terraces and it obviously had an impact on the players. “I’m speechless, I don’t know what to say,” said the usually-cool Kane during an on-pitch interview.
It felt like a seismic and potentially defining result for English football but, as Southgate immediately acknowledged, his players have achieved nothing yet and the road ahead is now fraught with danger.
After such an outpouring of emotion, a meeting with Ukraine in Rome in Saturday’s quarter-final will inevitably feel like a comedown and there is risk in the players and the country believing the hard work is already done.
“It didn’t really need me to say it but when we got in the dressing room we were talking about Saturday already,” Southgate said. “Today’s been an immense performance but at a cost, emotionally and physically. We’ve got to make sure we recover well and mentally we’re at the right space. It’s a dangerous moment for us. We’ll have that warmth of success and that feeling around the country that we’ve only got to turn up to win the thing.
“We know it’s going to be an immense challenge from here on. The players know that. They’ve been to the latter stages before, they know how difficult it’s been. Their feet are on the ground, they should feel confident in the way they’ve played, the manner of their performance. But we came here with an intention and we’ve not achieved that yet.”
A clash with Germany at Wembley always felt bigger than a last-16 tie but England are still three wins away from their objective of being European champions. Southgate’s challenge is not to lift his squad but to ensure that they do not deflate in the face of less-established opponents and a very different atmosphere at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.
There is no hoodoo connected to Ukraine, who England have played and beaten once at a major tournament, but there is a danger in underestimating Andriy Shevchenko’s side, who crept through the group stage with three points and a negative goal difference and finished last night’s extra-time win over Sweden out on their feet.
With expectations firmly raised and the draw opening up invitingly for England, Southgate must ensure his players remain level-headed.
The conditions in Rome will also pose a new challenge after what has effectively been a home tournament for England so far. There will not be the same energy from the stands on Saturday and they will have to leave the home comforts of St George’s Park and Wembley for the first time.
It will test the players psychologically.
Southgate has exchanged ideas with Eddie Jones, England’s rugby union head coach, and if he wants to demonstrate the risks associated with a victory as emotional as last night’s, he could point to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Jones’s side stormed into a first World Cup Final in 12 years with a brilliant demolition of favourites and three-time champions New Zealand in the last-four but their mental and physical exertions took a toll.
England fell flat in the final, going down to South Africa to leave their efforts against the All Blacks in vain — a fate Southgate is eager to avoid.
“I’ve had to say to them [the players] straight away, ‘Look, I’m the party-pooper because if we don’t capitalise on that on Saturday now, then it doesn’t count for anything’,” he said.
For Southgate, the result felt like a complete vindication of his approach as he put everything on the line with a series of brave calls yesterday.
From switching to the back-three to his use of Jack Grealish, who changed the game from the bench, to the inclusion of the colossal Harry Maguire in the initial squad, Southgate is yet to strike a bum note at the finals, even if his approach if based on caution.
It was impossible, of course, to ignore his own history with the fixture and the sense that as much as anyone in the country this win has lessened his personal demons.
The manager acknowledged that the pain of Euro 96 would always be with him but he is determined that his players achieve what he could not.
“I was looking at the big screen and I saw Dave Seaman up there and you know, for the team-mates that played with me I can’t change that [the 96 penalty miss], so that’s always going to hurt,” he said. “But what’s lovely is we’ve given people another day to remember. Now we’ve got to go and do it in Rome.”