Whatever happens at Wembley tonight, this remarkable England team has allowed a nation to dream again

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·5-min read
Whatever happens at Wembley tonight, this remarkable England team has allowed a nation to dream again
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    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Kyle Walker said this week that under Gareth Southgate this England team have put meaning back into wearing the shirt and set the bar for future generations.

You do not envy those who will have to try and clear it next, for in reality, this remarkable crop of players have gone further - deeper into a major tournament than almost any before them and beyond restoring meaning to the shirt, to the point, perhaps, of infusing it with more than it ever had.

They have re-imagined that old three-point mantra - ‘Remember who you are, what you are and what you represent' - taking pride in the diversity of the first and redefining the second by actually considering the third.

Whether they wanted it or not (almost certainly the latter) this team has been politicised, but they have embraced that challenge and that platform, becoming, both as individuals and a collective, an immense force for good, making stands against racial injustice and homophobia, campaigning to help children trapped in poverty and throwing their support and substantial wealth behind the NHS.

It is what has set this England team apart from those that came before; their humility, their humanity.

All of that and, of course, their football.

Nostalgia and some kind of reverse recency bias can make us reluctant to label those we watch, the things we see, superior to the people and the moments that preceded them.

In the midst of all this giddy euphoria, how can we sensibly compare, say, the relative novice Kalvin Phillips - not in many peoples’ XIs four weeks ago - to the stalwarts we watched for a decade, Steven Gerrard or Bryan Robson?

But for all the praise they have garnered in not just ‘sticking to football’, for all their identity is rooted in their ability and willingness to affect things bigger than themselves, this England men’s team are, in purely sporting terms, now second to just one in the history of the national sport and by the time the sun comes up on Monday morning, they may just be equals.

By firing England to a first major tournament final since 1966, Harry Kane has surpassed the international achievements of Lineker, Shearer and Rooney, even before he topples them all in the scoring charts. The fearless Raheem Sterling has driven England to the very brink of glory in a way that the mercurial talents of Barnes, Keegan, and Gascoigne never quite could. Harry Maguire and John Stones - yes, John Stones - have built the platform that has taken England to a place that Butcher, Adams and Ferdinand all dreamt of, but never reached. Only Gordon Banks has stood where Jordan Pickford will this evening.

These are the games of their lives and, for an entire generation, the players of ours.

Anyone under the age of 30 will have seen more of England at Euro ‘96 during a single BBC half-time montage at this tournament than they did when it was actually going on. If you’re younger than 60, you’ll struggle to recall the boys of ’66.

As the Golden Generation of the early 2000s came and went without making a serious impression on a single major tournament we wondered whether England ever would again.

The fear we felt was, almost certainly, irrational; people not yet born will have children who play for England in our lifetimes, so to predict some irreversible decline was, clearly, paranoid and premature. International football has always worked in cycles, all major football nations enduring peaks and troughs, and England has remained, in a footballing sense, one of the most powerful countries in the world throughout. The game in this country benefits from astronomical investment, almost unrivalled infrastructure, an academy set-up that, after years of underperformance, is becoming the envy of Europe and a domestic league that attracts the world’s best coaches to help nurture its talent.

Wally with the brolly: how Steve McClaren will be remembered by England fans
Wally with the brolly: how Steve McClaren will be remembered by England fans

Yet, from the Wally with the Brolly through to the nadir of Iceland, the John Terry racism scandal to Sam Allardyce and his pint of wine, things seemed to be getting worse, not better, lurching from the comic to the chaotic, from carnage to crisis. On the field, we weren’t creative enough, we weren’t positive enough. And off it - well, where was that masterplan?

And then along came this England team and this England manager to take us all, twice in three years, on the kind of ride that, even after 2018, we fretted might only come once-in-a-lifetime.

Gareth Southgate knows, as we all do, that major tournaments unite the nation like (increasingly) little else. While the pursuit of glory is central, he knows too - and indeed has acknowledged after each knockout win - that it is not a longing for European bragging rights or world champion status that brings us together, but rather the catharsis and ecstasy of the moments themselves, those special summer nights of beer garden bundles, Boxpark melees, pints drunk, beers thrown, songs sung, voices lost.

And so, to Wembley once more. In some ways this is all we ever wanted. To be contenders again, part of the conversation. To be here, in a final, not just invited to the party, but still dancing as the lights come on.

And, of course, it won’t feel like it if Italy leave victorious, if football's off to Rome, not coming home. But if all we wanted was to hope, to dream, to believe, then whatever happens tonight, this England team have already given us that and so much more.

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