That’s it, then. It isn’t coming home. Instead England as a nation is. Back home to that old, familiar sensation of a weighty, crushing disappointment. Back home to a sense of what might have been. Back home to staring at the wall in a dimly lit room in a quiet moment later this evening, replaying the critical moments, asking different questions from those in the past but all of them along a similar theme.
What if John Stones had only been a little bit stronger in his battle with Giorgio Chiellini on the equaliser, enough to get a touch on the corner as it bounded through? What if Jordan Pickford had tipped it around the post, rather than onto it, or if Harry Kane had blocked on the line? And, of course, what if just one of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho or Bukayo Saka had scored their penalties?
Really though, there is only one question worth asking: was it all worth it?
This was always going to be a day that would tiptoe along the precipice of triumph and disaster, as the scenes around Wembley suggested. The famous walkway up to the national stadium was pure bacchanalia: broken glass, beer, urine and a stench of stale weed. A mosh pit formed outside the SSE Arena, as it has done before every game since Scotland’s visit, but this was the biggest, with more random items thrown up into the air than usual. A mini football, a beer can, a backpack, a traffic cone.
If you stuck around that area long enough, you would have seen Wayne Rooney chancing his arm through the crowd down Wembley Park Boulevard, being ushered down an alleyway by security as a horde of fans attempted to say a friendly hello. Those were some of the more endearing scenes around the national stadium. You will have seen the somewhat less endearing ones already.
Supporters inside approached the press box with tales of crushes and injuries. There was fury at the stewarding for failing to provide a proper barrier, fury at the lack of a police presence, fury at those without tickets who were crammed along the rows, in the aisles and the gangways. The hope must be that, after such a painful ending to the evening, more fury does not spill out into the street.
And given that surrounding turmoil, England’s fever dream of a start felt strangely out of place. Teams like England are not supposed to begin major finals like that. Players like Luke Shaw are not supposed to arrive in acres of space at the far post and catch a volley perfectly. The first half, particularly the opening half hour, was dominant. At that stage, this was the perfect performance.
All the small details you will have read about in the build-up appeared to be fundamentally, vitally relevant. It was as though all those marginal gains were coming to fruition, totalling up to a complete performance in a major international tournament final. It’s like what Mike Tyson nearly said, though. Everyone has an Elite Player Performance Plan until they get punched in the mouth.
It had been coming and the parallels with this team’s last heartbreak – that semi-final in Moscow three years ago – must be drawn. Not only did England take the lead early – through a moment of inspiration from Kieran Trippier, too – but they gradually ceded ground after half time and then, like with Ivan Perisic at the Luzhniki, were broken in the 68th minute. No one player can be blamed for that corner. Too many were at fault.
Italy deserved it, too. Verratti was beginning to dictate, like Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic did in the past. Federico Chiesa was the best player on the pitch, finding England’s foibles with fearless, direct runs at the heart of the defence. Giorgio Chiellini was enjoying himself again, looking like he had not had this much fun since he hijacked a Carthaginian’s elephant during the Punic Wars. Those were the vital moments when something had to change.
Kalvin Phillips (left) and Luke Shaw console Bukayo Saka after the Arsenal teenager missed the decisive spot kick
The quality of Southgate’s in-game management was one of the major questions leading into this tournament. He has had doubters throughout, and proved the vast majority of them wrong, but that has tended to be with his starting line-ups rather than his alterations in the heat of battle. Saka’s introduction ahead of either Jack Grealish or Jadon Sancho felt strange and the timing of it too late.
And for the final insult, Southgate’s greatest achievement while in this role was arguably undone. Removing the psychological hang-up over penalty shootouts – winning two of two at major tournaments – was a significant accomplishment. England did not feel invincible on spot-kicks but they certainly felt able to convert more than just two of five. After the success of recent years though, they now have their most painful shootout defeat.
So, with that in mind, was it worth it? That will depend on how deep your wounds are this evening. Allow us to cut them a little deeper: in many ways, England may not have an opportunity like this again for a long while. The advantages of this tournament – played largely at home, without the same travel rigours as other teams and, lest we forget, 1-0 up with 23 minutes plus added-on time remaining in the final – do not come around that often.
Yet in the despair, there is enough hope. This is the furthest England have travelled through a tournament in 55 years and comes on the back of the promising World Cup display. This was more substantial than Russia, though, with a greater evidence of tactical flexibility and greater, younger talent. There is a process, a plan and aside from that punch in the mouth, it worked.
The next World Cup is only 18 months away for this talented group of players. Something for you to ruminate on during that quiet moment staring at the wall, at least.
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