Euro 2020 - Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling channel 1966 in leading England back to the promised land
Paul Hayward reports from Wembley as England see off Denmark in extra-time to reach the final of Euro 2020. There they will play Roberto Mancini's Italy. In reaching the first major final for the men's team in 55 years Gareth Southgate's side have channeled their inner 1966 but with an all-important modern flavour.
'It's coming home, it's coming home!' - England fans go ballistic in Croydon Boxpark
The last time England reached a tournament final, Nobby Stiles marked Eusebio out of the game, Bobby Charlton scored both their goals and a band played ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ as Alf Ramsey’s men left the Wembley pitch. It was all rather beautiful and summery, unlike the thrilling but stressful marathon of this victory over Denmark.
This time a more modern cast of England idols jigged and punched the air to a new Wembley anthem that’s as old as the hills musically, but feels freshly suited to this Euro 2020 adventure: Sweet Caroline, infectious, annoying, insistent, happy. ‘Three Lions’ or ‘Football’s Coming Home’ - the Euro 96 ear-worm - were in the mix too, but team and fans wanted to dance, and Sweet Caroline seemed a better expression of the communion between this squad and its followers.
An exultant Wembley crowd made this a very modern celebration - part music festival, part renewal of vows with a side some had given up on only one European Championship ago. Whether “football’s coming home” is debatable on all sorts of levels, but England are certainly coming back here, to the cathedral of the English game, where the local hero, Raheem Sterling, was again pivotal, forcing a Danish own goal and then an extra-time penalty which Kane converted at the second attempt.
England's forward Raheem Sterling greets the fans after their win in the UEFA EURO 2020 semi-final football match between England and Denmark at Wembley Stadium in London on July 7, 2021
Image credit: Getty Images
Semi-final wins often require domineering performances and England came up with them, from Sterling, Harry Maguire, Kalvin Phillips and Kyle Walker.
“We’ve shown great resilience, we’re a credit to each other - not just the players who play but the whole squad and staff,” Kane said. Across two European Championships, Kane had played seven games without scoring before jolting back to life with an 85th minute goal against Germany, then two against Ukraine, then the winning (and disputed) penalty here. He said: “Live I thought it was a penalty. I haven’t seen it back, but I thought I should have had a penalty in the second-half, so it probably evens itself out.”
Italy needed even longer to beat Spain, in a penalty shoot-out, so both teams will need to reach even deeper inside themselves in the finale of a wonderful, Covid-escaping championship.
'I've never heard Wembley like that' - Southgate after Denmark win
Fifty-five years on from their first and only appearance in a World Cup or European Championship finale, England’s men will face Italy on Sunday in an age unrecognisable from the mid-1960s. Southgate’s men are making all sorts of history: first knock-out win over Germany in 55 years and first final - in the first global pandemic since Spanish flu.
But football has common threads that link the eras, and England have assembled another generation with the spirit, purpose and talent of the ‘boys of 66.’ And in Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling they have conjured an updated Bobby Charlton/Geoff Hurst combination: players who can be relied on in games of this magnitude - even if Kane had to mimic Jimmy Greaves’ struggles in ’66 before reclaiming his status as the striker par excellence.
Another ’66 echo was that Jordan Pickford broke Gordon Banks’ England record (696) for the most minutes without conceding a goal - but not by much, Three minutes later, a scorching Mikkel Damsgaard free-kick flew unstoppably into Pickford’s net and England were behind for the first time at this tournament. Would they crumble as they had against Iceland in 2016? England delivered an answer nine minutes later when Kane slid the ball to Bukayo Saka in a crossing position and Simon Kjaer bundled the ball into his own net ahead of Sterling.
'I am extremely proud' - Kane reflects on England's historic night
The second-half siege of Denmark will live long in that country’s folklore. It extended the mission the Danes have been on to honour Christian Eriksen, who was revived on the pitch from a cardiac arrest in their first match. They were superbly resolute. But England’s quality at grinding them down won through eventually. The depth of Southgate’s squad inflicted rolling pressure. The home fans redoubled their support, knowing that England’s bench bristled with reinforcements.
Southgate too showed his steel, sending Jack Grealish on in the 69th minute and taking him off again half-way through extra-time. When this tournament kicked off Southgate was supposedly a hostage to all the young talent in his squad. His job was simply to avoid getting in its way. Instead he has rotated his starlets, backed his own judgment and exercised absolute power in team selection.
"The most pleasing thing is we've given the fans and nation a fantastic night and the journey carries on for another four days,” Southgate said. "We suffered in Moscow [at the 2018 World Cup] on a night like this and we've managed to put that right."
LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 07: Gareth Southgate, Head Coach of England celebrates their side's victory after the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Semi-final match between England and Denmark at Wembley Stadium on July 07, 2021 in London, England.
Image credit: Getty Images
Kane said: “We can talk as much as we want about 2018 and how much we’ve learned but it’s about doing it on the pitch.”
England’s second consecutive major tournament semi-final opened a path to greater glory. An imperfect but still formidable Italy side marshalled and motivated by Roberto Mancini stand in the way. A pleasure denied the English since Bobby Moore led England out in the old Empire Stadium 55 years ago will flood the country as it emerges, uncertainly and perhaps dangerously, from Covid shutdowns.
In this Wembley crowd you could feel the energy of release, from confinement, yes, but also from that weight of history, that sense that England were doomed not to go all the way. The last survivors of the ’66 team were starting to think they’d never see another England side in a final. But soon it will dawn on everyone that reaching the last match is only part of it. A big part, but not the full consummation. Thoughts must turn now to winning it.