Euro 2020(1): The Quarter-Finals – The Five Year Plan
It’s been five years and a week since the sky fell in. When England trooped dejectedly from the pitch at the Stade de Nice in the 27th June 2016 after having lost to Iceland, this website had just turned its tenth birthday. Over that time, England had glided towards irrelevance as an international football team. They’d failed to even qualify for Euro 2008, had their buttocks handed to them on a plate by Germany in 2010, hit an immoveable Andrea Pirlo-shaped rock in 2012, and failed to get past the group stages in a World Cup finals for the first time since 1958 in 2014.
It was a slow descent towards losing to a country with a population the size of Southampton, and it felt like the psychologically healthy thing to do was to accept this in the way that people accept living with a chronic health condition. The appointment of Sam Allardyce as manager a few weeks later seemed to confirm that the FA were of the same opinion. Long-term planning, long-term schmanning. Dreaming is for pansies and Southerners. Just hoof it to the big lad up front. And even the sigh of relief that came when he drank that pint o’ wine and rendered his own position untenable after just 67 days was tempered by fact that appointing Allardyce in the first place had felt like a combination of reductio ad absurdam and surrendering to the inevitable.
Five years on, though, here we are, waking up on the morning after quite possibly their finest ever performance in the finals of an international tournament, a performance that took so many of the familiar tropes that have punished the team in the past and repurposed them into something that felt almost pervertedly gleeful. Gareth Southgate has arrested the decline. At the World Cup in 2018, expectations were so low that the badge on the shirts might easily have been replaced by a cry-laugh emoji without anyone really noticing the difference. That tournament opened up and allowed the team a path to the semi-finals, and when they were narrowly but comprehensively beaten by Croatia there was little hysteria. There should never be any ‘shame’ in losing to a better team.
Of course, among the England team’s biggest issues have been the baggage. The shrill, hysterical and frequently offensive media. The bloody band, parping out the same old three songs because they don’t have anything else. A proportion of the fan base, to lesser or greater extents. The burden of unfounded expectation. England have in the past frequently resembled a Christmas tree decorated with albatrosses hanging from their necks, and the start of this tournament it felt as though we were determined to play out this passion play yet again, with arguments over the players taking the knee – seldom before has being on the wrong side of history played out so quickly – and pens sharpening with every 1-0 win, frothing at the likelihood that The Plan would surely fall to pieces and the clicks that would follow from the fallout of that.
These insecurities manifest themselves in unusual but justifiable ways. Three and a half minutes in at the Stadio Olimpico last night, Raheem Sterling about-turned inside and pushed the ball through for Harry Kane to prod the ball past Georgi Bushchan to give England the lead. Within seconds, a trope turning the best possible start into the worst had started to spread. England always score first. They frequently get a very early goal, and when they’ve done this in the past they’ve frequently ended up losing the match regardless. Were you looking for a prime example of how to psychologically hamstring yourself, you probably don’t need to look much further than being able to turn scoring the first goal into a reason why they’ll lose.
By the fifth minute of the second half, though, much of that baggage had fallen away. Within thirty second of the restart, Luke Shaw swung over a free-kick that Harry Maguire met perfectly to double their advantage. Within three minutes of this, Shaw’s delivery from the left was again perfect – this time following a sumtuous Sterling flick that turned the momentum of an England move down the left on its head – for Kane to head in from close range.
A quarter of an hour later, Jordan Henderson leapt to claim his first England goal, at the 62nd time of asking. Kane almost completed a hat-trick with a volley that was superbly saved by Bushchan. England had masterfully controlled the tempo of the game since the very beginning. The closing stages resembled nothing so much as that feeling you get when you take off a pair of shoes after a long day on your feet. You almost don’t realise just how uncomfortable all that baggage had been in the first place, or how much it was weighing you down.
Onward then, to Wednesday night, and a home match against Denmark for a place in the final. Denmark remain, of course, The Story of the Tournament. The narrative that’s waiting to happen. In 1992, their players were called back from the beach to stun an entire continent by winning this very competition from a standing start. By half-time in Baku yesterday evening, Denmark were comfortably clear, thanks to goals from Thomas Delaney and Kasper Dolberg, and even a Czech goal four minutes into the second half from Patrik Schick didn’t seem to shake them that much from their task at hand. They will make formidable opponents in the semi-final, and if England do revert to expectation over aspiration, then they could find a nasty surprise in store for them on Wednesday night.
This, though, has clearly and evidently not been the England of old, thus far. They’ve got to the semi-finals of the tournament without having conceded a goal, and after having edged their way through the group stages have started moving assuredly through their gears since then. Against Germany, they were patient, a touch lucky when it mattered, and absolutely clinical when it mattered even more. Against Ukraine yesterday, they dictated the tempo of the game from the outset and, apart from a period when a enforced substitution pushed Ukraine into a different formation which allowed them to finish the first half on a high, seldom seriously looked like losing their lead.
What we do with this, of course, is entirely down to us. The over-excitement is palpable this morning, and we all know that it could spill into something unpleasant. We all know that deeply unpleasant people will hitch their flags to this mast and will feel no hypocrisy in doing so. We also know that there is no shortage of these people in this country at the moment. But why worry about them? If we let them determine our mood, we let them win. This morning, we awoke to something which felt simultaneously very familiar and very unfamiliar indeed. It’s all a very long way from Nice. The five year plan is coming to fruition very nicely indeed, for now.