Gareth Southgate noticed when David Seaman appeared on the big screen at Wembley after the Germany game. Normally the England manager does not need to mention Euro 96; someone else will do it first. This time, he did, saying Seaman and the rest of his teammates would never play in an international final. It was an indication that Southgate has carried the burden of a missed penalty with him for a quarter of a century.
But now his England are finalists. Twenty-five years later, his redemption tale only requires its final chapter, England perhaps only 90 minutes away from completing their reinvention. David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, who wrote Three Lions’ increasingly iconic lyrics, were at Wembley to see them win a semi-final. Thirty years of hurt had become 55, but England’s traumatic past may be just that: history.
If the personal narrative has underpinned Southgate’s reign, so has been a determination to avoid the mistakes that proved England’s undoing in previous tournaments. The semi-final with most relevance was not Germany in 1996 but Croatia in 2018. Progress was checked in the last four three years ago. Wednesday’s game felt the antithesis of that.
This time England conceded first, and to a terrific free kick. The question that had remained unanswered during five consecutive clean sheets was how they would respond to trailing. The response was supplied: positively. In a triumph of endurance, this time it was England who got stronger as the game progressed. Harry Kane’s missed penalty was a throwback to numerous previous disappointments, but with a twist: he converted the rebound.
Southgate was criticised for delaying his changes in the World Cup semi-final. He did again in its European Championships counterpart. Yet the most brutal change showed his decisiveness. Alf Ramsey was not permitted to make changes in the 1968 semi-final; Terry Venables chose not to in 1996 when, had he brought on Robbie Fowler for one of his wingers for the last couple of minutes, Southgate might not have taken the sixth penalty. So Jack Grealish was England’s belated first substitute in a European Championship semi-final, but also given the unwanted distinction of being their first substitute to be substituted.
Bringing on Kieran Trippier to protect the lead was a reminder of Southgate’s unpopular reversion to a back three last autumn. It showed the merit of being able to switch between systems. It demonstrated a manager with an understanding of his players, one who is getting the best out of them. In the quarter of a century since Euro 96, as the Premier League has become multinational, it has featured many a world or European champion, many of them teamed at club level with English players who have underachieved for their country.
Not the current crop. Harry Maguire, sent off against Denmark in October when he looked haunted, a man whose life felt in meltdown, stood defiant, producing a vindication of Southgate’s backing of him.
Kane had his finest game of the tournament, supplying defence-splitting passes in the way he did in England’s prolific 2019. He has grown into the competition in a way many a predecessor did not.
Raheem Sterling was irrepressible, making driving runs deep into extra time of his sixth start of the tournament and his 60th appearance of the season. Denmark are entitled to be aggrieved about the spot kick Sterling won — “it feels bitter,” said manager Kasper Hjulmand — but over 120 minutes, England were the better side.
The scenes at the final whistle highlighted the merits of Southgate’s inclusive brand of patriotism. As few under 60 remember England winning a semi-final, perhaps most did not know how to react. Or, indeed, how it will feel to get one more win.
England fans celebrate reaching Euro 2020 final