Gareth Southgate’s beautiful and brilliant England team have given this nation its mojo back

FIFTY-FIVE years of hurt, five years of Brexit and 16 months of Covid – no wonder we feel like a party.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and for once it is not an oncoming train.

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Tonight’s final, our first in a major tournament since 1996, is already monumental[/caption]
Gareth Southgate’s squad have lifted the mood of a nation that has had its heart broken too many times[/caption]

It is a heavenly light, full of hope, joy and redemption.

It is the light that shines in the great curved arch above Wembley Stadium, and it is the light that promises a lovely day tomorrow.

England v Italy tonight, our first final in a major tournament since 1966, is already monumental.

And coming after all the misery of the greatest health emergency for over a century, it feels like the biggest football match in a lifetime.

So much has been endured by so many for so long. And that’s just the football.

There is the misery of losing in those three semi-finals in 1990, 1996 and 2018. The memory of botched penalty shootouts, English tears and Germans strutting, as if glorious failure was the best that we could ever manage.

And then there is the misery of another kind, the tears that come from a much deeper well, the wounds that can only be inflicted by real life.


This football tournament has been played in the long, life-rending shadow of the pandemic.

That makes tonight more than just a football match.

Coronavirus has touched every life in the land. Families have been torn apart, the education of our children has been devastated, livelihoods have been wrecked.

If England beat Italy tonight, it will provoke the biggest party in this country since VE Day[/caption]
Just like in 1945, fountains will be for dancing in and statues will be for climbing[/caption]

The statistics — 128,000 dead from Covid, the longest NHS waiting list in history — are a glimpse of a mountain of human misery.

For those of us born since 1945, the pandemic is our only experience of seeing our lives upended by a great global tragedy beyond our control.

And even before the pandemic struck, this was not a happy land. Our country was violently divided by the referendum of 2016.

The vote to Leave the EU was the largest vote for anything in British history.

But the vote to Remain was the second largest vote for anything in British history.

The bitter aftermath and years of political paralysis have divided families, ended friendships and fractured the country.

Covid, Brexit and a lifetime of English football failing to live up to our hopes and dreams. No wonder we are ready for liberation.

No wonder we are caught up in a rush of collective euphoria. Thanks to England going all the way to the final of Euro 2020, we feel like one nation once more.

The Times
We’ve suffered through five years of turmoil since the Brexit vote[/caption]
The Times
And the country is emerging from the misery of the greatest health emergency for over a century[/caption]

And it feels so good that, whatever happens against Italy, I don’t think it will ever wear off.

I have never seen crowds quite as delirious with joy as they were at Wembley at the end of the England games against Germany and Denmark.

I have never seen an expression on a player’s face like the one Phil Foden wore when Harry Kane scored against Denmark. This bliss, this rapture, this jubilation — it is not normal. This ecstasy is on another level.

It is unfettered happiness that is laced with relief, release and perhaps a touch of hysteria.

As a nation, we have been full of fear, anxiety and apprehension for too long.

These thrilling, life-affirming, nerve-shredding, fun-packed Euros have unleashed endorphins into every corner of our country.

As a nation, we have been full of fear, anxiety and apprehension for too long.

You can sense it everywhere now — a giddy cocktail of joy, pride and disbelief. This is really happening.

Gareth Southgate’s England have lifted the mood of a nation that has been battered, bruised and had its heart broken too many times, and in too many ways.

England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup Final had exactly the same power.

It’s no wonder our newly-united nation is ready to party[/caption]
These thrilling Euros have unleashed endorphins into every corner of our country[/caption]

For my parents, and aunts and uncles, and all the grown-ups in our Essex suburb, the war was not history.

It was something they had all lived through just over 20 years before Bobby Moore lifted that Jules Rimet trophy.

When my dad took his shirt off at the beach or in the garden, people were shocked to see that his upper torso was a livid mass of scar tissue, the souvenir of a Nazi grenade. For that generation, the war would never really be over.


But that sunny, rain-soaked day at Wembley in 1966 helped them to believe that the horrors of the war were part of history now.

It was only a football match, but it mattered, it mattered desperately to a country that yearned to have its pride restored — and witnessing Bobby Moore smile and Nobby Stiles dance and Bobby Charlton cry lifted the spirits of all England.

But since that sacred day in 1966, England fans have been forced to bear glum witness to a cavalcade of calamity, cock-ups and crashing out too soon.

And the worst of this has been the nagging feeling that England falling short was somehow written in the stars.

But not any more. And never again.

Whatever happens against Italy, Gareth Southgate and this beautiful, brilliant team have given the nation back its mojo, its zip, its pride. It is a special feeling. And we deserve this moment. All of us.

Southgate’s team have reminded us all why we fell in love with football in the first place[/caption]
At just 23, Marcus Rashford has taken on the Government and won[/caption]
Harry Kane, Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson are all talented leaders, and it rubs off[/caption]

The players, that manager, this nation. England are a team full of captains.

Harry Kane, Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson — leaders of their clubs, leaders of men. And it rubs off — many of these players seem far older than their years.

Raheem Sterling, the player of the tournament, looks like a veteran at 26.

Declan Rice and Mason Mount are both just 22. Marcus Rashford is still only 23 — and he has already taken on the Government over free school meals for underprivileged kids. And won.

So many of those players have triumphed over adversity — absent fathers (Kalvin Phillips’ father in jail, Sterling’s shot dead when he was two, Rashford’s single mum working multiple jobs to feed her kids), early disappointments (Declan Rice dropped by Chelsea at 14) and terrible career-threatening injuries (Luke Shaw’s horrific double leg break in 2015).

They are a likeable lot, and a loveable team, and there is real affection for them in this country.

Mason Mount going to the crowd to give Belle McNally, ten, his shirt felt symptomatic of this team’s inherent decency.

They are an England shaped in the image of their manager. Full of steely resilience, capable of real flair and ultimately steeped in a sense of what is right.

You sense they will not only be better footballers under Gareth Southgate’s tutelage. They will also be better men.

It is Gareth Southgate who has made England’s dreaming a glorious reality, Southgate who is creating a new narrative for our football team. It is rendered possible because, of course, he is such an integral part of that story.

Win tonight and the brave, heartbroken boy who missed his penalty against the Germans in 1996 becomes the thoughtful, decent, brilliant man who gave us our first glittering prize since 1966.

If we win, nobody will be able to tell you there are strict rules about singing, hugging and kissing strangers[/caption]

Gareth Southgate’s England reminds us all why we fell in love with football as children, and there are boys and girls who will watch the Italy game tonight who will recall every moment 50 years from now — just as I recall watching that final in 1966 on a black-and-white TV set with my mum.

It is only a football match — honest. But the drama will be seared into our collective ­consciousness for ever.

And if England beat Italy tonight, it will provoke the biggest party in this country since VE Day. Fountains will be for dancing in. Statues will be for climbing.

Nobody will be able to tell you there are strict rules about singing, hugging and kissing strangers. Not tonight. Tonight, tonight.


If we win tonight, then it will be the best feeling ever. Win tonight, and a country that has been divided for so long will celebrate as one, all England fans together, and a united nation once more.

Win tonight, and some of the terrible wounds of the pandemic will be salved, and some tears will be dried, and all that has been lost and denied and cancelled over the past 16 months will somehow be more bearable.

If England beat Italy tonight, it will provoke the biggest party in this country since VE Day.

Tonight is one of those sporting events that defines the mood of a nation and says something real and true about who we are now.

This England squad are a credit to this nation. They embody the best of us. For too long this country has been insulted, traduced and done down.

We have been told our history should be a source of shame.

Our monuments to our war dead have been desecrated and our greatest heroes reviled. We have been called racist bigots too often.

This country’s love for this magnificently multiracial England team, this reflection of who we are now, forever nails all those lies.

This happy breed, this band of brothers — they have already given us memories that we will cherish for ever.

But we do not have to beat Italy tonight to make us proud of Gareth Southgate, this England team and our country. We are proud of them already.

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