The Wembley roof was redundant last night as a smattering of drizzle rounded off an evening which ended with that exquisitely painful footballing tradition – the missed England penalty.
The rain was on the inside.
Most of it came from grown men (and women), all tearfully realising that we are all still going to have to cling to Bobby Moore’s shinpads for a few more years if we want to see what true footballing glory looks like.
Even young Prince George, watching from the royal box with his parents, was off his seat in ecstasy
The buoyed-up, incredulous euphoria which had gripped this stadium for so much of a deafening Euro 2020 final had been ground to a mulch of what-iffery and desolation
And to be despatched by the fickle gods of the penalty shoot-out… They are not, and never have been, England fans, as poor Gareth Southgate knows horribly well. His men could hold their heads high but most did not feel inclined to do so. Who can blame them?
The buoyed-up, incredulous euphoria which had gripped this stadium for so much of a deafening Euro 2020 final had been ground to a mulch of what-iffery and desolation.
England 1. Italy 1. And then the rest. This was a dignified – but still sensationally awful – end to a summer of wholly legitimate expectation, a dashing of hopes which had, for once in an England campaign, seemed justified. Yes, there was a surfeit of ludicrous hype but it was not without proper foundations this time.
And it had all been going so well here at the ancestral seat of the English game. Never in the field of Covid-era competition, surely, had we seen quite such a magnificent display of Working From Home.
It is an old cliche to say that a ground ‘erupted’ at some pivotal point in the game but I am afraid there is no other word to describe the reaction to Luke Shaw’s belter just two minutes in to this match.
Even young Prince George, watching from the royal box with his parents, was off his seat in ecstasy.
It felt genuinely Vesuvian as the Italians might say, a seismic combination of bottled-up tension, sheer ecstasy and 65,000 bodies going up and down like steamhammers.
Well, not quite that many. There were around 8,000 Italians at one end of the ground. And jolly well-behaved they all were too, in contrast to some of the home crew, I’m afraid to say. An hour before the match riot police had been called in to stop a storming of the gates by England fans.
But then poor Marcus Rashford fluffed his shot. And we know what happened next. In all the build-up to this game, we had somehow managed to forget that we were all here only the other day
It was the Italians’ turn to go berserk in the 66th minute when Leonardo Bonucci somehow managed to knock one in from a melee in front of Jordan Pickford’s goal. And from then on, the Azzurri were on fire and the rest of us were suddenly transported back to those dismal days of England campaigns too numerous to mention. Harry Kane’s men were suddenly rattled.
They had done everything right up to now. From then on it suddenly felt pre-ordained that England would screw it up at the last; grasp defeat from the jaws of victory and all that. And so it came to pass.
As perhaps the largest British television audience of all time do not need me to tell them, there was a controlled, clinical, steeliness to the England team last night.
Yes, they wobbled but they bounced back in extra time, very creditably in fact.
But it was not enough.
The half-naked Houdini who ran on to the pitch four minutes from full time was the last time many of us will smile for a long while.
And then penalties, for crying out loud. There was a glimmer of light as Pickford saved the Italians’ second salvo – the stadium had not been as loud all night.
But then poor Marcus Rashford fluffed his shot. And we know what happened next. In all the build-up to this game, we had somehow managed to forget that we were all here only the other day. Remember the Rugby World Cup final in Tokyo? That was less then two years ago. I remember sitting in the stadium in Japan gradually realising that the wrong England team had turned up.
It did not feel like that last night – this England team were well up to the task – but the gut-numbing, fist-gnawing descent into doom and gloom at the end felt much the same. I suppose those of us inside Wembley can at least say ‘we were there’ on the second greatest night in English football history.
So who were these few, these lucky few?
Savouring the twin joys of being there and a cold beer outside the ground, I found former Sheffield United player Terry Kennedy, 27, and his father, Terence, soaking up the atmosphere. The bandage on Terry’s leg was testimony to the fact that his playing days are over. These days he works with his father on a building site. But his old team-mate-turned-England superstar Harry Maguire had sent him tickets. ‘He’s the best bloke I’ve ever known,’ said Terry. ‘Top man.’
Thousands were trying to get inside the Boxpark sports bar where former England goalkeeper David Seaman was on stage revving up the crowd. Here I found seven fans from the south coast who had secured their tickets via a combination of good luck on the UEFA website and a tout charging £3,500 a seat. ‘We all just had to be here, come what may,’ said Portsmouth fan Matt Barnes, 31, arm-in-arm with Southampton fan, Gavin Starks, 42. Normally, these two would be arch rivals on a regular Saturday afternoon but not on this occasion. All rivalries are buried when England play. They both followed England to Russia at the last World Cup. But neither could ever remember a game quite like this.
Prince George looked shattered as William and Kate comforted him after a first half that had the royal box rocking
Nineteen-year-old Saka was consoled by Gareth Southgate as penalties came back to haunt the manager who missed his spot kick as a player at the semi-finals of Euro 1996
Outside, things were getting pretty lively long before the game. By teatime, Olympic Way was covered in beer and broken bottles. There was what you might call friendly banter between rival fans. ‘You can stick your twirly pasta up your a***’ was a regular cheery refrain aimed at anyone in a blue shirt. I heard one tanked-up yob on the Tube go completely overboard, shrieking obscenities about the Pope. There were later reports of innocent bystanders being doused in beer on the Bakerloo line. I didn’t see any old-style full scale hooliganism but there was an ugly, menacing air as dusk fell on HA9.
Reports that some fans had gatecrashed Wednesday’s semi-final had encouraged others to have a crack last night. Some made it inside and were chased by police and stewards. With 20,000 empty seats, some intruders must have managed to blend in. At one point I saw a policeman on a white horse cantering around the outer concourse. Shades of the 1923 ‘White Horse’ final when a mounted policeman had to deal with 100,000 extra fans. At least things remained calm inside the stadium.
A lot of Italian fans were local anyway, such were the restrictions on foreign travel. You needed an Italian passport, a British postcode and a bit of luck online.
‘The reaction has not been too bad – a bit noiser than usual maybe,’ said Luke Sarro, 31, a call centre manager from Cambridgeshire. He was here with his brother, Jordan, 28, a Primark shopworker. Both raised in Britain, their parents are Italian and both men are diehard Italy fans. Yet they both follow Peterborough United the rest of the time. Such was the unusual complexion of last night’s crowd.
The brothers didn’t mind taking a bit of abuse, not least since their ticket had only cost them 85 euros each. Most England fans had paid many times that amount, even for official tickets. Anything black market was well in to four figures.
But then what price to witness history?
Nineteen-year-old Bukayo Saka is inconsolable after failing to score his penalty kick and handing victory to the Italians
Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci carry the trophy and celebrate with team-mates after winning the penalty shoot-out after the UEFA Euro 2020 Final at Wembley
One or two were probably past their bedtime. A few rows behind me I spotted Belle McNally, the delightful ten-year-old girl who had become something of a celebrity at Wednesday’s semi final when England Number 19 Mason Mount gave her his shirt at the end after spotting her waving a sign bearing his name. She liked him not least because she has a brother called Mason.
The story had captured the eye of a sponsor and last night brother, sister and Dad, Tom, a Bromley tech designer, were all given tickets to the final. ‘I was so shocked, so emotional when he gave me his shirt,’ she told me. As his name was announced last night, she was on her feet doing a little jig. At least she is young enough not to feel the remorseless inevitability of these evenings.
Let us all remember that we have been on one of the great sporting journeys of modern times. We simply stumbled at the last. Football does not do silver medals. But is there some silver lining to which we can all cling?
Can’t we console ourselves with this thought: Southgate’s lot are young. They are on a roll. The consequences of Covid mean that it is only just over a year until the World Cup kicks off in Qatar. Aloha, Doha…
Feeling better? Nope, me neither. Let us congratulate Italy, draw the curtains and leave today to all those chianti-quaffing Scots dancing in the streets.