After taking the time to reflect on the tournament, and battle past the bitter disappointment of the final, I can now finally divulge the events of the year-late European Championships. Better late than never I suppose, and they didn’t fail to meet our high standards of the more eagerly than ever anticipated finals. I don’t know about you, but I enjoyed every single minute of it. Actually… maybe not the latter stages of the final.
Let’s go back to the very start; England v Croatia, Wembley Stadium. A team which left us all heartbroken in the summer of 2018. But they were not the team they once were, ranked fourth in the world at the end of the 2018 tournament, they’d now slipped down to sixteenth. England, on the other hand, were fifth at the end of the World Cup, but at the beginning of this tournament, ranked fourth. A small jump, but slow, progressive steps to what we aim for in the future. It was a rather dominant performance for England, which saw a one-nil victory for the opening game of the group stage. The game saw two of our best players of the tournament link up: Kalvin Phillips providing the assist for Raheem Sterling’s winner.
The next game shortly came, against our bitter rivals, and next-door neighbours, Scotland. It was such an eagerly anticipated game - a rather large build-up set up for a relatively poor game on the night. We didn't show the quality that was expected, and only really looked like scoring when John Stones’ header met the post. It was a bit of an anti-climax to say the least, with Scotland perhaps deserving the win!
The final game of the group stage arrived, with us almost guaranteed a place in the last sixteen. A one-nil win saw us top of our group, which might not have been such a good thing, depending on the events that followed in Group F the following night. It was all to play for, with all teams still in contention to prevail to the last sixteen. Germany faced Hungary, while Portugal faced France - European Champions vs. World Champions. Hungary were leading Germany, looking like the Germans were heading out; France were leading Portugal, looking like the current European Champions Portugal were exiting at the group stages. In the end, both games finished 2-2, so the three favourites progressed: France finished first, Germany second and Portugal squeezed a best third-place finish. This meant we faced old foes Germany, who it’s fair to say since that day in 1966, have got the better of us.
Tuesday, June 29th; a day England won’t forget in a hurry. A two-nil win over the Germans, wow. Sterling got the first, but not long after Thomas Müller had a one-on-one with Jordan Pickford. I think we all realised it was 1-1 as come on, it’s Thomas Müller, but oh no - he missed! It was a big let off, but I’d say we deserved some luck. Harry Kane fired in his first goal of the tournament to round things off and seal the famous win. We’d play the winner of Sweden v Ukraine, which the latter won, extremely late on in extra time.
Saturday, July 3rd; another day the nation will never forget. No problems this time round, as we absolutely hammered Ukraine four goals to nil. It’s the first time we saw the real depth of our attacking threat, and boy was it strong. Harry Kane scored two, while two unlikely players got their names on the scoresheet - Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson.
Wednesday, July 7th: yet another night that required the England history books. We faced Denmark in the semi-finals of the European Championships - are we dreaming? To start with it didn’t exactly go to plan, with Denmark’s Mikkel Damsgaard scoring the first goal from a free kick of the tournament. We’ve only waited until the penultimate game of the tournament for a direct free kick to be precisely placed into the net! Pickford could have done better, I hear you say? Quite possibly. We got back in it just before the half-time break, thanks to an own goal from the Danish captain Simon Kjær. No winner was found, so we headed to extra time, and the nerves well and truly started to kick in. A penalty came to our rescue, and on reflection perhaps a bit lucky to be rewarded it, but the referee was giving us very little the whole night (biased, I know I know.) The man who I think all us English would bet our house on to score the penalty stepped up. Kasper Schmeichel managed to save it, but on the rebound the Spurs striker made no mistake and put it into the back of the net. My heart broke, and was mended back together again within a second or two. I hope you didn’t actually bet your house on him to score the pen, although he still scored, so hopefully no damage was done. We survived the jitters of the second half of extra time, the whistle went, Wembley went mad. The whole entire country went mad - this is when I think we all started to believe. However, the team unbeaten in thirty-three matches leading up to this stood in our way to the trophy. Both teams played extra time, so there wasn’t much of an advantage. It’s a final - form goes out of the window, right?
Sunday, July 11th; a day full of every emotion. We were in our first ever European Championship final! It all started so well, with Luke Shaw scoring in the second minute, and Kieran Trippier getting the assist. I’d say we played well in the opening half an hour, but then Italy really started to show. An unlikely scorer for Italy too, with thirty-four year old central defender Leonardo Bonucci’s close range effort going in after Marco Verratti’s header was tipped onto the post by Pickford. This recovered the Italians from their disastrous start. Extra time required, which led to penalties, and we know how these normally go. It was incredibly hard to watch. Missed and saved penalties for both teams, but teenager Bukayo Saka’s penalty was the decisive one which sealed Italy’s win. They were the European Champions. It wasn’t to be on the night which was a huge disappointment. Heartbreaking, but pride was the overriding emotion. My country, our country, reached the final of the European Championships. If you’d have said we would reach the final, I, and the whole of England, would’ve chewed your hand off. We’ll be back stronger for the World Cup which is just over a year away; we will have learned from our mistakes, and come back bigger and better. The world better watch out.
So it didn’t actually come home; it went to Rome instead, which Italy and Juventus’ defensive pair Bonucci and Chiellini teased and taunted us with.
England’s player of the tournament - that’s a debate. Jordan Pickford? Raheem Sterling? Harry Maguire? You decide. But one thing we can agree on, is that we had one hell of a tournament, a tournament that will remain in our hearts forever - we’ll remember the good times, but also the bad.
So, in a tournament which has seen some incredible goals, from Paul Pogba’s top-corner screamer to Patrik Schick’s forty nine point seven metre worldie, unbelievable results, such as France, World Champions, knocked out on penalties in the last sixteen by Switzerland, and the Czech Republic beating the Netherlands two-nil comfortably, the biggest story of the tournament has to be the one of Danish star Christian Eriksen, who collapsed on the pitch and suffered a cardiac arrest, in Denmark’s opening game of the tournament against Finland. The Danes showed incredible strength and courage, returning to play the game after the heartbreaking scenes just an hour before. Denmark soon became everyone’s second favourite team, and after everything the team went though, to reach the semi finals was a truly inspiring achievement. I take my hat off to each and every one of them, and wish Christian a speedy recovery.