We’re not creative enough. We’re not positive enough. We’ll go on getting bad results, getting bad results, getting bad results.
An interesting thing about years of hurt and all those oh-so-nears. When the lyrics to the great and apparently inexhaustible Three Lions were written, England had played only seven proper tournaments since they’d actually won the World Cup. Just one of those had been anything close to a near-miss.
That history of glorious, thwarted potency has always been a bit contrived. It is football’s version of another delicious English vice, the reverence for beautiful failure, decayed glory, lost Albions.
At times it feels as though more creative energy has been poured into deconstructions of why England aren’t the very best, than into making sure they’re good enough. We were always nearly complete, always nearly so sweet. And nothing has ever been whiter than the Queen’s white gloves.
Except it seems that other stories are also possible now. The best part of England’s brilliantly focused 4-0 defeat of Ukraine – or as they must now be known Only Ukraine – is that it had no nuance, no shadows, no alternative history.
England were dominant in the most straightforward way. They won a quarter-final without alarms, killing the game in an hour. And yes, it was only Ukraine, but it is just another kind of English exceptionalism to pretend these results are beneath consideration, that only Brazil 1970 will really do. Other people are also in this room. And England do not always beat their alleged inferiors.
In Rome they won with something close to total control, with nothing to declare but impressive team play and sharp finishing. We can say it now that seedings have been justified, a par level of achievement attained. This England really are unlike any other England.
Not necessarily more talented, or destined for any greater glory. Denmark are very capable of winning at Wembley on Wednesday, as they did last October. But something has shifted. The air feels clearer. And whatever happens from here this is already the best England tournament performance of the modern age.
It is a pretty low bar. To get to a Euro 96 semi-final all England had to do was draw 0-0 with a pre-good Spain, then watch their opponents take some bad penalties. In contrast to the World Cups of 1990 and 2018, this time around they haven’t even conceded a goal. Two knockout games have been won by an aggregate of 6-0, with a feeling at all times of a very clear design in play. This is England: not like England.
It is the kind of change, tactical and textural, that seemed remote not so long ago. England are dinosaurs – and not nimble, raptor-like dinosaurs but a bumbling diplodocus. Rewind nine years to Kyiv 2012 and England exited the Euros looking like a team that had turned up at a chess match armed with a fistful of rocks.
One old, slow, highly intelligent footballer made more passes than Roy Hodgson’s entire midfield. Defeat came on penalties against Italy, but this was an embarrassment, a group of players spooked by the game’s basic unit, the ball.
And yet in Rome Harry Maguire and John Stones controlled the tempo. Together they completed 183 of 191 passes, just 15 of them long, 10 of those successful. It didn’t look forced, or imitative. This comes mainly from club football. But a light has been allowed to enter.
Meanwhile, England are terrified. England are stuck. We remember 2006 and a hugely talented team chained to the immutable 4-4-2, and panicked by the idea of fluidity in positions or personnel.
Fast forward and in Rome, Jadon Sancho was exactly the right option in exactly the right game. Never mind that Sancho had one start in the last six weeks. This was a decision based on training well, and on the conviction Sancho would slot in happily and carry out his brief. England, who are terrified, made 12 dribbles in a knockout game, led by Sancho on four.
England are also unlikable. Scroll back to the contortions of 2010, a team that seemed to hate being a team, to be never fully dressed without a scowl. Nice to see your own fans booing you. A small section of England fans do still boo the team. But they boo them for being nice. It feels like progress.
Right now even people outside England quite like, or don’t mind, England. Andriy Shevchenko, a haggard figure by the end, but still with the air of a handsome feudal duke whose weekends are spent fighting duels and playing the harp, was generous in his praise. Gareth Southgate is admired in Europe – and even now by some of those who had already retreated quite deeply into the cave of anti-Garethism.
There were other notes of progress in Rome. England – yes, England – brought on an 18-year-old to help close the game down with 64 minutes gone. There were periods of rest built into the plan, spells where they played “dry”. A tournament is an ordeal. England, who are relentless, who must exhaust themselves, are happy to sit now too.
And perhaps they can now enjoy that Wembley semi-final just a little. The best part of this England iteration is its lack of pretensions. England know they’re good; but just, for now, good enough.
Denmark will be a much tighter game against stronger opponents. And even in Rome there were signs in England’s back four vulnerability. Southgate may switch back to a three/five-man defence and try to win by taking the air out of the game.
It may be tearful and fraught, ready to be stowed away safely in the comfortably sorrowful archives of English football history. But whichever way the game goes, this England of Gareth and Raheem and Harry – terror of confused Conservative MPs and bruised opposition midfields alike – has already moved the story on.