The trio of England penalty-takers who failed to score had the right arms to fall into. Gareth Southgate has been there, and now he’s been here, as manager, watching his team repeat the traumas of the past from 12 yards out.
That’s the trouble with demons. Just when they look beaten, they jump back out at you. A first tournament final for 55 years was a huge psychological breakthrough for the tortured English. But an old problem they thought they’d conquered against Colombia in Russia three years ago came back to haunt them, the spot kicks of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka all failed to reach the net. The consoling and the reassuring will be done by Southgate, who missed against Germany here 25 years ago and was only free of that burden when England beat their old rivals at this tournament.
For the defeated, penalty shoot-outs are a maelstrom. But it won’t take long to pick the good bits out of England’s Euro 2020 adventure. This is easily the best England team since 2004 - and has surpassed the golden generation by reaching a World Cup semi-final and European Championship final in consecutive outings.
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We can’t be totally uncritical of them in this melodramatic final. After Luke Shaw had opened the scoring with a beautifully constructed goal three minutes in, England drifted into the psychological trap of thinking they could shut the game down rather than pressing for a second goal. After half-time they were particularly misguided in dropping deep in their own half - and paid for it when the imperishable Leonardo Bonucci equalised on 66 minutes. Southgate tried to rectify the miscalculation straight away, sending on Bukayo Saka for Kieran Trippier. But by then England’s momentum was gone, their nerves were fraying. It took a monumental effort to stay in the game before Saka and Jack Grealish began to freshen up their attack.
England will travel to Qatar for next year’s World Cup as front-rank contenders, provided they can maintain this sense of purpose, team spirit and constellation of talent. Saka, Sancho, Grealish, Rashford, Rice, Reece James, Jude Bellingham and Ben White will all come back stronger 16 months from now.

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Southgate’s England have a new identity, a connection with their fans and a popularity beyond football that can sustain them. Rashford missed a penalty. England can take that, saddening though it is, given that he has helped so many thousands of children with his school meals campaign, and set such an example. Saka meanwhile remains a star in the making for Arsenal, and Sancho will soon light up the Premier League with Manchester United.
Since 1966 we’ve seen an England rugby World Cup win, great Ashes triumphs, Olympic gold rushes, world champion boxers, peerless F1 drivers - but nobody under 55 has ever seen the England men’s football team win a trophy. That drought will now stretch to 56 years, at a minimum. Yet any rational England supporter will come away feeling the wins over Germany, Ukraine and Denmark pointed to a bright future, under a manager who managed his talent-rich squad sympathetically but also with an iron hand.

This England team potentially has a bright future

Image credit: Getty Images

The “standards of decency” Southgate said the English represent were hard to find on Wembley Way, where people threw bottles and laid a carpet of broken glass, or in the dangerous mass incursions of ticketless fans who smashed through barriers and sprinted past stewards, who risked injury trying to stop them. Not to acknowledge the mania around this stadium in the run-up to the game would be negligent. Most people here embraced the communal spirit; but enough violated it for a cloud to be cast over England’s biggest night in more than half a century. There’s something desperately wrong in a culture when fallen people are kicked on the ground and children are terrified and reduced to sobs.
The post-match weeping seemed restrained. The crowd were more stunned than aggrieved. England’s penalty-shoot out record has improved under Southgate, like most things. The 4-3 win over Colombia three years ago was followed by a 6-5 win over Switzerland in the 2019 Nations League third-place play-off.

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No longer do England approach penalties off the cuff. Now they are methodical and sports psychology driven. They thought they'd cracked it. And when Andrea Belotti’s attempt was saved by Jordan Pickford the crowd erupted with shrill delight. The universal sense in this stadium was that England would now go on and win. When Harry Maguire cracked his into the roof of the net there seemed no way England would waste this second chance to seize the trophy.
One by one those superb youngsters, Rashford, Sancho and Saka made the lonely walk from the halfway line, and one by one they returned empty handed. Gianluigi Donnarumma was too good for Sancho and Saka and Rashford’s penalty dribbled off the post and out. Legions of England tournament players know this feeling, which Southgate has articulated so well. None of the current three should be talking about it still 25 years from now. It’s inconceivable that the talent flow from Premier League academies will make the country wait decades before another cup ends up back in England.
Let-downs have been a lot more painful than this. This one pointed somewhere, into the light, in Qatar and beyond. The inquest will be short. England’s reluctance to take the game to Italy after the first 45 minutes is about the only major cause for regret. Greater use of their attacking potential is a priority. But to lose on penalties to a team who were better on the night, overall, is not to face the usual demolition of hope and tide of recrimination.
Semi-final (2018), final (2021). That speaks for itself. And this England team speaks well for the nation.

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