Losing to Germany on penalties in a semi-final isn’t news to me. I could have told you exactly how the Under-21 match would have panned out from the start. It was almost an inevitability. This scenario was discussed in the press for days, both managers entertained the possibility and, shock horror, look what happened. The strange thing is that for something so blatantly predictable, we are still no closer to stopping it happening.
Yesterday was the third penalty shoot-out defeat to Germany that England have suffered in semi-finals, following on from the 1990 World Cup and Euro 96. There have been other shoot-out disappointments over the years, but none of them sting quite as much as losing to Germany.
We are just not built for these occasions. It can’t be a technical issue, and it certainly isn’t down to practice as Aidy Boothroyd said England had been practicing shoot-outs after every training session, while Germany didn’t bother at all. Stefan Kuntz said there is no way to replicate the conditions of taking those penalties under intense pressure, with 120 minutes in your legs, so what’s the point?
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You can practice all you like, and maybe doing so will help develop each player develop their individual strategy for taking penalties. There is some value in that. But overshadowing everything is the unique psychological environment that those players find themselves in when the final whistle has blown and they start grouping together near the half-way line. That’s when decades of insecurity bubble to the surface. That’s when the prophecy starts to self-fulfill.

Nathan Redmond reacts to missing the decisive penalty

Image credit: Reuters

I would never have a go at anyone who missed after being brave enough to take that long walk, in front of millions watching around the world, with everything on the line. That alone is proof of character, and Nathan Redmond and Tammy Abraham have nothing to be ashamed of, but when it comes to actually striking the ball, Germany are ready to embrace the moment while we unconsciously run away from it.
We never really believe we will beat them any more. But it wasn’t always the case. Back in 1990, when I played in the World Cup semi-final against Germany in Turin, we had no insecurity at all. We had just put in our best performance of the tournament and we all believed we would beat Germany in the shoot-out. Germany always winning on penalties wasn’t a thing then. That was the moment the inferiority complex started, but we didn’t sense it in the moment.
We had gone 120 minutes and held our own. No one thought for a second that we couldn’t win the shoot-out. When I looked at the players who were taking the penalties for us, it was inconceivable that we would lose. But it didn’t go right for Chris Waddle and it didn’t go right for Stuart Pearce. I would have backed them nine times out of 10, especially Stuart Pearce, who I can’t ever remember missing a penalty for Nottingham Forest. Chris Waddle was such an artist – would anyone have believed he would miss the goal?
It was one of those things which just happened at the time, but out of it grew an entire mythology which continues to cloud English football. That was the starting point of it all. Now every time we get to a tournament we fret and worry about England and their inability to score penalties. It’s a key feature of the character of the national game. We almost will it on ourselves. And, 27 years on, it happened again last night. It all stems from 1990.
That night wasn’t just the start of our mental block on penalties. The whole emotion of the tournament – Gazza’s tears, the pride in defeat – was a huge factor in the launch of the Premier League in 1992. Those weeks with Bobby Robson in Italy restored the link between the country and its national game, which had become sullied by hooliganism. So in that moment the groundwork was also laid for another huge problem which continues to blight England’s efforts: the globalisation of the top flight and what that means for our young players now.

Paul Parker knows the heartache of losing a semi-final against Germany on penalties, and after the Under-21s suffered the same fate, he traces England's failin

Image credit: PA Photos

Look at the players in the current U21 squad. I think if their clubs really fancied them, they’d have played a lot more in the Premier League already. Players like Nathaniel Chalobah and Lewis Baker haven’t ever really earned the faith of Chelsea, who instead of promoting from within are looking abroad again with a move for Tiemoue Bakayoko in the pipeline. Being brutally honest, if these players were up to standard, they would be in the senior England set-up, like Marcus Rashford. But they have to be given a chance as well.
I don’t think any of those players are ready to make the next step with a big Premier League team, it just isn’t going to happen. And then you look at the Germans, who have more top-flight experience and some of whom look ready to join Joachim Low’s side. There’s more of a natural progression there, which England don’t really have.
Germany progressed on from that semi-final in 1990. They won the World Cup that year, won again in 2014 and finished runners-up in 2002. They won Euro 96, again after a semi-final win on penalties against England, and also finished runners-up in 1992 and 2008. Their national set-up has undergone a huge renewal and their league is designed to benefit the international sides. The contrast with England couldn’t be more stark: 1990 was our high point and we haven’t been able to surpass it since.
We’ve been stuck in that moment, and we keep coming back to it again and again. Last night was another galling example.
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