football

Brilliant England: A team that belongs on the biggest stage


England have played a great tournament (Picture: Visionhausl/Getty)

It’s time to celebrate this team. This brilliant, humble, empathetic, talented England football team.

This team who represent everything which is great about this country and nothing that is bad.

Who keep the ball like they really know why they’re doing it. Who see a challenge and feel only determination to succeed, not fear of failure.

A team that’s solid in defence — have yet to concede a goal in the tournament from open play — yet comfortable, oh so comfortable, on the ball.

A team which finally took the lead against Denmark at Wembley on Wednesday, then soothed the nerves of a nation as they lulled their semi-final rivals to sleep with their pretty patterns, dropping a little deep at times but always retaining their desire for the ball.

Southgate is inspiring this England side (Picture: Getty)

The object was to keep the ball away from their opponents and if that meant keeping it close to their own goal then so be it. Whereas past England teams would have smashed the ball downfield only to see it return moments later at the feet of the enemy and with more malevolent intentions, these players have the confidence and ability to pass it among themselves, safe in the knowledge they have the technique and the poise to ensure it isn’t going anywhere it shouldn’t.

And did you really doubt this England team would see Denmark off? Really? Of course you did, but only because that’s what always happens. Yes, history told us it was never going to be easy but this team is not burdened by history and have looked to be following a different script all summer long.

A team built around the pillars of world-class centre-backs Harry Maguire and John Stones. As uncompromising as the names suggest, and yet very modern defenders able to keep possession and build from the back, as the 21st century game demands.

A team with Jordan Pickford, an oft-maligned goalkeeper who has never let England down and is visibly determined not to start now. A defence completed by Luke Shaw, who decided to come to this party as Roberto Carlos, and the Swiss-army knife that is Kyle Walker, a man as accomplished playing third centre-back as he is right wing.

A defence like that can take care of itself but has the added convenience of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips playing British Bulldog in front of them. Busy but never reckless. Always near the ball and more often on the ball.

A team who pass with patience but attack with ruthless purpose. With the youthful trickery and bravery on the ball of the always available Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho, complemented by the guile of Mason Mount, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden, the never-doubted deadly finishing of Harry Kane and the unrelenting all-round world-class brilliance of Raheem Sterling.

Above all Sterling, a man who people who refuse to know better once attempted to put into a box marked ‘overpaid, underperforming footballing excess’, but a man who refused to be labelled and kept on rising above it all. A player every other national team on the planet would take in a heartbeat.

This is the most celebrated England team for 50 years and somehow it feels as if we don’t celebrate them enough. This particular vintage has been unburdened by garlands like the ‘golden generation’ of 15 years ago but are far more deserving of the expectation that comes with such grand monikers.

England will contest Sunday’s final (Picture: Visionhausl/Getty)

Where previous incarnations of England squads stumbled through first-knockout rounds and went home at the first sign of real trouble, this team have never seen a challenge to which they did not rise.

Where their predecessors were big names from big clubs, sometimes split on factional lines, the line-up that started the semi-final with Denmark was made up of players from eight clubs — some big and some not so big — but with no hint of club rivalry or animosity. An England team.

On Sunday they face an Italian side who are equally blessed with quality, belief and team spirit. An Azzurri squad who could not be more confident after extending their unbeaten run to a staggering 33 games.

As Gareth Southgate put it on Wednesday night: ‘It’s the biggest possible test we could have’. And so it should be, it’s the final of a major tournament after all. It won’t be easy, it never is. That is the point at this level. Suffering and overcoming adversity is all part of the test of champions.

But for once, history is on our side. After all, England’s record in major tournament finals is pretty good, thank you. But should they lose on Sunday night — and goodness knows we hope they don’t — there will still be a time when we can reflect in celebration because this team is here to stay. Back-to-back major tournament semi-finals under Southgate, clear progress from the World Cup of 2018 and the youth and depth of the talent pool at his disposal — not to mention the abilities of the manager himself — suggest this is something built to last for longer than one glorious summer.

Italy in the final is proper big-boy football and England might come out second best, but they have nothing to fear. They have proved they belong on this stage. A team to be proud of. Perhaps even the best team in Europe.

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