It is a fact that this England team are habitually breaking records that were insurmountable to so many England teams of the past. As another famous year for the national team is filed under ‘H’ as history, it seems pertinent to question whether 2021 was a good year for them.
If you decide it is almost comically obvious that 2021 was of course a good year — in comparison to most — then perhaps the question becomes, more precisely, just how good a year was 2021 for England? Let’s break this up.
There was more good than there was bad. That in itself is good. When it most counted, and when more people were watching than seems even remotely likely, England so nearly delivered everything. They kept control of their own destiny for almost all of the summer’s football, methodically dispatching each opponent with lethal pragmatism.Embed from Getty Images
When Germany visited at the round of 16 stage, there was personal revenge for Gareth Southgate as he guided England to their first knockout win over the Germans since the 1966 World Cup final. And there wasn’t a penalty in sight, let alone a limp one. For now.
England’s one foray out of the country took them to Rome. Little did they know it, the city would soon be on the lips of most of Europe in just a few weeks’ time. But if Rome was to become the city of nightmares for England, its Stadio Olimpico was briefly the colosseum of dreams as Harry Kane, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw put on superb displays to help England hammer Ukraine. It was back to Wembley for the semi-finals now, and reaching the final four of major tournaments was starting to become, well, habitual.
This time, there was more good news to come. Try as they might — and they didn’t half try — Denmark were not quite fit enough and not quite smart enough to humble England in their own backyard. With the help of a fortunate penalty decision and a laser beam to the eye of Kasper Schmeichel, England achieved the unthinkable. After Mikkel Damsgaard’s wonderous free-kick had threatened to end England’s fun, they rallied and returned to reclaim control of a fixture hanging so precariously in the balance for so long. England made sure it was their songs reverberating around Wembley at the end of one of those nights that is more a period of your life than it is a matter of hours.Embed from Getty Images
England, 55 years since they last did, would grace a final once again. And as was always likely, the news found its way to Neil Diamond. His choice to immediately become an honorary England fan wasn’t really a choice at all.
And so 11 July 2021 arrived. No more advent. Now it was back to work for one final time. Good grief, England returned to work in some fashion. Kieran Trippier crossed for Luke Shaw to thunder the ball home, it kissing the post on its way past the tournament’s best player Gianluigi Donnarumma. Shaw was probably less of a goal threat than every single of his teammates. He’d timed his maiden international goal to perfection. England roared. Two minutes into the final, the Three Lions had pierced the Italian defence. Would it be fatal to the visitors?
An English reader uncovering this story for the first time would be heartbroken to see that The Good has now made way for The Bad. But of course everyone knows how this story ended. On the pitch, it ended badly. Not far from the pitch, it ended so deplorably that it wouldn’t even befit a chapter entitled The Ugly.Embed from Getty Images
No one seemed to know which way to call England–Italy ahead of their showdown. The Italians had been far and away the best team of the tournament, and had won every game. England had better players, and had been the best defensively — a statement that sounds stolen, as if it belongs not to England but to a team like Germany or the Italians themselves. But these are no longer the dark ages.
Clearly. England were in the final, for goodness’s sake. A good old 50–50. The best kind of final. England, it turned out, were the wrong 50. As the minutes ticked on by, the front three of Mason Mount, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling became ever more isolated from the rest of the team. There were roughly 40 minutes of the final in which England were the better side. The problem was that they were the first 40. Very few football matches are decided in the first 40 minutes.
Thanks to Roberto Mancini’s tactical changes, and to England’s instinctive retreat, Jorginho — stationary, with the ball at his feet — looking sideways to midfield partners Marco Verratti or Nicolò Barella became the symbol of the entire second half. Italy’s equaliser was always coming — looming like a dark grey cloud about to do its worst over Wembley. Leonardo Bonucci jabbed the ball in from a corner, and stood tall on the advertising hoarding as he took in raucous Roman cheers. Was this to be the latest in an incredibly long line of Italian invasions at Euro 2020?Embed from Getty Images
Into extra-time. Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka and Jordan Henderson came on. Could any of Southgate’s substitutes rekindle English belief? With a minute remaining in extra-time, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford were thrown on in the hope that they could stick spot-kicks away. Penalties had been hanging ominously over the tie for a while. Kyle Walker was one of the players withdrawn. It meant Rashford had to deputise at right-back for the final moments. For all England’s riches on the right flank — Walker, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Trippier, Reece James, and plenty more — a forward was now playing there in the second-biggest match in the national team’s 150-year history.
It seemed an apt way for the Roman Gods to communicate down to the pitch that this just wasn’t going to be England’s night. Age-old England curses were back. The player-out-of-position curse and the tournament-mayhem curse had returned at the worst possible time.
Then came the most crushing curse of all. The penalty curse struck for an eighth time in 31 years. Rashford missed, Sancho missed, then Saka missed, and despite the superb efforts of Jordan Pickford in goal, England’s players were soon walking past the Henri Delaunay trophy unable to pick it up. In London, it rained miserably.
The drunkenness, breaking into the stadium, rioting on the streets, and racism targeted at the black players who had missed penalties all further tarnished a day that had swiftly become nightmarish for England.
For the players, there was agony for all; many were yet to lift a trophy in senior football and truly believed this would be their first. For the nation, there was heartache at seeing just how close Southgate’s team were to becoming unequivocal European champions. Football found its way not home but to Rome.Embed from Getty Images
On a statistical level, this was a near-perfect year for England. The national team backed up a Euros final by qualifying for the World Cup. Italy are facing the very real prospect of missing out completely, so qualifying isn’t always the formality it is rumoured to be. The Three Lions’ previous highest number of goals in a single calendar year was 38 — achieved very recently indeed, back in 2019. This year saw that record not only beaten but obliterated. England scored 52 goals. They will almost certainly never achieve that again.
On an emotional level, 2021 was far from perfect for England. But a lot of that is down to the distress at processing the fact England were a solitary spot-kick away from achieving what has often seemed predestined never to happen to them again.Embed from Getty Images
Jordan Henderson summed up 2021 well when he spoke to EnglandFootball.org in November.
“It’s been a big year for England and the team. What we did in the Euros was special. We couldn’t quite get over the line in the end, which everybody was disappointed with. But I think it shows progression. It shows the team are going in the right direction, and we want to keep going. We want to keep improving, we want to keep getting better and go that one step further to becoming successful and win a big trophy.”
The World Cup is a big trophy.
9/10. An Italian goalkeeper’s glove away from full marks.