This article earned me a place on the ten-person shortlist for the 2022 FWA Hugh McIlvanney Student Football Writer of the Year award.
by Dom Smith
Once Luke Shaw had leathered home the goal that will define him, his elated teammates joined in with his totally unplanned celebration. England’s most unlikely scorer had notched the earliest goal in any Euros final — and given the nation a ‘pinch me’ moment of hope that the years of hurt might have reached their final chapter.
Two minutes on the clock, and England led Italy — the tournament’s outstanding performers. Kyle Walker has spoken since about what was flashing through his mind on that dizzying jog towards Shaw and the corner flag. He felt this was it. He thought he and England were about to win the European Championships.
Alas, in a world of clichés and catchphrases, just as “it’s better to score early”, it’s also true that “good things come to those who wait”. Roberto Mancini waited. He calmly observed as a buoyant England ran his side ragged for the remainder of the first half.Embed from Getty Images
Great managers earn their money not through their team selections but on in-game decisions. Mancini made Italy changes — and Italy changed as a result. The mercurial Federico Chiesa and the metronomic Marco Verratti and Jorginho tussled the game out of the home side’s grasp. The more England retreated, the more the Italians welcomed the invitation and threatened to level. And that equaliser increasingly felt a matter of when, not if.
England had been here so many times before. Alan Shearer against Germany in the Euro 96 semi-final; Michael Owen in quarter-finals against Brazil at World Cup 2002 and Portugal at Euro 2004; Wayne Rooney from the penalty spot in the Euro 2016 Iceland thundercollapse; and even under Gareth Southgate, when Kieran Trippier crashed home his free-kick against Croatia in Russia. Each time, the Three Lions started excellently and took an unexpected early lead. And each time, they sat on what they had, invited pressure, and became tragic spectators to their own demise.
From a pinballing corner, Leonardo Bonucci stabbed home, and then leapt onto the advertising hoarding, chest out, drinking it in, knowing even at 1–1 that football was coming to Rome. But not immediately; this was to be a long, drawn-out death. Italy were never quite decisive enough to kill England off, and England never quite bullish enough to haul themselves back into contention. England were eventually finished off by their most wounding penalty shootout defeat of all.
If Shaw’s belting opener felt a lifetime ago when the half-time whistle blew, it felt like a distant relic by the time Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini were posing with the trophy beside a dazed and forlorn Harry Maguire after the match. And as always seems to happen, the England inquest began almost immediately.Embed from Getty Images
Could England have taken more risks? Could Southgate, should Southgate have made a change earlier — preferably one that worked out better? Why did Harry Kane never get into the game? But in amongst all that finger-pointing was the slight possibility, in the corner of your mind, that England’s fate had been sealed back on page one, just 115 seconds into the drama.
Whether England scored too early is an unsatisfying question in such a vitriolic era. There’s no obvious scapegoat for an early goal — and we needed someone to blame. Scoring a goal tends to be a good thing. But the way England responded to their shock opener — and the way England teams of the past reacted to early leads — was the issue here.
If England’s route to the Euro 2020 final showed one thing, it was that the national team have scarcely been better prepared for a tournament. Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland deployed two distinct formations throughout the summer, alternating based on the profile of the opponent. Their expanded Covid squad of 26 players offered space for only in-form players. Previous England managers have struggled to fill a plane with 23.Embed from Getty Images
They strolled to the semi-finals exuding professionalism, seeming to have nailed tournament football without conceding a single goal in five games, and looking like they’d expended far less energy than the sides they’d knocked out along the way.
But of all the plotting and planning that Southgate and Holland will have done in the build-up to that final, surely none was centred around the assumption that England might hit the net within two minutes of kick-off. They were highly unlikely to have a well-developed contingency plan for that.
So any kind of game plan England did have went out the window before some players had even touched the ball. It was preservation football for 118 of 120 minutes. England had given themselves a bittersweet kiss of death. Again. But this time there was no one to blame — though an ugly few chose to see it differently.