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  1. The Staggers
11 July 2024

England’s Southgate era is over, whether we win or lose

We have failed to relight the unique fires of 2021.

By Nicholas Harris

England are through to their second tournament final of my lifetime, and only their third ever, and yet it still doesn’t quite feel like it. So far, there’s been none of that uncompelled participation that defined the euphoria of the last few tournaments – no lads queuing up to get imitation Phil Foden haircuts, far fewer flags, little of that sense that the football team might serve as a blazon or symbol for the nation at-large. Even Gareth Southgate’s outfits have tumbled, from those distinctive waistcoats to these awful white knit polos. The only obvious trace of the last Euros is the choruses of “Sweet Caroline” which do still leak out of the television while Harry Kane is completing his dumbfounded post-match interviews.   

We have just three days to rally behind the team. Instead, we have so far been returned to the standard England-fans dynamic – resentment from below at what we see as the inadequacies of our superstars above. The criticisms have been merited. What has the system been for the past several matches? To deploy players out of position and watch them flap until we concede? And only then to make the much-delayed substitution which gives us that tempo and impetus missing for most of the game? The King himself has noticed – in his congratulatory message last night he asked if we might win the final without any “last minute wonder goals or another penalties drama”, for the sake of the nation’s “collective heart rate and blood pressure”. 

The semi-final match threatened to descend immediately into that painful pattern, an early slip from the otherwise redoubtable Declan Rice allowing Xavi Simons time and space for a strike that put The Netherlands ahead. And it took a rather dubious penalty (“an absolute disgrace” flashed the impressively disinterested Gary Neville at half time) for Harry Kane to level it up.  

But this was a changed team. Phil Foden was restored to his balletic Premier League form, and you could see in his desperate, brattish eyes how keen he was to score. Kobbie Mainoo drove the ball from deep, looking to make chances and yards every time the ball fell to him. Even Southgate’s decision-making can’t really be faulted. An early formation change gave England dominance of the midfield for the entirety of the first half, while his (late, always late) substitutes of Cole Palmer and Ollie Watkins combined for a final, winning goal.  

Even so, the last Euros created their own momentum. Whether you know Churchill as a man or a dog, no one could fail to register a tournament victory over Germany. And the mood became infectious as we unlocked from Covid into that long, hot summer. But, in 2024, we have had little but humid drizzle, and only last night did have a match we could feel genuinely good about. It’s unlikely that we’ll see the particular fevers of that 2021 final again, win or lose.  

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And maybe for those of us young enough to take footballing success somewhat for granted, who expect regular semi-finals, it’s time to accept that the 2017-2021 period was something of a historically contingent phenomenon, energised by the extracurricular tensions of nation, politics and pandemic. That era has been over for some time. And it is arguably more impressive that the team has got this far without such off-the-pitch propulsions. But, given the vague apathy in the national air at present, it feels even more imperative that, at long last, England give us something really to celebrate.  

[See also: Dreams of tennis and the best job in the world]

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