OLIVER HOLT: England's jagged path of broken dreams may come to an end

OLIVER HOLT: It’s still hard to believe that all of the days of scapegoats, missed penalties and red cards may actually be about to end… England have walked a jagged path of broken dreams ahead of the Euro 2020 final

  • Gareth Southgate’s England face Italy in the final of Euro 2020 at Wembley 
  • It has been a painful journey for the Three Lions since their last trophy in 1966 
  • Since then tournaments have been littered with red cards and missed penalties  
  • The 2018 World Cup was when things started to feel a bit different for England 
  • Find out the latest Euro 2020 news including fixtures, live action and results here

There are places I’ll remember all my life from following the England men’s football team to major tournaments. Some are capital cities teeming with culture, one is an outpost on the edge of the Highveld, one is at the heart of the Ruhr, one is on the Cote d’Azur. I remember them for my friends and the camaraderie we shared but I remember them, too, for the way they ended for England. And they never ended well.

For those who seem puzzled or even amused by the outpouring of emotion that accompanied England’s victory over Denmark on Wednesday night, a victory that took the country to its first major final for 55 years, they could do worse than retrace England’s path as they have criss-crossed the globe this last quarter of a century in search of something they lost.

There is a line that runs from England’s Euros semi-final at Wembley in 1996 to the Euro 2020 final this evening. It is a jagged trail littered with the accoutrements of broken dreams: red cards, missed penalties, riot police, broken metatarsals, players hung in effigy from a gibbet outside a pub. We have made fear and self-loathing our faithful friends. That is why this catharsis feels so powerful.

England are just one step away from claiming their first major trophy in 55 years

Victory against Italy could end a jagged trail littered with broken dreams since 1996

There is blood on the tracks that lead from St Etienne in 1998 on to Charleroi in 2000 and on to Shizuoka in 2002 and on to Lisbon in 2004 and on to Gelsenkirchen in 2006 and on to Bloemfontein in 2010 and on to Kiev in 2012 and on to Sao Paulo in 2014 and on to Nice in 2016 and on to Moscow in 2018, the fourth straight tournament semi-final England had lost.

I went to all England’s games at Euro 96 because I was ghost-writing a column for Sir Bobby Robson, which remains one of the great privileges of my working life, so I was there when Gareth Southgate missed that penalty and embarked on the journey towards a redemption that some of us never felt he needed to earn but which could yet come to a glorious end against Italy this evening.

I remember 1998 when the imagery of pain and violence and impotence associated with following England first struck home. I remember walking into the lobby of the Sofitel near the old port in Marseille with a few colleagues to find the then FA chief executive, Graham Kelly, to talk about the English hooliganism defacing the tournament. He was in the bar, smoking a cigar, gazing out of big picture windows at Marseille burning.

The story could come full circle from the start point of England’s semi-final defeat in 1996

I remember Glenn Hoddle doing his best to take us into his confidence in La Manga, explaining why he had had to leave out Paul Gascoigne. ‘Come on, lads,’ he began. It was his first and last attempt at taking us into his confidence. A tournament that had begun with Gazza smashing up Hoddle’s hotel room, with Kenny G for background noise, ended with defeat by Argentina on penalties in the second round.

David Batty, who missed the decisive penalty, had never taken a spot-kick before. David Beckham, who had been sent off for flicking out a foot at Diego Simeone, was hung in effigy from a gibbet outside The Pleasant Pheasant, a pub in south London. 

I remember Euro 2000, walking around the Place Charles II in the centre of Charleroi where English hooligans had hurled chairs and tables the day before and going into the Eglise Saint-Christophe. I remember looking at the visitors’ book. ‘I am sorry for what has happened to your city,’ a fan had written in it. ‘We are not all like that.’ I remember Phil Neville being made that year’s scapegoat.

I remember catching the Bullet Train to Shizuoka, an hour outside Tokyo, in 2002, and watching Ronaldinho’s free-kick sail over David Seaman’s head to consign England to defeat in the World Cup quarter-final.

Since then tournaments have come to an end on the back of red cards and penalty defeats

I remember a couple of my friends booing the England goalkeeper when he walked into the mixed zone. No matter, we told ourselves, there was still plenty of time for the Golden Generation to have its moment. No shame in losing to Brazil. This was just one tournament too early.

It was always a tournament too early. I remember 2004 and the excitement of watching Wayne Rooney burst on to the scene like our avenging angel. This was the one. England had momentum. I remember staring over from the press box at the Estadio da Luz at the quarter-final against Portugal and seeing Rooney fall while he was chasing a through-ball. I remember seeing him substituted and knowing it was over.

I remember the 2006 World Cup and the Wags phenomenon in Baden-Baden and the glorious awkwardness of staying in the same hotel as the players’ families and arguments with Joe Cole’s dad and Paul Robinson’s wife and Aaron Lennon’s brother, and my friend, Neville Neville, acting as peacemaker and going to the room where Jamie Carragher’s dad was staying to be told off about a story that had appeared in the paper that day.

England even managed to fail for a tournament under Steve McClaren for the 2008 Euros

I remember a volcanic row between one of my colleagues and the relatives of a few of the players. I remember my friend saying England would be knocked out soon so we’d be at the hotel a lot longer than them. I remember them having a long lunch on the day they departed and sticking the bill on my friend’s room.

I remember a train journey to Cologne with Peter Crouch’s mum and dad, listening to them talk about how hurt they were by some of the media treatment he had had and realising I had never thought about that carefully enough. I remember Gelsenkirchen and Rooney’s red card and Cristiano Ronaldo winking and our impotent rage and the end of the Golden Generation.

I remember Wembley in 2007, when we didn’t even qualify for the Euros and the Wally with the Brolly, and a qualifier in Barcelona when Steve McClaren told the England bus driver to see if he could run over the Daily Star’s Chief Sports Writer, Brian Woolnough. Brian is gone now and McClaren was joking. 

But there was always an edge in those days. I remember South Africa in 2010 and thinking England’s 0-0 draw with Algeria in Cape Town was the worst match I had ever seen. I remember Rooney staring into the television camera, saying: ‘Nice to see your own fans booing you.’

Frank Lampard’s goal which wasn’t given led to the introduction of goalline technology

I remember how we always obsessed about where the team were staying. In Germany, it was a mountain-top castle. In Krakow, in 2012, it was a boutique hotel smack-bang in the city centre. In 2014, it was a beach hotel in Rio. After a while, the penny dropped: it didn’t matter where we stayed. We always checked out early.

I remember Bloemfontein in 2010 and Frank Lampard’s shot bouncing down behind the goal-line and the referee waving play on and cursing FIFA for not having introduced goal-line technology. I remember Gareth Barry trying to chop down Mesut Ozil before one of Germany’s goals but not being able to get close enough to him to foul him.

I remember Kiev at Euro 2012 and Andrea Pirlo’s Panenka penalty in the shootout that put us out in the last eight. That penalty felt like a symbol of something we could never be, an assurance we could never possess, a coolness that would always desert us. I remember writing that the tournament was a free hit for Roy Hodgson. It was the 2014 World Cup that really mattered.

England have come a long way from the side that were embarrassed at Euro 2016 by Iceland

I remember we lasted seven days at the 2014 World Cup. At least the training base was beautiful. It was in the shadow of the Sugar Loaf and the sun shimmered on the waters of the South Atlantic. But the beauty didn’t rub off in Brazil, either. Nor the rhythm. England were out after two games.

I remember 2016 and writing a piece saying England were about to explode into the tournament. It was the day before we played Iceland in the Euros. Oops. I remember thinking I had never seen a team freeze with fear quite as much as England froze that evening.

And I remember Russia and the feeling that things were beginning to change. I remember the media day at St George’s Park before the tournament, when every one of the squad spoke to the press and how their stories of humble beginnings and hard work and family sacrifice moved the public.

There was more heartbreak in 2018 but the feeling that things were beginning to change

I remember Moscow, where we finally won a penalty shootout in a major tournament. And Moscow, again, when Kieran Trippier’s free-kick flew over the Croatia wall and bulged the back of the net. And thinking that at last we were heading to the final.

I remember seeing Gareth Southgate at the foot of the steps of the St Petersburg stadium after we had lost the third-place play-off to Belgium and thanking him for what he had done. I remember wondering how long it would be before England travelled this far again.

And even though it seems to run contrary to nature, I wonder whether, maybe, those days of fear and loathing and violence and impotence and burning flags and scapegoats and bad penalties and red cards, that are the frame of reference for generations of England fans like me, are about to come to an end.

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