It is the eve of the European Championship Final, who will emerge victorious England or Italy? Will it be The Beatles or Puccini, Jaguar or Ferrari, Shakespeare or Dante, St Paul’s or St Peter’s? Will those three Minis finally make it home with the gold?
Irrespective of the eventual result, this England team has stirred the nation and re-connected the English population with the concept of temporarily setting aside club loyalties and getting behind the national team.
When the Premier League re-commences next month those fans who cheered Jack Grealish when he warmed up ready to come off the bench, will revert to jeering him when he flops to the ground in search of a free kick; those fans who celebrated every Raheem Sterling goal will resume taunting him every time he misses a chance for Manchester City and the same fans who punch the air in relief at every Jordan Pickford save will go back to revelling in every one of his mistakes.
But for now, the nation is four-square behind this England team, a team of level-headed, intelligent, socially aware individuals, diverse in ethnicity and upbringing but united in their quest. Much of the credit for this must inevitably go to Gareth Southgate.
Its fair to say that his appointment, after the dismissal of Sam Allardyce, was not greeted with much enthusiasm. He was seen as a non-controversial, safe pair of hands, an FA “Suit” who would not make waves and do the sort of non-descript job that most of his predecessors had done.
Southgate has, however, exceeded all expectations. Like Sir Alf Ramsey, his approach to the job was shaped through bitter experience in an England shirt. Ramsey was in the England team which was humiliated by Hungary at Wembley in 1953; whist Southgate, should you need reminding, missed a penalty in the 1996 semi-final shoot out against Germany.
We Clarets fans of course took to social media to grumble that he selected Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady ahead of James Tarkowski and lamented Nick Pope’s injury which denied him his place in the squad, but irrespective of that it is undeniable that Southgate has in this tournament got most of his calls right.
It has taken the FA half a century to finally appoint the right manager. In the intervening years they have had some who were doing well until ill-luck derailed them (Robson, Venables and Greenwood) some who were the victim of hubris and lapses of judgement (Revie, Eriksson, Allardyce, Hoddle and Venables again), some who failed to inspire despite possessing solid credentials (Capello, Hodgson and Revie again), and some who were frankly hopeless (Keegan, Taylor and McLaren). Finally, in Southgate the FA have got it right.
Going back to Nick Pope, one wonders how he will reconcile himself with missing out on being a part of this squad whose exploits have so enthralled the nation.
He is a professional of course and perhaps he will be able to process and compartmentalise what must be a crushing disappointment. But he would not be human if he did not feel aggrieved at his misfortune especially since immediately prior to getting injured he was vying with Pickford to be named as England’s first choice keeper. Now, not only has the chance of a medal being denied him, but Pickford’s performances in the tournament have confirmed him as first choice in the short-to-medium term.
There is no doubt that Sean Dyche and his coaches will be aware of Pope’s predicament, and it is to be hoped that the situation is handled with empathy and professionalism.
That, though, is an issue for another time. Right now, let us join the lucky few who have a ticket to the final and take to the fan zones, the pubs and to our own sofas and cheer this England team on to a victory which, if it came to pass, would live long in the collective memories of English people everywhere.
Dave Thornley gets all misty eyed in anticipation of an England triumph. I would be a whole lot happier though if Nick Pope was in the middle of the England goal.