Lee Gadsby Basannavar
Gadsby’s England Chief England Correspondent
and Host of Gadsby’s England
One wondered if the feeling would have subsided by now. Leave the immediate reactions, the match reports, the headlines to others, and test oneself to see if that feeling, that unbridled, overpowering joy, and, above all, almost bewildering newness, is still prevalent.
The answer: It just keeps getting better and better and better.
It was an unbelievable early summer evening that sucked out just about every human emotion. As the teams emerged, people who had never met tore through their social distance bubbles to lean on one other, reassure each other, breathe deeply together. It was unspoken solidarity: What happens down there in the next 90 or more minutes we will share, and whatever does happen, we will rise and fall together. Everyone knew what emotions the other was feeling and would feel, such is the unspoken collective power of this fixture.
And my word, did we need each other in the first 45 minutes, Germany imposing themselves on England before England wrestled control back, before Germany found the gaps again.
Half-time. Honours even, but a sense of foreboding: this looked like a stalemate destined for extra time and then…
Same as it ever was. England vs Germany at Wembley: a spin cycle, it seemed, that just could not be broken.
Half an hour later, up popped Brent’s little prince, knowing what is essential is invisible to the eye, that the heart he grew barely more than a Pickford throw away would carry him to a moment such as this, one he created and completed. Yes, it was true: he was not burdened by painful history, even though his upbringing was spent beside the place where much of it was written.
None of England’s opposition have been able to handle Raheem Sterling throughout this tournament. Yes, Scotland were able to contain the auld enemy, but Sterling still pulled them apart; it was just a lack of clinical finishing from his teammates that kept England out. But Sterling’s constant ability to distract and deceive defenders with beguiling off-the-ball movement, then subsequently cut through them with the ball at his feet, has exhausted England’s opponents. It worked to a tee on Tuesday as he and his deputy, Bukayo Saka, softened Germany up before the swordsman came on in the form of Jack Grealish.
A tiring Germany now had to keep an eye on Grealish at all times, but in doing so, left themselves exposed. Sterling ruthlessly took advantage and the Germans cracked.
And herein lies the point—Gareth Southgate’s critics howl for Grealish to start, demand more ‘attacking’ lineups, but read carefully: Southgate compartmentalises these games. He seems to manage them in phases, each phase the product of the last one. Phases one, two and three are as much about wearing down opponents as putting goals past them, doing so with the foundation of a rock solid defence. If the goals come, the end result is simply made easier, earlier. If not, by the fourth and final phase, Southgate knows that having unleashed his young, dynamic and constantly-mobile players for 60 or 70 minutes, opponents will be primed for exhaustion. It may not light up the faces on the football purists, but four games into the tournament without conceding a goal and knocking out Germany, it certainly seems to be effective—much more so than the methods of England managers after — and not including — Terry Venables.
So while the cries of Grealish to start are understandable, what Southgate sees—and has been vindicated on—is this method. Not so much death by a thousand cuts, but severe wounds by Sterling and Saka, then the Grealish-enabling knockout punch.
It could’ve all come apart via Sterling, too; such is the brutality of the game. That disaster of a pass back which was then fed on to Thomas Müller had extra time written all over it—but suddenly England got what they deserved against Germany that they never had previously: luck. Superior English performances in 1990 and 1996, Anderton, Gazza, Lampard…this Müller miss was earned. And let’s not forget Pickford’s positioning made it as difficult as it could possibly be for Müller—he was outstanding in this game and should he continue this form for the remainder of the tournament, will surely be ranked as one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
When the whistle came, the country swayed in the elation; you could feel a shift in gravity—fans inside Wembley bathed in it, belted Sweet Caroline; in the BBC studio, a sense of healing in the eyes of Lineker and Shearer, both having endured their own agonies against Germany, and these players, experiencing the best moment so far of their careers. Harry Kane verged on tears, pausing during a pitch-side TV interview to take it all in.
Yet in his, Gareth Southgate still had the astonishing humility to apologise to his teammates for the hurt caused by his penalty miss of 1996, hoping that this victory would go some way to alleviate it. Apologise, Gareth? You changed our footballing world on Tuesday. No matter what happens from now on, you are one of the most decent men in sport; maybe that was a characteristic where some of your predecessors fell short, maybe that in fact is a key element in making the impossible job more possible.
Then, the glorious aftermath: BBC News at Ten leading with this story, devoting half of the entire broadcast to a football match; the scribes on their keyboards capturing the moment with beautiful and profound prose, the headline-writers delivering the unabashed emotional sound bytes of the moment on their front pages.
Enabling us to relive it all for the rest of the week.
But now it’s time to go again. Saturday brings a different kind of anxiety, but come at us again it will. And let’s be under no illusion: England could, of course, undo the momentum of this defining victory and leave us with, well, the memory of a defining victory against Germany followed by a devastating exit at the hands of a heavy underdog. My goodness, “we’ll always have Germany 2021” would be a pretty disconsolate consolation prize for a considerable amount of time.
However, England should, and one might want to put a circle around that word, compound this week’s joy by taking us into the semifinals of EURO 2020, reaching that stage for the second time in a row at a major tournament. The last England manager to achieve such a feat was Sir Alf Ramsey as he led then-world champions England to the European Championship semis in 1968, where they were defeated by Yugoslavia.
That is the company which Gareth Southgate is not too far away from mixing in. The post-Germany-jinx world lies ahead…