One more step to immortality. At the end of a raucous night at Wembley, which provided twists and thrills, brief dismay followed by fleeting jubilation and then long spells of anxiety before ending with an outpouring of incomparable joy, the headline was a simple one: England will play Italy in the European Championship final here on Sunday night.
They did it the hard way, captain Harry Kane scoring the rebound having seen his 104th-minute penalty saved by the oustanding Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel after 90 absorbing minutes failed to produce a winner. Mikkel Damsgaard’s 30th-minute free kick had breached England’s goal for the first time all tournament but Gareth Southgate’s team fought back and Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka saw his low cross turned in by Danish defender Simon Kjaer six minutes before the interval.
By the end of an energy-sapping night and a game that had everything but a red card, those first-half moments felt like distant history. Once referee Danny Makkelie blew his full time whistle tears were flowing from the eyes of many. Men and women embraced strangers like old friends and there was an overwhelming feeling of shock. Have we really just witnessed that? Is this really England?
Buoyed by an atmosphere that had been building both inside and outside Wembley for several hours pre-match, England had started well with the front four linking up nicely and Raheem Sterling making Schmeichel work to keep out a low shot. But it soon became apparent that Denmark were a significant step up from the opponents that had gone before. Kyle Walker needed to hit top speed to deny Mikkel Damsgaard breaking, while Jordan Pickford’s distribution proved problematic on two occasions before Damsgaard curled narrowly wide.
It did not take too long for the overwhelming feeling of positivity to dissipate as England’s sprint from the blocks was slowed to a jog. Denmark sensed some flaws to exploit and the crowd, so joyous when belting out Sweet Caroline and Atomic Kitten a few minutes earlier, were growing antsy. That was translating on to the pitch and when Damsgaard stepped up to put the Danes in front with a fine free kick that Pickford may arguably have had a better crack at keeping out there could be few complaints.
For the first time all tournament England found themselves behind. The anxiety emanating from the stands had crept up another notch. How would they react? By trusting in their ability. This was when all that psychological preparation, the emphasis on believing in the process and not getting overwhelmed, was supposed to come into action.
A fresh series of attacks arrived and Saka shook off a slow start by running with the directness that won him this starting spot in the first place. Schmeichel denied Sterling with a save his dad would have been proud of but the next time Saka got on the ball he squared a low cross towards Sterling, whose pressure on Kjaer led to the hitherto imperious defender sending the ball into his own net.
Nine minutes had passed since conceding and the six until half time saw England try to capitalise on their regaining of momentum but a pattern developed after the break as the Danes dropped deeper and England pressed. Their most threatening moments arrived from set pieces as Harry Maguire watched a goalbound header clawed off the line by Schmeichel.
Yet as Denmark retreated further a series of half-opportunities from open play soon arrived and the introduction of Jack Grealish with 20 minutes to go brought renewed belief. It was a one-way traffic jam. Denmark, reaching to the depths of their substitutes’ bench, provided minimal attacking threat but packed the defence with such discipline that for all of England’s pressure and possession extra time had felt close to inevitable long before Kane snatched at a last-gasp attempt.
He saw another attempt kept out by Schmeichel early in extra time before his moment arrived. There were doubts over whether Sterling had been fouled or went down easy but the VAR was satisfied. The initial attempt was low and firm but the Leicester goalkeeper guessed right and made a decent parry only for Kane to get to it first and guide home.
Cue an outpouring of joy that has not been seen since the new Wembley reopened. Drinks were thrown, the acrid taste of a smoke cannister wafted across the ground. The second half of extra time passed like a blur, England sitting deeper but closing it out smartly. If another goal was to arrive, they looked more likely.
Whatever happens now, even if it all ends in heartbreak against Italy on Sunday night, this tournament must be considered a resounding success for Southgate’s team. The past month had already provided a famous win over Germany, as much a victory against the nation’s own neurosis as Jogi Low’s team, that was followed up with one of their most comfortable ever tournament triumphs against Ukraine.
There has been undeniable improvement for a squad, the second youngest of the 24 in this competition, packed with players who should remain ascendant for a few years yet. They have learnt from the World Cup three years ago, starting steadily with the aim of peaking when the stakes are highest.
Southgate has imbued his players with the freedom to write their own history, enabling a nation obsessed with the past to move on and accept that old habits can be unlearnt. As the chorus of Three Lions rang out for the umpteenth time it was impossible for even the greatest cynic not to believe that, yes, this time football might be coming home.