When the full-time whistle sounded at Wembley on Wednesday, I, like the rest of the nation, felt a tremendous wave of jubilation, relief and, if I’m honest, utter disbelief.
They are the first English men’s team to reach a final since 1966 (in case you haven’t heard).
But not only that, I also felt a tremendous sense of pride that it was this group of players, with this manager and support staff, who wrote their names in the history books.
As an English BBC Sport journalist I have been following this team for over four weeks now, before a ball was kicked against Croatia. At the time, a reporter who had been covering England for much longer than I described them as having bottled up what they had started in Russia. Somehow, three years later, they seem to have managed to mix it up to come up with something even more special.
“Southgate, it’s you” – lead by example
On day one, Gareth Southgate stood before the media in St George’s Park, thanking them in advance for their support and explaining his awareness of what his position means to people – that whenever England play, they have the opportunity to create new memories for fans that last a lifetime. He said that to his players and, from what we’ve seen on the pitch, it’s a message that has been heard.
He is a man who is not afraid to put his head above the parapet and make his voice heard. In every interview, and even in fleeting conversations, he is always articulate, engaging and thoughtful (which was perfectly demonstrated to me in his full-time response to the game against Germany about the personal pain he has. suffered since he sadly missed the penalty in 1996), and his players are too.
Laughs, tears and superstitions – getting to know the Three Lions
Each day, after watching the first 15 minutes of training, we get ten minutes (more due to covid restrictions) in our outdoor tent, which was built specifically to comply with regulations, keeping strictly three meters between me and the player.
One of my favorite interviews was with 19-year-old Bukayo Saka who told me about growing up in the shadow of Wembley and then how he got the equivalent of Aces and A * s at GCSE level six months ago. . he made his debut at Arsenal.
What you didn’t see in there, luckily for me, was my attempt to start the interview by calling his nickname, petit piment, in French. I have spent centuries practicing the accent but managed to get the wrong letter. Needless to say, he found it hilarious and asked me to repeat it a few times. I hope our editor shredded this footage.
When I sat down with Jack Grealish after the game against Scotland, I didn’t just want to respond to the constant clamor for him to step onto the pitch – I also wanted to dig a little deeper, find out more about the boy with the socks rolled up and hair slicked back.
I was keenly aware of his closeness to his family and the fact that he had a sister with cerebral palsy, as well as the fact that he had suffered the unthinkable tragedy of losing his brother, so instead I just wondered what it was. like growing up in the Grealish house.
He spoke of their incredible support, but also of how his mother has to support his sister, Rosie, whom he described as his best friend. He asked me afterwards if I was deliberately trying to make him cry because he might be feeling emotional. He then told me that she would come to the game against the Czech Republic, which he then started, and he was obviously so desperate to make her proud.
I also heard about the bracelet Kieran Trippier wore given to him by his young daughter, Luke Shaw’s lucky slippers and Phil Foden’s fear of looking at penalties – our discussions were very varied, entertaining and above all – pleasant.
The campaign’s only defeat – life inside the camp
Players don’t just stop for interviews, either.
Regardless of which player hosts the press conference, they’ve also been up against a member of the media on darts before. I was up the first week and, far from being an expert, I managed to beat Mason Mount. I told him after that it was OK as long as it’s the only loss he has suffered this week – now I hope it’s his only loss of the entire tournament.
I also constantly hear stories about the quality of the outfitting of their personal spaces at St George’s Park. From putting pictures of their families in their rooms, to providing basketball courts and ping-pong tables, this is an environment that has been carefully cultivated.
At the right time, there are also authorized treats – and I don’t mean just in the form of Ed Sheeran coming in for a private performance.
In the first week we spotted an ice cream van coming in. I conveniently introduced myself to the owner of the van and managed to swindle one off to “try” before it hit the players. We also later found out in an interview with Kalvin Phillips that a pic ‘n’ mix stand had been set up (he had gone for candy, with snakes being his favorite), ensuring all gamers were taken care of.
Whatever happens on Sunday, one of the biggest lessons this summer should be that we now have an England national team to be proud of, on and off the pitch. They have personality, pride and purpose.
I still want England to win. But above all I want “this” England team to win.