On into that new frontier. As Harry Kane turned to celebrate, with 103 minutes on the clock and the ball still spinning in Kasper Schmeichel’s net, England’s players seemed to be floating above the Wembley turf, taking in great fragrant gulps of air, eyes wide, fixing that moment in time.
It had been a long road there, fringed with hazards and notes of danger.
Mainly it has been surrounded by noise, that familiar squall of shouts, yelps, static. Kneeling and booing. Elite marxism. The wrestle past Croatia. The confusion of Scotland. Gareth as lightning rod for half-digested rage. Gareth as gent, hero and nation’s wise uncle.
And all around this so much talk a timpani that has swirled around this team right up until the moment it follows you out of that tunnel into the lights and then stops. It is those moments of clarity that make this whole thing work. Here it came from Kane, and from Raheem Sterling, who once again drove England right through this game, their most valuable player and unceasing heartbeat.
Kane’s winning goal came from the penalty spot, awarded for a fine point whisper of a foul on Sterling, a wafer thin foul, one for the foul-connoisseurs to sniff and pore over and praise for its gossamer qualities. Kane likes to pause over the ball, then turn to face the referee, clearing his vision. This time the kick was clumsy and saved. It bobbled free. However, Kane drilled it back gleefully into the empty net.
And Kane also led England in this game, the one where they finally struggled. After the passion play of Tuesday night, this was something more dogged and Nordic. For 90 minutes England and Denmark suffered, producing a game that felt like a variation on a noirish detective drama, all clues, turning points, dead ends.
Through this Kane was the player England needed him to be, a quietly assertive leader. He has four goals in these Euros now. It has been a show of deep character to rouse himself from those early days where he seemed to be staggering around Wembley with a Chesterfield sofa strapped to his back.
But this is the time to talk about Sterling. Really: just take a bow. Would you say, is it fair to assume, Raheem, that you’ve justified your selection now? Lol. It seems like a while ago now. Strange to think now that at times in the bubble-bound grind of last season Sterling seemed to be strapped painfully to the wheel. Football had become a hard, bruising place.
The basic relationship with the ball seemed to have soured. Sterling’s selection for the first game against Croatia was met with howls and shrieks, as though that body of work to get to that point should be erased. Somehow Sterling is always disappointing, even when he’s winning you the game.
As he did here. The penalty came with 12 minutes gone in extra time and Denmark paddling. Sterling did that thing he does, running into contact, toe to toe, taking his man into that uncomfortable place. A tired leg touched the back of his calf as he skipped through. Sterling went down. There were protests, wagged fingers, outrage. VAR upheld the call, which was perhaps based on sound as much as vision, the click of boot on leg.
How England needed that late driving energy here. Semi-finals are horrible games. And at Wembley this most serene and mannered of England teams finally felt it, that sense of vertigo, as Denmark came ready to play.
Midway though the first half they took the lead via a fine free kick from Mikkel Damsgaard, a footballer who looks like a 13-year-old chess genius, but who has a thrilling, shark like quality to his movements.
Here he took three paces back, skipped forward and spanked the ball with the top of his boot, sending it in a hard flat arc over past the groping hand of Jordan Pickford.
England equalised right away. Kane’s fine through pass set Bukayo Saka haring away, waiting for the targets to align, then releasing the perfect little cross into the six yard box. Simon Kjær, Denmark’s captain, could only deflect it into his own net. It was a kind of checkmate. Saka’s pass was so good Kjaer had no other move to make.
Either side, this was a game that simmered and vibrated with intrigue, snatched moments, collisions in tight spaces. The first action of the game had seen Sterling pick the ball up and simply power forward between three Danish players.
The second was more telling, a foul by Kalvin Phillips on Pierre Emile-Højbjerg. This always looked like a key battle, a meeting of fierce, mobile, deceptively powerful midfielders.
Southgate paced his touchline, looking a little grizzled, a little wired, more than ever like a notably heroic deputy headmaster. Two things helped. The midfield tightened up. And Denmark tired. You could tell. They stopped running around as much. The faces looked drained. Højbjerg settled into a stubborn holding pattern.
A lot happened. But somehow it felt as though nothing really happened. England had 20 shots at goal. 31 players came and went. By the end Denmark were gone, but they needed to be picked off. Then came that moment of clarity.
As the clock ticked round to 120 minutes with players on both teams running on fumes, Sterling could be seen haring in on goal, squeezing off a shot, still trying to win. Semi-finals are horrible games. But England finally found a way through one here.