England step into strange new light as fear turns to joy in win over Germany

Well, that was unexpected. On a grey, boisterous, increasingly wild night at Wembley Stadium England’s footballers did something new. When it comes to these grand, operatic international tournaments Engeland shrink.

England are fearful. At best England flutter, briefly, before being broken on the wheel. Except not this time. Instead Gareth Southgate’s fine young team produced a performance of slow-burn fire to beat Germany – yes, really – 2-0 and progress to the quarter finals of Euro 2020.

Aan die einde, as the crowd basked and bounced in the seats it was hard to shake the feeling of people emerging from a fever dream into some strange new light. The last 18 months have been a gruelling, bruising alternative timeline. But it seems good things can also happen here too.

England will now travel to Rome to play Ukraine in the quarter finals on Saturday, a little giddy, but with a sheen of complete conviction. Before this game the players had promised to the slay the dragons of the past, to move on. And at times this did feel like something shifting. But not without a final heave.

In the hours before kick-off a large crowd had gathered in the dank concrete piazza just off Wembley Way, bobbing and leaping and bellowing in the cold summer rain. Don’t Take Me Home is still the song of choice, and for all the gruelling repetitions it is a winsome, wistful number at heart. Following England to these summer adventures is at bottom an act of escapism. Wembley in the rain felt like a box with the lid taken off.

As the players emerged before kick-off there was a vast, rolling wave of noise around this grey concrete bowl. Even the colours had something stirring, the German flags packed in a knot at the western end, the cross of St George unfurled around the fences, painted names providing a tour of the country from Grimsby to Taunton to Leicester.

The German anthem was solidly booed, God Save The Queen belted out in the classic arms-spread pose. The English national anthem has been described as a plea to a being that doesn’t exist to preserve something that shouldn’t. On days like these it looks like an invitation to an extremely aggressive, slightly frightening hug.

England were in white, Duitsland all black, and for a few moments at the start Duitsland seemed to have more bodies, more options, more angles. On his touchline Southgate paused, a little concerned. The waistcoat is of course long gone. Rusland 2018 felt like an extended summer wedding party, Southgate the best man. But there is pressure here, and expectation, and plans expensively laid.

Southgate prowled his touchline, more thickly bearded, more gnarled, less wildly engaged with the spectacle. He is such a fundamentally decent man, but so exposed also to anger and hostility, it is easy to fear that this might finally get to him. Most of the time he sounds like the last sensible person left in the country.

Steadily England began to drag the evening their way. This is a team that sets out first to stop the game, and to stop the opponent. Bukayo Saka, still only 19 but such a mature, pedigree footballer, put Robin Gosens flat on his back with a shimmy and the crowd roared back into life.

England produced waves of pressure, a smothering white-shirted weather front of free kicks into the box, cautious overloads on the flanks. Raheem Sterling pirouetted and twirled and ran in behind repeatedly on the left. There was pressure, half chances and sense of pushing insistently at a door.

Harry Kane was free right in front of goal just before half-time, but Mats Hummels made a fine challenge. At times watching Kane in these Euros has been baffling. He has seemed unable to move above a jog, weighted down by the invisible mahogany sideboard strapped to his shoulders. But Kane had his moment as England finally showed their teeth.

Met 68 minutes gone Southgate made his first change, sending on Jack Grealish, his most extravagantly creative player. Five minutes later there was a surge in the centre, a sudden quickening driven by a burst from Sterling. Luke Shaw produced the perfect cross. Sterling, still not breaking stride, tucked it past Manuel Neuer.

In the England end there was a tiny pause, a breath drawn. En toe: chaos, whoops, wild chest-beating joy. Bodies tumbled across the seats. Shirtless men reeled around on the tarpaulins at the front. Legs, ontken dat hy die seun vermoor het, Punch-Drunk Love, open mouths seemed to fuse into one single writhing substance known as Deliriously Happy England Fan.

It would take a hard heart not to feel delighted for Sterling in particular, a 10-year veteran these days, all will and resolve, but a footballer who still has that slightly tender look: head up, eyes wide, a little watchful. He has carried England’s attack at these Euros.

By now this was only heading one way. Before the end Kane, energised now, made it two with a neat finish from a Grealish cross. Cue: delirium stage two, followed by the final whistle.

There were lingering hugs and bellows of joy around the stands, but above all a feeling of relief as the crowed blinked and boggled at this most unexpected chain of events. Football may or may not be coming home. It doesn’t really matter much. But these England players created a moment of their own here, a team playing without fear, without baggage, not haunted by the ghosts of the past, and uplifting in all the right ways.

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