So this was it. The chance to end 52 years of hurt. The chance for a group of twenty-odd lads to become legends. The chance to finally put an end to the ongoing debate: Ronaldo or Maguire?
For all the luck of the draw that was afforded to Gareth Southgate’s side, the England manager must be applauded for taking us to the final, regardless of the result. It was he who had the knackers to finally play a more forward-thinking formation with three defenders who aren’t terrified of footballs. It was he who made the waistcoat this summer’s must-have evening attire. It was he who told Danny Rose to back off Adnan Januzaj in the hope that he’d score and gift us this fortunate run of games. And it was he who brilliantly moulded the side to see off Croatia in a surprisingly comfortable 2-0 semi-final victory. Eric Dier AND Jordan Henderson on at the same time – who’d have thunk it?
But for all the hysteria and all the litres of lager that have drenched us all on this month-long rendition of Three Lions, those outside of England’s ever-closing borders – Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland included – wouldn’t have given Southgate’s lads a chance against France.
Les Bleus have famous blokes all over their squad with their line-up and subs bench looking like your mate’s little brother’s FIFA 18 Manager Mode with Barnet in the year 2025. And when that Antoine Griezmann corner appeared to have struck the hand of Ashley Young, stomachs hit arseholes all over the country as the referee strode towards the ominous screen of VAR.
With the scores tied after half an hour of cagey football – cagey football that we’d edged on the basis that Jordan Henderson had nutmegged Paul Pogba five minutes previous – some held their breath whilst the referee watched the incident again and again. But so long was the weirdly hench man in all black at the screen for, that breath simply couldn’t be held much longer.
“The screen’s bloody frozen,” shouts one overtly confident matey in your local.
“CTRL Alt-Delete,” mutters a more witty chap sipping a craft ale.
“WELL, OF COURSE, IT’S GONNA LOOK BAD IN SLOW MOTION,” yells you – truly incensed by this point that your dream summer is melting before your drunken eyes.
Nestor Pitana finally leaves the screen and makes that rectangle symbol with his index fingers. He points towards the spot and as Olivier Giroud fist pumps, the record usage of the C-word by an entire nation in one day is shattered in seconds.
Antoine Griezmann, a once loveable little footballer that you know detest steps up – not arsed by either the lengthy wait to take penalty nor the fact that Dele Alli is belittling his Fortnite abilities right in his ear. He hits it towards the left side of the goal and whose hands are there? Whose hands are slapping that football away? Those of that big, beautiful, yellow bastard, Jordan Pickford. Pints everywhere. Nil to nil to England at half-time.
Lineker, Shearer and Ferdinand spend half-time jumping up and down and hugging whilst occasionally playing a clip from the game whilst over on ITV, a VAR-fuelled fit of rage from Roy Keane leaves a soiled empty seat between Mark Pougatch and his remaining pundits as they discuss a dramatic first-half. “The first goal will be crucial,” says a pitch-side Ryan Giggs, before continuing to point out that Moscow is in Russia and that this is a World Cup final.
Back to it then and it’s more of the same. Both sides look shit scared of the occasion for ten minutes before Southgate decides to make a change… off with the waistcoat and on with the waterproof as rain begins to pound down onto the pitch and all who stand around it. “The rain will suit us, I reckon,” says your Dad in his armchair, apparently unaware that it rains in France, too.
A tactical change from Southgate comes next and it’s arguably his bravest of the summer. Rather than bowing down to the ‘Rashford or Sterling’ choice he was given by the British tabloids, he chooses to play both at the very same time. Madness. Can you imagine? Alli is the man who comes off, seen as a possible liability after picking up a booking for timewasting during an especially long high-five routine with Jesse Lingard after the latter had won a corner in the opening moments of the half.
With England now looking a man light in midfield, France start to take control and it becomes thirty minutes of football harder to watch than the opening ceremony with Robbie Williams. Pogba shoots from range and that man again, Pickford, denies him. Griezmann shoots in the box and it’s Maguire’s gargantuan head that denies him. Giroud registers his first shot of the tournament and it’s his own ability that denies him, as the chance of the game is skewed wide from six yards out.
89 minutes on the clock and 73 per cent possession for the French in an eyewatering second-half. One of Henderson’s last bursts of energy ushers the French midfield to go backwards before a still fresh-legged Marcus Rashford is there for extra pressure. Backwards they go again as Sterling is on to this pass like a flash, colliding with Raphael Varane but getting a toe to the ball first and suddenly it’s a threeway foot-race between Rashford, Pavard and the French ‘keeper Loris.
Legs everywhere is the result as Rashford goes tumbling in the box. Umtitti clears the ball away but it’s England turn to surround the referee. 45 million people utter some wording of the phrase ‘that’s a penalty’ at the same time before an eruption of cheers follows that hand signal again… V-A-R.
Another trudge to that LCD screen for the referee and this time, it’s a journey even more important than the last. The clock has ticked beyond ninety minutes as the world waits. Waves of silence and clatters of cheering intermit for the duration of the VAR inspection. “Are you gonna let Harry Kane smack in a penalty or what?” is the question on everyone’s lips, and so eloquently put by the topless lad in front of you at the Brighton Seafront Big Screen.
The answer? He is. He is gonna let Harry Kane smack in a penalty.
Strangers are hugging each other from Plymouth to Hartlepool as beer spills cold down your back from Gary, 36, from Eastbourne. You didn’t know him 45 minutes ago, but ever since you both lost your friends in a half-time urine rush you’ve become best mates. You don’t mind his spilt beer because, ‘that’s just typical Gary.’
On the screen, Harry Kane puts the ball down before walking backwards to plan his run up. You should be more nervous but it somehow feels like fate as a chorus of ‘it’s coming home’ makes it’s way around wherever you may be watching this. His run-up to the ball feels like slow-motion, blurred somehow and not just cuz yur a bit battered by tHis pOint m8 tbh with ya m8…
And then, whack-bang-wham-bam. Thank you very much, goodnight. How’s your fucking dinner? GET IN. Harry Kane has just won the World Cup. He’s won it for himself and he’s won it for his teammates. He’s won it for Southgate. He’s won it for you, you and you.
The rest of injury time wasn’t even nervy, mainly because you saw absolutely none of it as you made your onrush to the sea. Elsewhere, pubs are bouncing and streets are filled with people young and old. The ones doing coke whilst swinging on traffic lights are scary, granted, but more so, it’s peaceful and harmonic. Ignore the thousands of pounds worth of damage done to various cities and that done to various livers. Because, unless you’re well old or well young, this is a once in a lifetime moment.
This is when football came home.