Contest. And then maybe not?

Where are Wales? What level they at? Are they heroic over-achievers, in a cruel, more heavily-endowed-with-everything kindofa world? Or what? Where’s the Wales Place, in footballing terms – and maybe the other stuff? Football-wise, are they brave and bold, or are they ungenerous and perverse? Are the ‘limitations’ enabling or stultifying? Where do,or should Wales pitch themselves?

These and more LIVE QUESTIONS lie resolutely unanswered beneath… in my live blog from Wales v Iran.

I note to the universe the wonders of the human eye. Because the eight zillion pounds a pop cameras covering #Wales #Iran are plainly battling against the glories of the light. (*Insert smart-arsed Dylan Thomas gag, here*). The stark incredi-contrast between bright and mercifully shaded areas of the park are almost too much for mere, space-age technology. But the Beeb Camera-people and the rest wrestle on, manfully.

Wales start well, disappear for ten minutes then Moore should score from a curling cross from the right. Not clear if he really is hurt by the defender’s boot or whether he’s just lying there, mortified. In a (rareish?) moment of clarity and brevity, the commentator on said channel pronounces this a ‘contest’ – and he’s right. Encouragingly.

Iran have hoisted a ball or two longish, early, to expose the Wales centre-backs turning-circle. It nearly works and it’s an interesting, perhaps counter-intuitive tactical ploy.

On fifteen minutes the whites ‘score’… but the onrushing attacker has rather poorly gotten ahead of the ball. Clearly off: a ‘you had one job moment’. Alarming, though, for Wales – the opposition already looking like they will register. Bale is mildly contacted in the fizzog by a loose but unthreatening arm. He rolls theatrically to the floor, just on the off-chance that the ref might produce a red. Gaz may be a god… but that was cheap as chips.

Twenty-five minutes in and Iran are marginally the better: they aren’t remotely slaughtering Wales in the way that the USA did, in that extraordinary first period of game one, but they have more controlled possession and do look more threatening. Marginally. Then Ramsey is looking a little more influential, which may augur well in terms of establishing rhythm and a level of ease with the occasion. The game is tense but rather low-key: there is space to play but not enough quality, from either side, to string multiple passes together.

Again Iran go long. Understandably. They have plainly identified a weakness in the core of that Welsh defence. Suddenly, one-on-ones look a danger. Rodon and Davies have both had to scramble. But Wilson responds, finding Williams in a luxury of space on the left of the Iranian box. Unusually for the flying full-back, his touch is poor and uncommitted. A real opportunity is wasted.

First corner on 42 minutes: Iranian keeper claims. Already that feeling that both sides are prepared to accept a Phoney War, in the knowledge that this will become unacceptable come the (what?) 75 minute-mark. A draw really not likely to be enough for Wales: however much they protest their lack of fear for England, Southgate’s side are significantly superior. The Page Posse must therefore look to bank some points, here.

Iran are probably less good than the USA, but they will feel that a win against Wales offers some hope for going beyond the group stage. They will consider a draw in that final game entirely possible. Four points might take somebody through, especially if England go through the group with three victories. All of which brings us back to notion that both sides must look to win this fixture – despite what coaches, captains and fans might say, should this turn out a draw.

At the half, a draw seems likely. Just before the break, Iran came close to breaking the deadlock after a controlled move down the right finished with a smart, curled cross that Rodon just managed to shepherd away. A critical view of Wales might be that again they have failed to retain possession or build attacks. Against Iran, the weakest team in their group. For all his inspiring brilliance, Bale has again been quiet. He may be a past master of finding or waiting for His Moment but another view of this is that he is simply not offering enough.

Palpably, Wales have limited playing resources – even acknowledging that this group has more players who can genuinely live/compete at international than any Welsh side for many years. They have lived off team spirit and occasional flickering moments of genius or high-level execution from their skipper for aeons. Now the captain has again to deliver, not just in terms of snatched goals – although manifestly that would ‘do’ – but by playing well, influencing the pattern of the game. Ditto Ramsey, the other player of high (if faded) quality. Wales needs more than the occasional miracle: they need to play better.

We kick off. Again neither side presses hard, so there is scope to gather and get your head up. Iran’s defensive shape looks to be holding, with some comfort, any Welsh incursions. The reverse is less true.

On 51 minutes Iran ‘must score’ three times. They burst clear on the right, Azmoun beats the keeper but the ball clatters back off Hennessy’s left-hand post. Within seconds, Gholizadeh belts his right-hand upright, with a fabulous, curling, left-foot drive which rebounds out to the diving centre-forward, who nods into the keeper’s chest. Barely credible. A real surge, now, for Iran. Perhaps the single-most concerning period of pressure, for Wales.

Page must be concerned but he has no choice: despite being in trouble, he must throw on attacking substitutions. James and Johnson, for Roberts and Wilson.

The flow remains with Iran. An hour done, and for the first time I’m thinking Wales win this 1-0 with another Bale against-the-grain intervention. Iran have another gear; are zestier, more energetic, more ‘likely’. They deserve to be ahead. Perfect territory for a Gaztastic heartbreaker.

Azmoun – who has been excellent – retires, looking exhausted. Dan James does that thing where he looks to have gained a crucial yard but fails to deliver. Wales do have real pace on the park, now, at least.. but will either Johnson or James have the composure to convert… or produce the gift that Wales so desperately need?

Hennessey has to save a slightly scuffed shot, diving to his left. Corner and more pressure. Then another. The keeper has to punch clear twice. It’s ‘all Iran’. They make a triple substitution on 75 minutes. Allen replaces Ampadu, for Wales. James finds another blind alley. It’s feistier, maybe scrappier. Angst is rising with the tightening of the time. Bale fails with a rather indulgent flick: it’s almost certain the guy’s playing hurt but he’s made no meaningful contribution and his side have been second-best – not overwhelmingly, but without question second-best.

Finally Wales produce an encouraging passage of play. James crosses long and loopy. There is a some teetering -on-the-brink before Davies is teed-up. He smashes high.

Then the Great Moment of Drama. Iran burst clear and Hennessey clatters the attacker. Has to be red – initially yellow is hoisted. The referee, rightly, is hauled over to the monitor and forced to correct. There are only a handful of minutes remaining but Wales remove Ramsey to sling in the replacement keeper, Ward.

It’s time to get behind the sofa, for the watching Welsh. Into the 90th minute but there will – of course, at #Qatar2022 – be a lump of added time. Even with ten, Wales still have to look for a win. (Repeat, no matter the traditional Welsh defiance towards the English, (and the possibility they might beat the enemy over the bridge) this is the game they have to win. Iran have looked waaay more likely to win, in this second period in particular.

Iran, however, possibly lack that killer instinct – they’ve been good, but not clinical. They are now looking a little tetchy, which is unlikely to help. Wales even have a sniff… but no. It’s all gone a bit Headless Chicken.

There are nine minutes of added time but they are largely scrappy. *Until*…

Another Iranian surge. In the 98th minute a fine right-footed strike from the Iranian number 15, Chesmi, from twenty-seven yards, finds the bottom corner. Ward may get a fingertip on it but in it goes. Finally, something to roar about: the stadium obliges. All those fans, many of whom openly wept during the forced sing-song that was the Iranian national anthem, pre-game, are jumping/screaming/bawling again – only for joy. What a sight, what a sound.

We’re not done. In the 100th minute the lead is doubled, with Wales cut brutally open. It’s one of those cruel breakaways that tends to happen when a team is left with no choice but to ‘gamble’, recklessly. Iran don’t care: Rezaeian scores after the space has opened, with a cute dink over the goalkeeper. Devastating for Bale, Page – for all of Wales – but they were beaten, as it were, on merit.

Following morning. I wake up with the strong urge to note something further about Gareth Bale. It’s simply this: that he will probably retire from internationals, after the England game. (This of course on the assumption that Wales go out of the tournament – which I fully accept is not a given. But it is likely).

Bale really is a god, here in Wales: truly loved and adored by both the Proper Fans and the Folks Who Ain’t That Bothered About Football. This despite him being a rather undemonstrative sort, personality-wise. And in return he gets that special thing about Being Welsh… and has delivered both on that and on the park – largely because of that inspiration. Bale loves Wales.

Know what? I’m thinking now that if he does sign off, there may be a post to write. ‘T will, be lost, as per, in the other zillion but maybe I’ll return to this. So enough, for now. Except to say that in my view Bale is ver-ry close to being completely shot, as a player, now. On the one hand it’s clear that playing for Wales has been the real driver behind his football for the last several years: he’s hobbled through in order to play in red at the Big Events. Now I think he should stop.

Holding players.

So United, then. One-nil winners against a West Ham side who pressured hard and may have deserved an equaliser, late-on. Rashford’s exhilarating goal with a rare, committed thunk past the keeper being ‘the difference’.

But quality-wise, there was little difference. In the first ten both Casemiro and Eriksen showed glimpses of their rarified best, either threading or spraying fabulous passes into feet, offering real hope that the mythical(?) corner into Team Flow and Sumptuous United-ness might yet be turned. But no. Casemiro looked statuesque and composed at times, and Eriksen was goodish and as central to any football as anyone, but this was again a relatively disappointing scramble.

Up top Ronaldo continued to seem shrunken in every respect: playing in a different game to his alleged partners Elanga – who again looked like a reserve team player thrown in during some flu epidemic – and Rashford, who only fitfully raised the hopes of the home support.

How the universe wishes that Ar Marcus could really blossom! From this occasionally wonderful, pacy, watchable, worthy local lad into the full package – the genuine United-level striker. A power header and a run or two was again not enough to convince. He was the pick of the strike force but Gary Neville’s Man of the Match Award was staggeringly generous; another sign that the universe *really does* want him to do well.

Rashford has a lot going for him; given that pace, dynamism and his substantial experience, you wonder why he remains so ‘up and down’. And if that wastefulness and inconsistency will always suppress his value to the cause. I fear it may: that he will always alternate between boyish profligacy and eye-catching vim. Cruel. Elanga was rightly withdrawn: the team had played poorly but he looked a misfit. Ronaldo barely had a meaningful kick.

The generally fair and frequently insightful Neville pointed out that a United midfield of Casemiro, Eriksen and Fernandes is a statement of culture and belief, from Ten Hag. Belief in quality, artfulness and in direction. They are all positive, creative players, essentially, in there to control possession and develop threat, as opposed to stem the flow from the opposition. (O-kaay, Casemiro has been holding but his lack of pace and inclination to bite marks him out as a passer – a ‘player’). This relates to both the manager’s (Dutch, Total Football-tastic) worldview and the United Way. It may not be ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK but it IS forward-looking and kinda generous.

Fernandes has now had a sustained dip in form. He’s become irritating and irritated; unable to flash even short passes to their target; easily distracted into verbals and resentful of every perceived injustice. Energetic, yes, but now mouthy and weirdly inconsistent. Battling against his previous: that notion that he is (or was) the King of Old Trafford, Playmaker and Leader of the Surge.

West Ham, particularly in the case of the consistently excellent Rice, stymied United’s rhythm. The Hammers often looked better with the ball, in fact, or at least had relatively convincing spells of possession. What the visitors couldn’t do was create clear-cut chances. United again could rarely string more than about five passes together without handing the ball back to the visitors; meaning the match was largely mediocre.

Dalot and Martinez were MU’s best players; both intervening aggressively and decisively throughout the game. The latter is likely to be a much-loved fixture in the side for some years, I suspect, for his hearty indomitability. De Gea looked solid. Maguire did ok, strolling around in that particular way of his, but there were moments when the heart of the United defence seemed about to unhinge and some of this seemed to be about his positioning and generous – that is to say trawler-like – turning-circle. (I may traduce the fella. But that wholly admirable composure on the ball does feel compromised by his capacity to find himself exposed). Varane and Martinez will be the first-choice partnership, in a four, surely?

The manager spoke well, after the event. He’s not sugar-coating the amount of work there is to be done and he plainly has the Ronaldo issue/ego in hand. The world superstar has clearly been emphatically bollocked for his recent petulance and knows now he will not walk into (even) this misfiring side. The expectation must be that he will go, on receipt of the first decent offer – go or retire.

For the second time in a week, Ten Hag felt compelled to shut up shop, as West Ham dominated the later stages. McTominay and Fred are a ver-ry different combination to Eriksen and Casemiro: in short they are nowhere near as good… but the gaffer hopes they might do that manning-of-the-hatches thing. You could see McTominay working in a rampaging United side – a Fergie team – as the tenacious clatterer behind inspirational flyers, but his DNA is closer to Celtic or Rangers than Man City or Bayern. He may survive if United inherit a new clutch of irresistible forwards: if they don’t (or Sancho/Rashford/Anthony continue to underachieve), the tall Scot will remain a squad player, on merit. Or go, possibly, alongside his fire-fighting Brazilian comrade.

A cold view of Manchester United might be that this mighty club still has too many players unworthy of the badge. Too many who look like Academy players-plus, journeymen, or guys who simply lack the mentality to live at that level, in that shirt. The manager appears to have a handle on this and is gradually re-building. He knows what they lack and has the authority and strategic intelligence to nudge this intimidating project towards authenticity and contention. West Ham are a well-organised, mid-table outfit with minimal cutting edge. United just about held out.

Things have changed.

(Pic via Daily Mirror).

First half and it’s England who are bossing the Yanks. Wow. Yes, those Yanks, who’ve been light years ahead for a decade. But suddenly – or is it suddenly? – things have changed.

The change of regime has plainly been a factor, here, as is the inevitable turning of the talent cycle. England *do* now have a clutch of ver-ry good and very experienced players who are playing, for the most part, in a Women’s Super League that is almost unrecognisable from the division of even a couple of years ago. The environment, the context has surged electrifyingly forward, skill-wise and particularly in terms of composure – just watch the matches on the tellybox. The subtle movements, the retreating into space and opening-up of angles is so-o much more sophisticated than it was. Bright, Greenwood and Daly have all transitioned from relative journeywomen to relative ball-players.

Wiegman must also take huge credit. Not just for the delivery of the first major silverware since the age of the dinosaurs but also for the cultivation of a high level of execution. And consistency. And ease, at this elevated parallel. England were nervy and ordinary as recently as the early stages of the Euros but the gaffer’s supreme equanimity and humour (as well as tactical intelligence) was surely a major factor in the development of a more fluent, confident side. A side that floods forwards relentlessly and fearlessly for 40 minutes, against the United States of America.

It’s 2-1 England, at the half, after Hemp bundles in and Stanway slots a pen. The England midfielder had earlier dwelt criminally, if momentarily, on a weighted pass from Bright that she simply had to biff away, first touch, under the imminent challenge. Instead she tried to ‘do more’, was caught, and the brilliant Smith cracked home. VAR may have robbed the visitors of their second equaliser but the home side deserved (if that’s even a thing?) their lead.

After an old-fashioned bollocking from Ted Lasso – I jest, of course, though a) they, the U.S. needed it and b) he was knocking around – the Americans turned up, post the interval. They were better, for 20 minutes. The game and the stadium quietened. Or it started to moan more, at decisions, in frustration.

Kirby – who has been on the margins – is replaced by Toone. There has been an absence of heads-up football. That sense of potential reality-check (for England) builds. Rapinoe comes into the game, without exactly influencing. Both sides make errors as the frisson, the contagion develops. Toone gets tricky *with a view to drawing a pen* but the ref rightly waives away. The pitch appears to have shrunk, or players are somehow less able to find and revel in space.

In recent days, there have been serious revelations about widespread abuse of professional female players, in the States. A horrendous, shadowy narrative that we can only hope will be shifted towards justice and resolution by powerful voices in the game such as the now-veteran American playmaker (and public/political figure) Megan Rapinoe. Tonight, on the pitch she again stands out, but more for her strikingly purple barnet than for any of her *actual contributions*. The movement is silky and assured but the effect minimal. Even she can’t string this thing together, entirely.

Stanway symbolises the whole drift by easing with some grace into the red zone then clattering agriculturally wide. The standard of officiating drops in sympathy with the play. Having emphatically and instantly given a penalty, the ref has to concede that the backside of an England player is not the extended arm she presumed it to be. In short, a howler cleared-up. There are multiple subs – this is a friendly, after all – and the (on reflection) ultimately below-par Rapinoe is amongst those withdrawn.

Late-on, Toone is wide, in space, in the box. Player of the Match Bronze finds her but the volley is medium-rank. Similarly, Smith lazily under-achieves with a ball that drops invitingly twelve yards out. Hmm. Neither side can find their players.

When the whistle goes, it’s clear the crowd’s loved it, anyway. (With the ole scoreboard saying 2-1 England and the statto’s confirming 23 matches undefeated, who am I to argue?) I won’t argue. England are in a really good place – women’s football is in a spectacular place – with improvement, development and quality visible for all to see.

Yes. Let’s finish by repeating that. Two of the best teams in the world. A massive, near record-breaking crowd and quality visible for all to see.

Clickbait? You betcha!

Hey. Front-loading this (from last night) with a sentence on *that* presser-invasion. That presser-invasion by the England Women players may have been the best moment in the history of sport.

Now read on.

Feel like doing something cheap and inflammatory – much like the fella Kelly and the fella Bronze did, late-on, for England. (They are blokes, right? Or could it be they just pretended to be, at the death there?)

So yeh how about that cheapest of cop-outs – the Player Ratings thing – along with some comments? Let’s get at it…

EARP. 8.5: tournament score 8.5.

May have been England’s best player of the tournament and was ver-ry solid again tonight. Commanding under the high ball; had no chance with the German goal. Does she score extra style points or lose some, though, for the Loving The Camera thing? Comes all over a bit David Seaman/Jordan Pickford when she feels the lens upon her. Whatever: good work. You stay down there for ten minutes gurll, if ya can get away with it.

BRONZE. 6.25: tournament score 6.

This may be the best, most dynamic athlete and *player* in the England squad and she may know it. She’s off to Bayern next, no doubt seeking ‘a new challenge’ and a purse commensurate to her talents. (Most of which is fine, of course. Except possible inflated ego and limited loyalty). Bronze is a worldie who has spent much of the last two years either playing soo faaar within herself that she is almost absent, or being wasteful or under-focused (particularly defensively) given the immense talent she has. Poor tournament, given the success of the team and shockingly blokey cynicism (reffing the game/looking to inflame/amateur dramatics in the last ten minutes of extra-time). Should certainly have been booked for that nonsense. So yeh. We see you, Bronzey. We don’t need you thinking you’re a male Premier League Legend. Get playing.

BRIGHT. 8.679. Tournament score 9.

May be England’s most limited player but Player of the Tournament nevertheless. A Rock. The Stopper. The Lioness Army on her own, pretty much. *Maybe* might have closed down Magull earlier or better for that German goal but otherwise a close to flawless competition for the erm, Rock Stopper.

Williamson. 7.8. Tournament score 7.231.

Hugely accomplished player and excellent foil for Bright. Reads the game, can thread passes. Goodish but not at her peak in this adventure.

DALY. 7. Tournament score 6.9.

‘Honest’, old-school full-back. Meaning likes to clatter wingers and do that defensive graft. Limited composure and quality on the ball. Will battle.

WALSH. 6.572. Tournament score 6.572.

Holding midfielder who can play. But didn’t, all that much. Can see a pass but didn’t, all that much. Lacked presence, both physical and in terms of influence.

KIRBY. 6.1. Tournament score 6.3.

Fabulous player who has had significant health/fitness issues. Lucky to have seen this campaign out, having been scandalously absent in certain matches. Real shame she barely featured again tonight: Kirby oozes quality and skill and composure when purring. This evening, on a stage made for her, she barely made a pass.

STANWAY. 7.82. Tournament score 7.28.

Mixed again, from the playmaker. Not as ineffectual as Kirby but not convincing or influential in the way her team-mates, fans and coaching team might have hoped. Got drawn into some of the spiteful stuff and rarely picked her head up to find a killer pass. Good player marginally below form.

HEMP. 6. Tournament score 6.

Surprisingly low? Not for me. Hemp is a tremendous player, who does torment opponents week in, week out. But she started nearly every match looking paralysed by nerves and (as well as making some good runs and the occasional threatening cross) she ran down faaaar tooo many blind alleys. Fully understand Wiegman’s No Changes policy but Hemp’s mixed contributions were so obvious that she might have been dropped in another high-flying side. In short, another underachiever given her ability.

MEAD. 6.75. Tournament score 7.243.

Golden Boot winner: scorer of a couple of fine goals. What’s not to like? Mead’s wastefulness wasn’t at the level of her co-wide-person, Hemp but her early contributions tended to be somewhere between woeful and mediocre. So nerves. When she settled or didn’t have time to think she smashed the ball in the net. So significant plusses. But I maintain she was significantly down on her capacity.

WHITE. 6. Tournament score 6.

Fine all-round striker who lacked her edge. Good movement but missed chances, including an early header tonight. Intelligent, crafty, even but neither involved sufficiently in link-up play nor the Fox-in-the-Box she aspires to be. She may not care, but not a great tournie for Whitey.

SUBS.

RUSSO. 6.75.Tournament score 7.45.

She’ll (and we’ll) always have that backheel – probably the Footballing Moment of the Year(?) – and she featured well on appearing around the hour. Has a certain physicality White lacks and does threaten magic. Wiegman will be feeling pret-ty smug, I’m guessing that her Russo Project delivered.

TOONE. 7.82. Tournament score 7.49.

Beautifully-taken goal, against the grain of the match. Historic, I guess. Is a talent and, like Russo, has the gift of sparking something. Quite possibly unlucky not to have started games: was quietish, mind, apart from the goal.

KELLY. 6.2. Tournament score 6.2.

Bundled in her goal but like most of us half-expected it to get ruled out for the way in which she fought off her defender. Then went mental. (Think her goal was probably legit but would it have been given in Berlin, I wonder? The officials were consistently poor, were they not?) Have no problem identifying as a Football Purist so thought Kelly’s repeated and deliberately inflammatory way of ‘going to the corner’ was literally foul. An awful way to finish a good tournament.

Don’t care if folks think I’m being embarrassingly retro if I say it’s a slippery slope, that, down to where the scheisters in the Bloke’s Big Time hang out to ‘draw their fouls’. Cheap shot after cheap shot – unnecessary. The manifestly higher levels of fairness and respect in the women’s game are important. Don’t fall in to shithousery, please. Thought the lead pundit on the telly-box – former England keeper – was appalling around this and her pitifully one-eyed view of the game, generally, was unedifying.

SCOTT. 7. Tournament score 7.

Scott’ s brief for some time is to run around for a limited period of time and rob the ball, then keep it simple. She tends to do that well. She’s feisty, too. Fading memory – was it her, wassit her?!? – of a Classic Moment when argy-bargy broke out and Scott bawled “FUCK OFF YOU FUCKING PRICK!!” into the face of one of our European sisters. Guessing our Jill is a Brexiteer.

WIEGMAN. 7.985. Tournament score 8.972.

Clearly a good coach/manager of people. Don’t entirely buy the Oh My God She’s a Genius meme, because England were outplayed for too long by Spain and Sweden (and for some periods tonight) without sufficient reaction from either the England players or their coaching team. But she’s good, and she couldn’t do more than win the bloody thing, eh? Apparently she’s a right laugh, too. So maybe add a full point to those scores, on reflection.

PRESSER INVASION. 10.
The best, funniest, most human thing a daft bunch of wunnerful football stars have done for aeons. Magic.

OVERVIEW.

MASSIVE that England have won a tournament. Weird, you may think, that they have won it with half the team underachieving. But I do think that. #WEuro2022 has been a good, often fabulous comp with an ordinary final won by a team who maybe had a little luck. So what’s new? Most tournaments go that way, in fact many are poor quality, in truth and have a duffer of a showpiece.

It was important and often thrilling that we saw some top, top footie, with real quality, composure and skill at this event. France were outrageous at times; Spain gave England an hour lesson; Sweden and the Netherlands were tremendously watchable when at their best. But England went and won it; scrapped and flew in there and battled and then won it. They are to be congratulated. Here’s hoping we can look back on this in a wee while and bring out the ‘l’ word – legacy, dumbo! – without rolling our eyes (a la London Olympics, etc, etc).

I’m thinking this could be huge for women’s sport all over Europe, not just in Ingerland.

London Calling. Or Falling? Or Stormed?

So waay too late, I went to an Olympics. Or an Olympic stadium. Aeons after the world loved London, Ingerland – ten excruciating years, in fact, by my reckoning – I’m there.

Now, somewhere between dystopian weirdness and jarringly-immediate come-uppance – and shit, at the moment of writing! – the fat, privileged, idle, laughing-stock who has robbed us of our very authenticity, preened the very worst of our national prejudices and creamed-off much of our silver for his pals in Stockbrokerville has been presented with a significant hurdle. Come the end of the day he may be spent. And this may be a turning-point back towards a kind of general decency and respect: a kind of England most of us could sign up to *at some level*.

(Yes, friends, I live in Wales so yes there are a million sub-clauses and qualifications inferred here. Don’t be insulted if I fail to itemise them?)

Meanwhile, *switching*, West Ham – the football team – smacked of a kind of earthy loveliness long before the London Olympics changed their geography as well as their profile. They were Bonds and Hurst and Peters and Brooking and Clyde Best. Their whole spirit was somehow characterised by the rolled-down socks (but metaphorically rolled-up sleeves) of that first-named club icon. So they were liked.

It’s absurd in 2022 to use phrases like ‘attractive football’; worse still to associate that with abstracted, rose-tinted community goodness but as I look around the acres of ‘park’ now home to the Happy Hammers, the clash of values, vistas and jazzed-up-verbals is somewhat mind-blowing. The mind drifts. The New Universe is built of gravel and murals. A metallic bowl, in cream and concrete and claret; opened-out spaces to accommodate a world of visitors; the greyish hinterland of planned policing.

I get there early so as to find stuff: Stratford, the stadium and a pub in Hackney Wick. It’s quietly thrilling to see so many Town milling about, more than two hours before kick-off. Already clear Solihull Moors gonna be swamped, on the terraces – or, ahem, in the seats.

Yes. I’m Grimsby and I’m there because I’m Grimsby. Despite being in West Wales for the whole of my considerable adult life. (Hands up, schizophrenic don’t cover it: proud of family and mates but substantially estranged from Ingerland. Particularly now). A National League Play-off Final has drawn me to The Smoke, not the prospect of a Boris be-heading, or the Plat Joob – which I have openly unsubscribed from.

Don’t blame me if the kaleidscopic madness of everything is conspiring towards another action painting. Blame them murals.

22,000 in the ground and towards 15k of them are GTFC. (No kidding. This may merely mark the size and history of the respective clubs but it feels incontrovertibly good, as a Town fan, in the building). Solihull – fair play – make a nonsense of this by quietly massacring a limp Mariners side for twenty-five minutes. They do all the ‘playing out’. They do all the ‘ball possession’. All the stuff we’ve been demanding, over beer and fodder in the local hostelry, they do.

Town have a fella called Fox in central midfield. He gets his head up. He gathers and looks – more than almost anybody in the National League. He should be playing alongside Clifton and he/they should be getting the ball. Hurst, the Grimsby manager, lacks the game intelligence to see this. Solihull boss the game faaaar too easily and Fox falls back on the easy role of dogged interceptor and header of midfield bombs. Clifton has a mare throughout. He’s not the only one undermined by nerves, tiredness and/or poor strategy but it’s a particular shame in his case.

Moors nearly murder us (see what I did there?) in the opening half-hour. Instead the lead at the interval is a manageable 1-0 – the eight foot twelve striker Kyle Hudlin inevitably nodding home just as folks were beginning to slide off for pies and pees. It’s been mixed fayre – and it remains that way – with Town’s dominance off the park barely reflected in the relatively uninspired action on the pitch.

It’s the National League; I get that. Guys are nervous and in the Mariners’ case, entitled to be drained. (Already two EPIC knock-out games ticked off. Remarkable, exhausting games). But there is a lot of poor, wasteful play and percentage-wise, a fair lump of that comes from Sousa, who, despite being gifted, seems to specialise in infuriating profligacy and Smith, who cannot pass. Others under-achieve but if I were to brutally dissect… those two guys seem the obvious candidates for release*, before the deeep breath and go again thing, in League Two, next season.

*Fully understand that some Town fans will powerfully disagree with this. Sousa’s dancing and Smith’s resilience have made a contribution. But for me they aren’t players for the next step.

The Town Faithful, perhaps blithely confident that somehow the Mariners will find a way, make their presence felt, periodically. And periodically, McAtee, the Boy Most Likely to, looks likely. Then he scores.

Seventy minutes gone, with Town threatening in bursts. McAtee beginning to look a tad laboured – been playing hurt, I’m guessing. A threaded pass offers a yard. He nails it, calmly threading the angle across the keeper. A million agents make another note. The lad may be in the Championship promptly; cruel for Town but plainly on merit.

We get our third consecutive bout of extra-time. Their right-winger gets his eighty-fourth cross in, unopposed by Amos. There is space and Town have thrown on the alternative, pacy strike-force to snatch this before pens. Abrahams is racing lustily around, Dieseruvwe showing the occasional good touch. Hurst’s late positivity feels like a healthy gamble.

The trauma of pens is avoided in probably the most predictable of fashions. Even though National League defenders spend most of their professional life defending aerial threats, (my) recent experience has been that they ain’t that proficient at doing it. (Witness Wrexham, here… and everything). A long throw is piled in to the six-yard box, from somewhere east of Lowestoft. A yellow-shirted neck cranes cruelly but the ball glances dangerously on. Maguire-Drew launches and gets a nudge. 2-1 Town.

Us part-time supporters (and Englishmen) go ballistic. It’s a ver-ry special eruption of pride, defiance, community. THIS TEAM have really triumphed. THIS TEAM really did refuse to lie down – serially. McAtee, soon after, is talking about 11 months of non-stop graft. The lad’s exhausted but wonderfully free of the arrogance that might come once somebody gets in his ear ‘about his worth’. He’s loved this club and loved this moment. He’s seen what it means to ‘these fans’. This is legitimate joy.

Anybody casting an eye over the decent sports press will have seen the columns that Jason Stockwood has been filing. They’re a kind of Decent Capitalism-Plus. The chairman gets it: people; value; patience; belief. I can’t argue with his support for Hurst – though in strategic terms I think he gets things wrong. But what the hell? There is something profoundly right – though indescribable – about Grimsby Town battling/earning/enabling an immediate (but endless, agonising) return to full-time, professional football.

Let’s draw no daft equivalence between that wonderful storming and the one the bloody nation(s) need. Travelling back to Wales, the issues, the anger, the surrealities will only garishly multiply. My ears have popped, bursting out of some West Of Ingerland tunnel. Deep breath and I’ll be all over the news channels.

Visceral.

McCoist was talking shamelessly tribal gibberish. The roof was off. The rain, having been appropriately biblical, was now an irrelevance. As was football. As was gravity, quality and Covid19. Everything old, new, bright, dim, dark or dead lived in the moment – in the roar.

Hampden. Hampden the protagonist. Football under those eyes, yes, but hardly, maybe? Or is that an insult to the selfless rage? A specialness that’s so deafening you don’t know how to rate it or see it through. And never mind thinking, how do you coordinate? And whose chest do you beat?

That sense of international-level football having been usurped… leaving us or leading us into what? Early-on, arm-wrestling; cheating, or simulation and sliding, by the looks. Fakery and thrust and the cusp of violence. Mainly a kind of mindlessness; a slipping away into the inevitable.

Bloody Scotland were bloody. And Scotland. Defending so badly at crucial moments it was almost unbelievable but cruelly, comically Scottish to those of a neutral bent – obvs. Surging manically and (hah! First half) launching those laughable long throws, so deeply did history and expectation (and the rain and the Lack of Quality and Lack of Options) conspire towards a kind of old-school physical intimidation of the Others. Israel in white: rolling about in sequence – so not entirely naively shell-shocked – but shamelessly (the sly wee devils) also looking to yaknow, play.

McGinn scores a fine goal and every now and again looks – god forbid – to pick up his head and thread something. Gilmore available but lost, too often, in the maelstrom; contribution mixed. Liverpool’s left back barely in the game, or certainly force-less, but Dykes running through the whole, soaking melodrama. Poor then heroic then shocking then at the bloody centre. (His feeble pen, his fortunate goal, allowed, post-VAR, by the ref, despite studs raised chest high). All extraordinary, all predictable.

(For that penalty I wonder if perhaps the official was so bored with Israeli histrionics he simply awarded against the visiting centre-back, who had fallen stricken, feeling the striker’s boot close against his face. There was no meaningful contact, and the centre-forward could not adjust himself to dive and head, but for me it was what we used to simply call ‘foot up’… and therefore dangerous – at least potentially. No goal but goal given. Naturally. This was almost entirely a visceral experience and the fact of slow-motion ree-plaaays and/or civilised consideration by a team of skilled officials was never going to re-educate that).

Scotland won an often enthralling, sometimes dispiritingly low-fi game, by out-gamboling, out-hearting, out-charging their opponents: 3-2, with McTominay chest-bumping in the winner. The lad went through the gears from embarrassment to Braveheart before quite knowing how to celebrate. Then he lapped-up the scrumptious, overwhelming barrage from the stands. The tall, resolute but notably one-paced midfielder knew full-well that he owed those supporters for an assist.

The match then, was a fierce throw-back, with the abundant brilliance McCoist and his fellow pundits apparently saw being surely essentially a brilliance of spirit. Scotland played, as they do – as they need to – with palpable spirit. This is a less patronising assessment than you might think. Some of this occasion was tremendous.

All Our Fuss.

An addition: after the event. In the light of the despicable racist abuse of the players involved, a sentence about England and its gammons. If any clown thinks my view of events (below) is in any sense a criticism of any of the players who stepped up to take penalties, then they are stupid as they are prejudiced. Similarly, those who created mayhem and violence of any sort, or posted or in any sense sympathised with the bigoted filth that arose, predictably, online do not speak for me. In fact they make it almost impossible – for me any many others – to identify as an English-born football fan.

This post contains *opinions* – chiefly criticisms of Gareth Southgate – but it is as anti-racist as he is.

Here’s what he should have done – he being Southgate.

In the short term, he should have quietly but firmly told Saka and Sancho they weren’t taking pens. And somebody on the staff should have told Rashford that long and winding run-up was too daft, too convoluted and too involved to be the preamble to generational glory. Those three game lads will carry the guilt but it was an obvious series of howlers, from the gaffer.

Anybody who knows football knows you need a few touches to warm up the senses – perhaps particularly if you then face the cold reality of a dead ball to strike, early-doors. Howler, then, that in his conservatism and unwillingness to act, Southgate fails to give Rashford and Sancho meaningful time on the pitch. Howler – no matter how much the players themselves may have clamoured for the moment – that Southgate misreads the magnitude of all this, and allows Sancho and Saka to step up. More senior, more solid players should have been tapped-up weeks ago.

During the prelude to penalties, there had been a sense of scramble – perhaps there always is? But it looked like the order was still being thrown down, by the England Manager and his chief aide Steve Holland, right at the last. Could be they were deciding on penalty takers 8, 9 and 10 but wasn’t a good look. And despite Mancini making a gaffe of his own – by allowing the wretched Belotti, who has been woeful on each of his appearances – to fluff, entirely predictably, his effort, the maths worked for the Azzurri. England got beat on pens again.

Perverse to blame Sir Gareth? I think not. Or at least I am prepared to continue the no-doubt unpopular and admittedly rather severe arguments I’ve been making for weeks/months/years. Southgate is a great manager but dispiritingly pragmatic coach; a man whom we are right to love and cherish for his worldliness and contemporary suss… but still, despite that theoretical generosity, a relentlessly one-dimensional football man. England hid away their talents, once more.

The best team won, on the night – even after an electrifying start for the home team. Italy slaughtered England for much of the second half, either side of a deserved equaliser. If Chiesa had not been sadly withdrawn due to injury, you feel he personally would have extinguished the Three Lions, in Ordinary Time. (3-1, I’m guessing). As it was, England dragged it out, before showing a little spirit as the thing ebbed towards that sapping denouement.

But Southgate had again been frozen into inactivity, compared to his opposite number. There were no England subs when the universe cried out for them. (Southgate barely does subs: subs imply proactive thinking). Mancini, meanwhile, swapped everybody, as his players strode forward. England belatedly brought on Sancho but even that felt like a sop: something you can do ‘safely’ because he’s out there, on the fringes. Then came Henderson, for a tiring Rice. Grealish, as always, appeared to ‘make a rescue’; when it felt like the game had gone. Feeble stuff, from those allegedly directing the England camp.

England played well in the first half. There was some energy, some purpose, even if there was comparatively little in the way of joined-up play. Again this reflects the manager’s penchant for the seeing-out of games as opposed to fluent football. Whilst I have to respect that this pragmatism evidently got his side to the final – and the semi, at the World Cup – I absolutely reject this as a life-choice. Playing Not Much Football is life-crushingly dull. It may even, despite appearances, be dumb: we will never know what a team coloured by Grealish and a free, flicking, flashing Foden might have achieved. Maybe it might have both entertained us and won the bloody tournament.

Gareth chose not. He opted for the safety of six or seven defensively-minded players and a system that spoke to the gods of Care and Management. Yes, there were times when his players flew a little: Sterling, though pale last night, looked a worldie for much of the tournament. Kane looked a player again, for the first 45. Elsewhere, how did the creative players fare? (Who were the creative players, actually?) England’s culture was again so steeped in What If They Do This To Us(?) that we saw very little of Mount/the wingers/any truly sustained attacking play.

The best team won. They won, ultimately, in a shootout that was manifestly mishandled by England but Italy should have won earlier. It was a stunning and deserved triumph for Mancini, who has not only made the Azzurri almost unbeatable again but has made them more watchable than at any time since… I dunno… 1966?

England’s tournament was arguably another stepping-stone: but perhaps only towards that rather miserly acceptance that games of football are there to be managed, not enjoyed. There will be claims of heroism and spirit: these are exaggerations. A goodish team has done well – without looking stylish or fluent. Neutrals will still be wondering what all our fuss is about.

Player/Manager ratings: out of 10.

Southgate – as Manager, 12. As Coach, 6.

Pickford – 6.5. Spent the night bawling, as always and lashing the ball 60 yards up the park. Clearly under instruction, but he ensured England lost possession within 25 seconds of gaining it. Ridiculous.

Trippier 6. Had his vengeful head on. Odd. Only occasionally involved.

Walker 8. Solid, athletic, calm.

Maguire 6.5. Weirdly changeable again. Some woeful, nervy touches and some of that upright elegance.

Stones 6.5. Ver-ry quiet. Not sure if that was good.

Shaw 7.5. First-half great, later barely contributing, going forward.

Phillips 7. As always, got better – or worthier? – as things progressed. Ran forever but few memorable passes.

Rice 8. England’s best player for an hour. Actually ran past people but – as expected – lacked that killer incision.

Sterling 5.5. A significant disappointment. Look what Chiesa – his oppo’, arguably, in the Player of the Tournament stakes – did.

Kane 7. Excellent for some of the first half; then too quiet.

Mount 6. Ran but made few contributions with the ball.

A Sacrilege.

I’m up for maybe fifty percent of the Southgate love-in. No, seventy percent.

The bit that says he’s an outstanding manager – but maybe, possibly not coach.

The bit that’s utterly, utterly behind his messaging about race, diversity, honouring the Black Lives Matter campaign.

The stuff that without being overtly political, is pissing all over the gammons and the government.

I’m also absolutely behind the idea that you need to judge the character and the nature of players, and build with them. In some cases this might mean trusting them to come good – gambling that their faith in you and your culture will produce. In other cases, folks get passed over or dropped… because this is professional football.

Southgate is something of an exemplar, on these terms; he gets Bigger Pictures – well, some of them – and he is generous enough to insist they – or some of them – count.

But life is complicated. It’s ridiculous, surely, to look at England FC and see the whole as a simple, shining light? Even if all the players were/are completely united behind Sir Gareth’s entirely compelling aspirations towards equality and respect. Even if it’s right to be righteous in the face of stinking privilege and prejudice (at government level and in the general population), it doesn’t make sense that – as some of the more delusional columns are suggesting – Southgate is leading us towards a brighter, fairer dawn. He isn’t – he can’t.

The England Manager is doing a wonderful job of many things but – to take one example – he cannot divert or control or persuade away the likely jeering and booing of the Italian national anthem tonight. In short, his dignity and grace, inspiring though it is, cannot undo the wider malaise.

Out with it. We have the most amoral PM imaginable, leading a shamelessly corrupt government streaked with racism and bile. The country – England – is more loaded up with contempt for The Other than at any period in a lifetime. The best Gareth can do is make a wee dent, show a better face to the watching world. The campaigners within his group will likewise do their skilful, progressive bit but as so often, only the converted may be listening. Southgate/Rashford/Sterling/the Universe deserve better.

Life is complicated and we wish it could be more just. Southgate’s philosophical stuff is wonderful but only The Mood will change – and probably only then if England win.

Let’s talk footie, then, briefly. I have consistently argued that Southgate’s conservatism – I know, ironic, but that’s what it is – around managing games out rather than playing great, attacking football disappoints me. His ‘pragmatism’ re Rice and Phillips. His ‘ruthlessness’ re Grealish. I hear (how could I not?) the argument that Winning (or in tournament football) Winning Through Is What It’s All About; but for me, nah.

The undeniable fact that Ingerland have gotten through to the final does not mean fitful and relatively negative displays in the early rounds, or seven defensively-minded players against an ordinary German side or no Grealish and minimal Foden was unarguably right – either ‘ethically’ or in football terms. Nor does it mean that selection or even strategy was right, over all. It just means that it worked over these few tournament games and they got through. (Unpopular note: England again had an almost suspiciously easy draw).

Who’s to say what a genuinely ambitious side, with James and Chilwell as genuine flyers and Foden and Grealish as genuine players, might have done?

No matter how good Shaw or Rice, or Phillips might have been, there was another way. Fascinatingly, we might see it as a more generous, more holistically enriching way… but this would set it entirely at odds to the Gareth Project: would make it a sacrilege. It may be outright dangerous to suggest that Southgate Himself has been a tad disingenuous in describing the squad’s alleged commitment to entertainment and excitement. Sure, the excitement has happened but more, in my view, via the winning than the doing.

(*Notes*: Italy have come through playing the most positive football we’ve seen from the Azzurri for decades. Which may mean nothing).

Southgate is a thoroughly good man – too good for most of us. I would love him more completely if his approach to the football had been as generous as his approach to his Public Duties.

Denmark.

It’s surely more difficult for us than the players. They sleep, eat, ‘rest up’ then play. We, meanwhile are scurrying from bank (to sort post-separation dollars stuff), to garden (token hedge-trim), to the kitchen (to sort something crappy but Do-able Before The Game). It’s hell, right? Whilst Luke Shaw’s been absent-mindedly picking his nose and wiggling his toes in them dodgy red slippers, we’ve been ratcheting-up the wiredness factor. We’re exhausted from running down the clock… which hasn’t *actually* started.

Six-thirtyish and too late for a kip. Wine o’clock, possibly.

Denmark were ver-ry good whenever-it-was and they have a Reason To Believe. Maybe two: Eriksen and that whole ‘Small Nation’ thing. Why wouldn’t they be raging, magnificently and with quiet, comradely expectation at the prospect of delivering yet another axe to the unsuspecting back? England the footie team may not be complacent but the universe around sure is. Schmeichel’s icy put-down is merely one sign that their opponents – The Visitors – are rooted and ready and implacably determined. Denmark aren’t thinking of springing a surprise. They’re looking to outplay the home side – make a statement of togetherness and defiance and power.

This is one way it could go.

Another is that the England gaffer excels himself, by throwing off the Quiet Man Cape and donning the metaphorical chainmail. He roars; he sprays; he waves his spiky-mace-effort. His players are transported, inspired. They race and carve and consume, unrelentingly. They rout. The full-backs are winged maniacs and Our ‘Arry is a savage-beaked, swooping Griffin. We see myth play out, not match. We see Sterling galloping and Maguire gallumping. It’s like some epic, nation-defining tapestry. The lad from Liverpool scores again, for chrissakes.

Pause for that drink – my first, I promise.

The first rule of Big Match Club is don’t watch hours of pre-game punditry. (I’m still on Wimbledon). You know the ex-England posse will be drifting in and out of Delusionville: urging positivity and expression and directness, with – yaknow – straight faces. ‘Just hoping the lads will play with freedom’.

(Methinks Southgate worked out some time ago – dispiritingly, as I have said before – that you don’t need to play football to win tournaments: you need to manage games. He may be right but this doesn’t stop me dreaming – to coin a phrase – that Ingerland might break ranks with that entirely rational but mildly suffocating philosophy and go wild inna free-range stylee. Surge forward and look to outscore opponents who – whilst being worthy and competent-plus – have fewer talents to call upon).

I confess to being an outlier but I really do almost dread this more than defeat. Pragmatism and patience? COME ON!! Give something sustaining and enjoyable to the tournament, England. You owe us one – or five, or six. You’re in your house. Bring it down in a hail of voices, a cacophony of irresistible energy. Holding and waiting and ‘seeing out’ is such an under-achievement. 7.33.

Not sure about Wrighty’s glasses.

England have gone 4-2-3-1, with Saka back to have a gambol. Might have preferred 5-3-2 with genuinely flying wing-backs but Saka and Sterling might, of course surge into those spaces. Would love to see the latter stay involved and deliver a masterclass. Denmark are expected to be 3-4-3 but imagine wide players will swiftly drop in to make that a defensive 5. Am really looking forward to seeing if they can play nerveless, expansive (or at least controlled) football. Hunch is that we might see England play a lot of that slowly-slowly stuff that feels like a kind of capitulation. Hope I’m wrong.

7.53. Just get past the anthems then it’s sound up, yes?

Are people seriously booing the Danish anthem? What the f*ck are we, exactly?

Matterface. A concern?

Pleased Mount’s in there. He likes to run straight. Waiting on a killer one-two involving the wee man, or a threaded ball that breaks the line. Wonderful to see so much of that from both Spain and Italy last night – pinged, ‘vertical’ passes.

First rash one of the night; “We can beat the Danes, there’s no doubt about that.” Dixon. England racing in to press, early doors. Dead right, in this cauldron. But whilst England are bursting, Denmark execute a few slick passes – importantly, you feel. Great ball in, from Kane almost puts Sterling in on goal. High tempo, from England, encouragingly.

Walker uses his body well: then, with Stones and Maguire utterly absent, shepherds the ball back to safety. (Worrying moment, in fact: Walker’s pace and strength may have just saved his colleagues’ blushes). Mount is running but should do better when entering the box, on the right. Over-runs but draws the corner. Poor delivery from the Chelsea man – doesn’t beat the first man.

Sterling is skipping inside and should blast: scuffs it – decent chance. Twelve minutes and England dominant. Significantly, it’s bright, it’s energetic. Shaw looking confident and looking to pick passes. But then two errors and two half-chances… and the concern that despite conceding nothing, England do offer chances. Crowd sounds great; proverbial extra man for England – particularly if they keep the revs high. Sixteen minutes. Nil-nil.

Sterling is fouled – pushed, in the back – but falls down like something out of Punch & Judy. ‘Draws the foul’, according to the commentator. One or two England errors in central midfield, deepish, or deeper still. Slight concern? Twenty-two minutes. We have a breather.

For the first time, Denmark enjoy a little ease, in possession. They straighten, visibly. Saka maybe needs a kick.

A further half-chance for the visitors. As Germany did, they are asking questions. Game has evened up. Saka makes a nuisance of himself and gets a foul – without shaking off that sense that he’s not yet in the game – or on his. Dolberg shamelessly overacts after a minor cuff to the face. Mount was a tad clumsy but it was hardly an assault. Embarrassing – but rife, yes? Denmark appear to be dragging the England back four central, presumably to expose wide areas as a result?

Half an hour and *that foul* proves costly. Could be Pickford doesn’t cover himself in glory but a beautifully whipped side-foot strike from Damsgaard finds the net -stunningly – from best part of thirty yards. Fabulous hit but a) it was a decent distance out and b) it did not find the top corner. So arguable whether the England keeper has got that right. But to reiterate, lovely connection – and not completely out of the blue.

There is danger here, because the game is already quite open; or more particularly, the England defence (again despite that miserly record) looks porous – disparate, even. More goals, either on the break or via phases of play, feel possible. The threat is all from Denmark, suddenly.

Oof. Sharp move gets Sterling free but Schmeichel saves. A minute later and Kane finds an angle and Saka is racing and cutting back. Yet again it’s Sterling who can finish. (In truth he doesn’t need to: Kjaer, the retreating defender can only help it in). 1-1, against the very recent run of play, but England will take that. They needed it. Quality not as good as last night but excitement right up there. Crowd re-find their voice.

Kane dropping deep to get hold of the ball. Have no issue with that. Fine passer and happy to see him in the game. As we get to half time it’s been full-blooded, racy and even. 1-1 it is – and that’s a fair reflection. Mute button.

Looking at highlights, Sterling smashing straight into Schmeichel’s mid-riff was a real miss, but no argument with the general notion that Denmark have been at least as dangerous as the home side. Those pre-tournament concerns about the durability of England’s defence are *in play* here, to the extent that it feels likely that Denmark will score again. Is it fair to suggest that whoever wins this will start the final as underdogs? Less true it that team is England (because of the venue) but this is a notch down from Italy-Spain.

We’re back. Pickford – who has generally thwacked rather mindlessly long – thwacks mindlessly long: twenty five yards ahead of the England attack. Poor. Is he having one of those days? Lots of extravagant bawling going on. Meanwhile Maguire is booked for raising an arm into the headed challenge. Very questionable call. Time stands still for the bonce protocols. Lots of space in the midfield. Dolberg benefits but Pickford saves, with a strong wrist. But offside, in any case.

Denmark on top. The England keeper does one of those (ver ver contemporary) ridicu-punches, when he might surely have caught the cross. Doesn’t help to settle the nerves. England respond with a tremendous Maguire header, which Schmeichel does outstandingly well to push clear. Little sign of control, from the Rice and Phillips axis, or threat from the wide players: are England going to need to notch from a set-play, here? Denmark remain the more likely.

From nowhere, Sterling and Shaw do the old overlap routine: we know it’s coming but you try stopping it. Denmark couldn’t but the cross squirts to safety: the corner comes to nothing. Not his fault, especially but Saka has been a relative passenger: Mount, Rice and Phillips have exercised minimal real influence.

An hour in: the crowd try to ‘do their bit’. Partly because they can feel England need them. Interestingly, the Danes make three subs – a bold commitment. And now Southgate is looking to Grealish. A lame cross from Saka may signal his withdrawal… and it does. (Could- and might – write a three zillion word thesis on Grealish(e)s in English Football. But that’s for later. He’s on, to a huge roar, and probably playing wide left again).

Twenty minutes remain. Denmark marginally ahead on points but we’re into a scrappy spell – so often the case after multiple substitutions. Grealish draws a foul and a yellow. Moment of controversy as Kane falls in theatrical style. If he hadn’t, he might have been awarded the pen. Rather poor game now. Barely any spells of possession. Seventy-six minutes. Spot-kicks likely?

Maguire almost puts Grealish in and Christensen stretches so-o far he has to be withdrawn, soon after. Phillips drives but always wide. Mount is lucky to draw a foul: referee’s been mixed. Shaw overhits the free-kick and the crowd quietens – because this is messy, now. That bloke from the Villa can’t chest down – his second poor touch – but I’m feeling for him, somewhat (and guessing I’m not alone). On belatedly and therefore opportunities squeezed: not ideal.

Eighty-five mins and Denmark settling. They at least are effecting some sequences of passing. Some. They’ve made five (5) subs to England’s one. May be a masterstroke from Southgate or may be a further sign of his essential conservatism. The crowd are baying, with some disappointment, now. Six minutes of extra time.

Some excitement as Sterling gets wide but Phillips blazes over. Can see the tension in the faces in the crowd. Kane lies down again on contact. Shameless but the foul is given – out wide. Maguire rises but an easy gather for Schmeichel. Extra time proper upcoming, with neither side showing much quality and only occasional flickers of urgency. Anybody could win this but neutrals will be thinking both Spain and Italy were waay better. (I’m thinking that). England – theoretically the stronger side – have failed almost completely to impose themselves.

Finally, Foden. Grealish slightly into panto mode to draw a further foul. Meh. Kane fashions a half-chance but Schmeichel palms clear… but at least England are threatening. Rice and Mount withdrawn for Foden and Henderson. Some passes, for England. Shaw is back in the game. Corner.

Feels, for the first time for maybe an hour, that a goal may be coming for England. Maguire nods and then Sterling has a yard but drives high. Just the sense that Grealish may be starting to strut. Denmark seem content to soak it up: feels risky.

Sterling races with just one thing in his mind. He gets it. Pen. First thought – he dived – or at the very least he was plainly seeking it. (Get that this is different but not a fan of falling on contact. Again I may be an outlier but when players seek above all to wait for any touch and fall, my heart sinks). This will be both ecstasy and tragedy of sorts… Kane fluffs it, as if to make it even more painful for the Danes, but scores with the rebound. Awful way to win this. Half-time.

Wrighty covers up the deception. Neville may be right in saying England deserve the goal – they probably do – but the manner of it was deeply unsatisfactory for some of us. Sterling has been arguably England’s best player – without being consistently good – but he may have sparked a major philosophical discussion. Meanwhile the crowd sing “It’s coming home”.

Grealish is withdrawn. If that’s a defensive move, it’s dreadful, in my view. It may be an injury. Denmark have lost a little of their sparkle. Matterface patronises them, appallingly. Kane falls out wide and is ‘astonished’ he neither got the foul nor the throw.

England ‘seeing it out’. Brathwaite shoots but Pickford can push past. Corner. Foden might release Kane but Schmeichel reads it. The Danes press. Another corner: five minutes remaining. Blissful phases and luxurious into-the-corners, for Henderson, Foden, Sterling. OH-LAYS. Sterling is greedy when a pass might just end this.

And then it’s over. Joy for a home crowd.

As a fan and an England fan I have mixed feelings. Sterling did what most players are doing. He surged with just that one thing on his mind. Not to smash the ball home but to feel the faintest touch… and go down. Neutrals will condemn him: I will merely say that it’s an unfortunate way to win. My headlines will not be ‘glory, glory’, they will be ‘England win it; they were mixed’. They found a way but again the opposition, for much of the game – despite being away and despite being theoretically outgunned, in terms of personnel – were entirely competitive. Congratulations – genuinely – to Denmark.

So Southgate has indeed got his crew to the final. And in there they may even explode into glorious animation. He will know, though that Italy have quality, and that his policy of offering the opposition a good share of possession will face a sterner test yet. Denmark, for the most part, looked as good as England. Italy, should England sit, may look better.

Minor post-script – for better, for worse. That pen. Sterling is entitled to go searching for a penalty, I get that: it’s not against the rules, as such. But I personally think that aspiration sucks, compared to the historic instinct to simply smash the ball into the top corner. Understand not everyone agrees.

The matter becomes then whether it was actually a foul – and yet somehow the judgement of the officials becomes (arguably) doubly important. A) Because they are charged with judging correctly under the laws and b) because there now may be weightier, more abstract considerations creeping in, which may include that which is within or without of the spirit of the game. (Aaaargh, I know!) We may even be confronting what is right or wrong: at best there is unavoidable baggage. (In saying this, again I get that the referee is only really judging on the actuality or otherwise of the foul. But there may be cheating here – or at best cynicism – and these are *factors*).

For me it was blindingly obvious that Sterling was only ever interested in a penalty – which may be irrelevant – and I think there was no foul committed. So no penalty on either the ‘moral’ or corporeal level. We, as punters or refs, must then consider whether to give a foul against Sterling, for invention/deception and/or maybe even whether we book him… or just have a word.

Beyond the event, I have long been an advocate of penalising players who bring the game into disrepute by diving or attempting to deceive the officials. My panel of ex-players (or similar) would be looking closely at this and either having their own words, publicly, to express their dissatisfaction, or applying a sanction.

Sterling, whom I accept has often been the victim of prejudice or misjudgement, is unfortunately at the centre again, but he’s put himself there. Some pundits may be saying what he did was clever. I think it was shit – and yes, anti-football. The Whole of Ingerland may be celebrating, but the way of it has made it the thinnest of wins.

Ukraine.

Pre- game, what were your expectations? Did you do that thing where you know enough to know that (this) England squad is three goals better than (this) Ukrainian squad but still feared another tense one? Of course you did. And of course you didn’t – because England are at the centre of the world’s wildness. There is nothing and everything exceptional about them – about us. We love dogs and still hate the Germans. It’s wild.

England are the best-led/worst-fed/punchiest/most feeble. Their fans are the best/most decent/most racist. Southgate is god/is good/is god-awful. These are the Truths we throw in the mixer. We go to tournaments and don’t play any football. We get handy draws. We don’t deserve Bobby Robson, or Bryan Robson or Gareth Southgate – but we do deserve Gazza: we ARE Gazza. We are onion bags.

For a minute there, I lost myself. Call it euphoria; call it National Delusion. Call it an absolute thumping!

In Rome, England wallop Ukraine, 4-0. Wow. Sterling beats a cluster of theoretically Sterling-assigned defenders and flips a cute pass: Kane toe-pokes home. Anvil-head stuffs one across the keeper: dooff! Luke Shaw gets yet more crossing-practice in and ‘Arry nods another. Ridiculously, The Bloke Who Cannot Score flashes in, from a corner. Four flippin’ nil! Meaning Dreamland.

Do we need any (or is there any space for any) un-belief? Criticism? Reflection? There’s probably no room but let’s do some, anyway:

Wonderful, energising win. Joyful.

Poor opposition – but we knew that – that’s why we said England are three goals better to everyone within earshot, for the last three days.

Smart tactics, if we assume a 4-0 means things went overwhelmingly right? (We don’t assume it; we look at it, meaning…

The ability to switch formations is a significant indicator of certain strengths. Understanding; nous; confidence, maybe. Flexibility that might be useful, over a tournament. Belief in The Process).

Southgate is arguably world-leadingly good at setting out and following his process. He is generous and idealistic enough to let the trust flow. And yet this radical, contemporary, open philosophy is underpinned by – or maybe dogged by – a less appealing pragmatism. He may be both faultless philosopher and (when it comes to the *actual footie*) a relative cynic.

Sterling may be the most obvious example of a brilliant player who has benefitted – or is, now, some might say finally – from his gaffer’s trust. The City star has been one of the finest players in the Premier League for years, but has a) been off, for months and b) (some might say) has under-performed, for England – like so many others, over the decades. That weight-of-the-shirt thing, preposterously, given England’s non-centrality to the *actual drama*, has been a genuine presence.

With regards to tournaments, this accusation upon Sterling – driven, I accept, by racism in some quarters – may have some merit. Raheem – now an impressively mature man and something of a touchstone for progress on many fronts – has played to about 60% of his capacity, in Euros and World Cups. Like England, you might say. He’s gone there with expectation around him but been unable to do the football bit. Like England. If last night’s demolition of Ukraine signalled anything, let’s hope it marked another casting off point, for the lad from Wembley.

But amidst all the justified euphoria, where are England, really? A step closer, of course.

Southgate’s extraordinary mixture of dignity, cutting-edge understanding and (for me, rather dispiriting) conservatism has gotten Ingerland home – possibly twice – for the Business End.

I might still argue that England have played relatively little compelling football and that good teams might yet unpick their defence. (The stats and the tables might guffaw in the face of this view and I understand that Southgate’s Enlightenment is predicated on his knowledge that a) you don’t have to play football to win tournaments and b) what really counts is managing games. However, my strong preference – given we have Foden, given we have Grealish, as well as Sterling, Kane, Mount – would be to look to dominate, pressurise, flow, rather than manage).

The Germany game, despite being a key win, was instructive on many levels. Once we’d got past the booing of the opposition’s national anthem by thousands of morons, a decidedly low-grade German side, featuring a Muller now fully three years beyond his sell-by-date and Gnabry(!) as first impact sub, quietly bossed the first half. Both Muller and Werner should have scored in the game and had Garetzka, when lumbering clear, had either the will to strike – rather than draw a pen – or the pace to free himself, the result might have been very different. Accept it wasn’t but also re-state my central argument that the Southgate Disposition, for genuinely competitive games – to see out periods and nick goals – is, despite being a heavily considered and no doubt stat-based one, also vulnerable.

England will almost certainly look to drop back into an effective 5-3-2 against Denmark and play with caution but purpose. Understand that but don’t like it much. Would prefer if they did what Italy did to Belgium. Engage with energy and pace. Not recklessly; not without responsibilities fully factored-in; but with a view to dominate and the potential to emphatically out-score your opponent. (I will add that I wouldn’t want England to plainly invent contact and injury in the way several of the Italians did, so disgracefully, the other night, as they cynically sought to see out the final period: this was Old Italy and it traduced the brilliance of their earlier contribution).

It was thrilling to see the Azurri go so expansive, urgent and un-Italian: would both enjoy seeing England do that against Denmark and actually believe it suits the personnel Southgate has available. Plus England are home. Plus – and I know this is laughably naïve – enter-bloody-tainment.

Could be that I am again an outlier in seeing plenty holes in the English Dreaming. Repeat that this is more about optimism – the faith in skill, energy, talent – than miserablism. England went from managing the tournament to potentially storming it, last night. Now, onwards. I hope they keep – or maybe invent? – some irresistible faith.