‘England lads are heroes on & off pitch, win or lose they deserve our gratitude’

Legendary Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi once observed that football is the most important of all the unimportant things in life.

If any of the current Italian side doubted that sentiment, the explosion of euphoria they will have felt in England this week as a nation reasserted its footballing relevance will have reminded them of its truth.

And on Sunday night at Wembley the Italian players will witness those words written large on people’s faces if they are the latest to be beaten by Gareth Southgate’s side and a nation’s hunger for glory is finally satiated.

Everyone who loves football knows what it can do to you. Those it has previously left cold may now understand just how this most tribal of sports touches parts of you other obsessions cannot reach.

You can see it in the chaotic scenes beamed from fan parks and beer gardens and in the glowing expressions on people of all ages, races and classes who, for a few days, move with an extra spring in their step.

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Saka larks around on inflatable at England camp


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Conor Coady and Reece James in training


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We’re witnessing a collective release of pent-up tension that built like a coiled spring over the dark, isolated months of this pandemic.

Every country has endured this long misery, and deserved such a tonic, but it has been England’s fortune that the elements finally combined to give its people an unforgettable few weeks of footballing bliss.

Because, as the Irish will tell you if you mention the glorious summer of Italia 90 when Jack Charlton’s men made the World Cup quarter-finals and the nation went on one long, merry bender, footballing memories resonate down the years.

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Brian Reade with his son in Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium after Liverpool’s miraculous comeback to win the Champions League in 2005



I can still see my seven-year-old self sitting on my dad’s shoulders on Bolton’s terrace at my first game, in 1965. I can still feel myself hugging my 15-year-old son in Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium after Liverpool’s miraculous fightback to win the Champions League in 2005.

Football can take you higher than a kite but it can also drop you through the floor, as England fans know only too well. They have been mocked for having delusions of grandeur by constantly bleating about 1966.

The only two nations who’ve spent longer waiting to reach a major final are Ethiopia (59 years since they won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1962) and Israel (57 years since they won the Asian Cup in 1964), For a big footballing country whose clubs have been so successful and which codified, then exported the game to the world, the ignominy was hard to take.

Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish after win over Denmark


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England’s 55-year gap between major finals took in so many heartaches and near-misses many thought the years of hurt might never end.

And they might not. Tomorrow could be the most painful of all.

That’s what makes football so compelling: the gambler’s knowledge that you’re treading the thinnest of lines between ecstasy and despair.

But in victory it can be a precious uniting force. In the 1998 World Cup the French side was the country’s first multi-racial one, earning them the title The Rainbow Team. It provoked far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen to urge his followers not to recognise any victory as a French one due to so many black players wearing the shirt.

Gareth Southgate is leading by example


Pool via REUTERS)

He got his answer when they won and 1.5 million Parisians took to the Champs Elysees to celebrate.

This multi-racial England team has faced boos from their own fans and derision from right-wing politicians for taking the knee as a stand against racism before every game.

Yet the criticism, as with the French in 98, has made them more determined to succeed.

Saka and Jadon Sancho enjoy rough and tumble in the pool


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There is a feeling of courage and togetherness among this current crop of England players that has captured a troubled moment in our history.

During this pandemic, when we have never needed to be more united in pursuit of common, not individual goals, they have been a beacon of hope. They have shown what you can achieve through mutual respect and pulling together and won over the most cynical and least patriotic.

In recent years, as footballer’s wages went off the scale, they were labelled pampered, sulking, hedonistic millionaires whose only concern was their next piece of bling.

Euphoric fans roar our boys to victory



It was a horrifically unfair generalisation which only made England’s stars more wary and resentful. That has been completely overturned, partly by Southgate’s shrewd guidance, but mainly by their own honesty and courage.

I’ve met, covered the funerals of, or had to write obituaries for many of the England team of 1966 and realised them to be special men: humble, generous and honest.

This generation of England players are cut from the same cloth.

Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane celebrate


UEFA via Getty Images)

The selfless work they have done over the past year, whether fighting the Government to give free school meals to the poorest kids, helping out with foodbanks or handing part of their salaries to the NHS has been truly inspirational. As has the way they have connected with the wider nation by sharing stories of their tough upbringings, empathising with the voiceless and leading from the front by taking the knee or wearing rainbow laces in the battle against inequality.

And this outward-looking stance has slowly spread to the fans. The two-thirds full Wembley crowd on Wednesday drowned out the boos when those players took the knee. Even their songs are different. Hearing them bellow out Sweet Caroline will be a knife to the hearts of England’s hardcore travelling fans who prefer to sing pathetic, xenophobic dirges like Ten German Bombers.

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Much of the credit for the togetherness of these players and the way they are perceived as decent, down-to-earth young men, goes back to the manager.

As Gary Neville said after the Denmark game: “The standard of leaders in this country in the last couple of years has been poor. Gareth Southgate is everything a leader should be.”

It was clear who he was getting at.

Could there be a starker contrast in leadership than that between Southgate and our Prime Minister?

One, open, honest, dignified, obsessed with the finest detail and the welfare of those around him. The other Boris Johnson.

When the likes of him and Priti Patel were playing dangerous culture wars by refusing, or even condoning, those who booed players taking the knee, Southgate and his players offered eloquence and empathy.

It’s why I’d love it if they win on Sunday, and Johnson invites them to No10 so he can bask in their glory, they politely decline.

Or even better, turn up and take the knee in front of the world’s cameras, as he looks on embarrassed. Not knowing whether to join in or boo.

This England squad encapsulates this country’s finest traits at the very point its people needed to forget about what’s best for the individual and embrace a communal vision.

The most important of the least important people have stood tall and united a divided nation.

Win or lose tomorrow, they deserve our undivided gratitude.

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