England lost the final of Euro 2020 on penalties and it broke my heart

And so it was penalties. It was the one thing we all dreaded.

Despite Colombia. Despite Switzerland in the third-place playoff of the UEFA Nations League. (No, me neither. And I was there).

You never fancied England. Put simply, Gianluigi Donnarumma is a much bigger man than Jordan Pickford.

And it was left to Bukayo Saka.

What of this 19-year-old? What of this brilliant, bright, beaming 19-year-old?

A player that has come through the ranks at Arsenal to more than earn his place among England’s elite.

A player that was brought in by Gareth Southgate for the Three Lions’ final group game against the Czech Republic, and made such an impression.

Saka’s penalty miss meant glory for Italy

A player that rightfully kept his place for an historic last-16 victory over Germany and would have absolutely done so again were it not for a knock in the quarter-final against Ukraine.

A player that was brought straight back into the starting XI for a crucial semi-final against Denmark, but held back for his country’s biggest game in more than half a century in the final against Italy.

After 120 minutes and nine penalties, it was completely unfair that the responsibility to keep this match – and this tournament – going, fell on Bukayo Saka’s shoulders.

But that’s football.

Ultimately, England fell short.

They fell short on the pitch. They fell short in lifting a first major honour for 55 years. They fell short in bringing football home.

Ultimately, England fell short
Ultimately, England fell short

But this outstanding group of young men did not fall short in bringing hope back to a nation. They did not fall short in bringing pride back to supporting the national team.

I’ve loved watching England for as long as I can remember.

I was in a minority among my group of friends growing up in South Yorkshire, most of whom I habitually joined in attending Sheffield Wednesday games on a Saturday afternoon, because I never dreaded the international break. I relished it.

But it was often a chore. Whether in person at Wembley or in front of the TV, there was rarely much to shout about. As much as I rejoiced in the victories, it was regularly laborious to witness.

But this group of players have changed all of that. Gareth Southgate has changed all of that.

Take Kyle Walker. I love him. A player that came through the ranks at Sheffield United – a club I have absolutely zero fondness for. He’s outstanding.

Take Harry Maguire. I love him. He drinks the vodka. He drinks the jäger. His head’s f***ing massive. He’s outstanding

Take John Stones. I love him. He’s from Barnsley. He plays from the back. If you threw a brick at him, he’d head the f***er back. He’s outstanding.

Take Kalvin Phillips. I love him. He’s magic, you know. The Yorkshire Pirlo. He’s outstanding.

Take Raheem Sterling. I love him. He drives at the defence. He stands up to racial injustice. He takes the knee. He’s outstanding.

Take Harry Kane. I love him. The best English footballer in a generation. He scores goals. He sets up goals. He’s outstanding.

And take Marcus Rashford. I love him. He feeds hungry kids. He may well prove himself the most culturally significant English footballer of all time. He might be Prime Minister one day. He should be Prime Minister one day. He’s outstanding.

And yet, in that instant. When Gianluigi Donnarumma saved that penalty. In that instant, all these important things – far more important than the kick of a football – seemed insignificant.

I was heartbroken.

It was an all too familiar tale
It was an all too familiar tale

I was fully invested in this team. I attended the Germany game as a fan. I attended the Denmark game as a fan. These players – and this manager – made me feel like I’ve never felt in a football ground before.

They made me touch hands. They made me reach out. They made me believe that – finally – football was coming home again.

It wasn’t to be.

And right now – it hurts. It hurts like hell.

But in time, I hope we will reflect on this tournament as we should.

A tournament that ditched the shame in supporting the national team.

A tournament that made people from all walks of life, all races and all cultures, get behind a collective that were doing everything they could to bring joy to their country – after the most wretched of times.

There will always be those that sneer at the England team. Those that go out of their way to tell you they’re not bothered. But ultimately, they don’t matter.

I can’t wait for the new Premier League season. I can’t wait for the new Football League season. I’ll be watching my team try to get out of the third tier for the third time since the turn of the millennium.

But I also can’t wait for the next international break. Qualifiers in Hungary, in Poland – and against Andorra at Wembley.

A chance to tell these players how grateful we are. And a chance to look ahead to the Qatar World Cup in the winter of 2022. As disgraceful as the premise may be.

Because – in 18 months’ time – make no mistake. Football’s coming home again.

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