The English team had — and then lost — a wild courage. Credit: Paul Ellis - Pool/Getty Images

July 12, 2021   6 mins

We were at home, but it didn’t come. The germ of a team did not flower in the hothouse of a final but, after a sublime initial burst of energy, shrank further and further as the game went on. There was a longing for glory all around them, and even this tightly managed group of sealed athletes tuned into it for 10 tantalising minutes. The perfect weight of Harry Kane’s crossfield pass, the magnificence of Trippier’s cross and Luke Shaw’s half volley was that longing expressed in football perfection. A moment seized in time. And then there was nothing.

The team turned away from glory. They retreated from a dazed Italian team. They could not tap into the wave of demonic national energy and were thus consumed by it. Sending out two players who had not kicked the ball in open play and a 19-year-old to take penalties was a cruelty that none of them deserved. Gareth Southgate builds his philosophy around bravery, kindness and ambition and none of those virtues was present in the last 75 minutes of the game. The final was not a new beginning but another chapter in a long story which might also be called a chronicle of a death foretold. That foreboding of heartbreak to come and an unrealised beauty.

My first memories of a confused sense of weirdness and impending heartbreak are tied up with football, and particularly England playing Germany. I can still see through my five-year-old eyes the fuzzy screen of our big fat black and white telly in the lounge with its dodgy aerial. The only clarity was an intense white dot when you turned it off. My brother insisted that I lay completely still on the floor while we played so that I wouldn’t disturb the picture. I remember the blurred insanity of the ball bouncing down off the crossbar and my overexcited confusion as the players ran in dreamtime. I lay on the floor crying, lying completely still. It was all too much. Apparently my Mum took me to bed with a fever. It’s coming home.

It was also my first experience of heresy. There was the shock of hearing German Jewish relatives say it wasn’t a goal, that the ball did not cross the line. That sent me into a spin from which I’ve never really recovered. What did they mean, Russian linesman? And then there was the lingering heartbreak of Jimmy Greaves. I was as sure as you could be sure of anything that he was the greatest striker in England and he was dropped from the team in favour of a West Ham player. He said that when the final whistle blew he felt like the loneliest man in the world and that he was never the same again. Well, that made two of us. It was the beginning of a lifelong argument with the FA management that defined the outcome of this tournament. A reluctance to trust the wild brilliance of English football. Brian Clough. The demons that have beset the soul of the England team were fully present in 1966.

I was a far more mature nine in 1970, and armed with a full Esso collection of world cup player coins in my album. It took me ages to get Paul Reaney, and he broke his leg and couldn’t even go to Mexico. I would stare for hours at the profile of Frances Lee and Colin Bell, Terry Cooper and Peter Bonetti. And all the feelings of heartbreak and weirdness that found first expression in 1966 returned. Bobby Moore getting arrested and jailed for four days for stealing a bracelet in a Bogota hotel. What was that all about? Fifty years later I still can’t get to the bottom of it. Bobby Moore remains an elusive character in a way that Bobby Charlton does not. And then there was the shock of the eternal figure of Gordon Banks going down with “Montezuma’s revenge”, whatever that was, just before the Germany game. And then the ecstasy of going two goals up. Back Home, we were really behind them when they were far away. And then it all fell apart. The numb awfulness of Germany equalising and then scoring the winner in extra time. I felt like I’d jumped off a mountain and was falling through space. Something inside of me died and I couldn’t really engage for two decades after that. That feeling that something was going wrong and no one was doing anything about it.

I began to believe that winning the World Cup with Geoff Hurst had put our football back 20 years. We couldn’t even qualify for the World Cup in the Seventies and our cameo appearances in the European Championship were fleeting. It seemed we were playing football in a parallel universe. The big number nine, the concrete feet. We were simultaneously brutal and naïve. It was something unique and completely dissatisfying. Don Revie disappearing in a puff of Saudi smoke. Tony Curry. And even when we finally qualified in 1982 we wouldn’t play Glen Hoddle. It seemed to me that English Football did not trust English footballers who were touched with the gift of passing. Nor the dribblers. Blame the management not the workers. In the Eighties it felt like there was a systematic loathing of working-class culture in our politics, economy and football. I clocked on for ‘86 and witnessed the two faces of Maradona but never felt that we were any more than a walk on part in his apotheosis.

And then came Italia 90 and Paul Gascoigne. I was living in Italy and watched the semi-final in a bar full of Germans and all the old childhood feelings were back. That sickening sense of loss, the rage in the night. I stared at the figure of Peter Shilton and I could have sworn he was in my 1970 coin collection. How was he going to save German penalties. It looked to me that he was out of breath changing ends. In Paul Gascoigne however there was finally an expression of the wild brilliance of English football, of the intuitive stillness in the wind and rain.

I think it means so much to me because football is one of those rare parts of our society where the working class is its public face. Our politics is still public school, as is rugby, cricket and tennis. Our music has bursts of working-class mayhem but the spirit of Genesis and Pink Floyd is always lurking. It was not only football, we also gave progressive rock to the world and I am not sure what we can do to erase that shame. And yet football remains, for all the corporate commodification, a working-class sport and our football expresses that. The Wimbledon gasp is not something you hear at a football ground. The almost inaudible hum of the Wimbledon final on the Sunday afternoon before the game indicates where it stands in the national affections.

There is a demented kind of glory that is everywhere to be seen in English football and never expressed in the national team. Glen Hoddle turned against himself as a manager and David Batty represented his failure of courage. There was no real difference between Graham Taylor and his team. I remember Ossie Ardiles commenting that Carlton Palmer’s first touch was longer than he could kick the ball and the hype of the golden generation left me cold.

Neither Sven Goran Eriksson nor Fabio Capello had any feeling for English football and all the fizz was expressed in a unsatisfying burp. Roy Hodgson was more reminiscent of Montezuma’s revenge.

Which brings us to now. To this team, to Gareth Southgate and the first ever England appearance in the final of a European Championship, the second final in our history. Back at Wembley.

We have beaten Germany, and with very little anxiety. Whatever the American origins of taking the knee it has been assimilated into English football as part of a long-standing campaign against racism that has nobility. I was at Wembley when Viv Anderson made his debut for England, the first ever black player, and I remember the boos as well as the applause. As a game played by working-class people there is an intense relationship between footballers of different backgrounds. Football is a rare case of something that brings races, and places together. A patchwork of England flags with the names of small towns on them, Kiddeminster, Grimsby and Yeovil were draped all around me when I watched the qualifying game against Scotland.

But the old anxieties still linger. Why didn’t we play Grealish from the start? Why do we still mistrust the players who play? There is great potential in this England team but it will not be realised until their soul is set free. It’s the same old story. This was not a perfect Italian team. They lacked two essential features, a sublime 10 — like Pirlo, Antognoni or a Baggio — and a merciless 9 — like Rossi, Inzaghi or Mancini. What they had was great passers in Jorginho and Veratti, a magnificent defence and wingers who were prepared to run. If the game was contained, then they would win. It would have taken a wild kind of courage to defeat them and we had it, then we lost it.

Don’t blame the players, blame the management.

Maurice Glasman is the founder of Blue Labour and director of the Common Good Foundation. He is a Labour life peer.