For those of a certain age or, like me, who have a love for all things historical and sporting will remember the 1981 war film Escape to Victory. The plot involves a team of allied prisoners of war using a football match as a plan to escape incarceration.
England’s 1966 captain Bobby Moore was part of the all-star cast including Michael Caine. Gareth Southgate has a chance to lead England to victory and freedom on Sunday and complete, to quote the name of another Michael Caine film, The Italian Job. The parallels are uncanny.
As England amble towards July 19th, a postponed ‘Freedom Day’ where masks will not be mandatory and hugging loved ones will be the norm again, something abnormal is happening. The English men’s football team have reached the final in a major international tournament.
With every major tournament England take part in, there is a buzz of expectation, a roar of jubilation and shower of beer with every goal. And then, the inevitable despair. It’s the hope that kills you. England usually becomes a happier place to be for at least 2 weeks of a major tournament – notwithstanding the group stage disasters of 1988, 1992, 2000, 2014 and the Iceland knockout defeat in 2016.
For a country utterly fascinated by sport, Southgate has turned the poisoned chalice of being the England football manager into the country’s most admirable leader. Ingratiating a nation, underwhelmed by historic shortcomings, and devastated by a global pandemic, with its football team who are no strangers to adversity themselves.
Raheem Sterling has fought against racism and media pillory. Marcus Rashford mobilised the country against the government’s plans to cut free school meals during the pandemic, coming from a single-parent family struggling for money. Kalvin Phillips is also from a single-parent family, who has charmed the nation with his tributes to ‘Granny Val’ and his rugged midfield presence.
Tyrone Mings has volunteered at homeless shelters, having been forced to sleep in them himself as a child. Others such as Jordan Henderson and Pickford, Luke Shaw, John Stones and Harry Maguire and Kane have faced professional challenges such as self-doubt, loss of form and media ridicule. The nation’s darlings, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden, have had their disciplinary issues but are focused on letting their feet do the talking.
Relatable, honest, and intelligent, this England team has recaptured the hearts of the nation and endeavours to make our hearts race. Southgate is there to lift the handbrake and manage the hearts and minds of the first England men’s team to reach a final since 1966.
England fans’ relationship with tournaments is akin to that of a long-lost lover. Lamenting what could have been, what went wrong, how great it was. Mexico ’86, Italia ’90, Euro ’96 and Euro 2004 being the most pertinent for brooding. This team has allowed the country to dream again after a year of nightmares.
The beauty of sport in Britain is borne from failure. Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory in 2013 is a case in point. A wonderful tennis player who carried the burden of the first British man to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry – a pressure previously placed on Tim Henman and others before him.
In 1981, during a peak in racial tensions with the Brixton and Toxteth riots, England was gripped by a summer of Ashes Cricket. Stripped of captaincy, out of form and criticised by many, Ian Botham, now Lord Botham, together with the late Bob Willis, wrestled the Headingley Test from a certain defeat to victory. For a few weeks, the country was united by bat and ball.
Similarly with Super Saturday at the 2012 London Olympics. Many were not invested in the Olympics, until it started at least. Starting with rowers Alex Gregory, Pete Reed, Tom James and Andrew Triggs winning gold at Eton Dorney, and later Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking continuing with oar in hand. Passing the baton to Dani King, Laura Kenny (née Trott) and Joanna Rowsell in the Velodrome.
It finally built to a crescendo in the Olympic Stadium: Jessica Ennis-Hill winning the 800m to secure Heptathlon gold; Greg Rutherford long-jumping 8.31m and Mo Farah doing the ‘Mo-bot’ to win the 10,000m, before adding the 5,000m later that week. A crescendo of sporting triumph, the nation riding the crest of a wave – a golden 24 hours.
The Men’s Cricket World Cup victory in 2019 was won in controversial circumstances against magnanimous opponents in New Zealand, just like Denmark on Wednesday. Perhaps the most thrilling climax to a game of cricket and enchanting a generation of young, budding cricketers wishing they were Ben Stokes. His Headingley heroics later that Summer is another ‘where were you’ moment.
Sport often transcends itself. This England team has placed great pride in patriotism once more. Southgate could not be prouder to lead his country, and the droves of fans at Wembley, in pubs and living rooms across the nation could not be prouder of them. Especially with the entire team guaranteeing that their tournament winnings, regardless of Sunday’s result, will be donated to the tireless, heroic and criminally understaffed National Health Service. A donation that will amount to millions, yet still small change for the nation’s gratitude to them.
I have enjoyed the tournament in the sanctity of my living room instead of the madness outside. Whilst tempting, the superstition in me will keep me stood in front of the TV this Sunday too. Pacing, shouting, groaning, and watching through my fingers.
Years of romanticising the past, mass crowds in stadiums and restrictions being lifted has culminated in this. England’s shot at glory, a victory to escape. The adverse experiences of players and manager alike has burst the bubble of yesteryear, ending the circus and the tensions of playing for England. Lightening the ‘heavy’ shirt of the Three Lions.
Fans need brood no more: Southgate is the one and he still turns us on. Good times never seemed so good (so good, so good, so good!). This time, more than any other time, this time. Jules Rimet still gleaming… Excuse me whilst I prepare my karaoke repertoire.
Sunday is a sporting moment that will punctuate the near end of a nightmare. Wherever you are, whoever you are with, whatever the result: dare to dream. Win or lose, football has returned home.