When the whistle went off at Wembley on Wednesday, I felt, like the rest of the nation, an overwhelming wave of cheers, relief and, if I’m honest, utter disbelief.
This is the first England men’s team to reach a final since 1966 (in case you hadn’t heard).
Not only that, I also felt a tremendous sense of pride that it was this group of players, with this manager and support staff, who had written their name in the history books.
As a BBC Sport reporter for England, I’ve been following this team for over four weeks now – from before a ball was kicked against Croatia. At the time, a reporter who had been covering England for much longer than I had described how they had redone what they had started in Russia. Somehow it looks like they managed to mix it up for three years to come up with something even more special.
‘Southgate you’re the one’ – lead by example
On the first day, Gareth Southgate stood before the media in St George’s Park, thanking them in advance for their support and explaining that he was aware of what his position means to people – that every time England play they have the opportunity to create new memories for fans that will last a lifetime. He told his players that and, from what we’ve seen on the pitch, it’s a message that has been heeded.
He is a man who is not afraid to put his head above the parapet and make his voice heard. In every interview, and even a passing conversation, he is always articulate, engaging and thoughtful (which was perfectly demonstrated in his reply to me during Germany’s full-time contest about the personal pain he has suffered since he infamously served that sentence in 1996. missed), and so are his players.
Laughter, Tears and Superstitions – Getting to Know the Three Lions
Every day, after seeing the first 15 minutes of training, we get ten minutes (no longer due to covid restrictions) in our flysheet, purpose built to comply with regulations, keeping strict three meters between me and the player.
One of my favorite interviews was with 19-year-old Bukayo Saka, who told me about growing up in the shadow of Wembley, and how he got the equivalent of As and A*s at GCSE level six months earlier. he made his Arsenal debut.
What you didn’t see in that, luckily for me, was my attempt to start the interview by calling his nickname, little chili, in French. I’ve practiced the accent for ages, but somehow I managed to get a letter wrong. Needless to say, he found it hilarious and asked me to repeat it several times. I hope our editor shredded those images.
When I sat down with Jack Grealish after the game in Scotland, I didn’t just want the constant call to have him answered on the pitch – I also wanted to dig a little deeper, to find out more about the boy with the rolled up socks and the slicked back hair.
I was well aware of how close he was to his family and how he has a sister with cerebral palsy, as well as the fact that he had endured the unimaginable tragedy of losing his brother, so instead I just asked what it was. like growing up in the Grealish household.
He talked about their incredible support, as well as how his mother has to support his sister Rosie, who he described as his best friend. He then asked me if I was deliberately trying to make him cry because he felt he was getting emotional. He then also told me that she was coming to the Czech Republic game which he then started, and he was visibly desperate to make her proud.
I’ve also heard about the bracelet Kieran Trippier was wearing and given to him by his young daughter, Luke Shaw’s lucky flip flops and Phil Foden’s fear of seeing penalties – our chats were wide, entertaining and most importantly enjoyable.
The only defeat of the campaign – life in the camp
The players don’t just come by for interviews, either.
Whichever player does the press conference is more likely to take on a member of the media at darts. I was awake in week one and, far from being an expert, somehow managed to beat Mason Mount. I told him afterwards that it was okay as long as that is the only defeat he suffers this week – now I hope it is his only defeat in the whole tournament.
I also constantly hear stories about how well equipped their personal spaces in St George’s Park are. From posting pictures of their families in their rooms to providing basketball courts and ping pong tables, this is an environment that has been carefully cultivated.
At the right times, there are also allowable treats – and I don’t just mean in the form of Ed Sheeran coming in for a private performance.
In the first week we saw an ice cream truck go in. I introduced myself to the van owner and managed to light one up to ‘try’ before it reached the players. We also found out later in an interview with Kalvin Phillips that there was a pic ‘n’ mix mode (he chose candy, snakes were his favorites) so that all players were taken care of.
Whatever happens on Sunday, one of the key points of this summer should be that we now have an England national team to be proud of, both on and off the pitch. They have personality, pride and purpose.
I always want England to win. But above all I want ‘this’ English team to win.
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