So now they rest on the eve of potential immortality. All seems calm and, for Gareth Southgate, the message to the players remains the same. Stay composed, believe in your ability, trust in your team-mates. Yet as England’s players go to bed tonight they may find sleep a little harder to come by, for tomorrow is the biggest day of their careers.
The country is braced. Nervous, expectant and more than a tad hopeful for the celebration of a lifetime after more than a year of misery. Before that, however, there is the small matter of finding a way to beat Italy, whose most recent defeat was in September 2018 and have been deeply impressive on their march to Wembley.
Such is the obsession with England’s history, which continues to sit uneasily alongside the desire to free this squad from the prison of past failures, the build up to this finale has been dominated by reminiscing to the extent that even Southgate made a rare departure from being a man of measure when daring to speak about inventions and invasions on Friday.
Talk of football itself has felt perplexingly secondary at times, the possibility of a bank holiday or discussing national anthem etiquette seemingly more important to some than how England get over the line.
It is undoubtedly a moment of wider significance for the country, transcending communities at a time of such division, while a win at the end of a month that has already brought such joy would transform every member of this squad from likeable young men to legends for the rest of their days. Temptation to think about statues and knighthoods must be parked though.
Southgate and his senior players, the so-called tribal elders, will have been stressing that since the rest of the country emerged groggily from their slumber on Thursday morning following that energy-sapping extra-time win against Denmark and the idea for tomorrow is to treat everything as routinely as possible.
“For us it’s a normal matchday,” the manager said this evening. “We’ve prepared the same way for all of our evening kick offs. We’ll have the same meetings at the same time. The players will have a stretch and walk, although that might be a little more difficult having a look outside our hotel.
“All of our preparation, especially for these knockout matches, has been the same. We’ve had evening kick offs each time. No matter what the game you have got to keep the consistency in how you prepare. The players are ready, they are tactically aware and they are used to playing these games. Everybody’s looking forward to it.”
Yet in the heat of final battle men previously impervious to the pressure can be overwhelmed and ensuring the players stick sufficiently close enough to the cliche of treating it like any other game may be decisive.
The match itself is packed with fascinating duels. Can Mason Mount deny clubmate Jorginho the freedom he has enjoyed against everyone apart from Spain? Whoever comes out on top will join the rare list of winning the Champions League and European Championship in the same summer.
Will wily veterans Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini be drawn out by Harry Kane to allow Raheem Sterling get in behind? The semi-final was the captain’s most effective performance as a deep lying centre forward in an England shirt and there can be few doubts that he has timed his plan to peak when it matters most and not in the group stage well.
Can Ciro Immobile, Europe’s golden shoe winner last season but more of a facilitator in the Azzurri line up, do similar versus Harry Maguire and John Stones? Will Emerson, Chelsea’s third-choice left back, be targeted by Bukayo Saka or does Jadon Sancho get the call instead?
What does Southgate predict will be the key? “When you’re coaching you watch everything but you have to decide the most important information for the players, not flood them with too much,” he said, neatly swerving the question. “Try to adapt the game to our strengths and the weaknesses of our opponent. They have a good tactical plan, experienced coach and an amazing record over the past 30 games.”
Will it be the controlling of emotions that decides whether the inevitable tears tomorrow evening will be born from happiness or heartbreak? “We’re calm,” Southgate insisted. “We’ve grown into the tournament. We’re looking forward to the challenge against a high level opponent. They are tactically very good, have had a tremendous run, so it’s a great challenge for us.”
Must England’s performance be better than in the past six games, then? “In finals the key is to hit your level,” the manager added, doing nothing to feed the idea England may end up being overwhelmed. “Lots of teams in finals end up underperforming. It’s about doing what you’re good at, transferring what you do every day in training to the match. Our players know that, it’s our ethos.”
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Southgate was then asked how he can ensure his players remain concentrated with such expectation from the stands. “The players who’ve been with us a long time know the atmosphere around you can be intense but you’ve got to keep your focus on what you can control, not be distracted by things, not lose heart when things go against you.”
Fans will throng Wembley Way hours before, making the most of this trip to unchartered territory. Once inside they will create a noise that may surpass the deafening roars of Wednesday night. That the excitement has grown parallel to Wembley’s attendance gradually increasing from 22,500 to 65,000 and restrictions being lifted has contributed to the sense of this being extra special.
It is only a game of football; it is also a night in which those privileged to be in attendance will remember forever. Strap in, it may be bumpy.