With his back to goal and hand over his mouth, Bukayo Saka stood alone. Even though he was isolated, he was not the only person who would need to carry the weight of England’s loss. Where Saka’s penalty was decisive, Marcus Rashford and Jason Sancho also missed their spot kicks.
Gareth Southgate was quick to try to put the penalty trauma to one side. He hoped to lift some of the weight. Southgate knows better than anyone the burden it bears, so he did not want his past to become their future.
Southgate shared a moment with each of them on the pitch, ensuring he could do his best to take responsibility for their actions. He repeated this in public later when he told the media it was his fault, not the players.
“It’s down to me,” he said. “I decided on the penalty takers based on what we’ve done in training. Nobody is on their own. That’s my call and it totally rests on me.”
While it is easy to assume this is a routine ‘protect the players’ mantra, Southgate’s rhetoric falls perfectly in line with his personality and management. Even twenty-five years after Euro 96, Southgate is still unfazed about apologising for his penalty miss. He is a statesman, so he will push those buttons when called upon, whether in public or private.
Most of all, however, a firm lingering question hangs over this England side: how do they bounce back?
It is typical for ghosts to run amok in the England men’s team psyche. Before the 2018 World Cup, England saw three semi-finals’ at major tournaments (1966 World Cup, 1990 World Cup and Euro 1996). Something has always appeared to halt England in its tracks: a red card, a penalty shootout, underwhelming management, the press. All four, amongst other things, defined the ‘golden generation’.
Since Southgate took charge, he has eased the burden of the past. He has built a united squad, no matter who drifts in or out. The penalty shootout success over Colombia at the 2018 World Cup was celebrated as exorcising the old ghosts that haunted the team. The recent win over Germany was treated similarly. He has reached two major semi-finals (three if you want to include the Nations League) and reached a major final.
Southgate’s tenure is about searching for closure. Closure for England is closure for him. They have gone through too much together for the story to end on a sour note. The Euro 2020 final was meant to be the antidote, though now it is just another painful chapter.
The loss to Croatia in 2018 was never seen as a failure. Instead, it was the beginning of a bright future. The same could possibly be said for the Nations League defeat to the Netherlands. But, for the first time under Southgate, this England side has their own failure and ghost to contend with.
This does not mean the pitchforks should be levied into the air against Gareth Southgate. Too much progress has been seen under him – psychologically, collectively and nationally – to throw him under the bus.
Alan Shearer’s pouring of emotion towards Gareth Southgate after the Germany win and his Euro 96 apology summed up how many people felt and still do.
“And here’s something that life has taught me,” Shearer wrote in The Athletic. “You have to sample the shit to appreciate the good stuff. And if you put yourself forward that many times, every now and again, you’ll trip up. You tripped, Gareth. But you stepped forward. And now it’s time to finally let go, to let the rest of us catch you…”
“I look at you and see England. And I see myself, too.”
He added: “Hurt? No. Fuck that. I’m smiling and I’m proud. Proud of England, proud of you.”
As time passed, some may believe Shearer was too wrapped up in emotion. Nonetheless, the core points remain. If you sample the bad with the good, you can appreciate this England more than most we have seen.
Yes, Southgate tactically tripped in the second-half and extra-time, and it was proven costly. Yes, Rashford, Sancho and Saka tripped, and it was proven costly. However, you can still look to England and be proud. The next major tournament is only 18 months away and this same group of players will take to the field beside a few inevitable changes.
As we sample what happens on the pitch, we also have to sample what happens off it. Unfortunately, the latter is far more disturbing. Shearer also prophetically wrote, “we’re forever one game away from disaster.”
The ‘disaster’ that happened was unlikely to be close to what Shearer may have expected. Where this England side has done their best to represent their country in the media and their social activity, others either wish to bring them down or fail to abide by the standards they set.
Southgate has helped transform the national team to mean more than just a game of football or the elation of lifting a trophy. They are about humanity.
Those a part of that rancid mob who breached security and assaulted other fans were not. Those that racially abused Rashford, Sancho and Saka were not. Those that defaced the Rashford mural were not.
“We can only set the example we believe we should and represent the country in a way that we feel we should when representing England,” Southgate said after the game.
“Everybody has to remember when they support the team, they also represent England and should represent what we stand for.”
“I think the players have done that brilliantly. We can only try to affect the things we can. I think we had a lot of positive effects on areas of society, but we can’t affect everything.”
“People have responsibilities in those areas, and we all have to work collectively to constantly improve those things.”
Throughout his tenure, Southgate always attempts to galvanise the nation in the image he wants England to have. While this summer he has had mixed results, fans responded when they saw the abuse.
The Rashford mural was repaired and covered in messages of love. The Manchester United player received letters from inspired children detailing their support. The better parts of social media also responded to wish the players well.
Southgate’s foundations for a better England team, a better English nation, remain despite the defeat. His players – alongside their club colleagues – have grown in confidence in the past year to be outspoken.
A footballer calling out a Secretary of State’s hypocritical rhetoric would have been unthinkable two years ago. Now, Tyrone Mings’ has set a new bar with his tweet towards the Home Secretary.
Before the tournament, there was a slight worry the team lacked leadership outside of Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane. That has all been put to bed. There is a clear abundance.
With Euro 2024 far from Southgate’s mind, the England manager will be leading the team out again in 18 months (as long as qualifying goes as expected).
The gap between now and then will be the toughest challenge of his managerial career. Expectations have risen. Pressure will grow. His critiques will anticipate resolutions.
Behind all the attention, positive voices will say this journey has been worthwhile. On the pitch, not every England story needs to end with heartbreak. Off the pitch, not every England story needs to begin and end with division.
To prepare for the next tournament is to prepare the country to face its new ghosts and the issues of the time.
Because at the end of it all, not only Southgate is desperate to deliver the closure this country needs, but to give himself the closure he needs.