Lots to learn from England's heroic achievement

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 11: In this handout picture provided by UEFA, Gareth Southgate, Head Coach of

Gareth Southgate speaks to the media after England's final defeat - Credit: Photo by UEFA via Getty Images

For anyone who may remember my column last week, it had been written prior to the England games - both against Denmark in the semi-final of the Euros and, of course, the final against Italy last Sunday. Now we know.

Despite the crushing disappointment, so much good has come from England’s near miss. Setting technical footballing matters to one side, I’d like to pay tribute to the sheer political savvy of the manager, Gareth Southgate. He was perfectly aware that an England victory would be used by our boastful prime minister as a flag-waving, Up Yours Delors, kind of triumph, a validation of the claim to England as a country exceptional in the world with no need to co-depend on puny Europeans.

Southgate repeatedly communicated thoughtful comments about the varied ethnic and national backgrounds of English players, the support mechanisms for them through family and schools which spoke to a community spirit, and not the buccaneering self-aggrandisement central to the Johnson view of the world - less Me Too, more Me First.

He was also careful to pay tribute to the developments brought to English football by managers from France, Germany, Italy, Spain et al. Because the ascendancy of the English Premier League is a microcosm of the free movement of labour and skill to the greater good of all. It is the antithesis of the Little England view of the world.

Southgate had also pleaded with supporters not to boo the national anthems of their opponents, and sadly this fell in part on deaf ears. It’s just so embarrassing as idiots from a still powerful nation of well over 50 million people boo the Danish anthem (pop: 5 million). It betrays both a worrying xenophobia, as well as an extraordinary stupidity. Nothing fires an opponent up more than being disrespected so grossly.

But enough of all that, and here we all are, living to fight another day, the 2022 World Cup just around the corner. And at this point, I must part company with the admirable Southgate. I am no Nostradamus, but, with my wife and one of my daughters as witness, I predicted (and I bet I am not alone in this) what would happen with each of the five England penalties.

Of course the two Harrys were going to score, thumping them in with power and accuracy and with – crucially – a proper long-run up. But the moment Marcus Rashford decided not to follow suit but to play games with the Italian goalkeeper, we were doomed.

Of course he missed – this was not a game in the park with jumpers for goalposts. And with the pressure as a consequence of that miss intolerable for the two teenagers to follow, they would never now whack it like the two Harrys but would buckle and execute little more than a back pass into the Italian goalie’s hands. Gareth got all that horribly wrong.

Yet it was all heroic, and England’s achievement showed how far we have come in managerial excellence all done without suppressing the powerful emotional heart and sheer brilliance of someone like Raheem Sterling. So what did we learn? Lots that really belong on the sports pages. Mostly wonderful, but also alarming, and I apologise that I am now going to bore you with a public health message.

We know as a fact that in certain public viewing places, pubs and bars in East Devon, Covid-19 was predictably transmitted as supporters jumped about in anguish and ecstasy. We know as a fact that infection rates are on the rise again, and fast. While the majority have now had two vaccinations, many have not. In my view, Johnson and his new health secretary are negligent – yet again – in their narrative around July 19. So please, and I really do implore this, do what you did before. Wear a mask, stay safe and protect the NHS.

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