OLIVER HOLT: The boys of 1966 have left and gone away but we have new heroes now and this is their time… Gareth Southgate’s England have helped us move on and learn to love our footballers again
- England’s Euro 2020 side have allowed us to finally move on from the 1966 team
- We’ve measured England’s football existence in disappointments since that year
- This is the tournament where we have learned to love our footballers again
- Find out the latest Euro 2020 news including fixtures, live action and results here
In a time of upheaval and discord almost as distant as the year the England football team won their last major tournament, the singer and songwriter Paul Simon turned to an old baseball star, who epitomised the grace and nobility of another era, for comfort. ‘Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?’ he asked in the last verse of Mrs Robinson, ‘Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.’
For as long as that song has been sung and longer, we have had our own DiMaggio in this country. For 55 years, we have cast our grieving gaze back to the Boys of 66 as symbols of an idealised time when footballers were still working-class heroes who moved among us like normal men, when things were more simple, when we were kings.
Where have you gone Bobby Moore with your grace and your golden smile? Remember how, when the World Cup was won, the England captain climbed up to the Royal Box and saw that the Queen was wearing pristine white gloves and tried to wipe the mud off his hands so he would not sully them when he went to accept the trophy? But Bobby Moore has left and gone away.
We have measured our country’s football existence in disappointments and defeats since 1966
Gareth Southgate’s superb England side have allowed us to forget about the boys of 1966
And for much of that half-century that has passed, we have measured out our country’s football existence in disappointments and defeats to the point where it has become part of national psyche to be self-deprecating about our football team and to see their travails as an extension of the confusion that accompanied the loss of our old pre-eminence in the world.
It was striking when England beat Denmark at Wembley on Wednesday night to reach the final of the European Championship how many middle-aged men, in particular, poured out their hearts and said they had begun to think they would never witness this.
It was as if the joy of it had somehow completed something in them. It had given them some sort of closure amid the angst of modern life. This was getting to the final, never mind the idea of winning it. That seemed to be too much to hope for, too much to contemplate.
The England side that will face Italy in the Euro 2020 final are a team we can be proud of
But this run with these players and with Gareth Southgate as manager has unlocked something in us. We live in a hopelessly divided country where anger and bitterness are never far from the surface and we brand people with labels like ‘Woke’ and ‘Gammon’ and where all sides despair that we have come to this. And this summer we have turned back to our football team to try to make sense of our lives.
Among the gifts that Southgate and his team have given us, one is that they have finally allowed us to move on. They are allowing us to celebrate something that we have. Not just something that we had. For so long, it has been fashionable to sneer at England footballers as under-achievers, chavs, arrivistes, or any array of labels you care to think of.
This is the tournament where we learned to love our footballers again. It is not that they are better men than the players of previous generations who have failed to get this far. But we never heard their voice. Not really.
They were not allowed to have opinions. Southgate’s master stroke, among the other astute decisions he has made, has been to change that. He has given these players a voice. And so whether you agree with taking the knee or not, at least you can accept that these players stand for something.
At least you can accept they have the courage to do something that is not universally popular because they feel it is right. Previous groups of players would have run a mile from something like that. Because they would have been told that the boo-boys buy sneakers, too.
The England team has a different identity now – it is time to move on and look forward, not back
Raheem Sterling’s pace will cause difficulty for Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci
The England team who play Italy in the Euro 2020 final on Sunday are a team of players we can be proud of. We know their stories and their journeys, stories that often involve hardship and family sacrifice to allow sons to flourish, stories of men who rallied to good causes during the pandemic, stories of men who are unencumbered by past failures and the baggage of England’s football history.
When Simon wrote about DiMaggio, he said he had turned to him because ‘in these days of Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters, we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife and the power of his silence’.
We have grieved for the Boys of 66 as much for what we have become as for what they were and what they did. But this team that represent a new England, a richly diverse England, seems to have given us the confidence at last to embrace what we have and what we are. We are not stuck in 1966 any more. It is time to move on. It is time to look forward, not back.
It will not be easy. Italy must be slight favourites. They have gone 33 games unbeaten, a new national record, and they are anchored and inspired by two veteran central defenders, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, who England midfielder Mason Mount referred to on Saturday as ‘warriors’.
But this is an England team who have already slain some of their demons. In the second round Southgate’s players eased past Germany, the first time England had beaten their old rivals in a knockout match at a major tournament since 1966. There have been four losing semi-finals in the last 55 years as well. England hurdled that barrier, too.
Sure, we can lionise Italy because they deserve it. But Sterling’s pace will discomfort Chiellini and Bonucci, the defence will be a formidable obstacle to forwards like Ciro Immobile and Mount knows enough about his Chelsea team-mate Jorginho to be able to try, at least, to stifle him.
The likes of Mason Mount will continue to be part of the England setup for a very long time
This is an England team who represent all of us. Southgate has been held up as the epitome of everything that is decent, a modest man, humble in victory, a proud and patriotic Englishman and a man who has stood up for his players. The narrative around his journey from missing a critical penalty in the Euro 96 semi-final shootout to the brink of redemption 25 years on is compelling.
Harry Maguire is the English yeoman of the team, a towering presence, solid, dependable, Terry Butcher for the 21st century. Raheem Sterling, England’s best player at this tournament, is the proud son of an immigrant mother, a brilliant forward who has become a powerful advocate for anti- racism.
Marcus Rashford is a man everyone admires, Bukayo Saka is a player everyone loves, Harry Kane, who wore a rainbow captain’s armband during the game against Germany, keeps letting his boots do the talking. And all of them have been empowered by a manager who has encouraged them to express themselves.
There is something to like about every member of this team – and boy do they have talent
And they have talent. Boy, do they have talent. Enough talent to beat Italy if they play to the best of their ability. So much talent that Jack Grealish cannot get into the starting line-up. So much talent that it practically cascades off the bench. So much talent that Jadon Sancho can start against Ukraine in Rome in the quarter-final, excel, and still lose his place for the semi-final against Denmark.
This is a team where two of the stars have been Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, the shield in front of the back four. This is a team fired by the pace and guile of Sterling, alive with the simmering threat of Kane, emboldened by the resurrection of Luke Shaw and imbued all the way through with the hope and optimism and fearlessness of youth.
The Boys of 66 have left and gone away but we have a new team of heroes now and this is their time.
Share this article
Source: Read Full Article