I’ve not been proposed to before, but I imagine it feels exactly how I did when, out of nowhere, a friend’s message pinged in the group chat last Thursday morning. “I’ve got tickets to England-Germany. Ten minutes to check out. First come, first served.” The initial shock, the brief moment of comprehension, the swell of emotion. Yes. Yes, Charlie, I will go to the game with you.
One of the very few downsides to working in sports journalism is you sometimes forget what it is to be a fan and the reasons you loved sport in the first place. I still have the ticket from my first trip to Wembley with my dad and brother in 1995: England vs Brazil in the Umbro Cup. The two national crests are embossed on yellowing card like it was hand-made. Life is more clinical now: an e-ticket on your phone, a negative test result in emails, a mask stuffed in your pocket. But the train journey to Wembley had the same feeling of nervous anticipation 26 years later, a sense of heading towards the unknown.
On Centre Court this week Wimbledon fans stood in poignant applause for vaccine scientists sitting in the Royal Box, and it felt like the throng of England fans dancing in the rain outside the stadium, singing mostly about Harry Maguire’s massive forehead, were in their own way delivering a similar cathartic howl of hope and gratitude. This was their place of worship and these were their prayers. As I walked down Wembley Way a group of kids shouted words they were too young to know at innocent passing Germans who I’d like to think couldn’t hear them, and it felt almost moving. We had our England back, warts and all.
That time in pre-match limbo rushed by. In the gangways the atmosphere grew lively. Drinks went airborne. A kaleidoscope of shirts: Gascoigne ‘90. Shearer ‘96. Rooney ‘04. Does that say… Heskey? Beers on the concourse. Predictions (pessimistic, as it turns out). Singing and singing and singing. Anthems. A concerted effort to clap the knee and drown out the boos of the same fans who’d just spent half an hour singing about shooting down German bombers. Then a whistle and a visceral roar: a football match to bring us back together.
The game looked like a toy town watching from up in the gods. After 16 months largely consigned to TV, the perspective was skewed: the big switch-pass seemed on constantly but our suggestions went unheard. The stadium sounded full but the space around us meant we could pace and bounce and feel sick at our leisure. Tension filled our stomachs. We never sat down. Beneath us Jordan Pickford slid out to make a save at the feet of Timo Werner. At the other end, glimpses of something, maybe. Getting to half-time at 0-0 felt like we’d reached base camp.
It seemed like a one-goal match and that in itself was terrifying. We chanted Jack Grealish’s name as he warmed up and roared when he entered. England needed a source of electricity.
I never saw Raheem Sterling’s goal hit the net. As soon as his foot diverted Luke Shaw’s cross towards the empty part of the goal right beneath us I was running down the empty row and into the warm embrace of two strangers. Euphoria does that to a man. We jumped and hugged and screamed into the night in what may have been a breach of guidelines. I returned to find one of my friends jubilantly splayed across three people beneath us. We retrieved him and celebrated and sang about football coming home. If only there was a song to appreciate the feet of Raheem.
Thomas Muller could and should have ruined everything. From the moment the pass slipped him in on goal to the moment the shot left his boot, I went through the consequences. Muller breaking my heart all over again; 1-1, extra time, momentum with Germany. Do we bring off Kane? Is there a way ba… wow, he’s missed. We celebrated our relief almost as hard as the joy of a goal.
Then the confirmation that this was real. Grealish’s cross on to Harry Kane’s cleverly contorted head. In true patriotic spirit we had bemoaned our captain’s movement all evening, and somehow it felt even better that it was him running away from us with his arms outstretched, proving us wrong.
Sterling’s goal was elation. Muller’s miss was relief. Kane’s header was pure joy. But the final whistle was the ultimate moment of happiness, of sheer contentment with our world. You always want what you can’t have. Now we had finally watched England knock out a major nation in a major tournament, and it felt every bit as good as we’d always imagined it would.
What remained of our frayed vocal cords belted out Sweet Caroline as the players lapped the pitch. On the way down the spiral concourse, refrains of “don’t take me home” bounced off the concrete walls as we poured out into the night. Please don’t take us home. It was one of the best days of our lives and we didn’t want it to end.
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