Long before Jordan Henderson leapt to nod in England’s fourth goal, untroubled by anything as prosaic as marking, it was clear we were in virgin territory. The BBC had done their best to generate some old-fashioned jeopardy during the build-up, with features on Ukraine’s attacking threat and a touching montage of Gareth Southgate then (mild-mannered, charming, haunted by failure) and now (mild-mannered, charming, blessed by fortune), soundtracked with the American Beauty music.
The effect lasted just over four minutes, before Raheem Sterling sent the ball into the space in front of Harry Kane and the Spurs captain ran on greedily to poke it in. After that, the serenity returned. There were flashes of the old England when our defence switched off and let the Ukrainians in for chances, but they were fleeting. Mostly things proceeded with the eerie sense of calm with which this team tends to go about its business. We were going to score again, Ukraine weren’t, relax.
The team might have everything in hand, but the observers are at sea. Quite simply, we don’t know what we’re doing. English, normally a versatile language, has no vocabulary for the success of its national football team. Like a group of Inuit teleported into the Congo, everyone is trying to make the best of the situation while being horribly aware of their limitations. The BBC kept cutting to a red-headed woman in a bucket hat, screaming dementedly. It’s an honest response. Already in the aftermath of the Germany victory, the coverage was marked by a certain anxiety, as the pundits treaded carefully out onto the ice. Long-term prisoners often need assistance adjusting to life outside. When you have craved something so much for so long, getting it can be confusing.
If the whole thing turns out to have been a deep state operation to lead England into a false sense of security, it could hardly have gone better
The commentators and pundits did their best. At half-time Alan Shearer tried to warn us that Ukraine were “dangerous on the break”, but he obviously didn’t believe it, like a parent warning a child not to swim an hour after lunch. Trent Alexander-Arnold beamed in from his recuperation lounge in Marbella to agree that he was pleased we were winning and show off his magnificent dentistry. As the second half began and any hopes of a Ukraine fightback were snuffed out, everyone had to adjust to the new reality. This is easy street, said Guy Mowbray, and Jermaine Jenas could hardly be bothered to caution him. The stadium was half full and broadly jolly, more reminiscent of the Olympics than an England quarter-final, an effect helped by the running track. Where was the eight-pint misery, the shirtless self-loathing, the swearing at the ref? Who were these happy people and what had they done with the England fans?
Afterwards, the pundits had no idea what to say. Defeat is easier to analyse than success. You can blame the manager, the system, the club structure, the players, the lack of grassroots investment by the Tories, the weather, the colour of the kits, the way we coach five-year-olds. What can you say when you win 4-0 while barely getting out of breath? Without recourse to the normal major tournament vernacular of despond, Lineker, Shearer, Ferdinand and Lampard resorted to harmless platitudes. “It was such a positive evening,” said Shearer. “It’s hard to find fault,” agreed Gary, trying not to sound disappointed.
They went through England’s team one by one and agreed everyone had played well. Shaw and Maguire but also Sancho and Henderson and Kane. Sometimes they interviewed the player and told them they had played well. The players thanked them but insisted there was more work to be done. Southgate ignored the questions to talk incessantly about the players who hadn’t made the squad, as if they were suing him. Amid all the congratulations, certain things went unmentioned, like Ukraine’s decision not to contest a single header in their own penalty area. If the whole thing turns out to have been a deep-state operation to lead England into a false sense of security, it could hardly have gone better.
When Gary Lineker delivered his Italian Job sign-off about England blowing “the bloody scores off”, I realised what we were watching. The England squad is full of talented players, who know their jobs, play as a team for a competent manager and have reached the semi-final without conceding a goal. In such circumstances, the pundits can hardly be expected to have a sense of humour. This must be what it’s like to be German. Football might be coming home, but at what price?