After the celebrations in the stadium had finally died down, Gareth Southgate’s first instinct on a night for the ages was to credit “the whole group”, including the players who were cut from his groundbreaking England squad.
It was similar to his reaction after the quarter-final win over Ukraine, when Southgate immediately paid tribute to the players who had not featured in Rome.
These are among the many small touches that make Southgate such a superb manager and leader. He is considerate, humble, emphatic and fiercely insular, always thinking about the needs and feelings of his squad, even as England made history on one of the country’s great footballing nights.
On an enthralling and nail-biting occasion, England booked a place in a first major final since 1966 with a 2-1 win over Denmark after extra-time, and they will face Italy back at Wembley on Sunday for a shot at immortality.
Many of Southgate’s characteristics are reflected in his players, who displayed their spirit and togetherness to pass another series of psychological tests.
England had to a respond to a first setback at the tournament after Denmark were fired ahead by Mikel Damsgaard’s stunning free-kick and then had to break through a bigger barrier, by finding a way to win and banish 55 years of failure. They did, with Harry Kane scoring a 104th-minute winner on the rebound after his spot-kick had been saved by Kasper Schmeichel, following Simon Kjaer’s first-half own goal.
There could be no better representation of the collective than the entire England bubble — Southgate, players, coaches and support staff — joining together with 60,000 supporters in a rendition of Sweet Caroline after the final whistle. There have not been scenes like it in England for more than half a century. Good times really have never seemed so good.
“I’ve not heard the new Wembley like that — ever!” said Southgate. “To be able to share that with the nation is very special.”
If England can achieve greatness on Sunday, it will go down as a triumph in their manager’s image: a victory for control, for compassion, for the group.
There are already standout individual heroes, though, and more could be made against Roberto Mancini’s side.
Once again, England were spurred to victory by Raheem Sterling and Kane, their front two who stand on the brink of being remembered as the nation’s best attacking partnership.
In the early stages of the Euros, Southgate faced pressure to pack his side with as much attacking talent as possible and supposedly release the shackles from his team. He refused to bow to populism and, instead, built a structure to allow Sterling and Kane to shine.
That was all it took: two world-class players, comfortable in England’s system. England have been more menacing and more purposeful in attack as the tournament has progressed.
Whatever happens on Sunday, Sterling is surely a leading contender for player of the tournament after another decisive display in the stadium which casts a shadow over the streets where he grew up.
The controversial nature of the penalty he won in stoppage-time should not be overlooked, nor will it be in Denmark for years to come.
Southgate conceded it was “soft”, while the consensus from the football royalty on hand to comment — from Jose Mourinho to Arsene Wenger — was that Sterling had fooled referee Danny Makkelie and the VAR.
Sterling himself was defiant. “I went into the box and he stuck his right leg out and it touched my leg, so it’s a clear penalty,” he said.
Penalty or not, it was Sterling who had made something happen in extra-time when England needed someone to be brave on the ball and for someone to take a risk to negate the looming threat of penalties.
It was the same story after England had fallen behind to Damsgaard’s free-kick, which whizzed and dipped over the wall and through Jordan Pickford.
Everyone remembers where they were when Kieran Trippier let fly in the World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia. It would have been the same in Denmark when Damsgaard struck.
But for England, it came back to Sterling again. It always seems to. His first effort at an equaliser was struck too close to Schmeichel and saved, but seconds later he was in again following superb work from Kane and Bukayo Saka, and this time Kjaer was forced to turn the ball into his own net under pressure from the Manchester City forward.
It seems remarkable now to think that Sterling came into the tournament with questions over his starting spot after a troubled season for his club.
There is now no doubt that he is one of England’s most important contributors, and he may yet seal his place as one of their all-time greats after Sunday.
Kane, too, made the difference when it mattered, even if England enjoyed another slice of luck with his penalty, which was weak and easily saved by Schmeichel before the striker tucked home the rebound.
When England were one down, and panic was threatening to spread from the nervous Pickford through the rest of the side, Southgate appealed for calm. Sensing the moment for a change, Kane dropped a few yards deeper and within moments had created two chances for Sterling with a perfectly-weighted passes, the second of which led to Kjaer’s own goal.
“I felt, especially in the first half, with them playing with two midfielders, the space was in behind them,” Kane said. “I managed to get into a few pockets.”
In their post-match interviews, both Kane and Sterling both fizzed with a focused energy: two men on a mission to ensure last night was not the peak of this summer.
Sterling won the award for the most understated comment of the night, describing the win as “another step in the right direction”, underlining the sense that England still have one more hurdle to go.