Italy’s celebrating supporters packed one end of a mostly deserted Wembley and turned England’s anthem back on them as they sang Football’s Coming Home.
The irony would not have been lost on England’s players, fans or manager Gareth Southgate as this was the joyous scene they had in mind at the start of a frantic, tension-packed night in an edgy Wembley atmosphere.
This was the party England and their fans were planning but once again they were left pressing their noses up against the window, their aspirations wrecked by a heartbreaking loss to Italy on penalties in the Euro 2020 final.
England’s despair was encapsulated by the sight of Arsenal teenager Bukayo Saka waiting anxiously to take a penalty he had to score in the shootout. The nation was watching and it was down to a rookie 19-year-old to keep the dream alive.
Saka, who deserves huge credit for stepping forward and for his fine Euro 2020 in general, saw the giant figure of Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma keep out his spot-kick and it was all over for England. Again.
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It was not supposed to end like this.
The chimes of Big Ben and the sight of the Red Arrows flashing overhead in the pre-match ceremony whipped Wembley into a frenzy – or even more of a frenzy.
And when Luke Shaw capped a lightning England start with a goal after two minutes, the players and their fans were dreaming of ending a 55-year wait as Italy were pushed onto the back foot.
Instead, on a nail-biting night, a familiar tale of disappointment and woe unfolded for the hosts, Italy first equalising through Leonardo Bonucci before the same old finale arrived in the shape of a 3-2 defeat on penalties.
It all seemed a world away from what went before, when England fans besieged Wembley hours before kick-off, during which it must be noted that there were unsavoury scenes of supporters bursting their way through barriers to gain entry to the stadium, with 45 arrests also made.
This was English football’s most important day for more than half a century. It felt like it in every fibre of Wembley.
Once Big Ben had chimed its last and the Red Arrows had flown back to base, smoke hung heavy in the humid, steamy conditions after a pre-match display of pyrotechnics that gave the occasion the air of a rock concert.
England fans unveiled a large banner emblazoned with the words “History In The Making” under dark and foreboding skies as a downpour hit Wembley, even the normally immaculate Italy manager Roberto Mancini accepting it was time for a waterproof jacket.
And so to the highest point of England’s night, Shaw’s goal, which was greeted with such sound and fury by the home fans that the ground and its surrounds shook and bounced in celebration.
Southgate’s response was a low-key fist pump while Mancini threw his hands in the air lamenting how Italy, who went into this final on the back of a 33-match unbeaten run, could concede so cheaply.
England pushed, Italy were cagey, and all the while Wembley was a tinderbox of emotions.
The country had waited more than 20,000 days to finally claim that major crown and the opportunity to do it on home soil was almost overwhelming.
This was a crowd waiting to rejoice, a nation waiting to celebrate, but Italy, streetwise and talented, set about putting Wembley on edge with possession and they did it successfully.
England stalled, conceded territory. Wembley grew anxious and Italy, predictably, played on the nerves of a nation and all those in a stadium whose actual attendance will probably remain unknown given how many people without tickets found their way in.
They demanded Jack Grealish, the new people’s champion, and it was a surprise Southgate waited until the 99th minute to introduce a player who may have at least given those two teak-tough defensive enforcers Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini – combined age 70 – some worrying moments.
England’s supporters almost gave a groan of acceptance when Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers sounded the conclusion of extra time.
They have seen this movie before. They know how it usually ends. And they were right.
England’s three substitutes Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Saka all missed, plenty of eyebrows raised as to how it fell to the latter, on the most pressurised night of his emerging football career, to suffer the same fate that befell Southgate himself in the Euro ’96 semi-final here against Germany.
Saka has come of age in this tournament. He will be an England player for years to come. He deserves no criticism or abuse for showing such courage – all of which will be no consolation to a very fine young man on this night.
England lost impetus and Wembley’s worries ran alongside each other. Somehow their convictions seemed to desert them, even Southgate himself seemingly reluctant to change the course of a game that ran Italy’s way.
As England’s supporters gave Southgate and his players a measure of acclaim, deserved for their efforts at Euro 2020, the scale of the disappointment hit home to all.
The wait goes on until the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
England went a step further than their defeat against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final in Moscow; progress of sorts but not enough to soothe this suffering.
Southgate is overseeing genuine development in England’s national side and no-one will forget the scenes of jubilation after Wembley wins against Germany and in the semi-final against Denmark.
This was meant to be the night football, as the chorus goes, came home. Instead England were left singing the same old song.
Italy were deserved Euro 2020 winners. The best team won this tournament.
England and Southgate must lift themselves again and start counting the days until they can have another crack at ending the talk of years of hurt, of no trophies since 1966.
On this night, however, after so much fevered build-up and belief that this was the night England finally won that elusive silverware, there was once again only the crushing pain of another defeat.