England football team's boost to national morale is priceless even after loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 final - Andrew Vine

Every Tuesday.

England manager Gareth Southgate selecting his players to take penalties ahead of the shootout during the UEFA Euro 2020 Final at Wembley Stadium. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA.
England manager Gareth Southgate selecting his players to take penalties ahead of the shootout during the UEFA Euro 2020 Final at Wembley Stadium. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA.

WE might learn today how little work was done yesterday, how many staff rang in sick and how many companies found themselves lumbered with next-to-useless staff zombified by hangovers.

Well, after 18 months of economic turmoil caused by Covid, one more lost day won’t make much difference, and it would be a rare employer who begrudged their people being under the weather after drowning their sorrows when English hearts were broken by Sunday night’s penalty shoot-out.

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It’s been too long since we had a shared experience other than worrying about illness, and if the country had a collective banging headache as a consequence, it has been worth it.

England didn’t get the victory we all so desperately wanted after half-a-century of disappointments, but one thing is clear – the footballers have sent the nation’s spirits soaring all the same.

Look around and there is a bounce in people’s step, a liveliness that wasn’t there a few weeks ago before the Euros began and it became clear that for once England weren’t going to crash out amid humiliation and recriminations, followed by the now-familiar hand-wringing about why we are rubbish at international football.

This hasn’t just been about the results on the pitch. It has been about the national mood and a people finding something to unite around and celebrate.

England’s success has been the tonic the country needed, especially after the horrors and heartaches of the pandemic, but also against the backdrop of a society that has been unsettled for half a decade. Divisions over Brexit that dragged endlessly on, politicians at each other’s throats, cultural clashes and the rise of social media that feels like it breeds nothing other than viciousness towards others, have put many on edge.

There has been too much to get upset about, and not nearly enough to cheer. That’s why, at the height of the pandemic, millions banded together to clap the NHS and carers every Thursday evening. It showed a need to unite and find something positive, even in the midst of a crisis.

And now this. You couldn’t put a value on the feelgood factor that has swept across England, even amid the disappointment at losing. The boost to national morale is priceless.

The last time anything like this happened was during the 2012 London Olympics, when the success of British athletes caused a surge of national pride, and it has brought people together.

My neighbourhood, like many another in Yorkshire, has been decked out in St George’s flags for weeks. On Sunday afternoon, in the hours before the match, people were inviting each other into their gardens for drinks and barbecues before parting company and settling down to watch the final. A key factor in this mood of togetherness has been the way that the England team, and in particular its manager, have conducted themselves.

Gareth Southgate, honorary Yorkshireman and resident of Harrogate, must surely give Sir David Attenborough a run for his money as the most universally-liked man in Britain. The sheer, transparent decency of the man, his thoughtfulness, intelligence and graciousness, has been like a breath of fresh air in a world of public figures who run the gamut from shifty to ingratiating.

It is no exaggeration to say that Southgate embodies virtues that people think of as quintessentially English, and to see somebody succeeding by living up to them is inspiring. That has given the country a lift, as has the sight of young players striving to emulate his example of how to behave well and with concern for others.

All of us who have suffered through decades of world cups and European championships in which this country has been represented by players whose ineptitude on the pitch has only been equalled by their propensity for appearing in tabloid scandals off it have been cheered to see the contrasting behaviour of the current team.

Whether it is Marcus Rashford campaigning for children who do not have enough to eat, or the Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips having the name of his grandmother, who died of Covid, engraved on his boots, this is a group of young men with genuine heart who are connected to the problems of the real world.

Their personal qualities, and pride in their country, has struck a chord with the public. This time, the players truly represented England by being in tune with fans cheering them on. The hurt of losing can’t blot that out. The feeling of national togetherness these young men and their manager have engendered has been their victory. And that’s a prize worth hanging onto for as long as we can.