PRIOR TO the tournament you wrote an open letter to England’s fans.
Addressed “Dear England”, you outlined your hopes for the coming weeks.
“Of course my players and I will be judged on winning matches,” you said. “Only one team can win the Euros. We have never done it before and we are desperate to do it for the first time. Believe me.
“But the reality is that the result is just a small part of it. When England play, there’s much more at stake than that. It’s about how we conduct ourselves on and off the pitch, how we bring people together, how we inspire and unite, how we create memories that last beyond the 90 minutes. That last beyond the summer. That last forever.”
Then, in words that would have resonated with anyone who has ever dreamt of playing for their country, you added: “I think about all the young kids who will be watching this summer, filling out their first wall charts. No matter what happens, I just hope that their parents, teachers and club managers will turn to them and say, ‘Look. That’s the way to represent your country. That’s what England is about. That is what’s possible. If we can do that, it will be a summer to be proud of.”
Well, Gareth, after leading England to their first major tournament final for 55 years, it is time to return the compliment by writing to you after you truly gave us “a summer to be proud of”.
From those young kids filling out their first football wall charts, to seasoned veterans who have seen it all before, our thanks are due and our appreciation lasting after what has been an unforgettable journey.
Yes, the result for many is the be-all and end-all – “of course my players and I will be judged on winning matches”, as you put it. But your letter recognised that sport does not exist in a bubble – not even in Covid times, when “bubbles” are ubiquitous – but is part of a wider societal narrative that cuts, in this case, to the very core of what it means to be English and Englishness itself.
I was particularly struck, in fact, when reading “Dear England”, of what those values mean to you personally.
You referenced your grandfather, Arthur Toll, “a fierce patriot and a proud military man, who served during World War II”, in whom your sense of identity and values are closely linked.
“Because of my granddad, I’ve always had an affinity for the military and service in the name of your country,” you wrote.
“My granddad’s values were instilled in me from a young age, and I couldn’t help but think of him when I lined up to sing the national anthem before my first international caps.”
Service in the name of your country…
Forget the games and glory, the win and the lose, it is those seven words that sum you up best – words that strike to the heart of your personal ethos, words that resonate beyond this Championship.
For you did not covet the England job, it should be recalled, when appointed after Sam Allardyce’s departure in 2016 – or at least not then, because you did not feel, as you selflessly conceded, that you were quite ready for it, having hitherto only led the U21s.
But when the Football Association came calling – initially in search of an interim replacement – you cast aside those personal reservations and stepped up as your grandfather once did, choosing to give service in the name of your country.
Ten years earlier, on another extraordinary night at Wembley, you stepped up to take a penalty kick against Germany when the Euro semi-final went to sudden death. “I was a volunteer, really,” you said. “I felt that I had to put myself forward.”
The penalty was missed – but the sacrifice was noted. Another example of service in the name of your country.
That spirit of service seems especially pertinent. For “Dear England” recognised - and actually started with - an acknowledgement that this has been “an extremely difficult year”.
“Everyone in this country has been directly affected by isolation and loss,” you observed. “But we have also seen countless examples of heroism and sacrifice. It’s given us all a new understanding of the fragility of life and what really matters. When you think of the grand scheme of things, perhaps football doesn’t seem so important.”
Unquestionably one of the greatest examples of heroism and sacrifice – at least beyond the pandemic frontline – was that shown by another of Yorkshire and England’s finest sons (by the way, we are claiming you for Yorkshire now, Gareth, seeing as you have lived here for many years).
His name was Captain Sir Tom Moore proud son of Keighley, who set out on April 6 last year with the simple goal of walking 100 lengths of his garden before his 100th birthday on April 30 in the hope that he might raise £1,000 for the NHS.
He raised over £30m – and captured our hearts. “Tomorrow will be a good day,” was his mantra.
How Captain Tom, perhaps more than anyone, embodied the words “service in the name of your country”.
On the day he was knighted, dragging the same walking frame on to the manicured grass at Windsor Castle as a lone bagpiper played, this brave and selfless soul – much like your own grandfather, perhaps – was honoured by a nonagenarian monarch who is herself the personification of “service”.
Ultimately, although football is indeed not so important in the grand scheme of things, you and your players have reminded us of the powerful way in which it can influence society for the better.
For the manner in which you have conducted yourselves, off the field as much as on it, has indeed been inspiring; you have shown modesty, humility and a common understanding - not least through charitable endeavours too numerous to mention as Covid has wreaked its terrible toll.
One often hears it said that footballers – indeed, sportspeople in general – should not be expected to be role models too.
But as you wrote in “Dear England”, this is unenlightened nonsense. “Our players are role models,” you insisted. “And, beyond the confines of the pitch, we must recognise the impact they can have on society.”
This part explains your connection with the public and why you and your players are so liked and respected.
One thinks of Marcus Rashford, who championed the cause of hungry schoolchildren in a way that the government never did.
One thinks of Jordan Henderson, who led the Players Together movement that also raised millions for the NHS.
And one thinks of Raheem Sterling, who has led anti-racism campaigns and come to epitomise the importance of diversity.
“I have never believed that we should just stick to football,” you made clear. “I have a responsibility to the wider community and to use my voice, and so do the players.
“It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.”
It’s their duty…
Once again, you returned to the importance of obligation, responsibility, commitment and service.
It has been an awful 16 months – and the pain is not finished.
But, thanks to you, to your humble and hard-working footballers, to the likes of Captain Sir Tom Moore and to our tireless NHS, we have somehow reconnected with the values and with the Englishness that you so eloquently espoused in your letter to us all.
It remains only for me to congratulate you on a wonderful competition, so cruel at the death, and to say – on behalf of everyone in the Broad Acres and beyond – thank you.
Your sincerely, Chris Waters