At full-time everyone was too busy singing “Football’s coming home” to complain about the fact their team had just aged them another 10 years. It was worth every one.
Even manager Gareth Southgate was punching the air at the conclusion of another excellent match in this competition the world has needed so badly after the last 18 months. As his players gleefully sang Sweet Caroline it really did feel like good times had never felt so good.
Harry Kane’s extra-time penalty was saved by Denmark’s inspired former Leeds United goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, but not the rebound, and England’s first comeback of the tournament was complete.
Going behind was a new sensation for a team that has been ticking off firsts throughout, but it was just a chance to showcase the huge helpings of character to go with their considerable talent. They also had an ear-splittingly noisy Wembley behind them, as they will in Sunday’s final against Italy, plus a goalscorer revitalised in Kane.
Italy will find an awful lot stacked against them.
But this being England, it was still far from easy. They dominated the second half but could not make it count, just as Spain failed to turn possession into goals in the previous evening’s semi-final.
England had the belief to keep going and just about enough to squeeze through 2-1 after extra-time.
Feeding off another electric atmosphere at the country’s best-attended sporting event since the world took a turn for the worst, England started quickly. Kyle Walker led the way from right-back with some terrific turbo-charged defensive covering, a clever pass to Kalvin Phillips, an excellent interception and even a brilliant throw-in hurled to fellow Sheffielder Harry Maguire, who thundered upfield gesticulating at team-mates to run for him.
Kane was fantastic too, curling a wonderful cross not far in front of Raheem Sterling, dropping deep, and flashing a shot over after Walker’s excellent ball.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s combativeness dragged Denmark back into the contest and although Jordan Pickford broke the record Gordon Banks set in 1966 by going 720 minutes without conceding, he only extended it by four minutes before Mikkel Damsgaard curled in a quite brilliant free-kick. Whilst in slow motion Pickford got close to it, it was hit in anything but slow motion.
When minutes later Pickford gave the ball away again, Southgate urged calm,
Sterling had a better solution. His 36th-minute free-kick drew huge cheers from the Danish end when it hit the wall, and Schmeichel denied him at point-blank range but he continued to make the run that has brought so many Manchester City goals, so when Kane fed Bukayo Saka and the recalled winger did what wingers are supposed to, Simon Kjaer could only stop the cross reaching Sterling by putting it in himself.
With Phillip growing in stature as the second half went on, England made all the running but never felt like they were going to find the net. Despite fanfare befitting Lionel Messi, Jack Grealish’s introduction did not have the desired effect.
It did not help that Schmeichel was in the form he produced in the FA Cup final, stretching out to a Maguire header perfectly inside the far post. England fans begged for VAR when Kane went down in the area, but the original non-decision stood.
“Six” hissed Wembley as the fourth official indicated the minimum number of minutes to be added and in the time played – there was more than that – chances came and went. Phillips blazed over, Maguire headed at Schmeichel and Walker’s long throw caused confusion but Grealish’s fizzed ball bounced off Kane.
England continued to push in extra-time, Schmeichel continued to save, denying Kane again.
Sterling drove into a penalty area which had two balls in it like this was Sunday league not a European Championship semi-final and was brought down for a penalty.
Kane’s kick was far from perfect, letting Schmeichel save to his left, but he has beaten the Dane 14 times in club football, and pounced on the rebound.
It prompted delirium from supporters whose whole international footballing lives have been about stiff upper lips and disappointment. Now they were cheering Walker hoofing into the stands, not murmuring when Grealish made way for Kieran Trippier and ole-ing as England played the ball into the corner, then all the way back and across after a period of Danish pressure.
It actually could happen, you know...
England: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire, Shaw; Phillips, Rice (Henderson 95); Saka (Grealish 69 (Trippier 105)), Mount (Foden 95), Sterling; Kane. Unused substitutes: Rashford, Ramsdale, Mings, Coady, Sancho, Johnstone, James, Bellingham.
Denmark: Schmeichel; Vestergaard (Wind 105), Kjaer, Christensen (Andersen 79); Maehle, Delaney, Hojbjerg, Delaney (Jensen 88), Larsen (Wass 68); Damsgaard (Poulsen 68), Dolberg (Norgaard 68), Braithwaite. Unused substitutes: Skov, Skov Olsen, M Jorgensen, Lossl, Cornelius, Ronnow.
Referee: D Makkelie (Netherlands).