‘I was at Wembley for England v Italy – This is what I experienced and saw happening’
England v Italy. Final day. The end of the party. The climax of the adventure.
When we started our journey three years ago, my friend and I fancifully imagined being at a final at Wembley. Neither of us honestly believed it.
At the time we were looking forward to our first tournament, with a few group games at home and potential trips to Dublin and Rome. If we made it back for a semi-final at Wembley it would be sensational. A final would be an absolute dream.
As it happened, Covid struck. The tournament was delayed by a year and Dublin was dropped due to the FAI being unable to guarantee a minimum capacity of 25% of fans in the Aviva Stadium. The Dublin game moved to Wembley and Euro 2020 essentially became a home tournament. But the advantage was even more pronounced as fans from other nations’ travel clubs were unable to enter our country.
During the group games it was evident just how great the difference was between the two supports. The likes of Croatia and Czech Republic can’t have had more than a couple of thousand in the twenty two and a half thousand attendance.
In the Germany game there may have been up to five thousand of their fans in attendance but even that figure would have been a ninth of the forty five thousand allowed capacity. The playing field was levelled against Ukraine when we had to endure our first truly neutral game of the tournament. Fortunately, it was against one of our easiest opponents too and was probably our best performance, 4-0 winners and the result never really in doubt.
The Danes and the Italians brought more fans but I would be amazed if there were more than ten thousand amongst an increased crowd of sixty seven thousand.
But let’s talk about the England v Italy final.
Everywhere you looked in the build-up, the talk was about England. It was about this diverse group of players, with strong unity and morale beliefs bringing the nation together. Ironic that since the final, all the discussion has been about the opposite.
From the moment we stepped off our train at Paddington station it was clear that London was in full party mode.
Reaching our hotel in Piccadilly, we emerged from the station to find cans and bottles already strewn everywhere. There was a crowd of a hundred or so fans singing and letting off flares.
The tube was packed, and inhibitions loosened. Most fans had ditched their face masks. It was insane, everyone was practically stood forehead to forehead (or forehead to armpit in my situation on account of my lack of height).
It felt like the whole of England had descended upon the capital, whether they were attending the game or not.
We disembarked at Wembley Park and it took us fifteen minutes just to get from the train to the outside, due to the mad crush of fans edging through the station. Out into Wembley and it was utter chaos once more. We walked past a couple of preachers who were attempting to spread the word of Christ. One of them had their ‘Jesus Is Lord’ sign nabbed by a drunken fan. They really hadn’t picked the right audience for their message.
We were three hours early and after catching up with a few other friends who had made it to the game, we decided to head towards the stadium an hour and a half before kick-off.
As we attempted to progress, it became apparent just how many fans were converging upon the famous arch. Once into the mob it was a snail’s pace to get to the stewards that check your Covid status and tickets. I was desperately trying to load the NHS app but was having no joy. As we finally got to the stewards we were just waved straight through. No tickets checked, no Covid guarantees given. Just a free-for-all for anyone and everyone to approach the stadium.
At the turnstiles, again we found ourselves in a squish. We were in the queue for about fifteen minutes with zero movement. News spread down the line that nobody was being allowed entry due to fans without tickets trying to get in. Nobody at any of the turnstiles in our vicinity had been allowed in and more people were joining the queue and adding to a mass of bodies that couldn’t move forward. Eventually the chap at the front gained entry and then, steadily, the queue moved.
Once inside, we decided against joining the hundreds waiting for a beer and headed to our seats. It was about forty minutes before kick-off and it was clear we were going to be over the allocated capacity. Our block was nearly full already and there were thousands of others still in the concourse. We ejected two people from our seats, and they milled about in the aisle.
The closing ceremony was relatively entertaining, with the Red Arrows flying over the stadium, pyrotechnics and a giant trophy wheeled onto the pitch to remind us of what we were all there for. By the time of kick off, not only was our block completely full, but the aisle right next to us was bustling too. There were hundreds crammed into that space alone.
Looking around the stadium, the upper and lower tiers were absolutely rammed with only the middle tier and a collection of seats in the Italian block having any spaces.
It was obvious that the stewards had lost control, people were bringing beers out into the stands, there were bottles with lids on that could only have come from outside.
I lost count of the people that I was stood directly next to throughout the match. My neighbour literally changed every ten minutes or so. One guy in our row walked back and forth past us about fifteen times, the last ten of those times chiming ‘sorry, me again.’
One of my neighbours was stood with me for about twenty minutes. Partway through his stay he bent down as if tying his laces but then tried to sneak the programme away from the people stood in the row in front. I didn’t realise what was going on until an extremely stern older lady turned and caught him and snatched it back. I couldn’t hear what words were uttered between them but it looked like the guy was acting confused and trying to protest that he thought it was his.
Minutes after his scowling adversary had turned her back, he was trying to nick their flag, but it snagged on a seat, and I just gave him a bewildered frown. He shrugged and got back to watching the game for a few more minutes until his shift ended and he disappeared somewhere to give me a new neighbour from his gang of ne’er-do-wells.
Every game we’ve been to, amongst the singing and the cheering, there’s always one loudmouth Larry who thinks every single person in the block wants to know his opinion. We all shout, ‘what was that?’ or ‘close him down’ or ‘shoooooot.’
But there’s always one bloke who thinks everyone that goes anywhere near the ball is a c.nt and insists on screaming out a play by play for every single defensive or offensive action. From the games this tournament, I’ve identified they’re usually Londoners. Our allocated tosspot this time spent the whole game giving the running commentary but also adding in things like, ‘watch out there’s some Bolognese in the top right of the stadium,’ or ‘don’t slip on your lasagne,’ whenever an Italian player was on the ball. Is that what is classed as banter these days?
The game itself couldn’t have started any better. A cross from the right from recalled wing back Kieran Trippier was met by his left sided positional pal and Shaw rifled it in after just two minutes. Carnage ensued as the stand rocked. Everyone went wild and people were stumbling and falling all over the place, the mass of bodies becoming too much for the situation. Whether Gareth recognised the danger that his fans were in or not, the team certainly set up to avoid any further celebrations. The game was a drab affair and the only thing that kept it entertaining was the atmosphere. The majority of fans were outstanding throughout and sang and supported the players.
The second half was painful. Our seats were halfway between the goal England were attacking and the corner flag and whenever Italy attacked, it was difficult to know what was going on. It was only the roar from the Italian end that told us we’d been pegged back.
Once Italy had scored, the hostility began. Suddenly, every player that had previously been cheered was labelled as useless if they misplaced a pass or didn’t make a tackle. The crowd was turning. Some still sang and shouted encouragement but many were venting their frustrations at an England side that seemed incapable of pressing the opposition.
We looked poor and as the game dragged on into extra time, I completely lost what formation we were meant to be playing. We started the game with seven defensive players, a goalkeeper and then three attacking players. We ended it with six attacking players on the pitch. When I say attacking, I don’t mean central midfielders with a bit of attacking flair, box-to-box players or number 10s. We had six attacking wingers and strikers on the pitch. Kane, Rashford, Sancho, Saka, Grealish (although he can play number 10) and a clearly injured Sterling were all on the field, with one natural centre midfielder in Kalvin-Phillips and two centre backs and a left back remaining. I have no idea who was playing where.
When Pickford saved Italy’s second penalty we went wild again. I found myself gripping my thirteenth neighbour of the night whilst we screamed joyfully into each other’s faces. I may come to regret that as he was clearly one of the many ragamuffins that had gained unlawful entry and that means he wouldn’t have had to supply any evidence of a lateral flow test or double vaccination. Let’s hope my double jab does its job as the Covid spreading ground was fertile all of Sunday. This neighbour had been particularly odd as he’d turned up when I returned from the toilets at the start of extra time and sat down for the majority of those thirty minutes before standing to watch the penalties. Why break in if you’re not even going to watch the game? Is it just something to boast to your mates about?
The unravelling was Rashford’s penalty. He did everything right and sent the keeper the wrong way. He had so much of the goal to roll the ball into and give us a 3-2 lead with just two penalties each left to take. Our block even cheered, seeing Donnarumma had gone the wrong way, only for a sense of despondency to descend on us as we realised it had rolled onto the post. It’s those fine margins though and I think that is the moment that lost us the shootout.
We all know what happened next and despite Pickford handing us a lifeline by saving Italy’s last penalty, it fell to 19-year-old Saka to become the nation’s scapegoat.
I’ve criticised Southgate a lot over the last few years and during the early stages of this tournament. But he got us to the final and we have to give him his due for that. No other manager has guided us as far in a European Championship. However, in the biggest game of the competition he was predictable and got so many decisions wrong, in my opinion. Going to a back five against a team who like to sit in seemed counterintuitive. Sure, Italy beat Spain, but it was only due to the Spanish’s profligacy in front of goal. I felt we needed to play a similar game to Spain and really take the match to the Italians.
Everyone could have predicted that this was the way Southgate was going to set up, so Mancini would have undoubtedly prepared for it. Had Southgate started with a back four, his sitting two and then a front line of Sancho, Grealish, Sterling and Kane I think the Italians would have been caught unawares. Sancho has barely played this tournament but ask any fan of German football and they’ll tell you he’s one of the best young talents on the planet. Grealish has been a fan favourite despite limited minutes. Every time he’s introduced, he’s electric. I think with that front four we could have been dominant.
The Italians received five yellow cards as it was, imagine how they would have fared if we’d actually attacked them with pace and skill. Surely, they wouldn’t have finished the match with eleven men. Saying that, the standard of officiating was abysmal. What I thought initially was a fifty/fifty challenge, I later saw should have been a red for Jorginho. So many should-have-been fouls were waved away and so many should-have-been bookings ignored.
Another baffling decision was bringing Sancho and Rashford on with seconds to go. Did either of them touch the ball before stepping up to take their penalties? Imagine the pressure on those two players, knowing they’ve been brought on specifically to take penalties and that thirty million people are watching and expecting them to bang them in. I used to get nervous taking penalties for my 6-a-side team! I agree we should have our best penalty takers on the pitch but at least be clever about it and give them some pitch time. Sterling spent the last ten minutes hobbling around with an apparent groin injury. Whip him off for one of them and give them a chance to try and win the game and, as a minimum, warm them up before their penalty.
And Saka. Poor teenage Saka. It’s all very well having little sympathy for a teenage millionaire, but he is still a kid, cutting his teeth in a ruthless sport. He’s had a couple of good games this tournament but to bring him on in a final ahead of players like Grealish and Sancho is crazy in itself. Both have had a lot more footballing experience and I would say are more effective players. Grealish was the most fouled player, fourth for big chances created and fifth for assists in the Premier League last season. He was also the best in our squad for most successful dribbles. How is he not getting more than brief cameos? The worst decision of the lot was getting Saka to take the deciding penalty. I can only imagine how he’s feeling after that.
In Southgate’s defence he has come out and taken full responsibility for the penalties, stating that he chose who took them and that the senior players that hadn’t stepped up hadn’t shirked any responsibility. I admire him for taking the blame but that now means it’s two tournaments on home turf he’s cost us through penalties. I doubt anyone else has managed that feat as a player and manager.
As Saka’s penalty was saved the Italians rushed over to our stand and cheered and gloated as fans launched bottles in their direction. Some of the young bucks around us got into an altercation with a bunch of older blokes who looked like the retired wing of some football firm. I know who my money would have been on had it progressed beyond handbags.
We hung around to give the players a deserved round of applause as they did a lap of the pitch. I couldn’t bring myself to watch another country lift the trophy in our stadium though.
As we headed out, I could hear fans exclaiming how heartbroken and angry they were. I just felt empty and nonplussed. Part of me felt like we didn’t deserve to win due to the actions of our fans. This feeling was magnified the following morning when I read about the racist abuse that those young players that had been brave enough to take penalties had been given. A tournament that brought the nation together tore us apart once more in the climax.
A video emerged of fans breaking through one of the Covid and ticket check entrances and battling with stewards and police, which maybe explained why we were waved through without checks. Another video showed a horde of ticketless fans breaking through one of the turnstiles, knocking stewards to the ground. Fans already inside started to come to the aid of the fallen staff and fistfights were breaking out. With everything moving so quickly I don’t know how anyone could tell who was on whose side as a full-blown melee broke out.
On top of all that we have the booing of the national anthems. It’s not everyone and a lot of us will clap to try and drown it out. The same issue arises when players take the knee. I’m sorry but regardless of your beliefs on this, it’s something the England players have chosen to do and to boo it is to say you don’t respect them and their decisions.
Then you hear of Italian fans being attacked, restaurants being smashed up. The world despises our nation and it’s little wonder why.
One thing I am sure of now, that bid for the 2030 World Cup might as well be stored alongside Newcastle United’s accounts and forgotten all about.
You can follow the author on Twitter @billymerlin
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