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Opinion

With a bit of help from Mike Ashley I’m off tonight to England v Italy!

3 days ago
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Attending Wembley for a semi-final. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced in my football supporting life.

Sure, I watched on TV as England succumbed to defeat in 1996 against Germany.

Both 1990s Newcastle semis were played at neutral grounds, not that I was in attendance anyway. I didn’t make it to the 2000 semi which was the first year that neutrality meant playing at Wembley. Therefore, we played and lost to Chelsea who travelled about 40 minutes whilst Geordies did the same plus another four or five hours to get to this supposedly balanced venue.

The one semi-final I was lucky enough, if you can call it that, to attend was the 2005 Millennium Stadium affair when Manchester United tore us apart.

Since 2005 there has been no sniff of a walk down Wembley Way to see a team that I support play a semi-final. That was until Wednesday the 7th of July 2021. Sixteen years to the day since a terrorist attack devastated the capital, London was filled with joy and celebration.

From the moment we stepped off the tube at Wembley Park, we entered a carnival of football. We were three hours early and Wembley Way was already bustling. Fans were singing, cheering, drinking, shouting, jibing. There was the odd hopeful punter desperate for a spare ticket.

We got into the stadium nice and early to really soak up the atmosphere. It’s odd because you have to wear a face mask as you show the stewards your evidence of full vaccination or negative lateral flow test and then your ticket. This is at the bottom of the stairs leading up to Wembley, out in the fresh air with a reasonable amount of space. When you enter the stadium, you are expected to wear your mask as you pass through the turnstiles and then the metal detectors. Again, you are afforded a good amount of space at this point.

Then BAM! The minute you are inside the concourse, the masks come off. You go from being out in the open air with a bit of space to inside, surrounded by singing, spittle spraying randoms. It’s a potential Covid orgy. If one person in a block is positive, I’d imagine a large chunk will be by the end of the game. It’s like sending your kid to school with nits. Inside that concourse and out on the stand no stewards say a word to anyone about masks. And as for social distancing, we were lucky if we were ever two centimetres apart from anyone. The first time I managed that recommended two metres was about thirty minutes after the game, when we escaped the crowds to walk to another tube station.

I’m elated that this tournament has allowed fans in, but if anybody has attended with Covid, there will undoubtedly be widespread contamination and subsequent condemnation. When Kane rifled in his second attempt at the penalty, everyone in our block might as well have been snogging each other. People that had never met were hugging and screaming in each other’s faces. One guy was practically crowd surfing.

But then, I’m sure it was the same in pubs and living rooms across the country. And we’ve needed this. The last eighteen months have been anything from difficult to unbearable depending on your situation and this journey has been one hell of a tonic.

I won’t bore you with a blow by blow of the game as I doubt anyone reading this won’t have watched it. The atmosphere was unlike anything I’ve experienced following England. The reduced capacity of 65,000 fans made more noise than the 90,000 usually do. This game and the Germany ones are the most enjoyable I’ve attended since that dramatic final day of the season against Barnsley when we secured the Championship title in 2016.

I’ve been vocal about Southgate’s over reliance on defensive players and underutilisation of our wealth of attacking talent, but we are in a final. He wouldn’t be my first, second, third or twentieth choice of manager but he’s done it. Yes, sometimes it’s been boring and some of the line-ups have been baffling…but we have won every game bar one and only conceded a solitary goal. I would rather have got to the final the way we have done, than smash through the group stage scoring eight goals and winning every game, only to be dumped out by Germany in a similar game to their one against Portugal.

Southgate is pragmatic to the extreme and it’s horses for courses with him all the way. Like him, loathe him or feel an emotion somewhere in between, the bloke has got us to our first European Championship final. The only goal we’ve conceded all tournament I blame on Pickford’s undeveloped arms and we’re yet to concede in open play.

At 1-0 down I was anxious that our heads would drop but we were back level before half time and were by far the better side in the second half and the first half of extra time. The Danes seemed happy to play for penalties and spent more time lying around sunbathing than playing football. Penalty or not, we deserved to get into the lead.

My heart was in my throat when Southgate took Grealish off and went all out defence for the second half of extra time. From what I could see, the Danish were knackered, and we were in the ascendency. If we’d carried on being positive, I felt we could have grabbed a third and put it to bed. Instead, we invited them on and renewed their vigour. But it did the job and with a few minutes to go, incredibly, we knocked the ball around like it was a friendly against Sunderland and somehow maintained possession for about two minutes to kill the clock and bring home the victory.

Of course, post-match a lot of the reporting has been around some spanner with a laser pen and a minority of fans booing the Danish national anthem. But neither of those things should taint a thoroughly professional performance and progression to this final.

I’ve secured tickets for the final. I’m chuffed Italy have made it. If we win, it would be the fairytale ending. Beating our old foes, the Germans, and then conquering a side that hasn’t lost in thirty-three games would be one hell of a way to win the tournament. Say what you want about our path to the final, Denmark are a decent team and Germany are always dangerous, even if this current group isn’t the all-conquering force that previous incarnations have been.

Italy have been the best team of the competition and won all of their group games before going on to dispatch Belgium and Spain en route to the final. If we beat them, we have earned the right to call ourselves the European champions. Don’t expect a goal fest as both teams have been tight, both in this tournament and the games leading up to it. I just pray we can get the job done in normal time. Extra time was agonising the other night and I don’t even want to think about penalties.

I cannot wait for England v Italy tonight and the chance to be at my first final at Wembley. The last four weeks have been a welcome distraction from Newcastle United and the arbitration case. I said a few weeks ago that my perfect summer would be an England Euros victory and a Newcastle United takeover. Step one could be complete by tonight.

It’s ironic really that Mike Ashley driving me from the club I love, has meant that I get to be at a game of this magnitude. I only started going to England games as I was filling the inevitable live football void I would be gaining once Rafa left the club.

So, thank you Mike. Now hurry up and sell up so I can get back to watching Newcastle and hopefully one day enjoy a moment like this with my proper team.

You can follow the author on Twitter @billymerlin

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