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Euro 2020: England have glory within their sights and they can end the years of hurt

It’s been more Bakerloo Line than Baku and beyond for England at Euro 2020 – but nobody is complaining.

The greatest pleasure of following England around as a fan is taking the paths less trodden, going to places you’d have absolutely no reason to in everyday life.

Podgorica in Montenegro and Pristina in Kosovo are two good examples from the qualification campaign for this tournament.

The way England are playing right now, you’d happily watch them on any patch of grass on God’s green Earth.

But Wembley is more convenient and a good deal cheaper than most places, so it’ll do fine.

A moment of euphoria at Wembley as Harry Kane doubles England’s lead against Germany

It then got even better as England thrashed Ukraine 4-0, with Harry Maguire one of the scorers

There are very few convincing arguments against Gareth Southgate’s side winning the Euros 

Gareth Southgate’s squad has a youthful complexion but you can’t escape the feeling it’s now or never for them.

We will never have a better chance to end all those years of hurt and win a major tournament.

With home advantage from here on in and a beatable Denmark side awaiting us in the semi-final, England must forget both the past and the future and seize their chance in the here and now.

As ever with England, there are nagging doubts: We always mess up the semi-final, Denmark are riding a wave of Eriksen emotion, what if we’ve already peaked etc etc.

Wembley might not have been full but England have profited from home advantage in four of their five matches at Euro 2020 again – and will do so again in the semi-finals 

The national stadium will host England’s semi-final with Denmark and also Sunday night’s final

But there are strong and logical arguments to counter every negative thought at the moment. Even against Italy in a possible final on Sunday, I’d be backing England to win without hesitation.

Am I biased? Yes, obviously. But even an objective observer who watched England dismantle Germany and Ukraine in the past few days would have been thoroughly impressed.

The strengths of the England players as individuals are obvious and well-documented.

Raheem Sterling has been running the show and looks to be in the form of his life. Long-maligned by many England fans for never quite performing when it mattered for the national team, he now looks absolutely inspired.

The man who grew up in the shadow of the Wembley arch seems to become magical when playing underneath it.

Raheem Sterling, much-maligned by England fans in the past, has been inspired at the Euros

Harry Kane’s tournament started slowly but three goals in two games have seen him bite back

His understanding with Luke Shaw and Harry Kane grows more telepathic by the game. It’s a great relief that Kane has finally come to the party as it will finally silence those who called for him to be axed after the group stages.

Further back, to have gone five games now without conceding is jaw-dropping. England simply don’t do this, especially at tournaments.

Harry Maguire and John Stones have shown the leadership expected of them in defence, while Tyrone Mings deserves an honorary mention for stepping up in the first two games. Jordan Pickford has also been excellent.

Bukayo Saka has proved a revelation and will be pushing hard to start on Wednesday night but Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish have also performed well when given time on the pitch. The luxury of choice means headaches for Southgate.

It’s incredibly difficult to criticise any player who’s featured so far and nobody looks liable to let the side down in the high-pressure semi-final coming up. Hopefully that hasn’t jinxed it.

Maguire (left) and John Stones have been rock solid at the heart of England’s defence so far

Jack Grealish is the people’s champion in the England team and offers something different

But the greatest praise must be reserved for Southgate. There was an enormous swathe of England fans who felt Sam Allardyce was wrongly removed from his post after that newspaper sting.

There was a large body of opinion that perceived Southgate as a yes man, a cosy FA appointment with an inadequate track record in management who would take the side nowhere.

Whether England win Euro 2020 or not, that illusion has been well and truly shattered. The national team is so fortunate to have Southgate and in so many ways.

It is the tactical acumen to switch England to three-at-the-back for added security against Germany – something that was being widely pilloried around me in the Wembley stands, until we won 2-0 – and then play more expressively against Ukraine.

Bukayo Saka, seen on an inflatable unicorn, has been a revelation at the tournament 

One of Southgate’s greatest achievements is to make England duty enjoyable once again 

It is the smart squad management that has seen everyone get their chance but only when the time was right. Sancho might have only played six minutes in the group but he was champing at the bit to impress in Rome on Saturday night.

Grealish might be the people’s champion – and is one of just two current players, along with Jaeger-swilling, ‘f**king massive head’ Maguire, to have their name sung regularly at games – but Southgate knew he would be best in an impact role against Germany.

But it goes so much deeper than that. Southgate has made England duty fun again and the inter-club rivalries that ruined supposedly superior teams of the past are left at the end of the St George’s Park driveway (with the exception of the Sterling-Joe Gomez bust-up, quickly dealt with).

Southgate has been forced to play the diplomat role so often during his tenure, on issues ranging from racist abuse in Bulgaria to breaches of Covid protocol in Iceland, to whether the players should take the knee, and has handled it all deftly and eloquently.

Just two more hurdles stand between England and a first piece of major silverware since 1966

But, for me, his greatest achievement is to successfully debunk the myth that the national team must constantly be burdened by its history of failure.

Why does Saka, who is 19, need to hear about missed penalties and semi-final agony that happened before he was born? He doesn’t and Southgate gets that.

The England team comes intrinsically linked with the ups and downs of the nation; the Three Lions are woven into not only a shirt but our social fabric.

The gloom of Covid has made us all crave something uplifting. After a rather pedestrian group stage, it appeared England were incapable of providing it.

England’s Euro 2020 run has helped lift the nation out of the gloom of the Covid pandemic 

But then came that wonderful evening against Germany. As 40,000 euphoric England fans sung, jumped around, embraced complete strangers and tumbled over seats in celebration, it felt like not only victory in a football match but freedom from Covid’s clutches at last.

That emphatic win over Ukraine has only heightened England’s expectations.

So it’s once more aboard the Tube to Wembley and hopefully twice more. And if football does come home, I’ll be home very late indeed. 

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