“The England shirt weighs heavy.”
This was the verdict of the former England manager Fabio Capello when he was asked last year why England had not won a major trophy for over half a century.
“So much time has passed without winning – 1966 is a problem because whenever a World Cup or Euros starts, they think they can do it again, always, always, always,” the Italian added.
Capello himself failed to lift this weight from English shoulders with a miserable display at the 2010 World Cup where they won just one of their four games before being beaten 4-1 by Germany in the round of sixteen.
For so long England’s players had been consumed by fear when they reached tournaments, which even afflicted some of their greatest ever players.
“I experienced fear when I went out to perform [for England], the pressure from the supporters transmitted itself on to the pitch,” the former England captain Steven Gerrard told me in 2009.
“It is always an honour to wear the England shirt, but you only had to see some of the performances, myself included, to see it could also be a burden. There was a lot of fear out there, it was difficult to play, and we made a lot of hard work out of fixtures we should have won.”
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The single biggest triumph of Gareth Southgate’s reign as England manager is he has successfully banished the weight of the England shirt, which has taken them to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018, and now to a place in the final of Euro 2020.
Southgate has transformed the culture around the national team, and quite frankly made it fun to be an England player again.
International duty is no longer a chore, where the players have to churn out empty clichés about how grateful they are to be there, but something special to be cherished.
This is clear in how this side has performed at Euro 2020, with supreme confidence and large smiles on their faces.
You can see this with the performances of Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish, players who haven’t started every game, but when they have got on the pitch, there is no sulkiness, just an intense desire to enjoy themselves.
England have seen off Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic in their group, before navigating their way past Germany, Ukraine and Denmark in the knock-out rounds to reach the final at Wembley tonight.
They have done this in a pragmatic fashion; prioritising being difficult to get past at the back, playing two defensive midfielders, and despite being spoiled with attacking options, never being too cavalier.
All along Southgate’s guiding principle has been that wily, sensible and solid teams win tournaments, and not the flamboyant crowd pleasers.
This has seen England keep clean sheets in five of their six games at the tournament and not concede from open play. They have been breached only once with Mikkel Damsgaard’s spectacular free-kick for Denmark in the semi-final.
But Italy will now provide them with their biggest test of the tournament in the final at Wembley.
The Italians have been the best side at Euro 2020, winning all six of their games with some wonderful football.
Roberto Mancini’s side are now unbeaten in their last 33 games, a run that has seen them concede more than one goal only once. It has also been 19 games since they last fell behind to their opponents, to Bosnia in September 2020.
They have a formidable back line boasting Gianluigi Donnarumma in goal and the experience of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in central defence, composure and authority in midfield with Jorginho and Marco Verratti, and a host of attacking talent in Federico Chiesa, Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile.
But Southgate’s England will not fear Italy, for over the course of the last month they have had more possession, made more passes, been more accurate with these passes, faced less shots, and crucially, conceded less goals than their opponents in the final.
England have more than enough players to concern Italy, two genuine match winners in Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, plus a bench bursting with talent that Chiellini has suggested could reach the final on their own.
And this England side have belief coursing through them; this is their moment and they believe they can become European champions.
Whatever happens at Wembley on Sunday night, this has been an overwhelmingly successful tournament for England, but no one in their camp is interested in these hollow garlands. They believe they can now complete their job and win the final.