30million of us England fans held our breath… then we went mad

I KEEP looking around thinking, “I’ve never experienced anything like it”.

Well, it occurred to me, of course I haven’t. And if you were born any later than the 1950s, then neither will you.

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We are in a football final. We’ve always known this was theoretically possible, and would surely happen one day, and would be great when it did, but we didn’t know what this feeling actually felt like.

And — breaking news — it feels wonderful. 

At its heart is togetherness, which has showed itself in all sorts of ways.

For example my daughters, who are 18 and 21, had never before last night sat and watched a football match with me. They were so overcome with nerves I worried for them a bit — this stuff isn’t easy for those who aren’t used to it. 

There was a new togetherness between fans who watch, love and suffer because of football all nine months of the year, and those who only get involved at times like this.

“How on earth do you go through this every week?” they ask in wonder. The answer, honestly, is that I just don’t know. 

This precious togetherness is something the pandemic has afforded us too, albeit in a different, ghastly way.

We have come together over the past 18 months because we had to. And now to come together in song, be it Sweet ­Caroline or Three Lions, is really special.

Shared joy of so many people

It must have been wonderful to be at Wembley on Wednesday night, but it was ­amazing to see on the television, too.

This is true of the whole spectacle, which is yet another brilliant thing about these moments. Ordinarily, there is no substitute for being at a match — it’s ­normally the only way to feel as if you’re in the experience together.

But on Wednesday, I don’t think it mattered. We were absolutely in it together, ­wherever we were watching or listening. 

From the final whistle onwards, the shared joy of so many people has been wonderful to behold, but it was going though specific moments together that really gripped me.

I loved knowing during that match that the whole country was in the same agony at the very same time — often tiny ­fractions of time.

When Kasper Schmeichel stopped Harry Kane’s penalty and Kane buried the rebound, maybe one whole second elapsed.

During that second, time stood still for more than half the country.

Think about it: Well over thirty million people holding their breath at the same moment. That’s quite something.

And then, as one, we thirty million souls started breathing again all at once before filling the night with screams of joy. 

There is so much goodwill in the air. I spoke to Steve McClaren, who didn’t have the happiest time as England manager.

There was not the faintest trace of ­bitterness or envy in his voice as he spoke of his delight at how well Gareth Southgate has done. He managed Gareth as a player, at ­Middlesbrough, and was always sure he’d go a long way as a coach.

He also spoke of something that is in danger of being forgotten in the light of Gareth’s successes in this tournament: The Football Association has done an awful lot in the past decade to make the changes behind the scenes that led eventually to this great run.

Many people were involved, not least among them Southgate himself, who long before he was head coach worked ­tirelessly to modernise the whole set-up. 

Steve told me: “Right at the beginning Gareth was there. He was head of ­development. He was in the schools, ­looking at the grassroots. He was part of the group who worked with the Premier League clubs, which is why we are ­producing through the academies quality, quality young players.

Love for whole team, for the country

“And Gareth has been with those players all the way through the age groups and under-21s, and so on. He and the players are so close and that’s the key to it.” 

We would have been delighted to finally see any England team in a final, but this England are extra-special.

Not only are they great footballers, they’re decent human beings, playing for each other. 

We’ve admired our internationals in the past, often revered them. And we’ve loved the odd one.

But now we’re thoroughly enamoured of every man jack of them. This is why we are collectively so ­desperate to go on and win on Sunday.

If we do, I’m not sure the ground we stand on is solid enough to withstand the earthquake of joy.

If that happens, the celebrations won’t be merely about triumph. They’ll go way beyond that.

They’ll actually be about love — love for this whole team, for the country and even for each other. 

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