Once the disappointment of Sunday’s penalty shootout defeat to Italy recedes, England will take stock and realise they remain on the right path
It ended the same way that a lot of other tournaments have for England since winning the World Cup back in 1966 – with the anguish of a penalty shootout defeat.
Having taken the lead against Italy in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley, they were pegged back. So began that wearily familiar ritual of heartbreak.
Bukayo Saka was the unfortunate one whose penalty kick failure meant Italy won the Henri Delaunay trophy but the young Arsenal man deserved more.
Like so many more of his team-mates in this England squad, he is a symbol of a bright future.
Meticulous work behind the scenes means they are ready to dominate at the top of the men’s senior game for years to come, regardless of the result on Sunday.
Saka is part of a new and inspirational generation of footballers foreseen by former Football Association (FA) chairman Greg Dyke, who predicted England would win the World Cup by 2022.
Shortly after those words were uttered, England crashed out of the 2014 World Cup group stage. And it was there in the embers of humiliation where the soul searching began to renew the country’s footballing vigour.
The painstaking process came together through the vision of people like former FA director of elite development Dan Ashworth and former head of team strategy and performance Dave Ridden.
“With Greg as chairman, I sat down with Dan and we established what we wanted to do in Brazil,” Ridden told Goal. “I took Greg through the board presentation, essentially on what was presented in September that year.
“I thought the FA didn’t understand their role in elite development. It was like, ‘the clubs do the players and we just get them for a bit and we will do our best but you can’t do too much with them’.
“It was just hoping for the best. And we also used the excuse of having fewer players in the top five leagues as our rivals.
“I was saying we could control what we do with England, how we promote our DNA, how we get creative and what we can do that’s different from our competitors.
“We found things we could do to outperform our rivals and that became central to our new strategy.
“We needed to establish that strategic plan. We presented it to the board and what it cost and Greg Dyke backed us completely. He redistributed funds from around the FA into their elite teams and St George’s Park.
“We went on a restructuring, hiring process and resetting principle over the next six months, establishing our England DNA over the next six months. That’s where it all started.”
The fruitful change of direction involved Gareth Southgate himself – first as England’s head of elite development and then Under-21s head coach.
He gained promotion to the senior team after incumbent coach Sam Allardyce was embroiled in scandal and resigned.
The England DNA vision – that reimagined what it meant to be a national team player – was set in place.
“The clubs play the day-to-day role but we wanted England to be part of our player’s journey and identity,” Reddin added. “We wanted to connect players to the emotion of representing the country and use it as an experience to raise their standard because they are an ‘England player’.
“We also decided upon a style of play that would be used across the system. We wanted more technical players who could play high-energy football.”
Investment in coaching was increased, more age groups introduced at youth level and, perhaps most importantly, the new £100-million ($139m) St George’s Park headquarters was used to its full potential having been opened in 2012.
Success followed; in 2017, England won the U17 World Cup, the U20 World Cup and the U19 European Championship.
Winners of those tournaments are now with Southgate’s first team – Mason Mount, Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Reece James, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Aaron Ramsdale – while others moved overseas, unlike the previous generations, because of their all-round education at youth level.
England finally produced players who could express themselves in major tournaments.
And having often been a drain on the national game, the Premier League clubs began playing their part.
They offered more coaching minutes to younger players and there has also been a controversial – but successful – new academy system labelled the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).
Southgate has fostered a fun but hard-working environment on team meet-ups where club divides no longer cause problems.
Luke Shaw has built a new friendship with Saka at these Euros while James and Jude Bellingham have grown close. These are just two examples of a work culture which has led to progress.
When Dyke predicted World Cup success by 2022, he also said he wanted England to reach the semis of Euro 2020. By that logic, England can say they are ahead of schedule.
With the second-youngest squad at Euro 2020, this group will surely become one of the favourites for the Qatar World Cup.
The FA now wants to tie Southgate to a new contract in order to continue down this path.
Promoting a refreshing brand of patriotism – based around diversity, empathy and openness – he has proven to be the leader that his country needs.
55 years of hurt go on, but the end feels nearer than ever before.