For English football fans who don’t support one of the few perennial trophy-winning Premier League teams, this is pretty much as good as our lives as followers of the beautiful game gets.
Our ordinary existence is one of almost constant disappointment, tinged with nostalgia for a time when the prospect of an underdog winning anything more than a promotion wasn’t so remote. (Leicester City fans are the exception that proves the rule). To make matters worse, until relatively recently, we couldn’t even look to our national side for succour.
We should, therefore, cherish this current moment and recognise it for what it is - a vindication of the best of modern English football, and a repudiation of many of its worst aspects. England’s achievement of so far is fantastic, and we’re not done yet.
Sunday’s is an era-defining game for generations of players, coaches and supporters. I believe that success in major tournaments can help us to change football in this country, and along the way it can transform how the English people relate to the game we gave to the world.
Win or lose, there are defining characteristics of Gareth Southgate’s England set-up that need to be cascaded throughout out English game, and Sunderland - a club in the process of being rebuilt after a humiliating demise - could learn a lot from them.
There’s a lot being said and written about this topic right now, but please indulge me a spot of romantic hyperbole and drawing of unlikely parallels. If we look at some of the key ingredients that have led this England side the brink of greatness we find lots of Ps; planning, philosophy, professionalism, personality, performance and passion and, most of all, patience.
First, this is a project that has been long in the planning, performances that are years in the making. Plans are delivered incrementally, they cannot be executed all at once, and Southgate’s success can in large part be attributed to his single-minded execution of a well understood plan. He is not swayed by the calls on social media, or even the stands, for X player to be given more game time or Y player to be rested as he looks out of form.
More than implementing a cold, hard plan of action with England, Southgate has implemented a football philosophy throughout the squad. He’s decided the manner in which we want to play, not what precise formation, but our overall style and approach - and stuck with it. England play modern English football, with all its local and global influences there for all to see - from Sean Dyche to Marcello Bielsa and beyond.
It’s a football philosophy that prioritises the versatility of players, their comfort in possession and fluidity of position, defensive discipline, pace, pressing and athleticism. And patience. Sunderland are I believe, under Speakman and Johnson, looking to play this way too. But developing a squad capable and confident to play that way takes time, planning and, yes, patience to achieve.
Our club is owned by a young Swiss man with French and Russian parents, whose exposure to global influences will surely have an impact on Sunderland. Openness to adapting new ideas, a willingness to learn from the influx into our game of the crèm-de-la-crèm of world football - not just players and coaches but physios, psychologists, and analytical staff - has raised the standard of our game.
Yes, due to post-Brexit immigration rules, access to a swathe of that talent is now only available at the elite end of the game, but ideas don’t have borders and the influence of those currently playing their part in raising the standard of the English game will not go away. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s influence on our game arguably began well before they arrived in England, when they were still at Barcelona and Dortmund. Now we all want to produce players who can counter-press, dominate possession, have explosive pace and great stamina.
This leads me on to the sheer professionalism of England’s approach, clearly echoing the finest examples we see at the apex of the club game in the Premier League. Everything about this set-up is top-quality, cutting-edge and meticulous; if it can be anticipated and controlled, it’s been though of and plans made to deal with it.
Nothing, it seems, is left to chance - particularly in the physical preparation of players. I don't think it is any coincidence that, despite the long and arduous season gone, England seem remarkably fresh and injury free. Yes, home advantage and minimal travelling has helped in this respect, but they’ve taken full advantage so far and looked strong even after 120 minutes.
This professionalism extends to not allowing passing trends, temporary form, short-term results and - crucially - public pressure or opinion to sway or rush decision making. This requires those in decision-making positions, on and off the pitch, to be honest and open with supporters about what they’re trying to achieve, but also to be resolute when the critics - including us fanzine writers and podcasters - aren’t immediately satisfied.
Professionalism comes from the personalities of those involved, and it should now be a given that character is almost as important as technical ability when it comes to elite sport. England play by their values - our values (as they are, despite their huge fortunes, of us as a nation), and represent the best in the young people of the country. Tough but sensitive, confident but humble, respectful but demanding of respect.
The players to a man, following their manager’s example, present themselves publicly, both in the media and on the pitch, professionally and respectfully. That’s not to say they’re not always ultra-competitive, aggressive or cute when the occasion demands it, as we witnessed in the lead-up to our winner against Denmark, but this England team are not all about shithousery and wrecking tactics - they just turn up play their game.
Many people balk at Lee Johnson’s management-speak, but maybe his nuanced and honest assessments of the game will be better received after a summer of seeing Southgate speak so eloquently about his team’s performances.
I’d much prefer intelligent and reflective analysis (with an understanding that his words have power and an audience including fans, players and executives) than a string of tired cliches and platitudes about it being “a tough match against decent opposition” and “the lads giving it 110 per cent”.
As Grant Leadbitter has said, Lee Johnson cares - not all managers do. Like Southgate, he seems to understand that the personality and emotional wellbeing of each individual player is a vital ingredient to the success of the collective, and that what that means for each individual may be different. This is modern man-management.
The old-school disciplinarian approach to football management simply does not produce the goods, alienating players who have their own thoughts on the game and who are still people; sons, brothers, uncles, husbands and fathers. We need to learn to be more patient and empathetic with players if we are to get the best out of them and have the best chance of success.
England also demonstrate that a concentration on consistency of performance brings long-term success. We’ve seen wonderful performances from England in the last three games in particular, but we’ve also seen them settle for the result they needed (against Scotland for example) to get into the position where they could reach peak performance.
At an individual player level, whilst clearly star players like Sterling and Kane represent the backbone of the starting eleven, there seems little room for favouritism and a great, supportive spirit in the camp as a whole.
Good performance has been rewarded, the lads sat on the bench or in the stands know that if they are patient, and they perform, they will get the opportunity to shine - if not at this tournament, then maybe the next. They trust that if the manager decides not to play them, its for the good of England as a whole, and they’re ready to step up if and when needs be. We could have an unlikely new national hero on Sunday night.
The ability to temper, control and channel emotions, staying cool when all those around you are losing their heads, is a virtue that is both rare and precious. England will need all the cool heads they can muster if they’re going to beat Italy this weekend.
And this lesson in patience extends to us as fans. Like many, I was calling for Kane to be sidelined earlier in the tournament and was wondering out loud what Declan Rice actually did only a few weeks ago. I think we’ve learned a little more over the last few days - we’re all in unchartered waters.
The vast majority of us are not and never have been professional footballers or football managers, or sporting directors or heads of recruitment for that matter; but we’re obsessive, educated and passionate observers of the game and supporters of our club and country. Who, amongst Sunderland fans, truly thought Charlie Wyke would score 31 goals last season and would have had him sold this time last year?
It might just turn out that we, as ordinary punters, might need to think of England when we feel the need to demand dramatic action and immediate results at Sunderland.
Plans take time, and patience in order to get the results we all want to see, but we’ll get there. I truly believe that Sunderland can play a big part in the new era of English football that stands before us after this tournament, if we give it a bit of time.