The song started hesitantly, building in volume before rising to a crescendo as England’s fans willed their team to the promised land at the climax of their nerve-shredding 2-1 Euro 2020 semi-final victory against Denmark.
“Thirty years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming. It’s coming home, football’s coming home,” the red, white and blue clad masses roared moments before Harry Kane finally ended Denmark’s brave resistance in extra time at Wembley.
When the Lightning Seeds, along with David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, wrote “Three Lions” to celebrate England hosting Euro 96, the bittersweet song struck a chord with a nation raised on tales of 1966 World Cup glory but by then stuck in a cycle of major tournament misery.
A quarter of a century later, as Denmark clung on in the face of England’s relentless pressure, the ubiquitous chant seemed more than ever a hymn of hope.
Was this the day? Was football coming home at last? It wasn’t easy but the answer, at last, could be yes.
In the 104th minute, Raheem Sterling’s surge was ended by Joakim Maehle’s trip and Kane converted the rebound after his penalty was saved by Kasper Schmeichel.
As ever, England did it the hard way but by the final whistle 60,000 fans were bouncing in ecstasy, while millions watching on television across the country pinched themselves in disbelief.
After so many trials and tribulations, England are major tournament finalists for the first time since Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore and an Azerbaijani linesman became sepia-tinted legends in the 4-2 win against West Germany in 1966.
Gareth Southgate’s side will face Italy at Wembley on Sunday in England’s first European Championship final.
Since England walked off the Wembley turf as World Cup winners 55 years ago, 437 players have pulled on the Three Lions shirt.
The current crop will never be forgotten after banishing the semi-final misery that was an unwanted birthright for generations of England players and fans.
It was a tear-stained story etched on the anguished faces of penalty shoot-out fall guys Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle after the 1990 World Cup semi-final loss against Germany.
Paul Gascoigne wept during that defeat after a booking that would have ruled him out of the final, an emotional outburst repeated by Southgate in the last four at Euro 96 after England’s hearts were broken by Germany again.
– Empathetic and empowering –
Southgate’s crucial penalty miss left the nation with a hangover for the ages as the red-eyed defender rested his head on boss Terry Venables’ shoulder in search of absolution after that semi-final shoot-out.
Twenty two years later, Southgate, by now in charge of England himself, had to console his shattered players after their unexpected run to the 2018 World Cup semi-final ended in defeat against Croatia
From Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal in 1986 and David Beckham’s petulant red card in 1998, to a host of quarter-final flops in the Sven Goran Eriksson era, England’s misfortune was not confined to semi-finals.
So when Southgate took charge in 2016, he found a team struggling to embrace England duty.
The slings and arrows that came with England’s failures were too hard for some to deal with.
But from the ashes of England’s Euro 2016 humiliation against Iceland in Roy Hodgson’s moribund reign, Southgate has overseen the rise of a dynamic young team unencumbered by the ghosts of tournaments past.
Empathetic and empowering, Southgate has connected with England’s ‘Generation Z’, allowing them to flourish rather than whither in the international spotlight.
The likes of Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham and Kalvin Phillips went into Euro 2020 with no major tournament experience.
With Southgate urging them to write their own history, the young Lions have broken one barrier after another.
After a slow start in the group stage, England’s Euro challenge ignited with a 2-0 win against Germany in the last 16.
Since that cathartic victory over their old rivals, anything has seemed possible for England.
Ukraine were crushed in the last eight and even Denmark, on a fairytale ride of their own after the shock of Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest earlier in the tournament, were powerless to halt England’s progress.
With Baddiel and Skinner joining the jubilant chorus from the Wembley stands, for one glorious evening, football came home.
Now Southgate and company want it to stay until they can get their hands on the trophy in Sunday’s final.