Like it or not, England are through to the EURO 2020 final. The route there has been somewhat fortuitous but, if we're honest, it felt somewhat inevitable from the onset of the tournament.
This England team is filled with superstars. Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford didn't even see a minute of game time in the semi-final against Denmark, even after it went to extra-time. They have a social conscience, a driven manager, and a world-class centre forward leading the line.
But, just five years ago, it was all so different. So, how did England get here? Let us take you on a journey filled with bumps and bruises along the way, as we showcase the sheer amount of things that have had to go right for England to reach their first final in 55 years...
England's road to the EURO 2020 final
27 June 2016: England knocked out of EURO 2016 by Iceland
It has a lot of competition, but most English fans and pundits would agree that this was the low point for the national side at major tournaments. Alan Shearer on the BBC described it as the worst performance he'd ever seen from an England team.
Despite taking the lead within five minutes, England were 2-1 down within 20 against an Iceland side who had surprised everyone by even making the finals.
Just four days after the country voted for Brexit, a gutless performance led to a shock defeat, and it was another year of heartbreak at a major tournament. It spelt the end for manager Roy Hodgson, and in came...
22 July 2016: Sam Allardyce becomes England manager
It was Big Sam's time to shine.
27 September 2016: Sam Allardyce resigns as England manager
It was not Big Sam's time to shine. The Daily Telegraph went undercover and quizzed the former Limerick manager on illicit dealings he had carried out throughout his career.
The now iconic image, shot on a grainy hidden camera, of Allardyce sat with a pint of wine regaling the undercover journalists with advice on how to get around the FA's transfer rules ultimately cost him his job. The search was on once again for the new England boss, with U21 manager Gareth Southgate handed the gig on a caretaker basis.
But, with England at such a low ebb after the Big Sam fiasco and the crisis that had led them to Allardyce in the first place, it was easier to just stay the course with a nice man who wasn't offending anyone. On that basis, Southgate's appointment was made permanent in November 2016, and they would secure qualification for the World Cup less than a year later.
3 July 2018: England win a World Cup penalty shootout
It seemed inconceivable. For many years, it was. But, somehow, England actually won a penalty shootout against Colombia at the 2018 World Cup.
They were unlucky not to win in normal time against a weakened Colombia team but, having let them back into the game and failed to score again in normal time, questions began to circulate again as to whether this would be a "classic England" night. Regrettably, it was not.
Eric Dier scored by the skin of his teeth with the crucial penalty and sent England to the quarter-finals against Sweden. Southgate ultimately led England to their first semi-final in 22 years, where they came unstuck against Croatia. They had had an easy path to the last four, but Southgate had at least silenced some of his doubters with a memorable summer for England fans.
Either way, he was there for the long haul now. It would be Gareth Southgate who would be tasked with bringing a group of serious potential through their primes.
13 February 2019: Declan Rice declares for England
Martin O'Neill: He (Declan Rice) is still deliberating. He is a young man. England have spoken to him. He is taking time to make his mind up. He has done brilliantly for us. I'm giving him a little bit of time. #COYBIG pic.twitter.com/jFvCzHmgY0
— FAIreland ⚽️🇮🇪 (@FAIreland) August 27, 2018
It may not have seemed it at the time, but the acquisition of Declan Rice from under the noses of the FAI and the Irish management team would prove to be a pivotal moment in Southgate's reign in charge.
Rice was, at the time, nothing but an exciting prospect but, having started every game at EURO 2020 in the heart of the English midfield, it is clear that he is a crucial part of this team.
Ireland had already lost the protégé of Jack Grealish to the old enemy across the sea, but at least Grealish had never played a senior game for Ireland. Having lined out in a friendly against the USA for the Boys in Green, Rice decided his allegiance lay with the Three Lions, and he firmly made himself public enemy no.1 in Ireland for years to come.
17 March 2020: UEFA delay EURO 2020 by a year
In the midst of the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, UEFA made the decision to delay the Euros by a year. The decision meant there was an extra year for England's young talent, like Bukayo Saka, Mason Mount, and Jadon Sancho, to further develop before the first tournament hosted in England in 25 years. It also gave another year for the likes of Jack Grealish to force his way into the skeptical manager's plans.
23 April 2021: UEFA moves last-16 game from Dublin to London
Dublin had been due to host four games at EURO 2020 - three games from Group E, as well as the last-16 game between the winners of Group D (England's group) and the runners-up from Group F.
However, when the Dáil couldn't give UEFA assurances that crowds would be allowed to attend at Lansdowne Road, the decision was swiftly made to reassign the games and take them away from Dublin.
England already had the luxury of playing all three group games in London, but now the prize for topping their group was another game at Wembley, where they would meet old rivals Germany. There, in front of crowds that were growing with each game, they could end the German Wembley curse, and give their run through Euro 2020 even more of a feeling of destiny.
If the game was played in Dublin... who knows?
1 July 2021: British government confirms 60,000 fans for semi-finals and final
"Go to work. Don't go to work"
It's safe to say the British government's COVID-19 response has been a bit all over the place from day one. While they would very much like their legacy to be their efficient and early vaccine rollout, history is far more likely to remember the headless chicken policies and counter policies and constant opening and reopening based on popular whims of the British press.
Countless lives have been cost by their ineffective governance, and yet they have motored ahead of many of their western European counterparts in reopening after over a year of lockdowns.
Despite growing concern over another wave of COVID hitting the UK, with the more infectious Delta variant, the sheer determination of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to rule in a post Covid Britain means reopening is all but complete, and with Euro Fever striking England's Green and Pleasant Land, the go ahead was given to go balls to the wall with attendances at Wembley would see 60,000 fans attend the semi-finals and final.
An absolutely buzzing crowd of Football's Coming Homers dragged the home team over the line in the semi-final against a visibly exhausted Denmark team. Which brings to a little non-sequitur in our timeline...
6 December 2012: UEFA announces transcontinental Euro 2020
As England readied itself for a Brazilian World Cup by which time even the hype had stopped and disappointment had just turned to anger and sadness, announcements about Euro 2020 felt like the other end of reality.
Michel Platini, the former future king of football, was in his element declaring the celebration of European football that would be a countryless Euros.
In 2014, Wembley would be announced as the real home of a widespread tournament, and as already mentioned, it got more than it even originally was awarded.
Of course, having a home tournament is nothing England don't deserve. Since Euro 96, France have hosted two tournaments, while nine other European countries have had the honour of hosting a Euros or World Cup. But a home team has never had this much advantage. Not only did they not have to travel, as is normal, but the other teams have never had to travel more.
Denmark were in Baku, 2,885 miles away from London, beating the Czech Republic just days before the Wembley semi-final.
3 July 2021: Ukraine are England's opponents for a Euros Quarter Final - Their only match out of Wembley
Moments after the restart, Harry Maguire makes it two for England from a set-piece.#UKR 0-2 #ENG#UKRENG #EURO2020 #RTEsoccer
📱 Live updates - https://t.co/tzjLQRWNIW
📺Watch Live - https://t.co/2W5kFtUgZE pic.twitter.com/w93vIAwMen
— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) July 3, 2021
While Denmark went to Baku, England finally left London for one game, taking the short flight to Rome, where Ukraine awaited in the quarter-final. Much like the entire journey, a series of surprising events meant England would not have to face a traditional European powerhouse to reach the final once they dispatched a shadow of a German side in Round 2.
Spain messing up their group put them on the tougher side of the draw. Sweden were unable to live up to billing as group winners, and went out to a very poor Ukraine team who were blessed to even make it out of the group. At least Sweden went down fighting, they lost in the last second of extra-time in a game that went on for about six hours due to the amount of injuries. Just what Ukraine needed before their quarter-final with England a few days later.
They were hammered 4-0.
7 July 2021: Contentious penalty hands England final spot
Raheem Sterling goes down under what looks like minimal contact... but the penalty is given. Harry Kane scores at the second attempt. #ENGDEN #EURO2020 #RTEsoccer
📱 Live updates - https://t.co/Ba5scpyUb0
📺 Watch live - https://t.co/2W5kFtUgZE pic.twitter.com/OsvYBk1lxe
— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) July 7, 2021
It was always going to come with a bit of drama, but the night of the semi-final against Denmark perhaps didn't go as smoothly as England and their fans would have been hoping.
Forced into extra-time after grinding out a 1-1 draw in normal time, England got what some said was a "deserved" lucky break in the extra 30 minutes. Raheem Sterling went down under...minimal...contact from two Danish defenders and, even with a VAR review, the referee refused to overturn his decision.
Even after Kane missed the initial spotkick, he got a second bite of the cherry to put England through to a first final in 55 years to face Italy on Sunday night.
What a photo. England fans 💯 pic.twitter.com/miHm3LlVbM
— Harry Kane (@HKane) July 8, 2021
And there you have it. It only took five years of rebuilding, a hidden camera, a pint of wine, an accidental managerial appointment, some fortuitous draws, some bungling from the FAI, some questionable governance (of football and their own country), insane travel schedules, debatable refereeing, and far too many utterings of the phrase "It's Coming Home", but somehow England are in a final.
In fairness, after what happened at Euro 2016, even all of that doesn't seem like enough.