England make history to reach Euro 2024 final as Ollie Watkins etches his name into national folklore

England make history to reach Euro 2024 final as Ollie Watkins etches his name into national folklore

The Yellow Wall turned Oranje; England’s road to Berlin paved with gold.

On a famous night here in Dortmund, Gareth Southgate’s side conquered the Netherlands and broke new ground, the first men’s team in the nation’s history to reach back-to-back major tournament finals, the first to reach even one overseas.

The hero was as unlikely as they might have come in Ollie Watkins, seemingly the third-choice centre-forward at the start of the evening, but the man whose stunning turn and finish in the final minute of the 90 sealed a 2-1 win.

Thrown front-and-centre of the celebrations, Watkins smiled and bounced in disbelief, a moment in England folklore drawn from what might have been this tournament’s most thankless lot, as understudy to Harry Kane, and not the only one at that.

You have to be ready to take your chance when it comes, he had said all summer. Alright, fine, nice attitude. But surely not like this.

And this was vindication, in close to total form, for Southgate. For bringing three strikers to Germany when most would have settled for two; for a match-winning call to take Kane off with ten minutes to play; for fostering the spirit and belief in this team that now, three times in a fortnight, has seen them seize victory from the final flickers of a game.

This might easily have been his last dance. Instead the biggest of them all lies ahead on Sunday, against Spain, in Berlin.

Southgate had sensed a mentality shift this week, the semi-finals the stage when this tournament became not about avoiding the embarrassment of defeat but about the prize to be won.

There were no ghosts here for this England, no sense of a hurdle greater than just the 11 Dutchmen in front of them to be overcome. They’d lived this occasion before, all but one of this starting XI, three years ago, and none had been born the last time a tournament game was lost to the Netherlands, back in 1988.

So, when Xavi Simons leathered one into the top corner on seven minutes, pouncing on Declan Rice’s slip, there was no panic, no sense of ‘here we go again’. Because where, exactly, would we be going?

The exception, weirdly, lay in the case of Kane, who standing over his penalty, chest puffed out, evoked memories not of the many put away in England colours but of that fired over the bar against the French in Qatar. Having come off before the shootout in Saturday’s win over the Swiss, this was the skipper’s first tournament spot-kick since. He gave Bart Verbruggen, despite guessing the right way, no chance at all.

It wasn’t a penalty in a month of Sundays. Frankly, who cares?

Even without his goal, which makes him this tournament’s joint top-scorer, Kane was much improved, his withdrawal late on forced by tiring legs, not a peripheral show.

So, too, were England, shattering one expectation - that they would lose to the first decent team they faced - by justifying another - that they would grow against the first opponent that came to play.

Remember all the stuff about a trifecta of wannabe No10s trampling across one another other’s toes? Well if you stuff them all into a broom cupboard, yes, but it turns out that given the run of a space roughly the size of a decent village green, three was no crowd.

These were old home comforts for Jude Bellingham, and friendly foreign ones for Kane, who scored a hat-trick on this ground for Bayern Munich last year. Both relished a more open game, Kane dropping deep not for the sake of it but to spear passes wide and keep Bart Verbruggen on guard from range.

No one, though, enjoyed the contest's looser rhythm quite like Foden, who for the first time all summer looked like the Footballer of the Year. He added efforts cleared off the line and whipped against the joint of bar and post to disallowed and woodwork-testing strikes earlier in the tournament, turning to the bench after the latter and shrugging: “What more can I do?”


Ronald Koeman, though, knew the problem and was agile. First, he took the opportunity of Memphis Depay’s injury to add Joey Veerman as an extra body in midfield. Then, when a rare, decisive Southgate sent on Luke Shaw at the break, sensing the pitch could be stretched yet more, Koeman turned to Wout Weghorst, to play as a lonelier outlet for a team sent out to be a less accommodating bunch.

It was the kind of concession no man managing against England this summer had yet been forced to make, but Koeman’s humility was to his team’s great aid.

The spaces closed, the game grew tighter. Unlike against conservative opposition earlier in the tournament, England had earned the approach with their play, not their reputation, but this turned into the kind of test through which they had so far only scraped.

On the evidence of the summer, the predicted grades weren’t great, and predictably, England lost their zip. Virgil van Dijk forced the ball goal wards, Jordan Pickford kept it out. Saka scored, the flag went up.

And then, for a while, they just looked knackered. Plain old cooked. In what would have been their third period of extra-time in succession, you could only have fancied the Dutch.

Instead came Watkins, with the shot of his life and the moment of his career.

Spain look a frightening team, no doubt the tournament’s best, having already swept aside Italy, Croatia, Germany and France. Were this an artistic gymnastics final, they could fall off their last piece of apparatus and still comfortably win gold. Were it Eurovision, they’d win the rest of the continent’s vote.

But it’s not, and it isn’t. Football’s not coming home just yet, but nor, with just one match of these Euros to play, are England. When they were squeezing past Serbia, drawing with Denmark, and in danger of stumbling against Slovenia, Slovakia and the Swiss, my word, we’d have taken that.