Win or lose, Gareth Southgate & England have restored a nation's pride

Like some sort of renaissance painting, Gareth Southgate gives his side instructions before extra-time against Denmark
Like some sort of renaissance painting, Gareth Southgate gives his side instructions before extra-time against Denmark / Visionhaus/Getty Images

The wait is nearly over, but by 10.30pm on Sunday night, we will know if the overarching wait is truly over, or whether the giant, ubiquitous clock that looms over England's national football team will tick beyond 55 and roll into its 56th year of hurt.

England take on Italy in the Euro 2020 final, spurred on by almost 60,000 supporters at Wembley Stadium, hoping to join an elite group of 96,924 people to have ever witnessed the nation lift a major trophy in the flesh.

For the 26-man squad, Gareth Southgate and his staff, it's an opportunity to make history, and write their names into the country's folklore for the rest of time. That's no exaggeration, either. Just think about how revered the 1966 squad still is, and you'll then appreciate the magnitude of this one night of football.

So, Harry Kane has the chance to become only the second captain to lift a trophy in the England white, Southgate could become the second manager to enjoy immortal status behind Sir Alf Ramsey, and the other squad members would have a story to tell for the rest of their days.

Sunday is win or bust then, right? Win and they are legends for eternity. Lose and they're just another footnote in a story that seems destined to delay its happy ending until they eventually run out of paper.

Wrong. The truth is, this group of players have already achieved so much, and those long-lasting memories won't be tainted by the outcome of Sunday's Euro 2020 final.

To understand just how far the England team has come in recent years, we need only listen to Southgate's words ahead of the final, where he praised the connection between players and supporters, while offering a painful reminder of the darkest days in the nation's recent history.

“The atmosphere in the ground has been great,” he said.

“When we started three, four years ago we had people throwing paper airplanes, they weren’t behind the team, there was an apathy towards the team.

“Now, the energy in the stadium is fantastic and that’s so important for the players."

For many, that bold paper airplane that dared to dream, floating from the Wembley heavens all the way down into the goal, was a hilarious moment in football history. For Southgate, it was the ultimate insult.

England supporters were so disinterested and disconnected from the action in front of them, that rather than make their discontent or frustration heard, they found other ways to entertain themselves for 90 minutes.

Everyone knows that when the people who care most about you simply give up, it hurts so much more than the tough love approach when trying to spark a reaction. That paper airplane has clearly stuck with Southgate, and it became his mission to build a Three Lions squad that was relatable, likeable, and most of all, entertaining.

Now, entertaining doesn't necessarily mean 'free-flowing liquid football'. Entertaining can also mean 'successful'. And success is a very relative concept. Success can be winning a major tournament, or even just qualifying for the competition in the first place.

Southgate made it clear that he wanted his England team to be successful, and that meant knocking down barriers and banishing the ghosts of years gone by. And with each year and each tournament, those demons have been exorcised.

In 2018, England won their opening game with a last-minute goal over Tunisia. Yes, a country with England's riches should comfortably beat Tunisia - but that's not always been the case. Don't forget, Southgate arrived off the back of a humbling defeat to Iceland, and a Sam Allardyce managerial scandal.

Next up was the dreaded penalty shootout. A form of torture which England have been unable to withstand in the past, Southgate's men defied history by defeating Colombia on spot-kicks, lifting a burdensome weight off a nation's shoulders.

Sure, the Three Lions lost to Croatia in the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, and their inability to defeat the big teams was used as a stick to beat Southgate, but that was just another barrier to be smashed on their journey to glory.

And when you look back on that famous night when Eric Dier became a national treasure and that wonderful BBC montage went viral, you don't automatically have to dish out the caveat "Ah, but we didn't win the trophy in the end." It's all about memories, not just the destination.

My defining memory from that tournament was my cowardly inability to watch England's spot-kicks, choosing instead to hide in the bathroom, sit fully-clothed on the toilet and brush my teeth frantically, before running back to the living room to catch Colombia's attempts.

They proved me wrong that night, and I sure as hell will be watching all of the next shootout we face.

Southgate is a man who understands what supporting (and playing for) your country means. He experienced the deepest, darkest depths of just how long a bad memory can last when it comes to international football.

But rather than allow bitterness to overwhelm him, he channelled the pain of that missed penalty in 1996, and set about making new memories. That's the great thing about memories. Bad ones sting for what feels an eternity, but they fade rapidly when a shiny, new happy memory is born.

No one is better placed to make this group of England stars understand what it means to play for their country, what it means to belt out the national anthem in a packed stadium, and what it means to allow supporters to dare to dream, even for a few days.

Fortunately for Southgate, he has been able to transmit these sentiments onto an impressionable, caring and thoughtful set of young men.

This tight-knit, popular and relatable group, who take stands against discrimination, dish out their shirts to starstruck fans, and ride inflatable unicorns with a smile on their faces is the best crop of representatives England have had for years.

Raheem Sterling, Mason Mount, Kane and the other squad members are all role models, and are living evidence of what can be achieved through hard work, determination, humility and unity. For once, nice guys might not finish last.

If any England side deserves a trophy to show for their efforts, it's this one. Winning Euro 2020 would be the crowning glory for Southgate and his men - but it's not history-defining.

Just looking around a packed out Wembley stadium, witnessing a sea of England flags waving while Three Lions echoes around London ahead of a major final - and without a single paper airplane in sight - Southgate will have already won.