The opening ceremony at the Euro 2020 final. Pictures: SUBMITTED.

It still doesn’t feel real.

The cold, hard fact that England were three successful penalty kicks away from ending 55 years of hurt is slowly, and painfully, sinking in. Sadly, being there in person already feels like a distant and hazy memory. No doubt muddled by a sea of smoke from flares washed down by booze and an ear-splitting wall of noise, my head can’t make much sense of a day that enlarged my heart with pride before smashing it into a million pieces. 

Those fragments were no doubt swept up along with the thousands of broken bottles and crushed cans that created the soundtrack to a rain-sodden funeralesque procession of gutted home fans down Wembley Way long after Bukayo Saka’s penalty was saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma.

West Norfolk England fans Andy Prior, Joel Wille, Gavin Caney and Steve Girdlestone celebrate the semi-final victory over Denmark. Pictures: SUBMITTED.

They say it’s the hope that kills you and that heartbreaking footballing death involving England’s men’s team began, again, when Luke Shaw crashed the ball home inside two minutes to spark the wildest celebrations seen since Harry Kane turned his rebounded penalty home during the semi-final. We ended up rows from our seats as 60,000 people embraced the unbridled joy and beauty of finally feeling part of something again after 18 months of being kept apart.

It’s a shame that division quickly returned pre-game for Sunday’s final thanks to the scumbags outside the stadium who acted disgracefully, ruined the day for so many but, luckily for us, didn’t really affect ours.

They don’t represent the thousands of fans who went to the game to sing their hearts out and support Gareth Southgate’s heroes – neither do the racist lowlifes who abused those who missed spot-kicks after Italy’s success. 

Back inside, Sweet Caroline remained the soundtrack as the chaotically tense atmosphere ramped up. The nerves, excitement and sense of occasion almost sucked the life out of you. Unfortunately that’s what Italy’s talented side did in a game that mirrored England’s 2018 World Cup semi-final exit to Croatia.

For all their richly deserved plaudits, it’s a shame Southgate and his side couldn’t find a way to avoid another visit from football’s grim reaper. He watched on as another shootout went against the Three Lions and one more death knell was served on the notion that Football’s Coming Home. 

It’s not, again, and this was our best ever opportunity to be there in the flesh to witness it happening. We may have had the time of our lives, but the dream we lived has died – thankfully our pride, memories and hope never will.

Eleven days of making memories

Gavin and friends enjoy pre-game drinks in London before the final.

Thursday, July 1: Failed to get tickets on the UEFA portal for England’s possible Euro 2020 semi-final. Luckily, some friends did and offered me a face-value spare as one of the six they’d got their hands on hadn’t been taken.

Saturday, July 3: Had convinced my wife it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to the final as friends started searching for tickets. Watched Gareth Southgate’s men hammer Ukraine 4-0 with some friends at Pru Palace.

Sunday, July 4: Friend offers a final ticket. Would have to pay above face value to secure.

Tuesday, July 6: Commit to final ticket financially knowing England might not get there.

Wednesday, July 7: Attend England versus Denmark at Wembley and head home in early hours of the next day.

Friday, July 9: Book hotel for Sunday, July 11.

Sunday, July 11: Attend England versus Italy final.

Memorable before the showcase

Euro 2020 was going to be remembered long before the Three Lions reached Sunday’s final.

Those who witnessed Christian Eriksen’s collapse during Denmark’s opening match against Finland will never be able to get the heartbreaking scenes out of their head. 

Thankfully, the incident was less tragic than first feared and the rest of the tournament provided plenty of happy memories that also won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

Giantkillings in the last 16 reminded us all why we love football. Who would have thought France would have been dumped out by Switzerland? Or Netherlands, who breezed through the group stages, would have been sunk by Czech Republic?

Penalty shootouts always add to the drama but few games at any Euros past or present will match what was served up by Croatia and Spain in the second round.

From the bizarre
own-goal by Pedri, thanks to keeper Unai Simon’s mistake right up to the moment Mario Pašalić equalised in the dying moments to make it 3-3, the game was a feast of drama.

Spain responded by adding two more in extra-time as the script was written, rewritten, ripped up and rewritten again.

They went all the way to the semi-finals where they lost a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw with Italy, the eventual winners, in a match that was packed with top quality play throughout.