England’s assault on Euro 2020 began in the fog at Middlesbrough five and a half weeks ago and will end on a summer evening at Wembley on Sunday.
In that short time, Gareth Southgate’s team has changed almost beyond recognition.
Not just in personnel — only four of Sunday’s expected 11 started that night — but more pertinently in terms of belief, outlook, energy and confidence. Watching England grind Denmark into the turf on Wednesday evening was instructive.
England have grown into Euro 2020 in a way they have failed to do in previous tournaments
The trajectory since that disappointing goalless draw against Scotland has been skywards
The stakes were almost uniquely high but there was a controlled and patient purpose about England as they worked a tiring team mercilessly and relentlessly around all corners of the field.
It is a while since an England team have grown into a tournament like they have this one. Since the draw against Scotland three weeks ago, England’s trajectory has been skywards almost without a misstep.
Southgate admitted that previous England teams have faltered physically in the late stages of tournaments and that can be applied to his own 2018 version who ran out of gas in the World Cup semi-final in Moscow.
But not this time. This England team would appear to have developed a momentum that may yet serve as their greatest asset when they face an Italy team who, man for man, may be slightly superior.
Gareth Southgate knows he has a team better suited to the physical demands facing them
Leeds midfielder Kalvin Phillips said: ‘Every game we go into we are confident, every game we don’t think we are going to lose.
‘We always knew we could cause teams problems. It’s about having the confidence to know that, no matter what happens in a game, we would either do something to turn it round or swing it in our favour.’
Phillips did not feature in that first friendly in Middlesbrough. He was recovering from a shoulder injury.
But the 25-year-old’s progress through the tournament has mirrored that of the team.
Prior to the last 16 game against Germany, he was saying that his first thought, when receiving the ball in an England shirt, was not to make a mistake.
Kalvin Phillips’ relentless work-rate has helped his team rise to every challenge facing them
The Leeds player ran an astonishing 15km in the 120 minutes of the Denmark semi-final clash
His performance against the Germans didn’t speak to that, though. A thunderous challenge on Toni Kroos left its mark in more ways than one and on Friday his message was rather different.
‘Everyone says the Scotland game wasn’t a great game but I felt as the opposition got better, we rose to the challenge,’ he said. ‘The Germany game was an example of that. We rose to that one and it was a stepping stone for getting further into the tournament.
‘Now we have the final coming up and we are all excited and confident.’ But this wasn’t always the case. Phillips was honest enough to admit that there had been a slight shortage of belief at the tournament’s start.
Only an accumulation of good results changed that and now there is certainly no tiredness. The Leeds player ran an astonishing 15km in the 120 minutes of the Denmark game.
‘I think at the start of the tournament, you looked at the teams who were in it and how strong they were and you didn’t know if we could go as far as we have,’ he said.
‘For me personally it was the first game that changed that. That was a massive game. The history between us and Croatia in recent tournaments was a big thing.
Phillips believes the win over Croatia in England’s opening match gave the team huge belief
‘I just think after that game we felt we could beat anybody in the group and then after the group stages, we had Germany. Once we finished that game against Germany, we knew they were going to be one of the best teams we could face. But the first game was a major point.’
Southgate’s message on Friday was simple: only victory against Italy at Wembley really matters now.
For many of his players, though, the impact of the last month’s football will be profound however it all ends. It is hard to imagine the lives of a player like Phillips or Declan Rice or Bukayo Saka or Jack Grealish being quite the same again.
For England, the adventure is almost over. It has been transformative for a group of players and perhaps even for a nation.
Had this tournament been played as planned last summer, Phillips would not even have been here.
He had a holiday planned to Kenya, a safari. Now it’s all about three lions. Time to tame the really big beasts.
It is hard to imagine the lives of Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish being quite the same again