There were 33 minutes on the clock at Wembley when Gareth Southgate decided that he had to do something before England descended into the kind of demented, frazzled state not seen in a major tournament since Brazil’s implosion in their World Cup semi-final against Germany seven years ago.
Southgate being Southgate, a rather restrained gesture followed. There was no bellowing, no flinging of the arms, no rage as he plotted a way back into the semi-final. After all, it was a time for composure. England were a goal down to a smart and dangerous Denmark, their run of clean sheets ended by Mikkel Damsgaard’s beautiful free-kick, and they were in danger of a total systems meltdown, especially with Jordan Pickford overly pumped and in too much of a hurry to get things moving.
It had not been a good opening period for Pickford. An early mistake, a ball flung straight to the feet of the influential Thomas Delaney, had brought out the England goalkeeper’s worst traits. Soon he was struggling with his kicking, sending a few panicky clearances out of play, unsettling his teammates, and it was not a surprise when Denmark went ahead after 30 minutes, Damsgaard’s curling strike no more than Kasper Hjulmand’s side deserved after a spell of forceful, perceptive play.
The goal had been coming. England’s early buzz had faded, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips smothered by relentless hustle from Delaney and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg in midfield, Damsgaard increasingly influential as he drifted in from the left. The heat was on and England were in unfamiliar territory: behind for the first time all tournament, the crowd fretful, the intrigue now whether Southgate’s players were capable of dealing with adversity.
It was one of the last remaining questions around this team and the signs were worrying at first. Pickford, perhaps disappointed not to have reached Damsgaard’s shot, chipped a dismal pass straight to Kasper Dolberg and the England fans howled, prompting Southgate to enter his technical area and do something very simple: call for calm.
England had to take a breath. They had to remember the lessons of all those past failures, all those moments when they ran around like headless chickens, and regain their composure. They had to remember that this squad is supposed to be different, smarter, not like the teams of old.
Slowly they settled down, imposing themselves on Denmark, taking the game by the scruff of the neck. Kyle Walker engaged in a long chat with Pickford, urging him to stop channelling the spirit of Joe Hart, to resist the urge to scream at an unsuspecting ballboy. Out on the right flank Bukayo Saka, a little hesitant at first, started to scare Denmark. And most importantly of all, Harry Kane decided that it was time to take charge.
This was Kane at his driving best, a mix of striker and playmaker, defying those who believe he is better off as a pure No 9. He dropped deep for the ball, he pulled wide to make space, combining with Saka to twist Denmark out of shape, and he took on responsibility for rousing his side.
The Saka-Kane understanding was pivotal. First it was Saka to Kane, whose cross should have been converted by Raheem Sterling. Then the roles were reversed, Kane brilliantly freeing Saka, who looked for Sterling and saw Simon Kjær score an own goal.
England had their response. Their worries disappeared in the second half. England pressed and Denmark fell back, retreating into defensive mode. It became about craft, about ingenuity, about whether England had the nous to break down a weary Danish defence.
On came Jack Grealish, excitement building as he teased and tormented his markers, followed by Jordan Henderson and Phil Foden at the start of extra time, Southgate making good use of his bench. Denmark looked cooked by that point, especially with some of their best players already off. It became England versus Kasper Schmeichel, whose goal was being peppered, and it did not require any particular tactical alchemy to work out that the best way through was to keep testing those aching Danish legs.
Over to Sterling, driving down the right, making the most of minimal contact from an exhausted Joakim Mæhle. The Dutch referee, Danny Makkelie, pointed to the spot and Kane just about held his nerve, sparking manic scenes down by the corner after putting England 2-1 up.
Yet one person remained calm. Over on the touchline Southgate stayed true to himself, using the interval to remove Grealish for Kieran Trippier, heralding a switch to a back three as England looked to see themselves over the line.
It went back to control, a theme of England’s run to their first final since 1966. They had managed falling behind. Southgate had shown them the way, urging his players to handle their emotions, giving them the strength and clarity to overcome yet another hurdle.