Heading into the tournament opener against Croatia, the biggest question facing Gareth Southgate was whether he would start Raheem Sterling.
The Manchester City star wasn’t playing regularly for his club, stats were down on the previous two campaigns and the emergence of Phil Foden and Jack Grealish meant there was a clamour for him to be benched.
The uncertainty over Sterling’s place seems ridiculous now — he was unquestionably England’s player of the tournament.
Gareth Southgate came within a whisker of winning Euro 2020 for England at Wembley
The England boss had guided his side to a Wembley final in the country’s biggest match for 55 years but they fell short following a penalty shootout defeat by Italy
The notion of Sterling starting Euro 2020 on the bench was just as nonsensical to Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland.
There was no doubt in their minds. He was England’s form man heading into the tournament and, in the absence of Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson, one of England’s ‘captains’. He was certain to play.
It became clear in the days leading up to Croatia that Tyrone Mings would partner John Stones in a back four alongside full backs Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier.
Conor Coady had been the favourite to deputise for Maguire, who was earmarked to return for the final group game, but Mings consistently lined up next to Stones in shape training in the days leading up to the game.
Raheem Sterling’s place in the England starting XI was under serious scrutiny before the tournament started but he repaid faith put in him by Southgate by scoring against Croatia
Southgate is said to have been impressed with the way the Aston Villa man had performed in the pre-tournament friendlies against Austria and Romania.
Another issue heading into the game was the weather. Southgate knew Wembley would be sweltering and told his players to adapt their games accordingly, while staff prepared ice towels and cool mist sprays for the team to use at half-time.
But just when Southgate thought he had completed all his preparations, Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest on the eve of the game provided another obstacle.
All but one player — Harry Kane — was on the team bus down to London when those distressing scenes unfolded.
Kane, who is close to Eriksen following their time together at Tottenham, had headed to their London hotel with Southgate earlier in the day to complete their pre-match media duties.
England team-mates consoled Kieran Trippier (left) and Kyle Walker after their former Tottenham team-mate Christian Eriksen collapsed during Denmark’s clash with Finland
On the coach, players huddled round an iPad for updates. There was particular focus on comforting Trippier and Walker, who are both former team-mates of Eriksen at Spurs.
There was some doubt that England’s game would even go ahead at this point. But it did and England were up and running, Sterling scoring his first tournament goal to secure a 1-0 win.
The victory sparked jubilant scenes in front of 20,000 fans. Not that members of England’s coaching team, in particular Holland, were overly enamoured by the post-match celebrations — the players were immediately lectured as they arrived back in the dressing room.
A victory over Croatia was only the start. By now the coaching team had already turned their attentions to Scotland.
For the second game against Scotland, Southgate brought in Reece James (left) at right back
But England arguably put in their worst display of Euro 2020 in a 0-0 draw against Scotland
In the lead-up to the game, Southgate warned his players about an aerial bombardment from Steve Clarke’s team.
By now England’s players were attending as many as three team briefings a day. Southgate was keen not to overload his players with too much information, instead choosing to drip feed them tactical instructions.
He had hatched a plan to rotate his full backs. Reece James’s athleticism at right back was viewed as the perfect remedy for Andy Robertson down Scotland’s left, while the England boss had already earmarked Luke Shaw for his first start of the tournament.
While allowing Walker and Trippier a break, the view ahead of the game was that Shaw and James’s quality from wide areas would enable England to penetrate down the flanks, particularly if they took the lead. It didn’t work out that way, of course. England left the pitch to a chorus of boos after a drab, goalless draw.
Grealish was introduced as a 63rd-minute substitute to rapturous applause from fans, many of whom believed he should have been in the starting XI.
Supporters’ only cheers of the night were for the introduction of Jack Grealish (right) who had been a surprise exclusion from England’s starting XI
Many of his team-mates felt the same. Grealish had been hugely impressive at St George’s Park and there was a degree of bewilderment over Southgate’s apparent reluctance to use the Aston Villa captain.
There was a similar clamour for Jadon Sancho to be given a more prominent role.
But the view inside the camp was that the Borussia Dortmund star appeared pre-occupied and more distant than normal.
Maybe his pending move to Manchester United was weighing on his mind, or perhaps the fact he was a shock omission from the matchday squad for the first game was a factor.
Sancho, alongside the injured Maguire and Ben Chilwell, was upset not to have been named on the bench for the opening match.
Jadon Sancho (centre) was also struggling to get minutes amid his proposed move to Manchester United from Borussia Dortmund taking place during the tournament
Having to cut three players from his squad every matchday was a recurring problem for Southgate, who knew it threatened squad harmony.
Many players who didn’t make squads were fuming, even though Southgate was clear about his intention to rotate those cut.
Heading into the final group game against the Czech Republic, Southgate knew winning the group would provide a theoretically tougher route to the final with Germany, France or Portugal lying in wait.
Finishing second would provide a potentially easier tie against Spain, Sweden, Slovakia or Poland.
But the message at St George’s Park was clear: finish top. There was a belief that the power of Wembley, which would be at an increased capacity for the latter stages, would be an inspiration.
Finishing second meant England would not return to the national stadium until the semi-finals, a prospect that also raised issues with travelling and fatigue.
The players were determined not to give their critics any more ammunition after the reaction to the draw with the Scots.
For England’s final group game they were without Ben Chilwell (left) and Mason Mount (right) after both were forced into isolation after interacting with Scotland’s Billy Gilmour
Southgate relaxes with a basketball in camp
Southgate’s preparations for the game against the Czechs were rocked by Mason Mount and Chilwell being forced to self-isolate for 10 days after coming into contact with Chelsea team-mate Billy Gilmour in the tunnel at Wembley following the Scotland game.
The FA lobbied Public Health England, arguing that because the tunnel area is open to the elements, the pair should not have to quarantine — but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Publicly, Southgate insisted he wasn’t angered by the disruption. Privately, however, sources claim the England boss was agitated by the fact he’d lost two players because of what was effectively a cock-up.
Mount’s loss was Grealish’s gain — the Villa man was handed his first start of the tournament, as was Bukayo Saka, against the Czech Republic as Sterling scored the only goal to secure top spot and a clash with Germany.
Southgate knew the external build-up to the game against Joachim Low’s team would kick into overdrive.
Enter Ed Sheeran. The multiple Grammy award winner was invited to St George’s Park to perform a live set to ease the tension.
Ed Sheeran (second left centre) was brought into St George’s Park to help players relax ahead of their 2-0 win over Germany, which the musician attended in the last-16 clash at Wembley
Sterling (left) and Marcus Rashford take time out in a hot tub at the St George’s Park camp
His rendition of Three Lions went down a storm. Like every party, some let their hair down more than others — a number of players taking the opportunity, of course with Southgate’s permission, to have more than a couple of beers.
But thoughts of what lay ahead were unshakeable — no matter how they tried to relax.
As soon as Germany were confirmed as opposition, Southgate and Holland knew they had to change their approach.
Having started the first three games with a back four, they decided to switch to a three-man defence in a bid to match up with Low’s system.
England swept the Germans aside in an unforgettable night at Wembley to set up a quarter-final against Ukraine in Rome.
Mount returned against Ukraine, where Sancho (right) also made his first start of Euro 2020
Meanwhile Bukayo Saka had also started to impress for England and his downtime spent on an inflatable unicorn in the St George’s Park swimming pool soon went viral on social media
By this point, Southgate had opted to reduce the players’ training load.
It was a far cry from the opening weeks of the camp when the sessions were said to be far more gruelling than players expected
Southgate had already decided to revert to a back four by the time they landed in Rome. He had also decided Mount would return to his starting XI.
Some fans doubt Mount’s quality but the England boss needs no convincing. Privately, he had been raving about the Chelsea midfielder’s contribution during the first two games.
Sancho, just days after his move to United was confirmed, was also a starter in Rome, in place of Saka who had sustained a minor knock.
England, who’d reverted to a back four, were magnificent, running out 4-0 victors to set up a semi-final with Denmark. By now fatigue was emerging as a major concern for Southgate, particularly given the four-day turnaround to the Wembley semi-final.
On their arrival back at St George’s Park, Southgate gathered his players for an impromptu team meeting in the lobby of their hotel. He explained exactly what was ahead: a crack at history.
Saka was inspirational in England’s semi-final victory over Denmark at Wembley
Southgate went into the game knowing he would have Saka available. He felt Sancho performed well in Rome but Saka’s defensive capabilities made him a more suitable choice.
Ahead of the game, the head coach stressed to his players — in particular Grealish — the importance of substitutes in the semi-final.
Grealish was introduced in the 69th minute and played a key role in England’s extra-time win.
The nation was now riding on the crest of a wave but Southgate was concerned. He had already identified the fact that Italy had an extra 24 hours of recovery time for the final as a potential problem.
But he also knew that Roberto Mancini’s team, who had gone more than 30 games unbeaten, had the forward line to break England’s hearts.
So, for the second time in the tournament, England switched to a back three — Trippier in place of Saka the only change from the semi-final.
But despite taking the lead against Italy in the final, England lost on penalties at Wembley
Harry Kane applauds fans after the Three Lions had once again impressed at a major finals
The decision took a number of players by surprise. They had disposed of Ukraine with minimal fuss and overcome a torturous night against Denmark with a back four.
Many feared that change of system smacked of adapting to Italy’s strengths. The approach worked for 45 minutes as England took a 1-0 lead into half-time.
But we know now what fate had in store.
Southgate addressed his players collectively for an extended period in the dressing room after the game, thanking them for their commitment to England.
He also spoke to all 26 players individually to say thank you one more time before they were reunited with their families.
In truth, they should be thanking him. We all should.