Billy Grant knows the agony of being a lifelong England superfan. Part of the legion of hardcore followers who have travelled the length and breadth of the world supporting their country, he has watched England go out at the semi-finals stage three times: at the World Cup in Italy in 1990, on home turf during Euro 1996, and at the last World Cup in Russia in 2018.
But as England approach their Euro 2020 semi-final tie against Denmark on Wednesday, he has no regrets, only that burgeoning hope every football fan understands is the ultimate cause of their demise.
Does he believe it could be fourth time lucky for him, and Gareth Southgate’s England?
“I believe they’ll do it,” says Grant, co-presenter of Brentford FC’s Beesotted podcast. “They need a little bit of luck, but we’ve been unlucky in the past. But we can’t be unlucky for ever, you know, luck evens itself out over time.”
Along with about 56 million others, he is hoping that Wednesday will be the day that fortune finally smiles on England and sees the men’s team progress to the final of a major football tournament for the first time since 1966. If they do, they will face Italy in the final on Sunday, with Downing Street confirming that pubs will be allowed to stay open until 23.15 so fans can watch.
Melanie Couldrey was 28 when she took a month off work to go to Italia 90, a World Cup that has taken on a mythic status with fans. “It was my favourite summer ever,” she says unsurprisingly.
She was meant to go home after the quarter-finals but when England progressed, booked a ticket to Turin to see England take on West Germany. With the final score 1-1, the game went into extra time and, as the deadlock still couldn’t be broken, on to penalties.
After Gary Lineker, Peter Beardsley and David Platt scored the first three, Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle failed to convert, sending Bobby’s Robson’s team home. The following day she bought a copy of La Gazzetta dello Sport, which had the subheading Ma Che grande Inghilterra! (But what a great England!). “At least we were appreciated,” she says.
Gary Gates remembers an electric atmosphere at the European Championship in England in 1996, with the fans singing the recently released Three Lions, which had become an unofficial anthem, on repeat in a highly charged Wembley.
“The noise in the crowd and the excitement was absolutely unbelievable. It just seemed to bring the whole country together. I’ve never been at an event where it was just pure joy,” he says.
But the joy was short-lived. After Paul Gascoigne missed a chance to win the game in extra time, it went to penalties.
Couldrey, who was also there, remembers the moment Southgate, a centre-back who stepped up when others did not, came forward to take a sudden-death penalty.
“I can remember the angle we were watching it from, and I remember seeing him walk up and then, well, you know,” she says. Southgate missed and England were out again. “I was so deflated,” she says. “I only lived in London but it felt like it took hours and hours to get home.”
Gates thinks the agony of England’s near-misses will prevent any complacency before Wednesday’s game. “We need to make sure we don’t underestimate the competition and look forward to the final,” he says. “I’m confident, but nervous..”
Andy Payne was 27 when he saw England lose in the Italia 90 semi-final but it didn’t stop him travelling the world with the team, and like Grant he saw them lose the semi-final in 1996 and against Croatia in2018.
Now 58, he says the team that defied expectations then can live up to the potential they showed three years ago. He praises Southgate for the quiet, empathic leadership he says has transformed England from a group of individual stars to a team that works for each other.
“Those players believe in their leader, and he believes in his squad,” he says. “The karma police have definitely given England their blessings.”
He’ll be at the game with his wife, Kirsty. This time, he’s confident that England will finally get the result. And if they don’t? “Then I’ll call you in a year-and-a-half’s time from Qatar and say: ‘You know what, I think it’s going to be this time, I can feel it.’”