The sun was setting on another quiet Sunday in West London. Shops, if open, were barren, pubs and restaurants were forced to adhere to a curfew and the famous walk along Wembley way was desolate. The 12th of July 2020 had promised to be one for the ages. Wembley was playing host to the European Championship final and the home nations were coming into the tournament hoping to be performing in front of their home fans in the biggest game of their international calendar. However, in true typical 2020 fashion, Coronavirus had slashed the hopes of ending the season with an international tournament and fans were left biding their time waiting for international glory, pushing the tournament back a year to 2021.
Fast forward 6 months, Wales and England had already secured their place amongst Europe’s elites and were waiting patiently to see which of their home nations counterparts would join them. Scotland had set up a mouth-watering winner takes all tie against Serbia who boasted the likes of Fulham’s talisman Aleksandar Mitrović and the highly sought-after Sergej Milenkovic-Savic. Northern Ireland had an equally tough challenge facing Slovakia, albeit a Slovakian national side with interim manager Stefan Tarkovic taking charge of his first game for the national side.
Despite a late own-goal from ‘Spurs target Milan Škriniar to give Northern Ireland the equaliser they were searching for, Ian Barraclough’s men were not able to capitalise in extra-time and fell to a 110th minute winner from experienced forward Michal Duris. The defeat condemned Northern Ireland to a summer without the European Championship they were craving since their success at the 2016 Euros, where they performed valiantly and even managed to shock Ukraine with a 2-0 win. The defeat to Slovakia helped to round off a damaging 2020 for Northern Irish football following the news of the cancelled under-19 European Championships, where they were set to play host to some of the most exciting talent in the game. 2020 coming to a footballing close can therefore be seen as a positive to those in Northern Ireland, as it ends their disappointing year both on and off the pitch, and allows a new era to be ushered in as they look ahead to future international competitions.
Similarly, to Northern Ireland, Scotland were in a tense battle that continued after 90 minutes thanks to a late goal. Real Madrid centre-forward Luka Jovic scored a 90th minute equaliser to break the hearts of the Tartan Army and force them into extra time, after Ryan Christie put Scotland ahead. Extra time loomed and it remained goalless after 30 minutes, leaving the fate of Scotland’s Euro 2021 championships dreams in the hands of the Scottish penalty takers and their veteran keeper, David Marshall. Scotland’s takers held their cool and converted five from five. All the pressure was now on the aforementioned Mitrovic. Mitrovic had already missed a penalty in Fulham’s 1-1 draw away at Sheffield United and as he approached the penalty spot, it seemed the weight of the whole of Serbia was weighing heavily on the 26-year-old striker’s shoulders. He placed the ball on the spot, took eight steps back and exhaled one last time before deciding his country’s fate. Mitrovic went right and Marshall followed, the Scottish keeper managed to get his hands to the ball and parry it away and in that moment wrote himself into Scottish footballing folklore. Celebrations in the changing room ensued and courtesy of Baccara’s 1977 hit, Scotland ‘Boogie Woogie[d]’ through the night looking forward to the 2021 Championships. The European Championships represent Scotland’s first major championship since the World Cup in France, 1998. It also represents a new era for Scottish football. They boast the likes of Champions League and Premier League winning captain, Andy Robertson, Arsenal’s young and talented full-back Kieran Tierney, as well as important players in John McGinn, Scott McTominay and Ryan Christie. Scottish fans will be looking forward to the delayed tournament and hoping that they can cause an upset and beat the odds next year.
Although already qualified, the international break wasn’t just a time for England and Wales to put their feet up and the break showed some major positives for the two nations.
Despite the Nations League loss against Belgium in Leuven, there were performances against Ireland and Iceland which should leave England fans optimistic about next year’s tournament. Jack Grealish getting in a run in the side was something Three Lions fans were left waiting to see happen and when Southgate, finally, gave him an opportunity, his performances were of the highest quality. His quick feet, eye for a pass and velvet touch proved to Southgate he should be in the England XI on a regular basis. England fans would also have been pleased with the impressive performances from the incredibly gifted teenager, Bukayo Saka, who’s performances seemed to be of someone years beyond his age. Mason Mount, Declan Rice and Harry Maguire also impressed with their performances in the games they featured. With Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford also due to come into the setup, England fans will be confident that they can go far following the semi-final defeat in the 2018 World Cup.
Despite the absence from their manager Ryan Giggs, Wales went unbeaten across their three games during the international break. The highlight of their time together was the 1-0 win over Ireland thanks to a header from the now fully fit David Brooks. Brooks coming back into form following a lengthy injury would be a huge bonus for Wales ahead of the tournament next summer. The potential linkup of Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale and David Brooks is a very exciting prospect for Wales fans, and they’ll be hoping the injury prone players can remain fit and in good shape up until the Euros commences.
All in all, the summer of 2021 has the potential to be a scintillating summer of football for the home nations. Wales will be hoping to emulate their semi-final success from Euro 2016, England will be expecting to exceed their 2018 World Cup fourth place finish, Scotland will be wanting to spoil everybody’s party and cause an upset and hopefully Northern Ireland fans can enjoy the show from home.