Harry Kane is right: with any England reckoning there comes a “moment”, usually a what-if, that gnaws away at the consciousness for years. Semi-finals have bitten the hardest, whether the abiding picture is Chris Waddle ballooning over in Turin, Gareth Southgate letting Andreas Köpke throw his cap on the ball six years later or, a few minutes before that, Paul Gascoigne cursing the length of his studs.
Another might be the sequence, with England leading Croatia in 2018 and looking slick, that ended with Kane being denied by Danijel Subasic from a couple of feet. Subasic recovered remarkably to divert the shot on to his post but it went down as a bad miss and the hypercritical would have noted, too, that a half-second’s delay and layoff might have allowed Raheem Sterling a tap-in.
As Kane notes, the assistant referee’s flag was up; replays showed any goal’s legitimacy, ruled upon by VAR, would have been borderline. Had it stood, there is every chance they would have cruised on to the World Cup final. In the event, it presented a neat enough explanation for disappointment.
“As always with an England team, when things don’t go your way there has to be a reason why or a moment you look back on,” Kane says. “In that moment I took the decision to shoot and I thought that was the best decision at the time.
“A lot of ifs and buts, I don’t think a lot of people realise that chance was actually offside. A lot can happen at a tournament as a striker when you’re the one who maybe misses a chance. They are the moments you personally look back on and wish it went differently.”
The task for England on Wednesday is to ensure the timeline is smooth and that, on this occasion, there is no need for historians to identify the glitch that sent events spiralling off course. Despite a laboured group stage their Euro 2020 has been almost entirely clear of potential derailments, Thomas Müller’s improbable failure to equalise for Germany the obvious exception. Perversely, a quiet night’s work against Denmark at this stage would be extraordinary.
This England crop have the kind of opportunity their 1990s predecessors never received. They have another bite at the cherry: an immediate chance, in tournament terms, to show the pain of one semi-final can make way for the thrill of navigating another. Six of the probable starters against Denmark were on the pitch when Kane did or did not let things slip in Moscow. The captain senses that, over the intervening three years, everyone involved has learned how to meet the moment.
“As a team we are more experienced in high-pressure games, not just internationals but also at club level: Champions League finals, Premier League title runs, cup finals,” he says. “So I feel like the team understands these situations better, semi-finals and finals. Of course we can always learn from 2018 but it’s down to us to show that. A major tournament with England is high pressure, no matter what, when you get this far so hopefully we can deal with that a little better.”
The confidence that Kane and England will do exactly that is quiet, but pronounced. This week Andreas Christensen said Denmark have “an idea of what we can do to stop him”. Kane is matter-of-fact when asked whether, at his best, that would be possible.
“To be honest, probably not,” he says. “My game understanding, in terms of what I need to do to not just help myself but also the team, is probably at its best in my career. If you try and stop me that’s OK, because you have got other players who are just as good who are going to cause problems.
“From my point of view it is just assessing that on the pitch, seeing what formation they are playing, if they are pressurising, if they are tight, if they are sitting off, and just trying to adapt my game. I feel like when I am playing at my best I can score goals or provide assists against anyone.”
If that includes Denmark, analysis of that aberration against Croatia may come to resemble the height of pedantry. “You don’t get the chance to take in the history you’re knocking off, winning knockout games and getting to two semi-finals in a row,” Kane says of the businesslike, serene feeling inside England’s bubble. “It’s the stuff you look at after the tournament.”
In the next 24 hours they will know whether, this year, that includes heartbreaking saves, skied penalties or desperate slides in front of goal. To England’s players, it feels high time for a marginal moment that breeds celebration rather than agony.