Chloe Kelly could have run all the way to Hanwell if they would have let her. The place she was brought up alongside her seven siblings, crashing into each other in west London’s concrete cages, is only five miles from here but it would not have mattered if it was 500 the way she felt; the way all of them did. God, the noise. The explosion, the release, the everything. She had only gone and bloody done it. England had. She had scored the goal, the goal. The one they had been waiting for and for so long.
England are European champions. Yes, England. European champions. How do you even begin to articulate this? A moment of this magnitude. The way she did, maybe. And so there she was sprinting across the turf at Wembley, teammates in pursuit, the white shirt that will forever be historic in her hand, waved wildly above her head. All around her, 87,192 people, a tournament record crowd went wild.
Her teammates piled in, chasing her, grabbing her, not wanting to let go of this moment. They never will now; it will always be there. A first ever trophy for England’s women was within touching distance, 56 years and one day after the only trophy any England team had ever won.
There were 10 minutes to go in extra time when she scored, but that number had started to feel largely irrelevant, like penalties were inevitable now, everyone just waiting for it: the drama, the tension. And, yes, quite probably the cruelty, too. A year ago, in this same arena, England’s men had led a European Championship final and lost it on penalties. And, that was Italy: this was Germany, for goodness sake. Which served to make this feel like even more of a liberation.
England had taken the lead with a gloriously taken goal from Ella Toone an hour into an exhausting, sometimes confrontational match that had always been on a knife edge. The beauty was in the simplicity, a lovely first time ball from Keira Walsh sending her through, time seeming to slow. Time to think, to wonder, perhaps at some subconscious level to be aware of all this signified. Time for that to weigh, too.
Not for Toone. Her shot, impeccably executed, rose into the air, the ball dropping slowly almost serenely into the net, watched all the way – in Beth Mead’s case from the corner flag, as she made her way to the bench having been forced off injured. Which was just one of the reasons why this was not done yet. Germany had got the better of the second half and deservedly got a superbly worked equaliser from Lina Magull that took this to extra time.
Tension clung to this place, a shootout looming. Some stories seem to be writing themselves.
There is always an alternative ending, though, and with 110 minutes on the clock, an ugly goal and the most beautiful moment. A corner from the right was headed back by Lucy Bronze, immense all night, and dropped by the German goalline.
The way Kelly describes it, she played “street football without rules”, her brothers smashing into her in the cage, playing until the darkness fell. If it had been easy, she “wouldn’t be here”, she had said. It hadn’t been easy: a year ago she had suffered a cruciate knee ligament tear and missed the Olympic Games, her inclusion here in doubt. Now, when it mattered most, there she was.
Fighting for the ball, the bodies before her no obstacle, Kelly scrambled it over the line and then set off, millions going mad.
She jumped and ran and screamed and headed to the touchline. Six hours earlier her friends and family had stood on Wembley way with an England flag, QPR embossed on it – the club where she started – now she stood before them and crossed her arms. When at last she slowed to a halt and they were ready to start again, the referee, Kateryna Monzul, pulled out a yellow card. She should ask to keep it. This was her first competitive international goal and it was the goal.
It seemed to settle everything, England managing those final minutes masterfully now, the ball kept largely in the corner, as if Kelly had delivered clarity. Still, it’s never over until, well, it’s over, England’s subs and staff streaming on to the pitch at the final whistle. Jill Scott bounded across, the one player left from England’s last final in 2009.
There were tears everywhere. This meant the world to them; something deeper than a trophy that will be dissected in coming days but for now was there to be enjoyed.
And Wembley burst into Sweet Caroline, the players lined up at the side of the pitch, running to join in. “It’s Coming Home” boomed round as well, maybe for the last time? Once more, with feeling. Everywhere, people sang: in this stadium and way, way beyond.
In Durham, Sheffield, Whitby, Sunderland, Manchester, Hanwell too. Or, just stood there looking at it, still trying to take it all in: it had actually happened. So, this is how it feels. England had done it.
“Oh my God,” Kelly said, staring up at it, this stadium, that sound. “Look at them. It’s amazing. This is unreal! This is what dreams are made of. I want to thank everyone who took part in my rehab. I always believed I would be here.”
And so she was, for a moment no one had experienced in 56 years. Or, in many cases, ever. She had not come far but she had come a very long way. They all had.