Heads in hands, unfulfilled expectations and a Viking clap that heralded the darkest hour - England's Euro 2016 story
(Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/ Getty Images)

Competitive international football is making a return this week, with Italy and Turkey sowing the seeds of the opening game in the delayed 2020 European Championship.

For Gareth Southgate and his young Three Lions setup, their journey will start on Sunday, when they go head to head with Croatia, the team that dishevelled their hopes of reaching the 2018 World Cup final.

And because of their usual unfortunate endings, there isn't a country out there that has more to prove than England.

Failure after failure has led to an urgent sense of must, rather than want, within the Three Lions philosophy. Nothing but success will be expected of a young England squad, who will strive to go a couple of steps further than their Russia World Cup heroics.

Without a European trophy in their repertoire, the clouds that hang over England grow thicker upon every major tournament, but as ever, the country is cascaded by contemporary euphoria heading into the summer.

It is now down to Gareth Southgate and his vivacious players to fulfil the needs and wants of a fanbase that continues to believe in the players, despite their insufficient silverware successes. 

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Long and onerous, the path to the Euros this time around has been nothing short of harrowing, with the global pandemic taking its toll on a united country that is undergoing its healing process. But alas, the sunshine months are here, unleashing an undercurrent of ecstatic hope of more desirable times to come.

England flags can be spotted glistening in the sun, New Order's 'World in Motion' is climbing the charts, and townsmen are savouring every drop of malted hops in pubs across the country.

This is the time of the year that every Englishman, Sunderland or Newcastle, Aston Villa or Birmingham, link arms in unscathed harmony. Life is good, and this Three Lions team brings with it the promise of more to come.

But before Southgate's tenure, this wasn't always the case, as highlighted with the tumultuous 2016 campaign.

  • Euro 2016 - First knockout round

From all the emotionally-fuelled scenes of the clash between England and Iceland, a country that is called home by no more than 370,000 people, the look on Roy Hodgson's face when the fixture entered the last ten minutes will never be forgotten.

Hodgson, who was already under a tonne of pressure from England fans at the time, could be pictured cusping his chin in his hands, appearing to be deep in reflection on how he can tinker his system in favour of a momentum shift for the Three Lions.

Usually, not much can be said by the way Hodgson stood on the touchline, with that same philosophical stance being seen across his entire managerial career, but no one could help but notice how deeply emotional the manager looked.

Was he contemplating a change in the system, or did the cracks in his face hide a much more cavernous reality?

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Whether the reality was dark or not, it was the Three Lions who posed the early threats and asked the preliminary questions.

England had carved out an early lead through a Wayne Rooney penalty on the fourth minute, adding spring to the step of each of his teammates.

However, it wasn't long before the thunderous claps of 15,000 Icelandic Vikings were translated into performance levels on the pitch for the opposition. 

Within 20 minutes, the game was turned on its head, with goals from Ragnar Sigurdsson and Kolbeinn Sigborsson giving Iceland an unlikely lead, engrossing the world with what would later be called England's darkest hour in recent memory.

Aron Gunnarsson's long throws, accompanied by the roars of the crowd, promised to sting England, and upon full-time, nothing was left of England but the remnants of a hope that never died.

Except for this time, it felt like the burning patriotism, which regularly filters through the country on the hottest days of the year, had finally run out of fuel. 

Hodgson's epigrammatic list of tactics for his players had reached its end, and so had his role as England's manager, as he had toppled to his lowest moment as a coach, running on fumes.

On the same night as their harrowing defeat, the impending Crystal Palace manager closed the curtains on his international journey, leaving behind him the few memories he had configured along the way.

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"I'm sorry it will have to end this way but these things happen," Hodgson said after the shock result.

"Now is the time for someone else to oversee the progress of a hungry and extremely talented group of players.

"They have done fantastically and done everything asked of them. I hope you will still be able to see an England team in a final of a major tournament soon."

A night of frustration didn't do much to epitomise the reign of the south London-born manager, though, because, in retrospect, Hodgson had won 33 of his last 56 games as England boss, topping the Euro 2016 qualifying group stage with a 100% record.

But, as so often the case, football management is a career where performance is heavily criticised. And for Hodgson, his frequently below-par creative intuition was scrutinised, heaping pressure on his Three Lions to "do well" in France, especially when a contract renewal was on the cards depending on how far England could go.

So when England were unable to get past the first knockout round, following a dismal display in the 2014 Brazil World Cup, where they failed to escape the group stage, the epilogue that followed for Hodgson was inevitable.

But one question of the Euro 2016 campaign still looms large: How did this dreaded night in Nice come about?

  • Bragging rights over Wales & Russia collapse

As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining, and for the Three Lions, a late Daniel Sturridge winner in the Euro 2016 group stage against their British neighbours was the only thing that glittered in an otherwise cloudy journey.

In fact, it was a point in time that still stands as a monolith to the delirious scenes on show in every tournament that the British hopefuls step foot in. The feeling of hugging a complete stranger while having a beer and other things thrown all over the pub is synonymous with any England goal, and no more than the former Liverpool striker's goal in the dying embers.

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Assigned to group B was England, Wales, Russia and Slovakia, giving the British teams a golden ticket to reach the knockout stages. Well, at least they thought.

Although Russia were the only team in the allotment to have tasted the sweet nectar of a European Championship parade, their riches were dilapidated in 2016, but that didn't stop them from causing another dreaded upset against Hodgson.

If anything was a given with a Hodgson guided England squad, it was that a 1-0 lead was often enough. However, the 2016 European tour proved otherwise, and Iceland was just the nail in the coffin in a mediocre performance.

Up first for England was the Russians, a team that was later threatened with disqualification for their fans hooliganism off the pitch. The Three Lions had only ever faced the world superpower twice before kick-off, amassing one win and one loss.

And, in the first 75 minutes that spelt dominance for England, Eric Dier was the only one brave enough of rewarding their efforts with a goal on the 73rd minute.

The often reliable and rarely fazed Tottenham Hotspur leader placed a free-kick into the back of the net, portraying a truer resemblance of reality in a dominant possession-based performance. 

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However, their lead wasn't consolidated, and so a Russian goal in the remaining minutes seemed all the more likely. With Hodgson's system lacking the cutting edge, Vasili Berezutski capitalised on England's wastefulness.

Yet again, the Three Lions were unable to find an opening day victory in a major tournament, and yet again, they were architects of their own downfall. A stoppage-time header gave Russia a draw they barely deserved in the Stade Velodrome.

What awaited England on the horizon, though, was a clash with the Welsh, which of course, gave the Three Lions a perfect chance to redeem themselves.

Under the guidance of Chris Coleman and the prolificness of Gareth Bale, Wales became somewhat of a darkhorse in the 2016 campaign. Often belittled as the smaller next-door neighbour, the enigmatic Dragons would end the competition at the semi-final stage. 

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But first, they faced a memorable group B fixture against Hogdon's warily needy England team. Unlike the Three Lions, though, they had won their opening game, which placed even more importance on the clash.

For anyone who was old enough to remember 2016, the second matchday was a memorable one. Kicking off in the early afternoon made way for schools and workplaces across the country to become more likened to that of pubs and bars, living rooms and theatres.

Suddenly, the clicking of pens and tapping of keyboards was quickly silenced by the anticipation that swept the room as England vs Wales got underway. 

Admittedly, it wasn't the start that England wanted, and as a 42nd minute Gareth Bale goal ensued, the English fell inaudible as the Welsh neighbours roared louder.

One thing was certain, it was a day for a rollercoaster of emotions, with your Welsh friends and colleagues throwing insults back and forth. But the day that was unfolding as Wales would favour England upon the conclusion. 

A goal from Jamie Vardy within 10 minutes of the restart made sure that England would impose the persistent problems for the remainder of the ninety minutes. 

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The game entered the last five minutes with the score remaining 1-1, and there were murmurs of discontent among the England ranks. But Daniel Sturridge refused to lapse in concentration, sending an entire nation into raptures.

The Liverpool talisman squeezed past a deserved winner in the last play of the game, keeping 'Football's Coming Home' straddling afloat at the top of the charts, while instantaneously injecting hope into a depleted Three Lions. 

Despite this wavering gleam that came as a result of Sturridge's momentous goal, a goalless draw against Slovakia followed before the round of 16 disenchantment at the hands of Iceland. 

  • Five years on, what has changed?

The answer is simple; a lot has changed since 2016. The hope that has been woven into the culture of English football fans over the years has remained as quintessential as ever, but besides that, the maquillage of the England composition has changed drastically.

One of the main differences in this Euro campaign is the deep resources within Southgate's disposal. While Hodgson's teams were rarely ever unpredictable, with the same names showing their worth, Southgate has been put through a selection conundrum.

Even after it was announced that an extra three players could be added to the Euro squads due to potential Covid outbreaks, the Englishman still found it difficult to whittle down a squad, showing just how far the Three Lions have come since the dreaded days of 2016.

Perhaps serving as the biggest indicator of England's riches is the right-back position. Southgate used four of his initial picks on the position that boasts an embarrassment of capital. 

Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Reece James were chosen, while Aaron Wan Bissaka and James Tavernier missed out. In contrast, only Nathaniel Clyne rivalled Walker for his starting spot, showing the lack of depth available in Hodgson's reign.

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Moreover, the quantity isn't the only factor that has played a pivotal role in the resurging hope of the Three Lions. The quality in creativity also ranks high in this new generation of talent.

We all had our standards set too high over the likes of Adam Lallana and Dele Alli, who had no achievements to justify their great expectations. Alongside these names were the hopeful inventors of Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley, but they failed to rebirth the famous liquid football that England had been accustomed to in Euro 96.

Nowadays, Phil Foden and Mason Mount are dealt the task of livening up the Three Lions creative endeavours - two players who featured in this year's Champions League final. 

These names - who have justified their creativity with accolades - show that England are finally that same imaginative force that blessed the 90's. Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and a grown-up Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford also instil a notion of artistic redevelopment. 

No more false hopes and shattered dreams - it really does feel like 2016 was a world away. The country is on its feet, and rightfully so - but only the golden generation of talent on the pitch can decide whether football really is coming home. 

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