This England side have evolved on and off the pitch – we should be looking forward

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Even before the dust had settled I’ve been proud of our England players.

They’ve given the country their national team back. Bonds have been re-established between the players and the fans, the players and the media and manager Gareth Southgate has shown that it isn’t an impossible job.

The England squad has realised that everyone wants them to win and that, guess what, if you open up to the country, the country receives you with open arms.

England has a YouTube account now. They use social media to engage and get their message out in a magnificent way.

In the old days the players would keep the press at arm’s length, mistakenly believing that the journalists were out to get them and would do just that if they got too close.

During this tournament they played darts together and shared their stories to forge the best connection between the national side and the public I’ve ever seen.

England's successful tournament should breed huge optimism
(Image: POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

We lost on penalties. So did world champions France. Any team can. Rather than look back in anger, I’d rather focus on the mental hurdles we’ve overcome in this European Championship.

We’ve finally beaten a top team in the knockout stages of a major competition. We’ve finally seen off Germany with a performance the country could be proud of.

We’ve finally reached a major tournament final – our first since 1966. The old history and all that baggage is in the past.

As well as the winners in this England squad we have younger players who have grown from boys into men over the past month or so.

We’ve developed game intelligence as we beat Germany, Croatia and the Ukraine. We have a system in terms of the way we play that will evolve naturally so that we can strike the balance between defence and attack.

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We should be optimistic. It isn’t as if we are stuck in the past where a manager would fall short in a major tournament and we’d throw the whole project overboard.

In Southgate we trust. And you can understand why the FA trusts him too. The word is, the job is his for as long as he wants it and quite right too.

Because all of the infrastructure – with St George’s Park, the diverse array of coaches and the continuity within the English system – is in place right now.

When the fans massed in their thousands, all the way down Wembley Way on Sunday, it felt like the biggest street party the country has ever seen.

It seemed like a celebration of the players who had given us a reason to be cheerful once more.

I don’t see that as a reason to be despondent today. I see it as a reason to look forward to the World Cup next year.

Fans have been able to reconnect with Gareth Southgate's team

I’ve seen a lot of talk suggesting teenager Bukayo Saka should not have been put in a position where he was taking a penalty in Sunday’s Final.

Why not? He was brought into the fold in the last game of the group stages and showed great mental strength to impress against the Czech Republic. Great courage. He was one of our best players. Same against Germany. Why should he not be considered for a penalty?

At international level the manager has the time to really look at the players and see whether they have what it takes. He also has the experience of losing penalty shoot-outs and being man-managed by people who knew how to deal with players like Terry Venables. It’s easy to criticise but I prefer to put myself in other peoples’ shoes. We’d have trusted Southgate had he won. We need to do that even though we lost.

Make no mistake, the racist abuse for England’s players will only make them more determined to continue taking the knee next season.

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In fact, the European Championship has given them the perfect global stage – given the way that the story has resonated around the world – to ram home their message.

The abuse didn’t surprise me. There will always be a minority out there who revert to type and don’t appreciate black lives. I don’t want them to tarnish the majority who are right-thinking people who want equality.

I had a great experience at Wembley on Sunday. I met some great fans and had some great banter, so I don’t want to make it sound like a big part of the country is bad.

But this is an important issue. I’ve played with Rashford and against Saka.

I’ve been appalled by the MP’s taking joy out of Rashford missing a penalty. They see it as their chance to have a go back after he put them on the spot over feeding the nation’s kids.

But Marcus, Bukayo and Jadon have to continue the fight. They can’t let this derail them.

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