How a bench conversation sparked England’s historic semifinal goal

How a bench conversation sparked England's historic semifinal goal

DORTMUND, Germany — There must have been thousands of conversations that took place in this stadium on Wednesday, but only one that changed everything about the whole night — and maybe the tournament.

As the Euro 2024 semifinal wore on, England and the Netherlands tied at 1-1, substitutes Ollie Watkins and Cole Palmer chatted on the bench. 

They get along well, and they’ve had a lot in common these past weeks, namely that each has wanted to be on the field and head coach Gareth Southgate hasn’t given them the kind of playing they’d wish for.

They sensed it was going to be different this time. With captain Harry Kane’s foot still hurting from a first-half foul, Watkins was going to get a shot. Palmer had already been given the heads-up that he’d be coming on.

Palmer started talking about how they’d connect, their link-ups, what runs Watkins were going to make and how he’d find him. 

From Watkins’ side, it was more about the outcome. He had a feeling, and he’d had it for a while, that his chance was coming and that something big was going to happen.

Palmer replaced Phil Foden on 80 minutes, with Watkins drafted in for Kane moments later. It didn’t take long. With the clock ticking just past 90 minutes, Palmer got on the ball and sent a laser of a pass in his friend’s direction. Watkins duly collected it, turned, smashed it into the bottom corner, and sent England into Sunday’s Euro 2024 final against Spain (3 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app).

“I swear on my life that I said to Cole that he’s going to set me up today and I’m going to score,” Watkins said afterwards. “It’s the best feeling ever.

“That goal was my bread and butter. You don’t get that opportunity very often and I had to be greedy and take the shot. I don’t think I have hit the ball so sweet like that before.”

With so many stars on the England team — Kane and Foden and Jude Bellingham and more — it was Watkins, of all people, who put the national team into the first major final it has ever reached on foreign soil.

Watkins, 28, might have received a congratulatory message from Prince William after his strike but for most of his career he has definitely not been soccer royalty.

The early part was spent at lower league, Exeter City, including a spell on loan with Weston-super-Mare, in the fifth-tier of English soccer.

He’s had a big year for the English Premier League’s Aston Villa, and he got his call-up for the Euros based on form and physicality. It would be a neat cliché to say he dreamed of getting here, but he didn’t, because his dreams had to be more immediate.

Even being here in Germany has been tough. Kane has been out of sorts and possibly not fully fit after sustaining a back injury, but he’s the captain and talisman and his starting place is essentially set in stone.

When Kane made way, exhausted and cramping, in extra-time against Switzerland, Ivan Toney and his expert penalty taking skills were preferred to Watkins.

“We talk about being ready,” Kane told reporters. “When it matters, you might get five minutes, one minute, but you can make a difference , you can win us a tournament. Ollie ha been waiting, he’s been patient. What he did was outstanding and he deserves it.”

Netherlands vs. England Highlights | UEFA Euro 2024 | Semifinals

Netherlands vs. England Highlights | UEFA Euro 2024 | Semifinals

Watkins kept his cool from the sidelines. He knew he could add something, especially during England’s stuttering performances throughout the campaign. These things get forgotten with success, but Southgate’s team has not played fluid soccer and has now had to come from behind in all three of its knockout round games.

There have been an abundance of times when an opportunistic goal poacher might have made a difference. Finally, he did.

“I’ve been waiting for that moment for weeks,” Watkins added. “It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to where I am today. 

“There’s been a lot of criticism, but we’re in the final and that’s all that matters. We’ve got that bounce back factor. Going behind seems to kick us into gear. 

“Recently I have obviously got a bit frustrated. I don’t like to be on the bench, I have had the best season of my career. A few friends messaged me and said be patient and the amount of people who messaged me tonight saying I would score when I come on was ridiculous. Hopefully they can do the same for the final.”

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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