Ollie Watkins, Cole Palmer, and an England goal that was worth the wait

Cole Palmer gets onto the ball, midway into the Netherlands’ half. Five rows in front, a thirty-something-year-old man grabs his father’s shoulder.

The Chelsea winger takes five touches, all with his left foot, and slides his pass through. Ollie Watkins receives it with his back to goal.

One touch eases him away from Stefan de Vrij. One swing of his right leg sends the ball back through his legs and into the opposite corner.

And now Watkins and Palmer, having spent most of this Dortmund evening sat on the bench, rethreading their laces and waiting for the summons from their manager Gareth Southgate, are off and running.

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Watkins has scored 27 goals and managed 13 assists for Aston Villa this season, but he was not the obvious England substitute for Southgate to introduce against the Netherlands. Harry Kane was labouring, but this had been his best game of the tournament, and under the England we thought we knew under Southgate, the default option was to leave him on.

If not, Ivan Toney had made an impact in his last two appearances, the Brentford striker creating a moment of chaos against Slovakia, before cutting through it with a cool head against Switzerland.

Watkins, in contrast, had been given 20 minutes, and that at the end of a poor England performance against Denmark. His career has been a slow burn, forged via Exeter City and a loan spell, 10 years ago, at non-league Weston-super-Mare.

“Recently I’ve got a bit frustrated,” he said post-match on Wednesday. “I don’t like to be on the bench. I’ve had the best season of my career. I’ve had messages from friends saying to be patient, your chance will come.

“When I’m sat there, I’ve said to Dean Henderson: ‘I can make a difference today. I need to get on that pitch.’”

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Ollie Watkins and Cole Palmer celebrate combining for England’s winner (Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

The same frustrations applied to Palmer. Like Watkins, this has been the season of his career — 27 goals and 15 assists, but Palmer is more than numbers. He plays slowly, with relaxation and grace, until he doesn’t, and the ball is past you in a blur.

Make no mistake though — Palmer left Manchester City last summer because he had had enough of waiting his turn, and after not starting a match for England this tournament, he was probably feeling the same way. After 80 minutes, he replaced Phil Foden, one of those players he could not force from City’s side.

That morning, the pair had shared a conversation.

“I swear on my kids’ life, I told Cole Palmer earlier today, we’d be coming on and he’d set me up and I’d score,” said Watkins.

There is a burial ground of empty promises like this in football, uttered and then unfulfilled, scattered onto dressing room floors like used bibs. But players need their opportunities — and so far at this European Championship, Palmer and Watkins had not had theirs.

Here, Foden might not have been withdrawn. The 24-year-old had enjoyed a fine first half, dropping into spaces, rattling the ball between his feet, hitting the post with a curving shot. But between 70 and 80 minutes, his energy levels dropped. Southgate made the change.

“We certainly weren’t taking Phil off because of his performance,” said Southgate. “We wanted to make that gamble in normal time rather than in extra time. Having been in extra-time twice, we didn’t want to go through that again.”



The Briefing: Netherlands 1 England 2 – Late substitute Watkins hits winner to set up Euro 2024 final with Spain

This was a gamble, on a night where England took calculated risks. It was shown in the third minute by Kyle Walker, who knocked it around one side of Cody Gakpo and gave chase down the other, a sign that he would give it a go. It is an old playground trick, but it signified the same back then as it does now.

At half-time, Kieran Trippier came off for Luke Shaw. Southgate was tight-lipped on the extent of any injury, but there would have been a temptation to keep him on, protect what you have, shut things down. Bringing on the left-footed Shaw signified the hope of something more.

And England’s goal was the accumulation of those studied risks, both in the personnel and the play.

It started with Declan Rice. In the seventh minute, the Arsenal midfielder had given the ball away for Xavi Simons’ scorching opener, caught out from behind, and left with a bitter taste of burnt orange.

But Rice came back, his ability to set the game’s tempo improving throughout the match.

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Sometimes, it is worth the risk of losing the ball. And so, with stoppage time creeping closer, he punched a pass through Joey Veerman and Cody Gakpo.

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And so to Kobbie Mainoo. The Manchester United midfielder is another who has had to wait, stuck on the bench behind Trent Alexander-Arnold and then Conor Gallagher for England’s group games.

He had actually kicked off this semi-final, which somehow feels like too important a job for a 19-year-old, even if he had been asked to contain the Dutch midfield for the next 90 minutes. But almost two hours later, he was still there, having now played more knockout minutes for England at this tournament than Kane.

Rice’s pass was inside of him, and delivered at pace, but Mainoo stretched to control it, keeping the move alive and marooning Tijjani Reijnders. Cole Palmer was at the other end, a move made in Stockport.

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And now we’re back at the beginning, with Palmer on the ball and Watkins running on. There are seconds left, the risks have been taken, and there is no waiting anymore.

You know the rest by now. You have watched it, rewatched it, you have spoken about it and drunk it. But here it is, once more.

Palmer’s inside ball.

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Watkins’ touch. Watkins’ angled shot.

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And so Watkins is running with the smile of a man in shock, a man who both thought he should be here but never believed he would be.

He is running with the smile of a man who has taken England’s men into just their second final in 58 years, and he is running with the smile of the man who has bided his time, who has waited at Weston-super-Mare, waited at Exeter City, and waited at England, but who knows everything was worth waiting for.

(Top photo: Image Photo Agency/Getty Images)

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