The presence of a classic VW Beetle and five Maltese knights mounted on magnificent steeds served as a pre-match omen for a final which blended the virtues of reliable, well-assembled components with the power, pace and panache of a horse brigade. After a battle which had ebbed and flowed and had produced territorial advantages for both contestants, individual duels from the penalty spot decreed who would take the spoils.
Having met in a group match six days earlier and shared a hotel for two weeks, the Netherlands and England were no strangers to each other. As Maarten Stekelenburg and John Peacock handed in their team sheets, the two coaches knew what to expect. When the Swedish referee signalled the start of play, minor positional adjustments came into view.
In the Dutch front line, Steven Bergwijn and Segun Owobowale swapped the central and left-flank positions. In the English attack, Patrick Roberts, the electric left-footer hitherto deployed Messi-style on the right, switched to his 'natural' left-wing berth. The injury to central attacker Adam Armstrong obliged Peacock to repeat the plan B which had paid off during the semi-final against Portugal. He promoted Dominic Solanke into the spearhead role with Joshua Onomah exploiting his slipstream with power and pace.
As the shadows lengthened at the Ta' Qali National Stadium, the crowd of almost 10,000 spectators was held in muted fascination as familiarity bred respect. In the Dutch camp, the front four tried high pressing, but England successfully played their way out of trouble and remained loyal to their build-from-the-back philosophy.
On the right flank, Bilal Ould-Chikh used his pace and changes of direction to test the English left-back. But Tafari Moore, pigtail flapping in the cool evening breeze, was equal to the task – and when his charge attempted to cut inside, there was the industrious screening midfielder Lewis Cook to race into the interception. The Dutch pivotal midfielders, Donny van de Beek and Jari Schuurman, probed at the centre of the English defence – but Joseph Gomez and Taylor Moore manned the ramparts with efficiency and aplomb, with captain and leader Ryan Ledson ready to lower the portcullis in front of them.
Central defender Calvin Verdonk tried the long-range shooting which had broken the deadlock in the earlier confrontation; the Dutch tried the short corner which had produced the second goal. But there was no repeat performance. The English, focused and well prepared, were not going to be caught out twice. What is more, the full-backs – Jonjoe Kenny on the right, Tafari Moore on the left – were aware that they could spike Dutch guns by surging forward and obliging the wingers to chase back.
At the other end, a similar story was being drafted. Isaiah Brown, trying to capitalise on solo trickery, tested Yanick van Osch in the Dutch goal but, as the teams alternated spells of territorial dominance , struggled to find routes through the well-organised orange ranks. Until the 25th minute. England's first corner from the left – and their second of the match – was hit deep beyond the far post, where Gomez headed back across goal. A half-clearance was put back into the box by Taylor Moore, and Solanke exploited momentary defensive chaos by driving a low shot past Van Osch.
Understandably, the goal prompted a reduction in the Dutch team's risk-management levels – and increased their vulnerability to English counters. Van de Beek earned a yellow card for emergency measures against a power-run through midfield by the impressive Onomah.
Peacock had witnessed a performance which had barely prompted him to put pen to the notebook balanced on his knees. A minute before the break, however, he appeared on the touch line at a moment when the tide of the battle seemed to have turned against his team. Bergwijn had dropped deep to make central space available to the onrushing Schuurman. The attacker produced a delightful through ball which, for once, caught the central defenders napping and allowed Schuurman to home in on Freddie Woodman and beat him with a deflected finish just inside the post. There was barely time to restart – and the Dutch seemed to have delivered a telling psychological blow seconds before the break.
Peacock's hurriedly-revised half-time talk therefore focused on shrugging off the blow and on persuading his players to continue to operate as they had done for the opening 39 minutes. As soon as play restarted, it became obvious that his voice had been heard. While the Dutch were prioritising antidotes to English raids on the flanks, combinations through the middle between Onomah and Solanke began to pose a serious alternative threat. The majority of incidents took place in the Dutch defensive third, including a goal-bound backpass which Van Osch felt obliged to handle. However, the resultant free-kick simply illustrated the difficulty of scoring when the entire opposing team is lined up between the posts.
The Dutch cause was not helped when Bergwijn retired injured seven minutes into the second half and was replaced by Marton Slabbekoorn. But it was a further adjustment to the front line which created a flurry of half-chances in the closing minutes. With the clock ticking down on a stuttering clockwork orange, Stekelenburg sent on target striker Dani van der Moot. Moments after a flick-on had set Slabbekoorn free, only for his shot to be blocked by last-ditch defending, a deep cross from the right reached Van der Moot beyond the far post. But haste was the striker's enemy as he snatched at the chance and sliced his volley wide. Seconds later, the referee blew the final whistle and decreed a trial by penalties.
Previous trials of this nature had produced tribulations for English teams – enough to load them with psychological baggage. Peacock, however, had coaxed his players into practising the discipline throughout their stay in Malta as the pay-off to every training session. The search for perfection had been backed by video replays of the spot kicks which had failed to hit the net. The question-mark was over their ability to reproduce training-ground aplomb in a high-tension scenario in front of a big crowd.
With England initiating the shoot-out, captain Ledson led by example. Woodman, having fine-tuned his own performance during the training-ground rehearsals, then dived to his right to save from Van der Moot. Van Osch, however, was no match for the well-drilled English takers and, with 3-1 on the scorecard, a touch of irony handed Peacock's side a match-ball. Verdonk, the only player during the entire tournament to have successfully converted a spot kick, sent Woodman the wrong way – but placed his left-footed shot wide of the keeper's right post. Up stepped Kenny to confidently clinch a 4-1 shoot-out victory and the European title.
English jubilation contrasted with the disconsolate Dutch players' disbelief that they had played the entire competition without defeat, yet had failed to win it. But, as the young mascots formed a guard of honour waving, ironically, orange balloons, it was the England team which walked up to receive gold medals from UEFA president Michel Platini. As the climax to a tournament which could be hailed as an ode to attacking football, it was Ryan Ledson who lifted the trophy.