Football may not be coming home just yet. But despite falling at the last hurdle, England’s team of young heroes have nevertheless inspired the nation.

Just look at the massive reaction to the racist abuse levelled by a tiny minority of idiots against the trio of players - Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka - who missed their penalty kicks on Sunday evening.

They were players who had given all for their team, for their manager, and for their country.

They were rewarded with abuse on social media - and the defacing of a mural depicting Marcus Rashford in Withington, Greater Manchester.

If the racists thought they were tapping into national sentiment, however, they were mistaken.

The tide of support for the three young players once the abuse they had received was made public was overwhelming, and heartening.

Perhaps most touching of all was the message handwritten on a yellow post-it note left at the defaced Rashford mural. It was one of countless messages of support - but it stood out. “Thank you for all our dinners,” it said. It was signed: “Reggie, 6.”

York Press:

People gather ahead of a demonstration in support of  England player Marcus Rashford in front of his mural in Withington

For Paula Stainton of the York City Football Club Foundation, reactions like that show just how much what England’s young players achieved means to the country as a whole.

“Perhaps it didn’t end in the way we would all have liked it to,” she said. “But what an exciting run we’ve all had. We reached a major final, which is amazing. And those young players are so inspiring to the younger generation.”

They’re inspiring not just because of what they achieved on the football pitch, she stressed, but also because of the way they lead their lives away from football - and because so many of them come from ordinary backgrounds, just like the children who now see them as heroes.

They have been wonderful role models for kids everywhere, Paula says. In fact, she felt so impassioned about it, that she emailed The Press a list of the things that she loves about Gareth Southgate’s England team.

“This is England: Raheem Sterling, whose big sister would go with him to training and back every day, three buses each way, and never once complained,” she wrote. “Raheem Sterling, who called the day he bought his mum a house ‘the best day of my life.’

“This is England: Jordan Henderson, who spent most of the first lockdown last year organising the other 19 Premiership captains to help raise money for the NHS.

“This is England: Marcus Rashford, who secured free school meals for vulnerable kids during school holidays after the government had refused to extend the programme. Marcus Rashford, who lives by the words of his mother Melanie: ‘take pride in knowing that your struggle will play the biggest role in your purpose.’

“This is England: Mason Mount, who gave the shirt he’d worn in the semi-final victory over Denmark to a 10-year-old girl called Belle in the crowd, and in doing so made her smile a smile so incandescent it could melt the Siberian permafrost.

“This is England: Tyrone Mings, who spent part of his childhood in a homeless shelter, who played non-league football while working as a barman and mortgage advisor, and who tells kids at the coaching camps he runs that the game is nothing unless they enjoy it. Tyrone Mings, who was taunted with monkey chants on his England debut against Bulgaria and didn’t pretend he hadn’t heard, who turned to the assistant referee and said, firmly but without aggression, ‘did you hear that?’ As in: we’ve got a problem here, you’re part of the officiating team, so this is your problem too and I’m not going to let you duck it, because though this was the most important match of his life there were some things which were more important still than that.

“This is England: Luke Shaw, who when playing for Southampton watched Liverpool players file unseeingly past two small boys waiting for their autographs, and who went over and said ‘I know I don’t play for your team, but will I do?’ and posed for a photo with them which they will never forget.”

York Press:

Luuke Shaw: he scored England's goal on Sunday, but is also a hero in so many other ways, says Paula Stainton. Picture: Andy Rain/Pool Photo via AP

And we shouldn’t forget Gareth Southgate in all this, Paula added: the man who went from missing a penalty at Euro 96 to consoling the young players who missed penalties at Euro 2020; the man who set the tone for the way the England team played and behaved; the young football manager who has chosen to live near Harrogate, and has given so much back to the local community.

His footballing philosophy is itself an inspiration, Paula says.

She quotes him: “My players and I will be judged on winning matches. But...when England play, there’s much more at stake than that. It’s about how we conduct ourselves on and off the pitch, how we bring people together, how we inspire and unite, how we create memories that last beyond the 90 minutes. That last beyond the summer. That last forever.”

The last 18 months have been tough for everyone, Paula says. But Southgate’s England have given us all something to cheer - young and old alike.

They have also, unquestionably, had a huge impact on the next generation of young footballers in York who perhaps dream of one day being able to step out onto the Wembley turf themselves.

Last year, almost 4,000 young people aged 7 to 11 in York were registered to play with local clubs such as the Wigginton Grasshoppers, the Hamilton Panthers, the Huntington Rovers, the Strensall Tigers and the York Railway Institute, says Geoff Hartley of the York and District FA.

York Press:

The future of football? The Hamilton Panthers Under-8’s team, 2021/22

If the fantastic uptake of youth and children’s teams entering for this year’s various York FA competitions is anything to go by, that looks set to increase.

The eagerness of young people to get out there playing proper competitive football again is partly down to the fact it has been such a hugely frustrating year, Geoff admits.

The York FA managed to complete all its cup competitions this last year, by dint of fitting competitive play in when it was allowed, limiting spectator numbers, and ensuring young players followed strict hygiene and social distancing protocols.

But there’s a real hunger for a proper season of football unhampered by restrictions, he says. And watching the heroics of Southgate’s men on the football field over the last few weeks has certainly contributed to that. “Without a doubt England’s success has generated interest at grassroots level with an increased number of York FA Cup entries this season,” Geoff said.

Phil Sanderson, founder and club secretary of the Hamilton Panthers, agrees. “We’re in the closed season at the moment, but there are one or two teams that are still training, and you can see there’s a real buzz,” he said. “You can see those shirts appearing with their favourite names on.”

He still remembers as a boy following England’s victorious 1966 World Cup campaign. The kids all wore the shirts of their own particular heroes back then - his was Bobby Charlton.

Gareth Southgate’s men didn’t quite clear that last hurdle. But they’re role models for a generation in so many other ways, too. And there’s always the World Cup next year...

  • York City Football Club Foundation has a packed programme of summer footballing activities for children of all ages (boys and girls) coming up at parks across the city. Find out more on Twitter @YCFCFoundation or