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The day before Tokyo – a mad petrol dash to Euros heartbreak

By Dan Palmer

Maybe it’s because enough time has passed, or maybe the Lionesses’ stunning success has erased enough of the pain.

But I’m finally ready to tell my story from the day England heartbreakingly missed out in the final of last year’s European Championship.

I’m an extremely pessimistic sports fan and England’s men winning a major tournament feels like an impossible dream.

I like to predict the worst as a type of defence mechanism, so if a result doesn’t go my way it’s ultimately okay as I was expecting it.

Another advantage of this is that any success is extra joyous because it comes coupled with the added bonus of surprise.

For years I wanted to see Andy Murray win one of the major tennis titles and had assumed it would never happen.

I remember dragging myself out of bed at the crack of dawn for a pair of Australian Open finals, and eventually returning to my slumbers in what felt like inevitable dejection.

It was a stunning moment then, when, sitting in a packed train carriage, a refresh of my phone confirmed that Murray had just won the London 2012 Olympics.

My negativity had been proven wrong, and Murray would later add another Olympic title, two Wimbledon crowns and the US Open.

England winning a men’s football title though – that surely will never happen?

All the oh-so-nears have worn me down through the years, so I’ll fire up the defence mechanism to try and nullify the heartbreak.

The day of last year’s final with Italy, July 11, was a busy one for me and not just because of the game.

I was due to fly to Tokyo to cover the delayed 2020 Olympics the next evening, and that meant ticking the COVID-19 boxes that organisers had dutifully put in place.

Dithering and delay by the Government meant that coronavirus cases had been soaring in Britain, and the Japanese responded by introducing tougher requirements for those making the journey to Tokyo from here.

We were obliged to record a negative PCR test on each of the three days before travel, compared to just two in the preceding 72-hour period for most other people.

This meant my final test had to take place on the day of the final and, what’s more, organisers had demanded that it be carried out at a clinic they approved of.

Things were further complicated for me as the day of the final was a Sunday when many places were closed.

I needed to find somewhere which was not only open to do the test, but also able to turn around the results at the lab in time for me to catch my flight.

After a few calls I tracked down a clinic in London which sounded prestigious as its address was on Harley Street – known for its array of highly regarded private medical facilities.

As it turned out, you actually entered through a door down another side road, but I didn’t let that bother me as I zoomed up on the train to the capital on the Sunday morning, with two negative tests already in the bag.

The city was due to host the final at Wembley Stadium later that evening, and the big-match buzz could already be sensed as my train rolled into London Waterloo before 8.30am.

This was the third time I had made the trip to the clinic so I knew what I was doing by now. After hot-footing it to the tube, it was a quick underground journey to Regent’s Park and then a swift walk to Harley Street (or rather the road just off it).

Several familiar faces were already in the waiting room as they were on the same three in three days pattern that I was, but I was called in quickly and the third test was done without a fuss.

I couldn’t shoot off just yet, though, as I needed staff to fill in a couple of forms after my first two negative results.

Tokyo 2020 organsiers had insisted that test results be recorded on “Japanese standard” certificates which you had to print out and present to the doctor.

This was a time-consuming process which I’m sure the staff could have done without, especially with a big queue of Olympic-bound people waiting to be seen.

As my third result wouldn’t arrive until later in the day, I knew I would have to return to the clinic for a fourth time on the morning of my flight so they could fill out the Japanese form for that one too.

It was a complicated system and therefore especially annoying when I later only needed to present one of the Japanese forms as I made my way to Tokyo.

Officials were only interested in the one from 48 hours prior, meaning going up on each of the three days had been a massive waste of time and money.

Back at Waterloo, I boarded a train for home and found that a group who had just exited in London had left an empty box of Peroni lager on the table.

It was still before 10am so this was an ambitiously early start to the day’s drinking, with kick-off still several hours away.

In a presumably connected development, the trip home was delayed for several minutes due to “staff cleaning the train”. I arrived back only in the nick of time to join an insidethegames call on Microsoft Teams about our Tokyo preparations.

An advanced party had already arrived and those of us still here were keen to find out how their journey had gone as the COVID rules were often unclear and we didn’t really know what to expect when turning up at the airport.

Everyone going had been told to download an app called OCHA and to draw up an activity plan of their movements. But with just one day to go my app was refusing to work and nobody official was able to confirm if I’d be allowed on the plane or not.

With time short, I joined the call on my phone instead of setting the laptop up and wandered around the garden listening in as my colleagues explained how their trips had gone and put my mind at ease.

After hanging up, it was time to load up the Hyundai i10 as I had the best part of six hours of driving to do.

My trip to Tokyo was going to take me away from my wife and six-month-old son for four weeks and she had decided to stay with her parents during this time for extra support, and also so she could continue working.

Our plan was to head from Basingstoke, where we were based, to Trowell Services near Nottingham, a drive of around 2 hours and 40 minutes.

There, we would meet up with my father-in-law who would take my wife and son up to their place in Scarborough after we’d moved their luggage between the cars.

A prior commitment and needing to be down south for my daily appointments at the London clinic meant we had to make this journey on the day of the final, but in theory it was do-able in time for kick-off at 8pm.

The drive up was managed with minimal fuss as my phone’s sat-nav guided the way, and after an emotional goodbye to the family I put my mind to U-turning and heading back down the motorway the way we’d come.

After an early start to get to the clinic and repeated nights with a six-month-old, tiredness was beginning to set in. I grabbed a couple of large energy drinks from the shop at Trowell and, suitably revived, pulled back out onto the M1 and pointed the car south.

With the sat-nav again doing its thing and my phone also pumping out tunes via Spotify, the drive home was progressing well.

It was only when I approached the M25, which encircles London, that I noticed I was running perilously low on petrol.

I should have filled up at Trowell but had stupidly set off for home without thinking and now the warning light was on.

A sign came into view advising that South Mimms Services was only a few miles eastbound on the M25 and, not wanting to risk heading off the motorway looking for a closer petrol station that might or might not exist, this seemed like a good option.

Heading east would actually take me the wrong way from where I was going but the sign had informed that the nearest westbound services were a lot further away, so it made sense to take a quick detour to fill up before doubling back.

Time was ticking away now but this plan would still see me arrive home before the game, I reasoned.

As I drove to South Mimms, the energy drinks from earlier began to take their toll and I needed to park up and head to the toilet, wasting precious minutes.

Relieved, I circled around to the petrol station and was greeted with the nightmare scenario.

The BP station had no petrol whatsoever at any of its many pumps, as a voice on a loudspeaker was sheepishly explaining to an increasingly distressed forecourt.

I’m not sure anyone was more distressed than me. On the day of the big game I was now running on fumes with no way to fill up, and I’d gone in the wrong direction from where I needed to be.

I tried to compose myself to search for an alternative petrol station but my heart sank when I looked at my phone and found it to be as dead as a dodo.

The combined use of Microsoft Teams, the sat-nav and Spotify had drained the battery flat and Google Maps was out of the question.

Beginning to panic and with kick-off approaching, I silently cursed the factors which had led me to this point.

The out-of-control COVID cases in Britain which meant I had to go to London that morning for an extra test when we could have set off for Trowell early. 

Having to stick around at the clinic to fill out the Japanese forms. The people who made the train a mess, delaying it and causing me to join the Microsoft Teams call on my phone, emptying the battery…

Ultimately, though, it was all my fault. Of course it was. Exiting the car, I collared a police officer on the forecourt who saw the stress in my face and would have known the match was imminent.

He gave me complicated instructions to an alternative petrol station on the way into Central London and I set off almost blind, hoping to stumble upon it and worried that the car could conk out at any moment.

I briefly considered heading back to the M25 and to the westbound services, but this seemed like much too far now, and it had just occurred to me that my dead phone meant I wouldn’t be able to call for breakdown if I did grind to a halt.

After what seemed like an age, the petrol station the police officer had mentioned had failed to loom into view. 

But with hope evaporating my prayers were answered when a Morrisons supermarket – complete with petrol station – appeared on the horizon.

The relief as the petrol filled the tank was palpable. But I still had to drive home and making kick-off was now touch and go.

Heading back up to the M25, I finally started the drive west before coming off on the M3 which would take me to Basingstoke.

By now the roads were eerily quiet. With most of the country in front of a screen, barely anyone was driving and I could count the other cars on one hand.

There’s a point on the M3 when you turn a corner and the Basingstoke skyline emerges into view, and I suddenly knew home was close.

A torrential rainstorm had added to the tension of the situation and up ahead in the mist I saw something which made me realise I could have had it worse.

On the hard shoulder, with its hazard lights flashing, was a car which had clearly broken down. A man in an England shirt was crouched down at the side, speaking on the phone with a hand on his head.

He probably didn’t make kick-off, but I just about did. Grabbing a beer from the fridge and sticking the phone on charge, things could not have started much better when Luke Shaw struck early.

We all know what happened in the end, and as Italy celebrated I tried to crank up my defence mechanism.

“England will never win one,” I told myself. “I know that and this result just confirms it. I’ll just bottle up the pain instead.”

Coming so close, though, made doing this harder than before. It’s only now that I have thought about documenting that crazy day, a manic rush caused largely by my own incompetence and one which, ultimately, did not have a happy ending.

Luckily, the prospect of a trip to Tokyo was a good way to try and forget. 

So, with one last check of OCHA to confirm that it still didn’t work, and as my negative result from earlier dropped into my inbox, I went to bed.

I had a plane to catch.

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