The hardest part of picking a moment from the sporting year is trying to remember which of them actually happened in 2021. Twelve months that simultaneously took forever and went by in an instant. Perhaps the pandemic. Perhaps just middle age.

I’m quietly confident that Euro 2020 did happen – a blur of podcasts, radio shows at Wembley Boxpark, and England reaching the final of a major tournament for the first time in 55 years. Two days before the final I caught myself idly wondering if I actually wanted us to win. Was this the right time? So many England fans have pleaded: “Just once in my lifetime.” But if it did happen, what then? Where does the journey go?

Was this the right set of players to be deified for the next 50 years – to take the mantle from Moore, Charlton and Hurst? Supremely likable and talented, maybe – but I’ve seen John Stones have bad games. I’ve seen Luke Shaw have average seasons. I’ve spent so much time watching Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker doing mundane things, just taking throw-ins and whipping crosses in to no one in particular. I’ve seen Harry Kane’s “let’s get them, lads” team talks.

I’ve never seen Ray Wilson have a bad touch, nor George Cohen misplace a pass. I’ve never seen Bobby Charlton not score from 25 yards. Bobby Moore is always tackling Pelé and strolling away with the ball. Nobby Stiles just dances.

For a short time in the 80s, when I was old enough to love football but too young to understand time, I thought Gordon Banks had won the World Cup with just one eye. How could Jordan Pickford compete with that? I’ve never seen any of them warm up, get substituted or send a mundane Insta post. @Bigjackiecharlton: “Great win against a tough Argentina side, bring on Portugal in the Semis.”

Granted, I’ve barely seen any of the boys of ‘66 play a minute of football, aside from a digitally enhanced repeat of the final and a few grainy YouTube highlights. Since I knew what the game was, these 11 men were otherworldly superhumans – players who have improved as every year passes. Hurst’s shot always goes in the top corner. They’ve only ever won the World Cup. And they’ve done it time after time after time.

England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford (left) and centre-back Harry Maguire after defeat to Italy in the Euro 2020 final.
England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford (left) and centre-back Harry Maguire after defeat to Italy in the Euro 2020 final. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/AFP/Getty Images

A month before Italy broke our hearts, millions of us watched Christian Eriksen’s stop. Each chest compression was broadcast to the world as the director cut from family members to teammates and back. As a screen was erected around him like a faller at Becher’s Brook, social media raged about the cameras zooming in on a life ebbing away. Yet we carried on watching. There was an emptiness that hung in the air that afternoon and an inescapable relief when it emerged he was OK. We shouldn’t have seen it, but in a perverse way perhaps it was good that we did. It reminded us that the game didn’t matter – results didn’t matter. Life mattered. #Bekind – hug the ones you love.

And more cliches. Live for the moment, carpe diem, break-down-the-Wembley-barricades-and-set-fireworks-off from-your-anus. I’d hosted a TalkSport show from a pub round the corner on the morning of the final. I was the only person getting on the tube at Wembley Park at 1pm as thousands of hammered, ticketless fans streamed the other way – you could tell it was going to be an ordeal for anyone in a hi-vis vest. And maybe that grand show of unpleasantness and stupidity eased the blow of the defeat.

We were recording Guardian Football Daily in my living room straight after full-time. Producer Joel, John Brewin and I were representing England, with Barry Glendenning (Ire) and Elis James (Wal) neutral – or, more accurately, supporting Italy, one more vociferously than the other. By the time Shaw hammered home in the second minute, my midweek existential crisis had given way to the unedifying shouty faux-cockney that I appear to morph into during England games. I hadn’t become one of football’s great philosophers that week – I was just a man nervously drinking Peroni, eating Kettle Chips and yelling “SHAPE” for a 120 minutes.

Every one of those penalties was excruciating. Even when we scored. Pickford keeping out Jorginho. The hope. The inevitability. Bukayo Saka’s miss. The silence.

I have the emotional skillset to deal with desperate defeat. I wouldn’t have known what to do in victory. The neutrals were gracious. We recorded the pod. They waited until getting in Elis’s car before tenderly embracing. I don’t hold it against them. It must have felt so sweet – another two years (or 18 months) at least of hurt. No endless phone-ins demanding he become Sir Mason Mount just yet.

The following morning, amid the depressingly predictable racist messages received by Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Saka, I was on an 8am train to Cornwall, my mockney accent stowed away until the next tournament. I read pages of reports of the previous night, picking over every aspect of it. And I didn’t mind – defeat was fine. We go again. The biggest sporting day of 2021 taught me something I already knew. I am desperate to win – I really, really care. But the moment it’s gone, it’s just gone. And it’s OK.

Your team – club or country – doesn’t change. We all do go again. I look forward to the draw, the wallchart, the endless speculation about who will play at left-back, the frantic calls from people who should know better to play all of the attackers all of the time.

It will all come round again in Qatar in November; given the shameful nature of everything connected with that tournament, the results will matter even less. I think of the boys of ’66 we lost this year. I think of Eriksen, alive and planning his future. The results are the least important part.