England departed the European Championship in depressingly familiar fashion on Sunday night, beaten by Italy in a penalty shootout, but with the manager, Roy Hodgson, and his senior players optimistic for the national team's future.
Italy dominated possession, struck the woodwork in normal time and extra-time, and spurned numerous presentable opportunities as England heaved to contain a team inspired by the peerless Andrea Pirlo at their heart. There was resilience to admire from Hodgson's charges and, when Riccardo Montolivo missed the Azzurri's second penalty in the shootout, belief briefly flared that a run of four consecutive defeats in the lottery of spot‑kicks could be arrested.
Yet Ashley Young struck the bar and Gianluigi Buffon saved from Ashley Cole, with the former West Ham United striker Alessandro Diamanti securing the Italians' progress into a semi-final against Germany on Thursday. "It was a horrible way to go out," said Wayne Rooney, with this England's sixth defeat in seven penalty shootouts. "We are all gutted. It was a tough game. We all worked hard, so to lose on penalties is a horrible feeling for everyone. But we can hold our heads up high. There are a lot of young players in the squad and that will help them in the next tournament."
Those sentiments were shared by Hodgson, who has blooded the likes of Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll in Ukraine over the past fortnight to offer a glimpse of this team's future.
"I've been delighted with the players, and the way they've responded to the demands of an England shirt," said Hodgson. "They're bitterly disappointed they couldn't take it one step further, but they've shown they're capable of stepping up to the plate. We've got good young players coming through and this has been important for them.
"At the end we had lots players out there running on empty with very tired legs, fighting off cramp, but they kept us in there until the end and when you go to penalties you do have a chance, but unfortunately Italy took the chance and not us. Anyone can miss one. A player's reputation should not be forged on a penalty shootout. We've watched players taking penalties in training – it has become an obsession for us in English football – and they'd done extremely well. But you can't reproduce the tension, the occasion, the nervousness.
"That sort of cool, calculated way that Pirlo had the confidence to chip the goalkeeper … you either have that as a player or you don't, and no amount of coaching or training will help reproduce that. We've seen Ashley Cole convert in a Champions League final, and Ashley Young at club level. But we stuck to our guns right until the end and the players should be very proud of what they did. I have learnt a lot about them and their determination and dedication to the task. There were some heroic performances, not only tonight but also in the previous three games."
Hodgson admitted his team could have done "better with the ball" having conceded the majority of the possession to Italy, who mustered 36 shots over the course of 120 minutes. The energy-sapping attempts to close the Azzurri down saw Scott Parker withdraw with Achilles trouble and Steven Gerrard cramping up before the end. The captain converted his own spot-kick before the initiative was surrendered for good. "When we took it to penalties I was rather hoping it would be our tournament to win on penalties," he said. "Certainly the practising didn't help us too much on this occasion. Maybe it's just fated at the moment that we don't win on penalties, but I really can't fault any of the players for their effort."
Yet the sense of disappointment was crushing. "I'd like to be optimistic now but that's not the feeling in my heart at the moment," said Joe Hart, who was chipped cheekily by Pirlo in the shootout, a tactic the Italian claimed was designed to demoralise. "I'm an emotional guy and I put everything I had into these past couple of weeks. I thought it was going to be our night because of the side we had, the heart we had, the quality we had, but unfortunately it wasn't to be. We didn't do well enough in the shoot-out, myself included. I'm gutted for the people who paid money to come out here to support us and for the people back home."
"It's a very cruel way to go out in any competition," said Theo Walcott. "It's a bitter way to leave, and I feel for every single player involved. It is not one of those scenarios you don't want to be involved in when you are on a losing side. And I do feel as if I am on the losing side. The two Ashleys are strong enough lads to come back from this and the lads will be with them. They are two of the most experienced players in that dressing room and they will bounce back from this even better players. I do not worry about that at all.
"Luck did not go our way tonight and maybe we had some luck in previous games. You have got to give credit to the Italians as they did their jobs. We didn't create too many chances but they knew how to play against us. Now we have to look forward to the future because it is going to be bright, I am sure of that. We go into the World Cup qualifiers next season and we have to learn some lessons from this. That will be important for the younger players – me being one of them – but these sort of occasions are what we want to be involved in. From the next tournament we will be better. We will be stronger."