Domagoj Bradaric's injury-time stunner broke England U21 hearts to deny the Young Lions a place in the Euro 2021 quarter-finals, despite a 2-1 win over Croatia.
Bradaric's debut U21 international strike, as Croatia desperately pushed for a goal to save their own tournament, sent them through to the last eight at the expense of England, who had looked like defying the odds to progress.
Ebere Eze finally scored the Young Lions' first goal of the tournament from a soft penalty after 12 minutes but with Aidy Boothroyd knowing only a two-goal win would be enough, more was still needed.
Boothroyd named an attacking side in an all-or-nothing final group game, where England also needed a helping hand from Portugal beating Switzerland in order to qualify. They finally found the second goal they required through a sharp Curtis Jones finish 16 minutes from time, and while Croatia had earlier twice tested Aaron Ramsdale, they offered little sign of a late comeback shock.
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That was until Bradaric, up from defence and left unmarked, struck a stunning 25-yard effort past the Sheffield United goalkeeper to take Croatia beyond the group stages for the first time in their history and condemn England to yet another early exit.
England U21: Ramsdale (6), Aarons (6), Tanganga (6), Wilmot (5), Kelly (5), Skipp (6), Gallagher (6), Jones (7), Eze (7), McNeil (6), Nketiah (5).
Subs: Brewster (6), Cantwell (5), S Sessegnon (n/a).
Croatia U21: Kotarski (6), Sverko (6), Vuskovic (7), Franjic (6), Bradaric (7), Ivanusec (6), Moro (6), Babec (6), Bistrovic (6), Spikic (7), Vizinger (5).
Subs: Colina (6), Zaper (5), Majer (5), Divkovic, Musa (n/a).
Man of the match: Curtis Jones.
England made to pay for earlier failures
England showed more intensity and intent in the opening 10 minutes than they had in the entirety of their opening two group games, showing few signs of the pressure of a team knowing only victory would do to qualify.
Jones curled just over from a short corner as the Young Lions' search for a shot on target went on, before referee Harm Osmers offered a helping hand by pointing to the spot for a slight touch by Franjic on Eddie Nketiah. Eze stepped up from 12 yards and confidently beat Dominik Kotarski.
Jones missed another presentable chance after excellently making space on the left, while England's defensive frailties were again exposed as Kristijan Bistrovic turned Luka Ivanusec's inviting low ball over the bar from six yards, as the Young Lions' early impetus faded.
A lax Conor Gallagher touch provided more concern for the backline to allow Ivanusec in on goal, and he owed Ramsdale a debt of gratitude for the fine save the Young Lions goalkeeper pulled off to keep them ahead.
England began the second half as brightly as they had the first without fading off, and should have doubled their advantage when Nketiah took Eze's pass in his stride before firing straight at Kotarski.
With Portugal ahead and cruising against Switzerland in the group's other game, England's mission became clearer - score, and qualify. Dwight McNeil struck the post from a free-kick as Boothroyd's side got closer, but still not close enough.
Finally, with 16 minutes left and Rhian Brewster thrown on as another attacking outlet, they found the second. The Sheffield United striker's cross was laid back by McNeil for Jones, who shot through a defender's legs into the far corner past an unsighted Kotarski.
As the match clock ticked onto 90 minutes, that looked enough for England, who had seen out the intervening quarter of an hour in relative comfort. But Bradaric would, out of nowhere, bring their quarter-final ambitions crashing down with an unstoppable strike from outside the box, with tempers flaring at the full-time whistle and Jones sent off amid a mass brawl which ensued.
What the manager said...
England U21 boss Aidy Boothroyd told Sky Sports: "I thought tonight we were excellent. We've been criticised for not being creative, which was fair, but tonight I think we were creative in everything we did. To lose in the manner we did, after getting to the position we were in, he'll never score a goal like that again. That is very, very disappointing.
"I spoke to the players, we gave ourselves a mountain to climb, and we almost did it. It's devastating right now, but I think an experience like this stays with you forever."
On his future: "The amount of players that have come through this system would suggest there is a pathway working. Our youngest players come into the building knowing they have a chance to play in the first team, with the way we're structured.
"I love being involved with these players. I really enjoy it, which makes it even more difficult to deal with it, to come out and speak with you and answer that question. It is a fair question to ask, I am going to keep going and we'll see what happens."
England U21s' previous exits under Boothroyd
Boothroyd took charge of England's U21s for the final two games of qualifying and maintained an unbeaten passage to the finals, where the Young Lions lost on penalties at the semi-final stage to Germany. England had drawn with Sweden in their opening group game but recovered to beat Slovakia and hosts Poland, before drawing 2-2 with Germany in normal time at the final four stage.
Boothroyd said at the time: "We might not have been at our best for long periods but we showed a real British bulldog spirit. We could have nicked it but that's football. We've practised, practised and practised penalties but the keeper has made two good saves. It was a real effort - a real backs against the wall job at times. It's been a long journey. The tournament has been fantastic. I'm sure there will be future senior players in this team."
Standout names in the squad: Jordan Pickford, Ben Chilwell, James Ward-Prowse, Demarai Gray, Tammy Abraham
England once again qualified for the finals without suffering defeat - but dramatic late goals from France and Romania saw England eliminated from the group stage with a game to spare. France struck in the 89th and 94th minute to snatch a 2-1 win in the opener before eventual finalists Romania grabbed a 4-2 victory with strikes in the 89th and 93rd minute, with their third coming via a Dean Henderson error. To add salt to the wounds, Croatia netted an equaliser inside the final 10 minutes to draw the dead rubber third group game 3-3.
Boothroyd said at the time: "I genuinely believed we could do it but Dean Henderson's mistake, we all make mistakes and it's important we make sure he knows how important he is to us. If you don't take your chances and are not disciplined enough to stay on your feet, you are going to get punished. In order to get through this we have to take the positives out of it. We are on the right track in terms of how we play the game but we need to iron out the mistakes."
Standout names in the squad: Dean Henderson, Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount, James Maddison, Harvey Barnes, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Phil Foden, Demarai Gray, Tammy Abraham