Is it a platform from which Gareth Southgate and a player pool teeming with talent and
youth can step among the world’s elite, or a precious opportunity that has flashed past in the blink of an eye, scattered to the winds, never to return?
No one can dispute the excellent job done by Southgate since moving up from managing the England U-21s and replacing the one-game wonder, Sam Allardyce, in September, 2016.
Two months earlier at the European Championship, England had been ousted by tiny Iceland, 2-1, in the round of 16 and the stirring saga of that small country continuing on to qualify for the 2018 World Cup did nothing to assuage the sting of another painful defeat in a major competition.
At the 2016 Euros, England had lumbered through the group phase by tying Russia (1-1) and Slovakia (0-0) and beating Wales, 2-1. The loss to Iceland swept out coach Roy Hodgson. Allardyce took over –- on his watch England beat Slovakia, 1-0, in its first World Cup qualifier – for a grand total of 67 days. The English FA fired him after viewing video of his discussions with undercover reporters suggesting ways to circumvent transfer regulations.
Southgate did more than steer
England unbeaten through the remainder of its qualifying campaign. He restored pride and commitment to an honor that somehow had mutated into a burden amid scorching media scrutiny and maniacal fan
expectation. The World Cup champion of 1966 endured more than a half-century of failing to match that achievement and thus failing, period, in the minds of many.
If a semifinal appearance in 1990 wasn’t at least a measure of success, everything that fell short fell into the category of disaster. Once the World Cup 1994 qualification effort had fallen apart against the Netherlands in Rotterdam and The Sun ran a photo of a turnip superimposed onto the head of coach Graham Taylor, a succession of players and managers – no matter how successful – weren’t going to measure up unless they won the last game in a major competition.
Every two years for a either European Championship or a World Cup, popular conjecture swirled about how, not if, England would emerge as champion. A steady succession of disappointments didn’t stem a wave of unfounded hope.
Yet by the time Southgate took over, that pervading expectation had finally passed. For the World Cup, he excluded veterans such as goalkeeper Joe Hart and midfielder Jack Wilshire, and proclaimed a younger generation as the right choice for the present as well as the future. It took a while for fans and pundits to buy in, but not the players.
Defender Kyle Walker had been on the field in Nice when England fell to Iceland two years ago. Wayne Rooney scored the proverbial “dream start” goal in the fourth minute, but Iceland equalized two minutes later and in just 12 more minutes grabbed a lead it would hold. Walker was on the field Wednesday when England again scored early – on a Kieran Trippier free kick in the fifth minute – and endured another depressing reversal.
Yet though the result was the same, not so the mood. Decades of disgruntlement amongst the fan base had ebbed away, and the players felt rejuvenated.
“I was there in France, in the Iceland game, and it was completely different to that,” said Walker as he praised his teammates, the manager, and the fans. “For them to still be singing when we’re seeing friends and families, chanting our names and singing the manager’s name, is completely different. And I think we need to take full credit for that because we’ve changed that.
“We’re the guys who are running on the pitch, but he’s the backbone of this team. He’s made sure that everyone has stuck together through good and bad moments, and made sure our feet stayed on the floor. I can’t put into words how much credit he deserves for this.”
Southgate refunds the credit back onto the players. His switch to a three-man back line and encouragement of his defenders to play the ball out of the back when possible changed the team’s style only marginally. His mentoring instilled a different, stronger mindset. “People may have had a feeling that playing for England was always misery and regret and recrimination,” Southgate said to The Guardian. “Now, I think, they have seen it can be enjoyable.”
Once the tournament can be fully dissected and filed away, come the hard questions of going forward. The youth of many players -- Trent Alexander-Arnold (19), Marcus Rashford (20), Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Dele Alli (both 22), Raheem Sterling (23), Harry Kane, Jordan Pickford, and John Stones (all 24), Harry Maguire and Jesse Lingard (both 25) – is fuel for optimism. There is a discernible prospect of several years, perhaps even a decade, of challenging the elite of Europe and the world for first prize. Behind that generation are world championship teams at the U-17 and U-20 levels.
“We have one of two paths to go,” Southgate said. “This is either a moment of rare hope and we sink back. Or we build in the way that Germany did in 2010.”
There is also the stark fact England stumbled along a golden path to the final that had been cleared of its strongest possible challengers. It also squandered an early lead after failing to score a second goal when Kane hit the post with a follow-up of a saved shot. In four more years, Spain and Germany could regain their world-class caliber, France might be defending a World Cup title, etc.
The 2020 European Championship will be shared amongst a dozen cities in a new format, but it is Wembley Stadium in London that will host the semifinals and the final. Cue the expectations, not necessarily of titles upon titles, but rather a genuine anticipation that every two years England is rated among the top contenders.
In Southgate, England has a manager who shouldered blame for as a player – his missed penalty kick ended his nation’s hopes in a semifinal shootout loss to Germany at Wembley in the 1996 Euros -- and has stepped forward when the program was mired in disgrace.
“The team will be better in a couple of years,” Southgate continued. “We have to build. We have some good young players coming through. We’ve had success at youth level. What we’ve done over the last few weeks has shown what is possible. We want to be in semifinals and finals and we’ve shown to ourselves that can happen. Now we have to use it as a springboard to reach the latter stages of tournaments consistently.”