Few men have experienced the highs and lows of the English national team quite like Gareth Southgate. Despite a career that saw him represent his country with pride on more than 50 occasions, his association with the Three Lions looked for all the world as though it would be best remembered by his penalty miss in the Semi-Finals of Euro 96. His willingness to step up to the plate while others shied away spoke volumes for his character but his inability to convert from 12 yards meant for the first time in an excitable English summer, fans of the Three Lions stopped believing and realised that football probably wasn’t coming home after all.
22 years on, England are all set to take on Croatia in their major semi-final since that heartbreaking exit at Euro 96. ‘Football’s Coming Home’ is again the soundtrack to a summer but this time Southgate is not the unfortunate villain of the piece but the unlikely national hero. It has been quite a journey for the softly spoken 47 year old but even two years ago when he got the job in difficult circumstances, it would have taken a vivid imagination to suggest he would end up being lauded as everything from a fashion icon to the man with the cure for England’s penalty woes.
Read more – Analysing Croatia’s World Cup performance
Iceland, Allardyce & An Unpopular Appointment
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) September 27, 2017
Not in a generation has such euphoria and optimism surrounded the English national team yet just two years have passed since the despair of a European Championship exit against Iceland. A 2-1 defeat in Nice against a nation of just 300,000 people spelled the end for Roy Hodgson and a backroom team that included Gary Neville, once viewed as his most likely successor.
While England’s style did alter during the Hodgson years to a more possession-based approach, an inability to win a knockout game in any of his three major tournaments in charge suggested little had really changed in terms of a tendency to crack under pressure and not cope with the expectation levels of a nation desperate for some form of success following on from the failure of the so-called ‘golden generation’.
The initial response to the Iceland debacle was perhaps not the most inspired as Sam Allardyce landed the England job. There was an element of trying to wipe the slate clean and move on from the efforts to introduce a more continental approach but it was a reign that would last just one game as a Allardyce was fired following a newspaper sting and corruption scandal in September 2016.
A Football Association that was gradually losing any shred of respectability had few roads left to turn down having shunned a number of potentially more appealing and certainly more honourable candidates than Allardyce in the summer. Their decision to promote Under-21 boss Gareth Southgate to the top job was born purely out of necessity rather than any genuine belief that he was the man who could end 50 years of hurt and it’s fair to say his appointment wasn’t exactly greeted with optimism across the land.
Read more – Captain Kane Steps Up for England
There was little about Southgate’s first year in charge that suggested England were on course for their best World Cup campaign since 1990. While the Three Lions never looked in any danger of not qualifying from a weak group, a series of scrappy displays did little to generate any real enthusiasm or excitement.
Even when England eventually qualified for the World Cup courtesy of a last minute Harry Kane goal in a scrappy 1-0 home win against Slovenia at Wembley, the performance was greeted by some boos. The Three Lions looked anything but potential contenders to win the 2018 World Cup and Southgate was seen as a manager who was fortunate to get the job but destined to fail.
Read more – England’s Set-Piece Threat
Southgate gets the Big Calls right
While the performances did little to capture the public imagination, Southgate had already made some big calls that were debated at the time but have since proved to be exactly the right course of action. He quickly managed to banish his nice guy reputation by axing captain and record goalscorer Wayne Rooney in a bold move that stamped his authority on the position and showed he was not afraid to make big calls.
Young players were gradually introduced while Southgate put his faith in Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson to step up to leadership roles rather than opting for a safer policy of sticking with a declining Rooney or turning to the more experienced Gary Cahill. Again he has since been proved correct with Kane and Henderson, two players who were heavily criticised after Euro 2016, now arguably the two players England can’t afford to do without.
Perhaps Southgate’s biggest masterstroke was the decision to totally change the formation that had guided England to the World Cup. Their final qualifier, a dead rubber in Lithuania saw the Three Lions switch to a back three with Harry Maguire making his debut and Kieran Trippier getting his first competitive start on the right. While England only won the game 1-0, the foundations for this wonderful World Cup run were laid that seemingly forgettable night in Vilnius.
More recent decisions to trust Jesse Lingard with a starting role and move Kyle Walker to centre-back have also paid off and it seems an eternity ago now that the debate was raging over Southgate’s decisions to exclude Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere from the World Cup squad. Already those two players seem like relics of a failed generation that believed their own hype too much and failed to deliver when it really mattered.
There is a calmness to this England side that simply hasn’t been present at major tournaments in the past. A lack of genuine expectation may have helped but mostly that comes from the manager and filters down through the coaching staff, players and even to the fans who were spared the usual rollercoaster ride as England confidently and professionally swept aside Sweden despite the enormity of the occasion against Sweden on Saturday.
Southgate conducts himself in a thoroughly dignified manner, never getting too carried away or too despondent and that has transmitted itself through the squad, who seem content to trust the philosophy and let the result take care of itself. Southgate lets himself go occasionally but only when the moment is right and only then do you see the underlying passion and intense pride he has for the role he finds himself in.
It’s a remarkable transformation from not just the despair of his penalty miss in 1996 but the way his reign started with optimism and even interest in the English national team having sunk to new depths. Whatever happens from here, Southgate will go home an unlikely national hero having made changes that should benefit this team for many years and tournaments to come.
Follow Free Super Tips on Twitter to stay up to date with our daily tips and predictions or browse more football content on our website: