Southgate on why it's his England team's time to shine
Tuesday, June 29, 2021
It could come full circle for Gareth Southgate against Germany at Wembley tonight but, he insists, this isn't his story to write: "This is their moment," he says of his young team.
Article top media content
It was inevitable that the question would arise at some point during Gareth Southgate's pre-match press conference ahead of England's round of 16 encounter with Germany: the question of EURO '96 and that penalty.
"We don't have to mention it, but you've chosen it so we'll go there," he began when responding, the note of weariness as understandable as the reporter's wish to revisit that Wembley moment 25 years ago. After all, we all like a neat narrative and the prospect of Southgate's England finally getting the better of Germany, a quarter-century after his saved penalty decided a EURO semi-final, is a scriptwriter's dream.
Yet when the 50-year-old sat down with EURO2020.com ahead of the game, the England manager preferred to dwell on another aspect of that adventure of lore: leadership. "An incredible match to be a part of, a European Championship semi-final," he said. "It's the only one England have been to. I just have brilliant memories of playing in a team full of great characters, good players, experienced leaders – I think seven captains of their club."
Since retirement, seven more of those big characters in England's line-up that day have tried their hand at management: Tony Adams, Paul Ince, David Platt, Stuart Pearce, Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham. None are managing now, whereas Southgate, the studious one – "a bit more rounded in life, a bit more educated" as Sheringham described him to the Mail on Sunday two days ago – is still standing.
His fresh approach with England has been well documented. Fittingly, he has sought to develop leadership within the squad, diluting the power of the armband that held sway in the days of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney. He made Harry Kane his captain just prior to Russia 2018 but, before and since, other players have skippered the team.
Southgate has also found an impressive balance between respecting the past and promoting the present. He has supported his players' wish to take the knee, for example. Legacy caps, carrying each player's chronological number on England's long appearance list, offer a sense of their place in history.
And the history seems to have become less of a burden – made easier when the promotion of youth produced England's youngest starting XI in tournament history against Scotland in the group stage (with an average of 25 years and 31 days). As recent interviews with Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka have underlined, EURO '96 might as well be 1066 for the 12 squad members born after that tournament.
Against Germany, a rival England have not beaten in a tournament knockout tie since 1966, it should help that, as Southgate said, they have been "knocking down those milestones for the last three or four years" – notably with their ghostbusting FIFA World Cup penalty shoot-out win against Colombia, en route to a first semi-final in 28 years.
England squad not born before '96 semi-final
Jude Bellingham, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ben Chilwell, Phil Foden, Reece James, Mason Mount, Aaron Ramsdale, Marcus Rashford, Declan Rice, Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho, Ben White
Already in this tournament, they have won their opening game of a EURO for the first time. And if the metrics point to England advancing the ball more slowly than any other team in the group stage, Southgate and his players can highlight the solidity and control shown so far. "Of course we want to be a bit more fluid and we haven't been able to achieve that yet, but I think probably most teams in the tournament are feeling the same way about that," Southgate reflected at the weekend.
Expectations will be high at Wembley. Can England, victorious only once in a EURO knockout tie, handle the occasion? "We've seen that history can be created and I think the players relish that challenge and we should see it as a challenge rather than be fearful of it," Southgate said. The old stuff "shouldn't mean anything", he added. "This is their moment."
It was a message reiterated in Monday's press conference, with the winning line that "every time you pull an England shirt on, you have an opportunity to score a goal that will be shown forever". Southgate, who knows all about old footage being shown over and over, would dearly love a lasting moment that we can remember for all the right reasons.