England face Sweden today at 3pm in the World Cup quarter-finals, the biggest game in the nation’s history since their tie against Colombia on Tuesday night. And that game was the nation’s biggest since the semi-final of Euro 96.
Indeed, every step the Three Lions take along this strange Russian road now is one into a relative unknown and will keep serving to inflate the expectations upon them. For a whole generation of England supporters, a win against Sweden would cast them into territory never-before experienced, a major tournament semi-final.
But if the worst was to happen and England fell to a defeat against Sweden, common sense and perspective must prevail. Southgate has to stay as England manager, no matter what.
When Southgate was appointed as the senior team manager in November 2016, it was against the backdrop of English football’s lowest ever point. The ‘choke’ against Iceland was still strong in the memory, a fully open wound cut right across the face of this proud nation. As if that wasn’t enough, fans then had to suffer through the embarrassment of Sam Allardyce being dismissed after the Daily Telegraph’s sting against him – he left his post after just a single game in charge.
When Southgate was appointed, he came with a good CV behind him at youth level but next to no experience at senior level. He wasn’t the popular choice among supporters and few expected much of a man who’s only real senior management experience to date was relegation with Middlesbrough.
But the Southgate appointed as England manager was a totally different animal to the one that was relegated on Teesside. Much has been made about Southgate’s journey of self-improvement, of rediscovering himself. He has sought advice from leading figures in other sports – World Cup winning Rugby Union coach Sir Clive Woodward chief among them – as well as the very best Football itself has to offer – Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. He has read from the books of some of the world’s most revolutionary thinkers and, in the process, has become one in his own right.
He has sought to learn from his own past mistakes – that penalty miss in Euro 96 – and use the mental strength gained from it to turn this group of young cubs into representations of the Lions that emblazon the English badge. Southgate has even brought a psychologist along for the ride, Dr Pippa Grange, should any of this young squad feel the need to unload or have any underlying nerves or tensions.
One thing that stands above all else about this side and the ethos Southgate has passed on, however, is the team ethic. Each player is taking responsibility for the man next to him and the collective take a much bigger responsibility than any single manager or captain. Jordan Pickford meeting each England penalty taker to hand them the ball, offering words of support when he did, while their teammates are linked arm-to-arm behind them on Tuesday is a huge indicator of how much they, no, we are all in this together.
The way the team kept the ball moving with such patience against Tunisia, even as the clock looked to be speeding them to a 1-1 draw, only to get the reward for their patience right at the end with Harry Kane’s winner. No England side has ever taken such a modern, fresh approach to the game. They play 3-5-2, but it is so adaptable. Stones can move into midfield, Henderson can drop and cover, Trippier can hug the touchline like a winger, Lingard can move in as a shadow striker. This side may not have the individual talent of any of the England World Cup squads that have preceded it, but no other English side has been so much a sum of its parts as this one.
All of this is down to Southgate, from learning to overcome big obstacles to controlling your breathing in high-pressure moments.
Previous managers, such as Roy Hodgson and Fabio Capello, have looked to maximise individual talents. They abandoned the team ethic in the hope that a Steven Gerrard or a Wayne Rooney would throw off the shackles and give them a moment of inspiration. Not Southgate.
And this togetherness has seeped into the media and been fed into the fans. All across the country, England fans have been allowed to dream again. Dream like they haven’t since 1996, or even 1990. ‘Its coming home’ has been echoed in the streets of every town and city up and down the country since the start of the tournament. There’s an element of belief creeping in and, for generations, England has never taken to its national team so strongly.
So as our brave, likeable and intelligent young Lions are led into battle against Sweden today by their inspirational leader, let perspective take hold. Southgate is building toward a bigger plan but, above all, he has guided the team out of the dark ages and into a revolution.