To be brutally honest, I’m not the biggest England fan. The efforts I go to driving around the country to see my team crawl limply away from relegation trouble have taken their toll. I’ve seen the summer as a break from football. A breather. And the recent tournament performances of England have done nothing to snap me out of what’s become a welcome break from the game.
Despite this, much of my love of football can be traced back to the international game. Like most fans over 35, Italia 90 was a defining moment. The team was full of household names. The events of that night in Turin are forever etched in our sporting psyche. That continued in Euro 96. Every time I see the ball roll across the German goalmouth, I’m convinced Gazza will stretch his boot out those extra inches…
But since then, England have declined from being acutely disappointing, to pathetic. I have always felt that every England manager has been a reaction against the previous appointment. If we appointed the best that the international game could offer, the next had to be English. If the last manager had a maverick streak, the next had to be a Football Association man.
The only thing that changed, was that the appointments became ever more underwhelming. Roy Hodgson was probably a better manager than he showed with England. Despite his massive salary, his exit was woeful. His pre-written statement jarred badly against the way England’s Stuart Lancaster took responsibility for crashing out the Rugby World Cup.
That brings us onto Sam Allardyce. Big Sam was always very confident in his abilities. There’s no doubt he has talents that are probably under-appreciated. However, I never saw how his tactics of long throws and jostling the keeper were ever going to be the answer for England. It was a bit like Tony Pulis being England manager. Just no…
When Gareth Southgate took over the post I thought my theories were playing out as normal. Southgate was a reaction against the maverick. A safe pair of hands after the manner of Big Sam’s departure. An FA man. And at last, a manager with no real record of succeeding at first-team level had taken the reigns. The top job seemed to have become the job that no one wanted.
I’m sure I’m not the only England fan pinching themselves as we sit 90 minutes from the World Cup Final. Players that are by no means household names are now 180 minutes away from immortality. That’s just crazy isn’t it?
I only really engaged with this World Cup during the Colombia match. My feeling was that England were completely untested, beating only lower-league outfits in the group stage and having a friendly against Belgium. However, the intensity of that game and THAT penalty shootout invested everyone in the competition, the team and most of all, the manager.
Southgate has grown into the role in so many ways. Initially, I thought he was just too nice to be a manager. The role of the traditional manager has been shaped by dictators like Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough. Archetypal managers like Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger are bad losers – looking to deflect any blame or criticism outside the dressing room.
Southgate has approached it differently. He stays calm, is happy to delegate and leads through his integrity. While he lacks club management experience, he has vast tournament experience. His infamous Wembley miss surely adds to his make-up. This is a quiet quest for redemption. Unfinished business. Perhaps this is in the same way that many managers had modest playing careers. As with Southgate, there’s something to put right. Something left to achieve.
I heard back his tearful interview after the 1996 Germany miss and was struck by his honesty and bravery. Whatever happens in this next week, Southgate the man will be at the forefront of England’s campaign. It’s interesting to see that other teams have mentioned the wages of the English players, but few teams have built such a rapport with the fans. Southgate knows the symbolism of the way he strides towards the fans who have come to Russia to support his team. Waistcoat and all, it transmits itself home. We all feel part of it. Part of the team.
When Southgate was pictured consoling Colombia’s Mateus Uribe at the end of the second round shootout it seemed natural, rather than mawkish. England want to win and win with integrity. Non-football fans on my social media feeds are picking up on this. They are noticing that this team is different and the manager is perhaps recalibrating what we think about football managers, and perhaps leadership in general in all walks of life. It’s not about being a bully, or having the guts to make hard decisions, it’s about making the right decisions for the right reasons with emotional intelligence.
The opportunity now in front of England could be a once in a generation, perhaps once in a lifetime opportunity. The success of the England teams in the young age-groups gives hope that perhaps, we’ll have this experience again and much sooner. But this is a wonderful shot at history.
It’s remarkable that this is perhaps the first tournament in my lifetime where England have been written off before a ball has been kicked. Gone are the Lampards, Gerrards and the Terrys. Remarkably Southgate has managed to flip that into a positive, with a bit of luck along the way. This is the first England team in my lifetime that has played without visible pressure. The way the ball is passed around the back, the way we keep scoring from set pieces is a massive tick in the tactician’s box for Southgate and his team.
The manager and the team that no one backed now has everyone behind them. It’s a remarkable story, with remarkable imagery. It’s reminded us that international football and supporting England is important, and can mean as much as our club teams do. It’s a shame that feeling disappeared from our lives for a couple of decades. It’s a shame that it no longer seemed to matter. But this summer is a reminder that our passion for England is special and important. It’s great to have it back.