England’s run reflects how Southgate, players changed national mood

BURTON UPON TRENT, England — It was in the months after England’s run to the 2018 World Cup semifinals when manager Gareth Southgate began to realise the impact he had made on the country.

“What hit me coming back from Russia was families coming up to me on the street, people coming up to me on the street from all backgrounds of our country and saying they felt they could go to a game now and not be abused at the stadium, connect with the team,” Southgate said ahead of England’s Euro 2020 final against Italy on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; stream LIVE on ESPN, ESPN+).

“They felt part of it. And that inclusivity is really important for us because I think that is what modern England is. We know it hasn’t always been the case and there are historic reasons for that. But that level of tolerance and inclusion is what we have to be about moving forward.”

That reconnection between the team and its supporters reached new heights after Wednesday’s semifinal victory over Denmark, when Southgate and his players joining more than 60,000 fans in a rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” after the final whistle. It was quite a contrast to opinions of the team early in the competition.

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With an array of attacking talent including Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho, fans anticipated a line-up brimming with flair that sought to offset longstanding concern about a suspect defence, which would be weakened further by the absence of Harry Maguire at the start of the tournament.

There was consternation at Southgate’s team selections in the group stage; Grealish was limited to a super-sub role, Rashford featured even less and Sancho missed out entirely on the squad for the opening game against Croatia.

Sterling’s goal secured a winning start, but a dour 0-0 draw against Scotland in game two increased calls for England to play without the handbrake, which only got louder when a group-clinching 1-0 win over Czech Republic was claimed despite an expected goals output of 0.0 in the second half.

Since then, though, Southgate’s studious approach has gradually won over a viewing public growing in belief that its long wait for tournament glory could soon be over. First came a last-16 win against Germany, then Ukraine were thrashed in Rome, before the comeback triumph over Denmark to clinch a final spot.

Winning solves everything, as they say, but England’s upturn in results and the unity of a nation behind the team is the product of a cultural shift Southgate has been a key figure in initiating. Whereas past teams have been burdened by a fear of failure or a lack of enthusiasm, the current squad incarnation has been encouraged to express itself, on and off the pitch.

Sterling and Sancho are just two of several players to champion racial equality and Rashford forced the British government into a change of policy over free school meals, while Tyrone Mings and Jordan Henderson were among a group of professionals to speak to ministers about tackling online abuse.

The players are considering making a donation to the National Health Service from their Euro 2020 prize money, a further sign that, far from being detached from public life, this group is actively engaging and seeking to change it for the better. And they take their lead from their manager, one of the most thoughtful and effective communicators in football.

“I hope they have represented the country in a way they can relate to,” Southgate said. “I feel that’s important. With the national team, it’s different to clubs. Some clubs have clear identities and I think they are powerful because of that.

“We have a view of what being English should represent and standards we want to hit. You still have to win football matches. If you don’t, those messages and things we stand for don’t have the same impact. But I think we still have to be consistent in what we think is important.

“We have exceptional examples of players setting a really good example for young kids who are watching them and will aspire to be them through this tournament. It’s important that their parents when they are talking to those kids can say, ‘we are quite happy for you to be a Raheem [Sterling], a Marcus [Rashford], a Kalvin Phillips’ or whoever they might be because they stand for the right things off the pitch as well as on it.”

When Southgate took over five years ago, the England team was in a dark place. The aftermath of a last-16 exit against Iceland at Euro 2016 led to Roy Hodgson’s resignation, then replacement Sam Allardyce lasted 67 days — and just one game — before leaving his post when an undercover newspaper investigation found he was offering advice on how to circumvent FA rules on player transfers.

It was the latest unedifying chapter in a calamitous story, but Southgate began systematically deconstructing the flaws inherent in the national team’s psyche — a fear of failure, an inferiority complex against top opponents and a hatred of penalty shootouts — and the results have been remarkable: Semifinal runs at the last World Cup and in UEFA’s inaugural Nations League a year later before delivering a first tournament final in 55 years at Euro 2020.

“I was moving into a job where the profile was way beyond anything I’d had before so there was no way I was going to be the finished article; I’m still not,” said Southgate, whose prior managerial experience consisted of three years at Middlesbrough and three more in charge of England’s Under-21s.

“You’ve obviously got to gain confidence yourself that you can get the results and the things you implement are going to work and then the players see evidence that those things are working and then they start to believe in what you are telling them about the opposition or the way we need to play. There is no short cut to that.”

Southgate is addressing selected media at St George’s Park, the national team’s base that opened in 2012. The Football Association unveiled an “England DNA” two years later, but only under the current regime has the change in culture around the senior team really taken effect, with the man in charge growing in confidence and belief that what he is doing is working.

“When you are more comfortable in yourself, which I think I have become in the role,” Southgate said. “Once you have got that comfort in yourself, if you deliver something that is crap then you accept, ‘OK, we didn’t get that one right, we will try a different route’. Whereas you might worry about that a bit more if you weren’t comfortable in yourself. That takes time.”

Such work has been undertaken during a tumultuous time for the country as a whole. The “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union took place before that defeat to Iceland and created fault lines that have only grown in the interim, with each side of the divide more entrenched.

And the last 18 months have seen Britain affected by global issues. Racial tensions have increased, with players showing support for social justice causes in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in the United States. The decision to take a knee before matches led to criticism from some politicians and booing by some fans.

Meanwhile, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which caused the Euros to be delayed by a year, hit the country so hard that it recorded the world’s highest death rate early in 2021, prior to the successful implementation of a widespread vaccination programme.

And so, while Euro 2020 has given England an overdue reason to party, Southgate is mindful of the complex strands that make up the nation’s rediscovered patriotism. He is, though, keen to focus on the positives.

“I think there are historic things that we should be proud of,” he said. “We’ve had unbelievable inventions in this country.

“We have so many things here that we should be proud of that we probably underestimate that, maybe if we were living in other countries, we always see what’s good about them, but we are always looking at the negatives of our own country and yet we have got so much to be proud of and so much talent coming through in all industries really.”

Southgate deflects praise for England’s resurgence to his players, but there is another, inescapable narrative. Even if he claims that “those sorts of moments in your life don’t have to define you,” the past month has continued what began three years ago in Russia: A chance, as a manager, to rectify the disappointment he felt at Euro ’96, when his missed penalty led to England’s exit at the semifinal stage.

The 50-year-old rolls the wedding ring around his finger when asked to discuss the high regard in which he is held, having become the first England boss to reach a major tournament final since Sir Alf Ramsey at the 1966 World Cup. In his response, Southgate invokes another of his predecessors as he — again — seeks to marry the twin objectives of a successful team and developing players as people.

“Sir Bobby [Robson] … was a fantastic role model as well as getting results with the team. Just the way he was with people, the time he had for people; he was like that with me as a player whenever I met him and as a young manager. Those sorts of things do play on your mind; that you’re following this line of history that we talked to the players about.”

Robson presided over near misses of his own as England manager, but Southgate has taken a team to the brink. “This is our moment,” he said on Friday; one more win at Wembley would complete the transformation.

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