Just for a moment, Gareth Southgate’s mood darkened. It isn’t all unicorns and skittles inside the England camp. Southgate had been taken back to the autumn, when England lost to Denmark and his management and methods were under greater scrutiny than at any time before.
‘It was a definite shift in how we were viewed,’ he said. ‘It was the first time I’d experienced that since Russia.
‘The games against Denmark were tough. We tried something with the formation of the team. We gave out five or six new caps. Conor Coady, Kalvin Phillips, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reece James; a lot of debuts.
‘It was a very difficult period for us. So many things we had to deal with, events that happened during the games, or just before the games, the lack of availability of players — we hardly ever had the opportunity to field our strongest team.
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Gareth Southgate has said that defeat by Denmark last year was a dark time of upheaval
The England manager places so much importance on togetherness and squad harmony
‘It was the start of a period where I felt a high level of criticism and judgment that has existed, really, until the last game or so.
‘I knew when I took the job what it was like. I was a kid watching Sir Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor. I played for Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan, Sven Goran Eriksson. I was under no illusions.
‘We were in an interesting period — midway through the pandemic, no fans in the stadiums. It was a very different experience. I can’t say I enjoyed those autumn matches at all.
‘The Covid restrictions on the camps were really inhibiting, with lads not even able to sit together and chat. So much of what we are about as a team is the social part and making this connection with each other.
‘I thought it was a miserable experience, just fulfilling fixtures rather than looking forward to them. Then, on the back of all the other issues, in September we’d had eight lads with or around Covid, so everything was geared to not losing players rather than performing.
‘We’re asking them to perform freely on the pitch when every other part of their life is totally restricted — back to their rooms, masks in their meetings.’
And there it is.Insurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
The mood in camp is hugely upbeat and Southgate is the man for the job, even if England lose
The significance Southgate puts on team relationships, the essence of his quiet revolution. Juxtapositions around the breakfast table are as important as those on the pitch.
Yet on Wednesday night, all that investment, all that meticulous planning and man management, may boil down to one mistake or a referee’s call, a missed penalty or a lapse of concentration.
And if it doesn’t go England’s way, this run to a second semi-final of a major competition will be reimagined in some quarters as failure.
Home advantage, an easy path to the final — it wasn’t and isn’t but people have short memories — and England still couldn’t make it.
The many strides taken this summer and in 2018 will be dismissed. Increasingly, only results matter.
For a manager who has always looked to the future, right from the time when he was instrumental in the Football Association’s decision to reduce pitch and goal sizes in the youth game, it must be frustrating.
‘I hope a lot of people will have context,’ added Southgate. ‘I have context, in that I’m thinking about the team in eight years’ time, when maybe Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham are still in and they’ve had incredible experience of England doing well.
‘That is the standard for them, the benchmark now, where perhaps in the past youngsters coming in might have been inhibited, fearing some of the barriers that were perceived to be there.
‘There’s no question that reaching the latter stages of tournaments on a consistent basis is where we want to be.
‘The flip side is that the rest of us who were in Russia and got to this point and lost, can’t go home content if we don’t win. There’s no avoiding that.’
The club loyalties of the players have been put aside and England are united as one group
There is also no avoiding that some would make this solely about one scoreline. Another audition in a never-ending run of them.
So let’s say it now. Even if England lose to