Southgate's new broom can brush away England's bad memories
Published 08/10/2016 | 02:30
It says something about England's relationship with its football team that close to 88,000 people will turn up at Wembley to watch Gareth Southgate's charges take on the side ranked 176th in the world thus evening.
Perhaps it is the prospect of a goal-glut against Malta, one of the global game's undisputed minnows, that is prompting so many to turn their backs on The X-Factor, but the last time England faced up to so-called cannon fodder, they were humiliated by Iceland at Euro 2016, so nothing can ever be taken for granted.
The virtual sell-out at Wembley is a remarkable state of affairs, however, considering the past three months.
During that time, England have seen off two managers, suffered that ignominious defeat against Iceland, and their supporters have been attacked by rampaging Russians in Marseilles.
Captain Wayne Rooney has become the national punch-bag, with the Manchester United forward claiming to have been 'slaughtered' in the wake of his performance in the 1-0 victory in Slovakia under Sam Allardyce.
And Allardyce, who should have been preparing to manage his country at Wembley for the first time, will instead be licking his wounds in a bar overseas after losing his dream job following an undercover newspaper sting.
For any supporter considering giving up on England, they would have ample justification to do so.
But their enduring loyalty should be the foundation stone on which interim manager Southgate begins to piece together the rubble.
There should be a sense of renewal, of a new wind blowing through the England team, and Southgate (pictured) can drive away the dark clouds by instilling a more carefree, nerveless attitude and allowing youth to flourish.
Southgate at least has the opportunity to create a legacy for himself and the team if the next four games do prove to be the sum of his involvement as manager.
In November 2000, Peter Taylor used his one and only game in charge of England to hand David Beckham the captaincy and select six players eligible for the U-21s in his team against Italy in Turin.
It did not quite work out for Seth Johnson, but Gareth Barry, Jamie Carragher, Rio Ferdinand, Kieron Dyer and Emile Heskey all went to on to become stalwarts over the next decade, with Beckham retaining the captaincy for the next six years.
Southgate may not have a Beckham or Ferdinand at his disposal, but he does have Marcus Rashford, John Stones and Raheem Sterling developing at a rapid pace.
Sterling's calf injury rules the Manchester City winger out of the World Cup qualifiers against Malta and Slovenia, but Stones and Rashford are fit and ready and both should start today.
Stones was restored to the starting XI by Allardyce, and Southgate would be foolish to take him out again.
And while Allardyce omitted Rashford from his squad for the Slovakia game, the United teenager's hat-trick for Southgate's U-21s against Norway last month showcased just what a precocious talent he is.
Rooney and Michael Owen were both England regulars by the time they reached their 19th birthday; Rashford turns 19 on Halloween, and Southgate should not think twice about thrusting him into the team this weekend.
With Sterling injured, a place down the right flank would appear the obvious answer, but why not play Rashford through the middle? Harry Kane is ruled out, so with neither Jamie Vardy or Daniel Sturridge tearing it up at club level, Rashford is the most in-form forward in the country.
The ball is in Southgate's court. He can be bold and look to the future, or he can leave the team mired in the doom and gloom of 2016.
Meanwhile, for a country determined to ensure their Euro 2016 adventure was not a fleeting brush with success but the start of something bigger, it is fitting that Northern Ireland's first home game of their World Cup qualifying campaign should mark the official opening of the newly redeveloped Windsor Park.
A sell-out crowd of 18,600 will flock to the new £31 stadium tonight to watch Michael O'Neill's side face San Marino, one of international football's worst teams, three days before taking on one of the best, world champions Germany, in Hannover.
O'Neill has done as much as anyone to restore the feel-good factor to Northern Irish football and the manager hopes the players derive inspiration from their new home as they attempt to break new ground by qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
"Windsor had a slow death," O'Neill said. "Bit by bit, it was closed off, but the redevelopment has been fantastic and it's a fresh start on the back of the team's success at Euro 2016.
"It's no longer archaic. It's fit for purpose. It will be a very atmospheric stadium."
Northern Ireland drew their opening Group C game 0-0 against the Czech Republic in Prague last month so victory against San Marino would represent a decent start.
Yet they have failed to score in five of their past six matches and striker Kyle Lafferty, their leading scorer in Euro qualifying, could drop to the bench against San Marino. ( Independent News Service)
ENGLAND (probable): Hart; Walker, Stones, Cahill, Rose; Henderson, Rooney, Alli; Walcott, Sturridge, Rashford.
England v Malta, Live, ITV, 5.00pm
Northern Ireland v San Marino, Live, Sky Sports 5, 7.45pm