Thursday 17 October 2019

Gareth Southgate's modest approach dumps years of painful history for England

Dele Alli scores England’s second against Sweden. Photo: Alex Morton/Getty Images
Dele Alli scores England’s second against Sweden. Photo: Alex Morton/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

The Italia '90 World Cup semi-final was a bad opera for England. Insanely compelling, but ultimately bad. Now Gareth Southgate - like Bobby Robson, a gentleman of the dug-out - has a chance to dry Gazza's tears at last and steer the country to the biggest game in football, in Moscow on Sunday.

The similarities between Southgate and the late Robson are striking.

Both are synonymous with modesty, consideration and togetherness. Like Robson, Southgate has struck gold by playing three at the back and encouraging freedom of expression while backing youth. Both could call on a world-class centre-forward: Gary Lineker then, Harry Kane now.

Yet the 4-3 penalty shootout defeat to West Germany 28 years ago also stands as an indictment of everything that has happened since; turbulence and neurosis, which Southgate has tried to erase by giving a young team a liberating tactical shape, discouraging egocentricity and showing his players the joys of tournament football and of wearing the previously "heavy" shirt.

The spirit, preparation and culture have all been right. And boy, are England good at set-pieces, with yet another headed goal from a corner in Samara, this time by Harry Maguire, who, two years ago, was in the stands with his mates watching Euro 2016.

To reach the second semi-final in Moscow on Wednesday, England have beaten Tunisia, Panama, Colombia (on penalties) and Sweden - and lost to Belgium's B team, when Southgate made eight changes to preserve his first XI's energy for the Colombia match.

So, while 1990 stands as one of the major landmarks in English football, the country's ambitions now ought to be higher. Italia '90 is often credited with bringing the middle-classes back to football after the horrors of Heysel, Hillsborough and Bradford, and laying the ground for the Premier League, which now makes multi-millionaires of Southgate's squad. The circle from those times to these is real, especially as Southgate brings much of Robson's dignity to the England job.

The melodramatic heave-ho with West Germany in 1990 was England's first World Cup semi-final since 1966. The one in Moscow on Wednesday is only their third in history. Robson is no longer with us. Terry Butcher, Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle, three of his 1990 team, have been on media duty in Russia, filling the same press box as reporters who were infants or even not born 28 years ago. Paul Gascoigne has ridden many roller-coasters since and Lineker is now a major public figure.

But none would want to be saddled with the role of nearly-men in tournaments, and each would rejoice to see Southgate's team go one step further, win or lose. Their day was so long ago that Germany competed as two nations.

There have been good England sides since then, at Euro '96, France '98 and from 2002 to 2006, but England had dropped off a cliff. To repeat a thought from two years ago, the Premier League was English football's kite and the England team was its tail. People had switched off, given up, until Southgate restored a flicker of interest and then sent the country into raptures with the Colombia and Sweden wins.

An accommodating route to the final creates its own logic. If England can go this far, then why not all the way? That question requires a counterbalancing acknowledgement that the top half of this World Cup draw is far stronger. Belgium were inspired when beating Brazil and France are stuffed with talent. Both would be favourites to beat England in the finale.

But never mind Sunday, for now. The way England recovered from a slow start against Sweden suggests an ability to self-correct and not panic.

A throwback England-Sweden game seemed to be deceiving Southgate's men into a Premier League slog until they suddenly upped their tempo, forced a corner and curled in a cross for Maguire to lodge in Sweden's net. All the tension drained from England. Faith in their passing game returned.

Dele Alli, who has looked physically under-par out here, was rewarded for his perseverance with a first World Cup goal. At the other end, Jordan Pickford was superb. Remember the debate about who should be England's goalkeeper? Southgate's hunch - or his information - turned out to be right.

England's 1990 campaign was one of recovery, played out to the snarls of a newspaper circulation war. After the opening 1-1 draw with Ireland, Robson was ordered by one paper to "bring them home".

From the moment Kane twisted his head to deposit the winner against Tunisia, Southgate's messages have been positively received by an entire country, which has fallen in love with him, for this bearing, as well as his results.

Progress this time has been more linear, with a mounting orchestral soundtrack, and a heatwave back in England. Out of these clear blue skies may have come something better than 1990, something more lasting than agonising defeat.

England fans want Southgate and his team to keep going, not only for their own pleasure in living rooms and pubs but because they see a group of people committed to something honourable and uplifting. Two wins in Moscow would transform the national sport. Just one would put 1990 to bed.

Already, England are dumping a lot of painful history.


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