Wednesday 29 January 2020

Most of Gareth Southgate's men have have been forced to earn their stripes the hard way - with the support of several Irishmen


‘He never thought he was better than anyone else' - Dan Casey on Jordan Pickford. Photo: Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
‘He never thought he was better than anyone else' - Dan Casey on Jordan Pickford. Photo: Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

What happens now for the unlikely lads. For this England team that stands on the brink of immortality when they have all spent a chunk of their football career cast as mere mortals.

They have already gone where the so-called golden generation never reached and are two victories away from emulating the legends of 1966. And it's impossible to escape the conclusion that their togetherness and work ethic has been influenced by the unglamorous road that many of Gareth Southgate's squad have travelled.

All of the players that will feature in Moscow tonight spent last season with a top-half Premier League club, but that status didn't come easily to them. For example, ten of the side that finished the opening match with Tunisia had spent time in the English lower leagues.

Some have tasted the cruelty of rejection; Kieran Trippier was released by Manchester City before rebuilding himself at Burnley; a young Harry Kane was turned down by Arsenal as a kid on account of his chubbiness.


Kane was one of the squad members who used the loan circuit, sampling life at Leyton Orient and Millwall as the early part of his football education. Jordan Pickford grafted it out at non-league level with Darlington and Alfreton to earn his spurs.

‘The first thing he did was burst Craig Bellamy in a tackle' - Dave McAllister on Harry Maguire. Photo: Pete Norton/Getty Images
‘The first thing he did was burst Craig Bellamy in a tackle' - Dave McAllister on Harry Maguire. Photo: Pete Norton/Getty Images

Others worked their way up from a lower-tier existence, with no parent Premier League club watching over them. They occupied a space in the game where a rump of Irish players are always trying to make a living; there's a healthy number of them who can relate to the career experiences of this squad.

Harry Maguire is the obvious fairytale story and has emerged as the real surprise package, even to lads who know him well. Shamrock Rovers midfielder Dave McAllister was sitting on the bench for Sheffield United when Maguire, a local lad still living with his parents, was sent on for his senior debut in a Championship match with Cardiff.

"We were struggling and he came on for the second half," says McAllister, laughing as he recalls the anecdote. "And the first thing he did was burst Craig Bellamy in a tackle."

Maguire was just 18 and playing in a side that was bound for relegation. "He went off that summer as a kid and he came back as a man," McAllister continues. "And I remember he scored a bullet header the first game of the next season. He kicked on then. We went to the play-off final that season against Huddersfield and there was all this talk about Jordan Rhodes, who was scoring goals for them and was supposed to get all these big moves. But Harry had him in his pocket."

‘When he broke through, I said to my Dad 'He'll replace Gerrard at Liverpool' - Shaun Williams on Dele Alli. Photo: Pete Norton/Getty Images
‘When he broke through, I said to my Dad 'He'll replace Gerrard at Liverpool' - Shaun Williams on Dele Alli. Photo: Pete Norton/Getty Images

Sheffield United lost on penalties, and would crash in the play-offs the following season too. Hull had been trailing him but were slow about making a move because of the doubts they had. They weren't alone. "I remember playing against him in a reserve team match at Hillsborough," says ex-Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Paul Corry. "He was strong and physical and good on the ball but would have I expected him to go as far as he has? No."

McAllister understands the sentiment. "If you'd asked me back then if I thought he'd be a main player for England in the 2018 World Cup, I'd definitely have said no," he says. "But he went from strength to strength and the higher he went up, the better he got. And maybe he didn't believe in himself as much as he should have. I've read Gareth Southgate saying that."

In August 2013, Maguire was part of a United team that lost at home to a MK Dons side that featured a young substitute named Dele Alli. The teenage midfielder was already turning heads and his Irish team-mate Shaun Williams knew they had a player on their hands.

"When he broke through, I said to my dad, 'He'll replace Steven Gerrard at Liverpool'," recalled Williams earlier this week. "He was meant to go there but I don't know what happened. He went to Spurs instead.

"I think Dele was 15 when he came into train with us and I thought he was confident and good for his age but he really built himself up after that. When he got the athletic ability to go with the football ability, you just knew he was destined to do well."

Williams is certain that the experience of men's football at such a young age was a benefit, in contrast with kids in academies that get stuck in a comfort zone. "There's lads over here at U-23 level that are good players but at 20, 21 they still haven't played a game. But he was doing that at 16, playing in front of big crowds and with lads who are playing for their livelihoods.

"And he was confident too, well able to demand things from lads that were older than him. He was like a 22-year-old at 16. Fair play to him, he's a hard-working lad, and he's reaping all of the rewards."

At Sunderland, Pickford's team-mates at academy level always knew they had a star in their ranks, even if his CV was taking him around the houses. Bohs defender Dan Casey was grateful for the welcome that himself and fellow Irish recruit James Talbot received from the down-to-earth local lad. On the pitch, the talent was obvious. Casey was struck by how good Pickford was with his feet, possessing technical ability that would have matched some outfield players. "He was on a different level to other goalkeepers," says Casey.

"He was a real talker, a real winner - win at all costs. Everyone looked up to him at the club; you could just tell he was going to make it. Everyone was talking about him when I went over there. He kept going out on all these loans, but we all knew it was a matter of time before he broke into the team."


Away from the pitch, he was struck by Pickford's relationship with the staff at the club he'd been around since the age of 8. "You'd see him playing table tennis with his old coaches from years back," Casey recalls. "And he was a lovely lad, he really looked out for us lads coming over.

"We'd heard there was offers coming in from huge clubs, but he was very level-headed. He was one of the lads; he never thought he was better than anyone else."

That is a quality that appears to run through the squad, an awareness of where they've come from. Alli still looks after Williams if he ever has any issues with tickets. McAllister and Maguire have stayed in touch.

The big defender was pictured with a Sheffield United flag as he celebrated an England victory early in this competition, and has retained the same network of friends from his youth. He travelled to Euro 2016 as an England fan, and comes to Dublin once a year for a night in Temple Bar with his brothers and friends - he might start to get recognised now if the tradition continues.

"I texted him when he got into the squad first," says McAllister. "And I'm sure he's getting thousands of messages from people, but he would take the time to reply to you every single time. If England do go on and win the World Cup," he continues, laughing again, "the silver lining on the cloud would be that Harry was a part of it."

There is no doubt that goodwill towards the England squad has been helped by a PR drive, but there is a likeability about the group because they have not always lived in a bubble. It's a feature that we normally associate with Ireland squads because there tends to be a proliferation of late developers who really appreciate where they've come from.

Their predecessors have spoken of how England duty used to weigh them down. Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Steven Gerrard have opened up on the divisions and disharmony that lay at the root of their failures. This England group are pulling in the right direction, and it will give them a real chance when the going gets tough. Bigger hurdles have been crossed to make it this far.

Irish Independent

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