Saturday 21 July 2018

Southgate urges England to be brave

Kyle Walker and Harry Kane of England enjoy a training session. Photo: Getty Images
Kyle Walker and Harry Kane of England enjoy a training session. Photo: Getty Images

Jason Burt

Amid Gareth Southgate's confident declarations that England are "ready", that they will be bold and be prepared to make mistakes, that there is nothing that can happen in the next few weeks that "can be any more difficult than what I have faced in my life already", there was a small piece of personal detail the England coach revealed that spoke to the heart of how much all of this means to him.

"It's a very proud moment, of course," Southgate said when asked what it would mean to lead England out as manager when they open their World Cup campaign today against Tunisia.

The 47-year-old then revealingly added: "My family are incredibly patriotic. My granddad was a Marine. I've always been brought up with England being a core part of what we stood for and my life. To have played for England in major tournaments and now managing England is, of course, a huge honour.

"But my focus can't be that I'm a tourist and I'm chuffed to be here. I will, for sure, enjoy the experience because I know too many things I did in the past I didn't take in. I think I would be able to take those things in and focus on the job now because I'm more experienced."

Discipline

Southgate's maternal grandfather was Arthur Toll, a man who was a ramrod straight character, a stickler for discipline, and a strong influence on his grandson. It was interesting to hear Southgate mention his grandfather in this context and it gave a rich personal resonance to this occasion.

There was more. And, this time, it struck to the centre of what Southgate is doing with the England team. In his autobiography, Woody and Nord, more the story of a friendship penned with another former footballer, Andy Woodman, Southgate divides people into "rebels" and "conformists" and, unsurprisingly given the perception of him, he refers to himself as being in the latter camp.

But what now? What after being astonishingly bold since he took over as England manager just one match into the qualification campaign for this World Cup?

"I suppose I have got a bit braver as I've got older and I guess that's the freedom of realising that when you make mistakes, it's the only way to learn and improve. Then you are bit freer," Southgate explained.

"For me, coaching is about allowing others to be as good as they might be. We have lads that are so exciting and I want them to go into this tournament, really go for it, be as good as they may be and not go back and think, 'I wish I had been a bit braver'.

"We are not going to get everything right over the next three weeks - we haven't got it right over the first three - but the feeling is, generally, we are going in a good direction and we will continue that if we continue to play the way these boys can."

Southgate will be keeping the message simple, also, just before his team leave their dressing room to face Tunisia.

"I am conscious of that when I was a player, there were moments before the game when I thought, 'all the manager can do now is f*** it up for me and put me off my game' because I was ready and didn't want to hear too much more," Southgate said. "And I think the boys are ready."

England's involvement in World Cups and European Championships has so often quickly morphed into a wake, with serial failings, brain-freeze and a sense of mortified national embarrassment.

Southgate, of course, has been there before himself as a player - hence his declaration that he can deal with any setback - but there has always been a passion and a pride at the core of everything that this polite, thoughtful, yet inherently tough character, as the world is now seeing in his bold approach, has brought to his career.

Responsibility

From the outside, and picking things up around the England set-up, he appears to have done everything right: from a change of playing system to a change of personnel, to creating the right training camp and being more relaxed with the team, to doing more tactical work than his predecessors, but also giving the players more responsibility.

Now, though, it begins. And there was a warning from Southgate that also needs to be heeded.

"When the draw was made, everyone had this perception that it was the easiest group," he said. "I would argue it is one of the most difficult, with ourselves, Tunisia and, of course, Belgium in terms of the rankings."

The statistics back that up. England are in the top three most difficult groups. Panama, England's next opponents, make up Group G and Southgate knows the importance of getting off to a good start. In fact, England have not won their opening group game at a major tournament since 2006, a turgid victory over Paraguay, and have only done so five times in the previous 26 attempts.

"The first objective is to qualify from the group," Southgate said. "We would love that to be in the first two games and to move forward from there. But we have to be prepared that it might be the 94th minute of the third game.

"Whatever it takes, we've got be ready - whether it's the quality of our play, the quality of our defending, the desire to pull together in moments of adversity - we've got to show all the qualities needed to get through."

Off the pitch, and on it in training, England have made a good start in Russia. They now need to do it as the world watches.

Irish Independent

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