This story starts in Chaleroi, 17th June, Euro 2000. England have just beaten Germany thanks to a rising header from Alan Shearer and the country has hope. As will come to be commonplace over the next decade, the hope is, of course, short lived. A tired lunge from Phil Neville condemns the team to defeat at the hands of Romania in their next game and the three lions are out. Germany join in the fun, going one better and finishing bottom of the group. Inquests ensue.
For England, this soon spells the end of Kevin Keegan, his tenure ending on a rainy evening at Wembley. The Germans go bigger, their early departure from France/Belgium signalling a mass restructure of the national game that soon bares fruit. An appearance at the World Cup final in 2002 is a sign of things to come, with a series of semi-final and final appearances following. They go all the way in Brazil in 2014. England, meanwhile, chart a far more unremarkable course, turning in a series of lethargic tournament performances. If insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly expecting different results, they look destined for a life of institution.
The world continues to turn, years pass and the World Cup is here again, only this time, change may finally be afoot, with England guided by Gareth Southgate and a wider plan at work. This tournament can’t be seen in isolation, but part of a wider journey.
The origins can be found in 2014 with Southgate, then u21 manager, a driving force. In a bid to rejuvenate the national game and usher an upturn in results, ‘England DNA’ was born, a philosophy outlaying exactly what it means to be a footballer for England.
Recent indications have offered promise, the u17 and u20 teams both winning their respective World Cups, with the u21s winning a succession of Toulon tournaments for good measure. It’s only in 2016 when Southgate took over the senior team that change became evident at the very top.
Having overseen England’s qualification for the World Cup towards the end of 2018, Southgate sought to make his mark on the team, quickly changing to a 3-5-2 formation, with an emphasis on possession, quick passing and lots of movement. The switch signalled an upturn in performances, with a series of impressive results, including a 1-0 win in Amsterdam over Holland in March. If Southgate achieves nothing more than making England friendlies watchable then he’s done well.
A major change from his predecessors can be seen in Southgate’s method of squad selection. The collection of players at the manager’s disposal is less star studded than previous years and there are weaknesses. The team have a lack of top quality centre-halves – forcing Kyle Walker to slot in. Similar to many teams at the World Cup, a top quality central midfielder would also help.
What they lack in star power, they make up for in pace, energy and humility. Critically, they possess a chemistry on the pitch that recent teams did not. Ten years removed from the ‘golden generation’, this group has, at the very least, a shiny tint.
This lack of star power may also be seen as an advantage, with few players certain of a place in the team, allowing Southgate total control to select a starting eleven that he wants. Amidst the continued pressure from the national press to pick certain players, he’s shown a steadfast determination to stick to his guns, choosing the players who will fit his system instead of those to keep the back pages at bay. Difficult decisions made in the lead-up to Russia are also testament to his self-confidence, with Jack Wilshere, Jonjo Shelvey and Joe Hart left at home, despite pressure from the papers. Henry Winter put it best – “the reason why Gareth Southgate has a chance with England is he doesn’t really care about us”.
Make no mistake, Southgate’s refusal to bow to press pressure doesn’t mean they are being ignored. Instead, the manager’s fresh approach includes a specific PR plan designed to keep journalists onside. Media days in the team’s training camp have included darts tournaments, players against sports writers, allowing relationships to build while bullseyes have been hit. Meanwhile coverage from FATV has made the team far more accessible, helping the nation familiarise themselves with England’s young, likeable group of players. It’s allowed the England team to seem far more approachable than in past years, a self-sung World Cup anthem away from being a real team of the people. The strategy is a testament to modern media and the very recent emphasis placed on connecting with fans – the FA tweeting fan reaction videos following England’s last gasp win against Tunisia further proof.
Amidst the jubilation of Monday’s result, as city’s across the country were rife with chants being sung and car horns sounding, it was easy to forget that this was the first match in the group stage. In reality, this new-look England have their eyes set on a far greater prize. This is a journey. Just how far they’ll go remains to be seen.