Gareth Southgate said he is not one for Churchillian speeches. For a start, he will not try to be something he is not — but equally Churchill is another of those figures with less meaning to his players than to the older generation. Much like Peter Bonetti.
‘I made the point to Jude Bellingham that it probably wasn’t relevant to him, what happened at the World Cup in 1970, and he absolutely agreed,’ said Southgate.
Actually, he could have made the same point to his dad. Mark Bellingham was not born until 1976. His son was born the same month that Michael Owen made his 50th appearance for England.
England boss Gareth Southgate is not Winston Churchill but he knows how to lead
All week, Southgate has been insisting that these details matter. That a group of young men cannot be burdened by the past. So while he might not do Winston — and might be met with blank looks if he did — that does not mean he does not know how to lead. Listen to this.
‘Every time you pull on an England shirt you have the opportunity to score a goal that will be shown for ever, that lives with people for ever. To create a bit of skill, to be involved in a match that survives in the memory. That’s the beauty of playing for your country and it’s to be cherished.
‘If you think of all the big players in history, when you picture those great players it’s usually in an international shirt. That’s the opportunity every time, and it’s one that few get. They should relish that.
‘These landmarks are opportunities, to go beyond where some fantastic players have gone before. I can’t win this game. It will be the players who win it. The opportunity is theirs.
England players are looking to buck a woeful trend as they face Germany in Euro 2020 last-16
‘What happened to me in my career has helped in many areas of my life, but it’s of no importance to them. At some point, barriers are broken. That’s the mentality we’ve got to have.
‘I can’t give closure on what happened in the past, because I can’t give closure to my team-mates and they’re the ones I think about most. I can’t heal everything for everybody else.
‘But this team has an opportunity. In previous eras we’ve always talked about the past and other teams with their records, and the baggage and everything else. There’s no reason for these boys to feel that way. Most weren’t born when a lot of those games happened. It’s an irrelevance for them.
‘You can make these things as big in your head as you want. It’s a game of football, and they’ve played hundreds of them. We’ve got to focus on things we can control. I made the point explicitly this week that they shouldn’t worry about what’s gone before.’
The Three Lions cannot be burdened by previous failures as they target history at Wembley
And what has gone before? Well, if you are of a certain age, you will know. It isn’t just Germany, you see. It’s Argentina, it’s Brazil, it’s Portugal, it’s Italy, it’s Croatia. It’s losing to the first good team England play, in a knock-out round. That’s the baggage. That’s the legacy. That is the history that must be banished at Wembley this evening.
The nation obsesses about Germany because, so often, it has been them. And England do not even have to lose. At the World Cups in 1982 and 1990, at the European Championship in 1996, England drew with Germany – and on each occasion went out anyway.
And while none of this is the experience of the players who now shoulder a nation’s hopes, they have pressures of their own. It will not pass this way again for the senior players in the team, for Harry Kane or Kyle Walker, John Stones or Raheem Sterling.
The earliest England could ever host a major tournament on home soil after this is the 2030 World Cup — and Mason Mount will be 31 by then. Phil Foden 30, Jack Grealish 33. That is more baggage.
This is, undoubtedly, a moment — but with that comes the responsibility to take it.
Southgate has urged the team to create a moment that will live forever against the Germans
And the aching need to get it right. This isn’t an England team that picks itself. All over the field judgement calls must be made. If this game ends in disappointment, as so many such occasions have, there will always be the gnawing suspicion that a better England was out there, unselected.
Do not for one second think that managers and coaches do not replay these pivotal decisions. Do not think if a result goes wrong, the manager stubbornly believes everything he did was right.
Eddie Jones spoke of years getting over Australia’s defeat, at home, in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final. He has spoken of calls he would have made differently when losing again as England’s coach in 2019.
That, in a worst case scenario, would be Southgate’s baggage, too. The ones that got away, that did not start, that were left on too long, or introduced too late.
In 2007, England’s coaches discussed inserting Owen Hargreaves to shore up midfield for several minutes before Mladen Petric scored Croatia’s long-range winner as England failed to qualify for the European Championship finals. How often do you think, on his journey from Nottingham Forest, to Derby, to Queens Park Rangers, to nowhere, Steve McClaren thinks about that?
England know a win over Germany can create a moment that would be remembered for good
Too negative? Sadly, it is the nature of this beast. With the exception of the dreadful conclusion against Iceland in 2016, England do not tend to be embarrassed by underdogs.
In knockout football, they eliminate almost all of the teams they would be hopeful of eliminating: Paraguay, Belgium (in 1990, not the force they are now), Cameroon, Denmark, Ecuador, Colombia, Sweden, Spain (in 1996, prior to world domination).
The flat track bullies of cliche, they then fold against those countries at the summit of the game: Brazil, Argentina, Italy and, of course, Germany.
And, it can be argued, perhaps, no shame in that. Since 1966 only two of the 12 teams who have knocked England out of major tournaments have failed to make at least the semi-finals. England have lost to four tournament winners, three finalists, three semi-finalists and two quarter-finalists, including Iceland in 2016. How many opponents should they have beaten? Well one, obviously — but maybe another, too.
Southgate has succeeded once already in reversing a negative trend in this England team
That is the crux of this matter. Surely, across five decades England should have found a way through just the once? A penalty shootout, the odd game taken in extra time.
Andy Murray was out-matched in every Grand Slam tournament he ever played. Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will all go down as better players. On three occasions, however, Murray found a way to secure the prize. Yet still England wait.
Most dauntingly, the European Championship is England’s weakest suit. No knockout games won in the nation’s history. Even the 1996 elimination of Spain was by penalty shootout which counts as progression, but not victory. As any statistician will confirm, the official result of the game is a draw. If penalty shootouts delivered true wins, their goals would count, too. And they don’t.
‘It’s an incredible record and something we’ve talked about a lot over the last four years,’ said Southgate. ‘I knew our record didn’t stack up even against Croatia and the Czech Republic, but I didn’t realise Spain was our only win.
His challenge is to banish the baggage of the past and find a mental edge to succeed
‘Historically England have always qualified well but these games are the moments on which we’re judged. It’s less of a mental block, I think, than just playing the best teams.
‘Finding a way through in a tournament’s big matches is about more than just talent. That’s the challenge we’ve seen in the last 48 hours, how to recover from a freak goal, or a red card — it’s about reacting well. As a team we’ll have moments when things go against us, and we’ll need to be mentally strong enough to come through.’
The better news? Since the game against Spain on June 22, 1996, England did not survive a penalty shootout in major international competition for 22 years. And then on July 3, 2018, in Moscow, that changed. England defeated Colombia on penalties to progress to the World Cup quarter-finals.
So, after three decades, Southgate’s players reversed a historical trend. This one is bigger, of course; this one is the biggest. But all mountains look huge, until the summit.