Advertisement

Gareth Southgate enjoying World Cup challenge with England

Gareth Southgate enjoying World Cup challenge with England
From ESPN - October 6, 2017

England are trying to enjoy the moment after booking their place at the 2018 World Cup, but Gareth Southgate's side know they face a battle to win the hearts and minds of a sceptical public.

The likes of Portugal, Netherlands and Italy might cast an envious eye at the Three Lions' qualification with a trip to Lithuania still to go but Thursday's arduous Wembley win over Slovenia -- a grind on the pitch and a trial in the stands -- felt anything but celebratory.

Harry Kane's injury-time effort at least ensured they crossed the line with a victory but with tens of thousands of seats left unclaimed, and those in attendance more entertained by their own paper planes than events on the field, the challenge was to re-engage with a careworn fanbase.

Asked if he was enjoying the tricky challenge of leading his country, Southgate said with a chuckle: "Weirdly, I am. Although I am not certain I am standing here thinking 'well, is not it brilliant to qualify for the World Cup, I am feeling all the love' but I get it.''

Euro '96 is held as the high watermark for the national side in the Premier League era, with an entertaining team capturing the wider imagination on home soil before crashing out to Germany in a semifinal shootout.

Southgate, of course, missed the decisive penalty in that match and now finds himself in charge of rekindling the old affection.

"They might find it difficult to find much love for me with my history with England! I have managed to shoulder that for 20 years,'' he said.

"My job, my first objective, is to get the country to a World Cup finals. Then make the team as good as we possibly can and that's what I intend to do.

"The more we can play football which excites people and score goals, will of course start to win people over. We are in an era where it must be difficult for the supporters to relate to players because of what they earn and all of the hullabaloo that is around them. But these are good kids, desperate to play for England.''

The treasured status of Euro '96 relies on many things, including a timeless anthem from the Lightning Seeds, but central to the memory is an England team who conjured Paul Gascoigne's wonder goal against Scotland and a 4-1 demolition of the Netherlands.

All of which provides proof that England do not need to lift the the trophy in Russia next summer to make their mark.

"I think to go into the latter stages would be looked on as a success if I am being honest,'' said defender Gary Cahill.

"I am not saying let's go out in the latter stages and then it's been great. We have seen when England reached the semis in 1996, when Gareth was there, and I remember as a boy that felt massive. Yet we did not win.

"From the fans' perspective, if you look at the last time we won anything for England it was a long, long time. So naturally they do not expect. But I'd like to think everyone is positive and behind us.''

Joe Hart, the squad's most experienced hand with 74 caps and two World Cup campaigns already under his belt, added: "We want to be part of that one special team that does something. It's not to prove people wrong, it's to make people happy.

"There's no bigger bug or buzz than being part of a good national team. I really enjoyed my good memories of 1996 and I'd love to give that feeling to some other children.''

It is unlikely those youngsters who witnessed this week's dour encounter felt that magic and Cahill admitted it made for an unusual night at Wembley.

"It was a bit strange,'' he said. "Of course you want the fans on-side. You want the whole country to be behind the team. It was not fantastic on the eye and yes, there's a lot we still have to learn, but we are trying to deliver with a young team.''

Hart sympathises with those who have felt let down in recent times, because he counts himself among them.

"I am an England fan too,'' he said.

"As well as walking off the field gutted at the last tournaments as a player, I understand how people feel. It's our job to change that. The only way to do that is by doing well at a tournament.

"People probably are going to be cynical but at the back everyone's minds, they want us to do well.''

England's players could find themselves staying in unusually basic surroundings once in Russia, but Southgate is convinced it will be an enjoyable environment that will allow them to thrive.

Advertisement

Continue reading at ESPN »