Gareth Southgate’s critics forget what went before, England fans should be careful what they wish for
SIX years into his reign and, in all probability, with no more than seven more matches to go, do not expect Gareth Southgate to start changing now.
And, as England’s most successful manager since Sir Alf Ramsey, why rip up his blueprint?
Harry Maguire may be suffering from a prolonged confidence crisis, while Raheem Sterling has been out of form — and often out of position — since joining Chelsea.
But when Southgate names his team for today’s opener against Iran, he will stay loyal to these two veterans of England’s march to the World Cup semi-finals in Russia and last year’s Euros final.
There may be howls of derision over those two selections but Southgate will be undeterred.
This World Cup is likely to be the 52-year-old’s last tournament and he will stand or fall by his most trusted lieutenants. They are the hill he is willing to die on.
England haven’t won for six matches — their worst run since the dog days of Graham Taylor’s reign almost 30 years ago.
And they played poorly for all but about half an hour of a miserable Nations League campaign. It is a year since winning a competitive match — against San Marino.
But England now have battle-hardened players with records of rising to the occasion, rather than shrinking, at major tournaments.
Southgate’s critics, who tore into him at Molineux and the San Siro after dismal Nations League defeats, seem to forget we spent decades fretting over the reasons for England’s chronic failure on the biggest stages.
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Playing with fear, burnout after long seasons, club cliques hurting team spirit, an obsession with celebrity, a phobia of penalty shootouts, an inability to cope with the boredom in camps.
And during the reigns of Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello, managers who lacked supreme motivation.
But nobody has talked of these issues before Qatar — because England have exceeded expectations in successive tournaments.
The impending dread of inevitable failure is no more. England are united, happy and unburdened by fear.
And their manager, a quiet patriot, a devoted workaholic and an excellent ambassador, is never going to bring scandal to a job once considered ‘impossible’.
If you’re bored of Southgate’s England, as many are, you’ve forgotten what went before.
So there is no surprise he will stick with Sterling and Maguire, two of his Euros stars who made Uefa’s team of the tournament.
Maguire went into those Euros injured but Southgate gambled on the Manchester United skipper and fortune favoured his boldness.
Even now, with Maguire struggling to get a game for United, Southgate won’t jettison him.
Southgate said: “Loyalty comes from performances over time and knowing that to play for England is a different experience to any other, players have to handle that.
“Harry is technically a fantastic footballer, he’s a very strong leader and we haven’t got anybody else with that physical presence.
“And there are the relationships with other defenders — the more those relationships are there over a period of time, it is helpful.”
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Southgate’s detractors claim he had fortuitous draws in both of his previous tournaments. Yet defeating Croatia and Germany last year were not results to be sniffed at.
And nor was the hoodoo-busting penalty shootout victory over Colombia in Moscow in a stadium dominated by South American fans.
At the Khalifa Stadium in Doha today, England will face similar hostility, as tens of thousands of Iranians have made the short trip.
Iran, USA and Wales will be no pushovers but England are white-hot favourites to top Group B, so a last-16 clash with Ecuador or a Senegal side without the injured Sadio Mane is likely to await.
Another ‘easy draw’ then for ‘boring, boring’ Southgate and his ‘same old, same old’ team?
Despite having 18 months left on his contract, Southgate is likely to go after this tournament.
Although FA chiefs, who are devoted to the manager and have no obvious English successor, will be as persuasive as possible in urging him to stay — unless this campaign is an absolute car crash.
But England fans must be careful what they wish for. Following the Three Lions was largely miserable before Southgate arrived and is unlikely to improve after he leaves.