England exit the World Cup to France in the quarter-finals and the discussion now turns to who might succeed Gareth Southgate or if he stays or goes – TF writer Ed Cole gives us his view.Follow Ed on @edsamuelcole
Welcome to your life, again. As dawn breaks on another day-after-the-night-before, groggy souls the nation over blink in the morning light and slowly start to piece together what happened, and why. Giant flags of St George are somberly removed from pub awnings and their miniature replicas from the windows of Vauxhall Corsas. Reservations for a table near the telly on Wednesday at the Dog and Duck are mournfully cancelled, and the smoldering embers of a hopeful nation are once again extinguished by a cold, drenching bucket of reality.
Meanwhile, Harry Kane’s wayward thunderbolt zooms on past Jeddah and out over the Red Sea. The innocent ball burdened with the brunt of bad-tempered Blighty. The Arabian wind filled with the hot air of the incredulous English following. ‘Southgate must go’. ‘The subs were terrible’. ‘The players aren’t fulfilling their potential’. The ball turns slightly, as a drop of moisture almost resembling a tear slips from its leathered surface. It hurtles further through the unknown, the blinking lights of Khartoum on the horizon. There’s no turning back.
Even while we sleep, tabloid writers will have been sharpening their print works, ready to throw their red-topped meat to the masses baying for blood. The natural reaction of the British press to any incident of national sporting relevance is cataclysmic catastrophism, so headlines such as the eloquent, ‘It’s End of The World’ (Sunday Express) and ‘It’s All Over For England’ (The Times) can hardly be surprising. What’s disappointing is when this near doomsday attitude filters into the public conscious. Not for the first time in 56 Years Of Hurt™, many England fans seem to be losing their patience in the quest for a second international trophy. One day, Jules Rimet, we will find you.
When it comes to tactics and performance, fans should never be chastised for airing their opinions. Football is a sport of opinions. If we all agreed on every decision, both on-field and off, we’d very quickly become very bored. But to belatedly get to the point of the article, I cannot see any sense in calling for the England manager to face the chop.
Southgate’s message since day one has been clear. He wanted the players to enjoy playing for their country again. Inheriting a managerial mess that a certain Mr. Shearer called the worst he’d seen in his lifetime, the good-natured waistcoat wearing third-choice for the job has rightfully received acclaim for changing the entire identity and philosophy of the England setup. A team that was once a collection of egotistical headline-hunters now carries the reputation of socially-conscious hard workers.
Whereas playing for England once meant expecting glory while shirking responsibility, it’s now more akin with humility, honesty and acting on your best behaviour. Southgate has his players working as a team. Yes, this means occasionally playing unattractive, dogged football when required, but that is not how anyone can describe last night’s performance against the current World Champions. The game was won (& lost) on a sixpence and some shocking refereeing decisions, and few can argue that England were equal to the team now very likely to become only the second ever in history to retain football’s greatest prize.
56 years since England last lifted the World Cup. With a tournament every 2 years, that’s around 28 shots at a trophy. For a long time they were miles away, not even in the running. Even in recent years we’ve seen English sides struggle to qualify and go to tournaments where goals are scarce, defences are disorganised and flights home are booked after only 180 minutes of game time. For the avoidance of doubt, international tournament football is really, really, really difficult. It’s a slog and it’s immensely pressured and in large parts, it’s roulette. As a fellow TF writer pointed out – international tournaments are played over 3-7 games – imagine if the same were to be applied to the Premier League? Form and feeling within the camp is everything. Domestic managers get 4-5 days a week, 40-odd weeks a year to get their message across, implement their tactics, and get to know their players. International managers have no such luxury, and just getting the players to feel comfortable within the setup is a large part of the battle.
The best way of doing that? Consistency. Playing for England becomes a much more attractive prospect if you know that, not only does the team compete in the latter stages of every tournament they enter, but also there is a long-standing recognisable format within the international squad. This recipe for any footballing success is a balance between squad harmony and tactical nous, and on the international stage, unlike the domestic game, the former ingredient dwarfs the latter in importance considerably. Didier Deschamps’ accolades as a club manager amount to a French title for Monaco in the pre-PSG dominant days, when Ligue 1 was seen as being on a par with the Championship in terms of quality and reputation. He may now achieve one of the greatest feats in the history of world football by retaining the World Cup. He’s been in post as France manager since 2012.
Perhaps being demanding is just part of being a football fan in 2022, especially as we live through football’s Hollywood era. Turn your back on Mother Nature with wall-to-coverage, suffocating fixture lists and opinion-thirsty social media apps. Just enjoying the game and appreciating the positives of the team is a nuanced position no longer in keeping with the modern game. It seems as the further England have progressed, the more demanding some fans have become, forever insistent on ignoring the positives and accentuating the negatives. Something for Saudi-backed Mags to bear in mind, perhaps.
If England fans are really that desperate to see their team lift a trophy, perhaps they can encourage the FA to submit an application for England to compete in next season’s Diriyah Cup. At least then we can all sleep easy having finally seen Harry Kane hold aloft a lump of metal that somehow gives us justification for the landmass we happen to have been born upon. Perhaps I’m now simply being facetious and cynical. Perhaps everybody just wants to see their country be the best. Perhaps, everybody simply wants to taste that historic moment. Perhaps, deep down, Everybody Wants To Rule The World.
(With apologies to Tears For Fears)
Ed Cole – @edsamuelcole