“Gareth Southgate, the whole of England is with you,” screeches Jonathan Pearce at the start of Three Lions 98.
We all know how that ill-fated piece of commentary ends, the future England boss’s decisive penalty saved by Andreas Kopke as Germany progressed in the Euro 96 semi-final. But as Baddiel and Skinner sang seconds after Pearce’s sample ends, “we still believe”.
Fast forward more than two decades and another Euros penalty defeat at Wembley has left Southgate the focus again as England head to the 2022 World Cup. This time, the former defender was in the dugout as Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka missed spot kicks as England lost the Euro 2020 final to Italy.
Only this time, there isn’t a great deal of belief remaining around Southgate and England. ‘We still believe’ it ain’t.
Remove some of the context of the ensuing 16 months and it seems remarkable that the Three Lions – and Southgate in particular – have lost so much faith so quickly. The Euro 2020 final was only England’s second major tournament final and they came agonisingly close to winning it, only three years after playing in a first World Cup semi-final in 28 years.
It sounds like the sort of record that should see Southgate being celebrated, as he attempts to strike third time lucky when his charges kick off off their campaign at a winter World Cup mired by controversy. England should be the bright spark among the gloom.
Yet no wins in more than a year, relegation from the Nations League and a profligate attack has changed the mood. For many, Southgate is now the pariah – the reason why England continue to fall short in the biggest moments, not the catalyst for them in the first place. It’s easy to understand why.
Although among the negativity that has developed around Southgate and his approach, there’s plenty to suggest he’s still the best man for the job and that he could take England to the latter stages of another major tournament.
Of course, the record since the Euros final has been pretty wretched, but Southgate’s entire ethos has been around creating a side that is successful at major tournaments and harvesting an environment that is perfect for international football. There’s little evidence that has changed.
In tournament matches where Southgate has named his strongest available side – discounting the dead-rubber group match against Belgium in 2018 and the third-place play-off against the same opposition – England have trailed for a total of 20 minutes. They tend to lead from the front, be tough to break down and resolute. Don’t lose, don’t go out.
It’s a philosophy that’s different to the club game, where three points for a win normally means goalscoring is more readily rewarded than simply being tough to beat. Knockout football is about staying power instead and it’s hard to adjust, but Southgate’s stubbornness in his conservativism is crucial if England are to win.
It’s a trait that’s similar to many past World Cup winners, with the roll of honour of victorious managers resembling a parade of pragmatic managers.
Reigning champion Didier Deschamps was lambasted by French press as Les Bleus edged through the group stage in 2018, Brazil’s Carlos Alberto Parreira was criticised for winning in an un-Brazilian fashion despite delivering the Selecao’s first success in 28 years in 1994, and Spain’s tika-taka masters of 2010 were purveyors of the 1-0 win.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Southgate is keeping company with some pretty successful stablemates.
Besides, even if Southgate wanted to win with more style, it’s hard to see how he’d deliver that successfully. With such little time on the training pitch in international football, any drastic change of style would probably leave the side vulnerable – transitioning at a time when they’re enjoying one of the most successful periods in England’s history.
Coming close to glory, only to fall short isn’t always a sign of failure, though. Sure, Southgate quite rightly attracted criticism for his lack of proactivity to hold on to early leads in those tournament defeats to Croatia and Italy, but as long as he shows signs of learning from where things went wrong previously, he deserves the chance to go again. The concession of a late equaliser without making a single substitution in a qualifier against Poland last autumn is a concern that isn’t the case, but the proof of the pudding will come this winter.
Deschamps pointed out that lessons from France’s defeat to Portugal on home soil in the Euro 2016 final was the perfect grounding for them to win the last World Cup, while West Germany lost two successive World Cup finals in 1982 and 1986 before finally winning in 1990.
The example that provides most hope that Southgate could crack the code in Qatar is that of Joachim Low. The Germany manager had fallen short in two semi-finals and a final before winning in the 2014 World Cup.
Low was a DFB man and had worked up the ranks as Jurgen Klinsmann’s assistant at the 2006 World Cup and there questions about whether he had the ability to turn Die Mannschaft’s talented generation from perennial nearly men to winners. Those calls for him to give way for another manager prior to the 2014 World Cup were soon forgotten as Germany lifted the trophy in Brazil.
There’s no guarantee that Southgate will follow in Low’s footsteps, but the idea that international teams go in cycles has credence. With fewer matches, less time on the training ground and the need to work with the pool of players available at that time, the national game tends to develop along a much more gradual trajectory than a club side does.
Patience is a virtue and the England boss has it in abundance. Maintaining consistency, not chopping and changing players or tactics, and understanding how to bond a team of people is Southgate’s modus operandi.
Southgate’s style of play might not be thrill a minute and there’s understandably some frustration that he doesn’t let the handbrake off more often, but in one of the most open World Cups in recent memory with chaos likely due to the lack of pre-tournament preparation, slow and steady might not be so bad after all.
So while the whole of England no longer seems to be with Southgate in Qatar, we should still allow ourselves to believe. After all, that’s what football is really about.
Chris is the author of How to Win the World Cup: Secrets and Insights from International Football’s Top Managers (Bloomsbury), which is out now and includes exclusive interviews with the likes of Sir Geoff Hurst, Roberto Martinez and Jamie Carragher.