This is Gareth Southgate’s England; this is what England can be.
England’s Euro 2016 wreckage left the national side in turmoil to match political turbulence at home. Now, they are a beacon of light.
To be an Englishman in France at the end of June two years ago was a peculiar kind of torture.
An existence with enough head-shaking to induce neck-ache, usually mumbling “shambles”, “dreadful” or “so, so sorry” to anyone asking for an observation.
The questions revolved around two subjects: England 1 Iceland 2, and the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union that had come four days earlier on June 23.
Colleagues from overseas and locals – Parisians in my case – were fascinated by the hubristic self-sabotage connecting these events that defined the strange, wonderful islands we call home.
A nation divided, a team humiliated
The Brexit vote left the UK bitterly divided and entrenched along battlelines. Those wanting to howl with rage or laugh at the futility of it all found an outlet in Roy Hodgson’s England as they fumbled their way to a Euro 2016 exit, but very little else.
For many, the referendum was a moment of triumph and liberation. Passions were – and still are – strong on both sides. But for “Millennials” – those of us who came of age after the turn of the century and can’t afford a house because we buy avocados, don’t make our sandwiches and like holidays, or something – it was bleak.
Among voters aged 18 to 24, 73 per cent voted to remain in the EU; 62 per cent from 25 to 34 concurred. If you had been lucky enough to grow up over the previous decade as someone who travelled, studied or worked abroad, this did not feel like your England.
If you proudly counted people from different countries as friends, owing to those privileged experiences, the turn inwards was embarrassing. So were the England football team. Sam Allardyce was manager for about five minutes before resigning amid a newspaper sting that never properly stung anyone. Gareth Southgate was seemingly appointed because no one else was remotely viable.
Gareth Southgate would…
On the Three Lions plodded, making workmanlike progress through a World Cup qualifying group never likely to prod those Iceland scars. On went the never-ending rows and the unedifying political sludge.
Then, in the mannered and polite tone millions have come to adore, Southgate gently rattled the cage.
“I always say being an island saved us in 1945, I’m not so sure it’s helped us ever since,” he said in March 2017, ahead of his first matches since landing the England job permanently.
“I think we’ve got to broaden the horizons. It’s understandable, the lads see one league, they see Sky Sports News. They think we’re the centre of the earth and we’re not.”
At this point it is worth noting the folly of projecting your own thoughts and dreams on to teams and athletes. But we all do it – it’s one of those things that makes sport matter more than it ever should.
To hear an England manager challenging notions of superiority, of the “best league in the world” and of equating football with military achievements of the past was pure music. Self-awareness, self-deprecation and decency are very English too, you know.
Writing their history, telling their story
Another enjoyable moment came before June’s final pre-tournament friendly against Costa Rica in Leeds when Southgate flatly dismissed England players becoming bored at the World Cup – naturally, he apologised for his flippancy – and discussed the joy of a job that brings experience of different nations and cultures.
This followed the squad’s NFL-style media day at St George’s Park, where all 23 players selected for Russia faced reporters. It was a masterstroke.
Southgate challenged his players to make their own history at this World Cup but their openness meant we learned more about the experiences – relatable and remarkable – that shaped these impressive young men. The barriers between team and supporters were scattered like bowling alley pins at England’s merry Repino media base.
Danny Rose spoke about his struggles with depression, describing a place in Southgate’s squad as his salvation. Later, Raheem Sterling detailed how he helped his mother clean toilets to make ends meet as a single-parent immigrant from Jamaica.
Fabian Delph went home mid-tournament for the birth of his third child, gleefully labelling his wife “an absolute machine” upon resuming duties as squad utility man and informal librarian. Jesse Lingard never stopped trying to make everyone laugh.
Germany 2006, not England 1990
Of course, none of this is any use without winning matches. But England managed that, too, while playing on the front foot with a clear plan. These players were as much fun on the field as on inflatable pink unicorns during recovery sessions.
Croatia deservedly prevailed in the semi-final but this crop of prize-winning youngsters signals better days ahead. Southgate remains a raw international tactician with plenty to learn and the goodwill to steer him through that process. This should be Germany 2006, not England 1990.
“The diversity [of the squad] has definitely brought people together,” said Delph ahead of Saturday’s third-place match against Belgium.
“It’s great for the country and great for us as players to be part of that as well, and almost force that to happen.”
Sadly the “It’s Coming Home” memes are again accompanied by a political sludge as thick and toxic as ever. Stick the news on this weekend. There’s a visitor in town.
Delph and colleagues get to force England into togetherness once more against Belgium. Enjoy this team of young, ambitious, multicultural and fun-loving footballers.
Gareth Southgate’s England feel like the best of what their country can be – a team looking out to the world in their manager’s image who reminded a divided nation how to hope and dream as one.