Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Euro 2024: For Gareth Southgate’s England, it may be now or never – BBC Sport

Must read

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, England manager Gareth Southgate takes charge of his fourth major tournament at Euro 2024

  • Author, Phil McNulty
  • Role, Chief football writer

Gareth Southgate’s England land in Germany to face the acid test that will either confirm them as the real deal or simply the nearly men who cannot get over the line when it matters.

Southgate’s reign – whether it concludes at the end of their Euro 2024 campaign or stretches beyond – must always be viewed through the prism of the progress made in relation to the shambles he inherited.

Now 53, Southgate was handed the role permanently in November 2016 after the Football Association’s 67-day and one-match dalliance with Sam Allardyce.

Allardyce had succeeded Roy Hodgson, who resigned following England’s dismal last-16 exit to Iceland at the Euros in France.

Since then, Southgate has taken England to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, the Euro 2020 final and the 2022 World Cup quarter-finals in Qatar.

Friday’s embarrassing Wembley defeat to Iceland, their famous conquerors at Euro 2016 who are now ranked only 72nd in the world, was hardly the fanfare farewell England wanted as they head off to Germany.

It left Southgate with plenty to ponder before Sunday’s tournament opener against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen but should also be viewed in the wider context of it being a friendly before the serious business starts.

There is much to be optimistic about as England touch down and head to their base in Blankenhain.

Southgate has also brought about a sense of wellbeing inside England’s squad, where players now enjoy representing their country without feeling dragged down by the weight of the shirt and expectation, as well as having generated a sense of goodwill towards the team and himself once more from outside.

Indeed, Southgate’s reign has provided enough storylines for a West End Theatre production titled Dear England – the problem being there is no happy ending to this story either on stage or on the pitch.

Dear England is, however, making a comeback next spring with a few blank spaces at the end of the current script waiting for Southgate and his squad to change the narrative to a winning one at Euro 2024.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, England’s golden boy Jude Bellingham is now a Champions League winner with Real Madrid

There are enough sub-plots accompanying England’s campaign to ensure there will be plenty of conversations around whether this will be Southgate’s last stand.

England arrive in Germany blessed with world-class talent and some stellar performers who would be the envy of every other country at the Euros, from captain Harry Kane to the new golden boy Jude Bellingham – now a Champions League winner with Real Madrid – along with Manchester City’s Phil Foden.

Southgate’s squad selection was bold and thrilling in midfield and attacking areas, with Crystal Palace’s Adam Wharton and Eberechi Eze stand-out picks, and Newcastle United’s Anthony Gordon and Chelsea’s Cole Palmer also adding width and flair.

It meant no place for Manchester City’s Jack Grealish or Tottenham playmaker James Maddison, while Southgate will feel the loss of Manchester United defender Harry Maguire to injury heavily, having come to rely on his leadership and presence.

England’s squad has experience and exuberance. They should feel capable of winning Euro 2024.

And this time there can be no excuses – anything other than victory must be regarded as a huge disappointment. To call it a failure would be too strong if, as slated, they play France in the semi-final and run into Kylian Mbappe and company at their best.

But major disappointment? Absolutely.

The stakes are also high for Southgate, such a measured and mature figure who has brought authority and common sense to a notoriously difficult job after a period when matters went haywire in the Hodgson years and that uncomfortable flirtation with Allardyce.

What the manager and England must do out here now is prove they are winners.

England can be surrounded by every feelgood factor going but it will not stretch beyond the summer if they come up short once more.

Southgate’s future will also undoubtedly be a source for debate whatever the outcome in Germany. He has given no hints of departure, while talk of potentially succeeding Erik ten Hag at Manchester United has been brushed away – his principles, apart from anything else, meaning England has his full focus.

Image caption, England have talent every other country at Euro 2024 will envy in Harry Kane and Phil Foden

The manager’s next move is sure to be fashioned, in large part, by events over the coming weeks.

If England do not end the barren sequence of the men’s team stretching back to the World Cup win in 1966 then Southgate may just feel four major tournaments over almost eight years means his race is run.

His record is better than anyone with the Three Lions since Sir Alf Ramsey, while Southgate will have managed England at more tournaments than both Sven-Goran Eriksson – who oversaw three quarter-final exits – and Hodgson.

Former Fulham boss Hodgson led England at three major tournaments, although his last two – at the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, when the team failed to make it out of the group, before the humiliation against Iceland two years later – proved to be painful sources of national sporting embarrassment.

If England win in Germany – and what a chance they have – then Southgate must decide whether to go out on a high or have a third crack at the World Cup in 2026.

His side are regarded as favourites by many, even though their rating of fourth in the Fifa rankings means Belgium and France are ahead of them. A group containing Serbia, Denmark and Slovenia will not be taken lightly but holds no terrors.

If all goes to plan and England top the group, they could then face Italy in the last eight, France in the semi-final and potentially Spain in the final.

As this is England, “if” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that statement.

England, though, do have a squad capable of winning the trophy and that is why anything else will not be regarded as enough.

Image caption, Southgate’s England have missed big opportunities like the Euro 2020 final at Wembley

It is clear that Kane, Bellingham, Foden and others would sit easily in any of their continental rivals’ teams.

England have a reliable, experienced goalkeeper in Jordan Pickford and a world-class centre-half, when fit, in Manchester City’s John Stones.

Searching questions remain over left-back, central defence and who fits alongside Declan Rice in midfield, but elsewhere England do look the real deal – except they are not until they win something and that is the rub with Southgate and this team.

Will the disappointments of the past three major tournaments forge the mental steel powerful enough to see England crash through what has sometimes seemed like a psychological barrier at the big moments?

Or will old demons and memories resurface when it comes to the pressure points of Euro 2024?

The answer to these questions will shape so much about the immediate and long-term future for England and Southgate.

More on this story

Latest article