A day before the bridesmaid’s match in St Petersburg, thoughtful as always, Gareth Southgate noted that the reaction his team had created at home was probably more important than their performances in Russia.
You seldom hear managers reflect in those terms but Southgate is a balanced man who thinks way beyond the training ground. Just as he did when explaining why he allowed Fabian Delph to go home for the birth of his third child, it wasn’t even a difficult call. “Some things are more important than football,” he said.
Some will argue he is paid handsomely to win football matches and nothing else, but surely a modern day international manager is now much more and Southgate has proved that over the past five weeks. During a baking summer when our political elite are prioritising personal ambition before principle and creating division at a defining time for all of us, Southgate has emerged an enlightened leader, possessing many of the traits they don’t. Modesty, honesty and integrity to name just three.
He is a man who has created an environment where not only do players want to pull on the England shirt again but also feel liberated when they do. He has encouraged the same players to be less guarded and more open - some have even said their performances have improved as a result.
In turn, they have reconnected with fans and the country has fallen back in love with them. It wasn’t that long ago England’s footballers were being booed off the pitch and targeted by paper planes at Wembley. This is the bigger picture Southgate always had in mind.
Of course, the football itself does bear analysis. How good is this team in reality? Yes, a rare semi-final, a record win and breaking the shoot-out hoodoo are all something to shout about but Southgate himself admitted this week that when England come up against the ‘big' teams, they are currently falling short. Ultimately that is how England’s progression has to be judged. "We made the top four but we are not a top four team" was his assessment after the bronze medal match. Again, he’s right.
Against Croatia, a team eight places lower than England in the world rankings, they were wasteful in a first half they owned. They had muzzled Croatia’s talented midfield to start with but gradually lost their way. Before they knew it they were on the back foot and the irrepressible Luka Modrić was running England out of town. Croatia deserved their win, no question, and this was the one that really mattered.
Long before the tournament began Southgate had identified the importance of set-piece success and so it proved for England. Their endless practise in this area was well rewarded and contributed more than anything else to their march to the semi-final. But that fact alone may have disguised the lack of opportunities England created in open play. Incredibly perhaps, up until the second Belgium game, of all the teams in this tournament, only Iran registered fewer shots on target per minute. That, of course, is a major concern.
But remember this is a very young squad and they will learn from this incredible experience. The pain of losing when in touching distance of history will serve as motivation for the next tournament. Better that, than bearing the scars of England’s Iceland debacle. That at last can now be consigned to the past.
And just look at a few of the unlikely stars Southgate has pinpointed. Kieran Trippier would almost certainly make the World Cup’s best eleven on his showing in Russia. Jordan Pickford will be difficult to budge as England’s number one for some time now and Harry Maguire has been a revelation. Despite the fact that only thirty odd per cent of Premier League starters are English, Southgate has seen some he likes, crafted some unfashionable picks and made a success out of them.
He is nurturing an environment where some of those not involved, who pre-Russia might have been grateful for a longer summer break, might now adjust that view. And England will benefit if they do.
On this squad’s tails of course are England’s successful younger age groups. Thanks to the FA’s investment in the St George’s Park project, there is a talent conveyor belt that is finally delivering.
Under Gareth Southgate so much has changed in such a short space of time. The players clearly enjoyed being in Russia, they shared that enjoyment with fans and all too briefly united most of the country.
There is a huge opportunity ahead, the real challenge now is not to waste it and England’s man in the waistcoat knows that better than anyone.