- Video report by ITV News Sports Editor Steve Scott
Gareth Southgate is a measured man, certainly not one for hyperbole, but you can sense he believes his England team has a good as chance as any of winning next year’s Euro Championships.
The Three Lions surprised most objective observers at the World Cup in Russia by reaching the semi-finals and as a result are in a better place approaching what is about as close to a home tournament as it gets.
All England’s pool games will be played at Wembley as will the semis and the final.
“The team has more confidence than two years ago,” Southgate told me before heading off for tomorrow’s draw in Bucharest.
“We’re more experienced and we have a very exciting group of players coming through. The last two games have been the youngest England teams for 60 years.”
But his confidence was not without caution “It’s difficult to pitch where you are after qualifying. We haven’t been tested. We’ll have to get that balance right over next 6 months.
"In Russia we found a way of maximising our strengths and hiding our weaknesses and we’ve got to do that again.”
And what of the added attention next year, the extra pressure of playing in front of home crowds.
It will be impossible for the players to stay in their ‘bubble’ and ignore the expectation. For some that can be intimidating, the England shirt can weigh heavily, is that something he has to consider?
“Yeah, we won’t pick them,” Southgate says without a second’s hesitation.
“It’s key; part of what we do is to assess how they perform in big matches; how they handle those moments under pressure.”
Southgate experienced it all himself as an England player at Euro 96. More than 17 million viewers tuned in to watch the semi-final defeat against Germany.
It was the birth of “football’s coming home”; a scorching summer when streets were decorated with the St George flag and most of the country at some time or other belted out the Three Lions anthem.
So, can Southgate invoke the spirit of 23 years ago?
“The energy we had through that tournament, there were lots of fans who were still in love with the team of 1990 (Italy World Cup) and regained that love despite the disappointment of not qualifying for ‘94.”
After a few fallow decades Southgate sees similarities with his squad.
“I think in 2018 we connected the fans back with the team and we want everyone to enjoy that journey with us.
"People often talk about the disadvantages of hosting but it has to be an advantage. You have your own supporters, the familiarity of surroundings, the ability to prepare in familiar places.”
But what of the harsher spotlight, the inevitable increased scrutiny?
Southgate believes it is a privilege to have the opportunity to give people a few weeks of pleasure at a time when there’s been precious little to smile about.
“Any additional pressure will come because of expectation, because of performances over the past 18 months. It is a brilliant experience for the players and fans to have matches at Wembley.
"If we get to semi-finals, we have the opportunity to come back to play at Wembley and that would be incredible.”
It is true that England under Southgate has become more loveable.
"The players have been more open and genuinely look like they enjoy pulling on the shirt rather than doing anything they can to avoid reporting for duty."
Southgate has put a lot of energy into team culture and unity within the squad but a giant crack appeared before England’s last two qualifying games as Raheem Sterling lashed out at Joe Gomes the day after they’d squared up when Liverpool beat Manchester City in their Premier League match.
Was this evidence that the corrosive prospect of inter-club rivalry was about to destroy Southgate’s blueprint apart?
Far from it, according to Southgate.
“In any team you have moments when emotions run high. The reason we could move forward so quickly and win those two matches so well was because this group is so tight and were able to put things behind them because they talk together. In fact, they all moved on from it within 36 hours.”
And while Sterling was the sinner on this occasion, Southgate has nothing but praise for his star man.
He also has no concerns that his high profile anti-racist campaigning has the potential to affect him or his form.
“For Raheem to play at the level he does so consistently for club and country, well his performances have been brilliant.
"The impact he’s made on wider society and he’s still only 24; he’s used his status to effect things that are bigger than the team and bigger than football. He’s handled all of that brilliantly.”
One of those moments came after the vile and ignorant treatment of England’s black players from the terraces in Sofia.
Southgate is proud of how he, his staff and the players conducted themselves that night.
But is there any lasting damage, what long term impact can facing that level of abuse have?
“Everyone different. That’s what we have to understand. What we want to do is make sure all the players know we’re with them.
"We also know we’re a football team that can’t change the world, we’ll effect things when we can, we’ll make a difference when we can but also we have a job to do.
"We’re not experts in this field so we’re not going to get everything right but our voice carries some weight and in the right moments we’ve tried to use it in that way.”
Did he find it frustrating that UEFA did not hand out a more significant punishment to Bulgaria? Southgate is typically thoughtful rather than reactionary.
“In the end I have some sympathy, in that to try to administer sanctions it is hard to please people.
"Financial penalties to one country are much more of a burden than to another country.
"I don’t think they are things as a coach I can effect, what I can effect is the messaging I give our players, the messaging we all give to the rest of the world but in the end by the time we get to sanctions it’s actually too late.
"We have to try to affect these things before they happen.”
Fresh from taking his England rugby team to a World Cup final, Eddie Jones made much of the diversity in his squad and how such a mixture of backgrounds is a benefit to team performance.
"It is a philosophy shared by Southgate. “Whenever you work in a team you need different views, different skills and you need different strengths.
"I think that’s been a positive, we have a better understanding of each other and what that difference means. We want players to feel they can be themselves; express themselves.
"That you bring all these different characters together to form a team. The strength of the team is the strength of the individuals but they also have to recognise the strength of the team first.
"It’s a difficult mix but very powerful if we can get it right.”
And what of his own future? He’s off to the Club World Cup in Qatar just before Christmas, does that mean he’ll definitely still be in charge for the big one in the desert in 2022?
He hopes so: “I never take things for granted. You know as a manager that people very quickly change and their enthusiasm for you being in charge can change as well.
"People can see the team continuing to improve and I’ve got to always feel I can help that process, which at the moment I do.”
It all feels a world away from the last Euros in France when England’s capitulation to Iceland was a new nadir.
Southgate must take most of the credit for dragging this team from those depths to the optimism and enthusiasm now swirling around the national side.