“You’ve always got to have another goal, another aim,” said Gareth Southgate, looking back on the successful first phase of his England tenure, gearing up for what is next.
England play Belgium on Thursday night in a game that has been steadily deflated of all competitive tension over the last week. Both teams are through to the last-16, both will make changes. There will be harder challenges ahead.
But Southgate has already achieved the first parts of his mission. Not just winning the first two group games and qualifying England for the last-16. But regarding the broader cultural context around the England team too.
Southgate has achieved what many thought would be impossible here in 2018, with the Premier League dominating the national football landscape like never before. He has reversed years of disaffection and built an England team for the nation to fall in love with again. That looked very distant just two years ago at Euro 2016 but the transformation has been remarkable. In the last few weeks the England team has become more popular, more admired and more fashionable than they have been for generation.
Of course six points and eight goals help, but that is also a tribute to the personality of Southgate and the players he has picked. They are open, engaging, forward-thinking, modern and optimistic. Southgate is proud of the players he has picked and the changes they have brought about.
“For me, there is always more than just football,” Southgate said. “I know that I am always judged on winning football matches, I am always focused on that. I think when you are playing for your country that there’s something bigger that you all represent. And I think the players understand that as well. They’ve engaged in that.”
That is not by accident. It was always part of Southgate’s plan. “It was definitely one of the objectives when I took the job on,” he said. “Playing for your country is different to club football. One of the things that makes it different is the pride of representing your country, and the engagement with the public.”
That engagement had been eroded over the past decade. “There has been a disconnect, there’s no question about that,” Southgate said. “That is partly down to results but also at times there’s been a misunderstanding of the players. Maybe a little more openness now has allowed the public to understand that they are all supporters. They are kids with really intriguing stories to tell. All very different, all from different communities and different parts of the country, which can inspire people within those communities to go and do something with their lives. A lot of our lads have come from really tough backgrounds. I think their stories and the way they have spoken about them has been really inspiring.”
Southgate feels that all this work is starting to make progress. “I feel that there has been a process of rebuilding confidence. It’s a process of rebuilding enthusiasm in the country behind the team. It’s not just about winning matches, it’s about the way the guys conduct themselves.
“Our public aren’t fools. They see when a team is together, when a team is proud to play for them. And they see the style of play as well. And the different attributes that these boys have. We’ve got a different type of player coming through our system. They’re working with top coaches, more tactically aware, technically better. They can knock some barriers down of how we’re perceived. We’ve seen that with our junior teams and there’s no reason that can’t filter into our first team.”
Now that the England team are loved again, the next job is to keep winning. “My life and my career in football have taught me not to get carried away,” he said. “We want to keep on improving and getting better. What is lovely is the enthusiasm from people at home, the enthusiasm for the team, and engagement with the team. They deserve that because they are who they are and what they want to do. But I’ve also got to make sure that they keep grounded and keep getting better because we are going to have to if we want to progress as far as we want to.”