Aside from certain publications targeting Raheem Sterling, preparations for this World Cup have been the smoothest in recent memory for England’s national team. Where predecessor Roy Hodgson’s foot was never too far from his mouth, Gareth Southgate has announced himself as a consummate diplomat, tough but not uncompromising, with his handling of the Sterling situation particularly impressive.
There have been none of the farces of the past. The list seems almost endless, including the “dentist’s chair” in Hong Kong’s China Jump bar where Terry “El Tel” Venables’ Euro ’96 men refuelled with shots of high strength liquor and Glenn Hoddle’s attempt to soothe those players he was omitting from his France ’98 squad, including a distraught Paul Gascoigne, with the jazz sax sounds of Kenny G parping in the background.
Then came the curse of the metatarsal, as suffered by David Beckham and Wayne Rooney in 2002 and 2006 respectively when both were at the peak of their powers. And following that, the infamous “Capello Index”, where it was revealed Italian autocrat Don Fabio had signed up to a sponsored gizmo that published his view of his own players, all for a not insignificant fee.
Did any of that have an effect on England’s performances? Each major tournament since 1996 has seen players who strut the Premier League stage with unbreakable confidence suddenly become so brittle that carrying the weight of a nation on their shoulders reduces them to rubble. A disturbed build-up then leads the agenda for the pained post-mortem and calls for the root and branch reforms that follow.
The Football Association has not had a happy couple of years, what with scandals like the Eni Aluko/Mark Sampson stand-off that wracked the England women’s team, or the financial concerns that are likely to lead to Wembley Stadium being sold off to private interests.
But so far the World Cup has been a good news story. Ahead of the squad’s flight to Russia this weekend, there have been few dramas, and little to hide, either. On Tuesday, an ‘open house’ approach was pioneered when every member of the 23-man squad was presented to the media in the style an NFL team might volunteer its players ahead of the Super Bowl. This was a move greeted with universal approval by a press pack usually starved of access.
Meanwhile, Southgate has made sure that nobody is flying to Saint Petersburg with any unwanted, excess baggage. Jack Wilshere and Joe Hart, potentially divisive characters who made their feelings clear about the disappointment of missing out, will have to watch events in Russia on HD TV or in the bars of their chosen sunshine destinations.
“Good tourists” is what Southgate has plumped for, and a group of players with not too many scars from previous failures. Right now, the national expectation is for little more than a decent performance or two before exiting at the hands of someone who might actually have a chance of winning the tournament; one of Germany or Brazil is likely to be a quarter-final opponent if England get that far.
No worries, then? Southgate will know that this is the phoney war, and while it is being negotiated professionally and to wide approval, as a former England player he knows the only true judgement comes from what happens on the pitch. His personal reputation may never be as strong as it is right now, since as soon as his team kick off against Tunisia then each kick will be placed under the microscope.
Southgate enters the tournament with the intention of playing three at the back, a formation he himself was part of as a centre back under Venables in 1996 and Hoddle in 1998. In qualifying and recent friendlies it has been effective enough, but can it hold up when the usual panic stations of an Englishman at a major football tournament have been manned?
The accepted norm, and one given its most definitive performance when Hodgson’s England lost to Iceland in Nice two years ago, is the sight of anxious young men reverting to the reflex of aimlessly hoofing the ball up the pitch.
Southgate’s previous international tournament coaching experience was at the 2015 Euro Under-21 finals when his young players, including Harry Kane, his captain in Russia, did almost exactly that in crashing out of the group stage in the Czech Republic.
While the football media is usually sympathetic right up until the point their all-expenses paid trip to a tournament is endangered, it is the front pages, the hard news men, who will be far less understanding. It is such headlines that England players fear, and can inhibit them. Perhaps they and Southgate should enjoy the build-up while they still can.