At a time when we are ruled by political inadequates, spineless out-of-their-depth nobodies like Theresa May and David Davis, opposed by non-entities like Jeremy Corbyn and at a time when a Pound Shop fascist like Tommy Robinson is revered as some sort of hero, thank goodness for Gareth Southgate. England has never been so hopelessly weak and divided by austerity, the increase in inequality and, yes of course, by Brexit, then Southgate is an unlikely hero, but hero he is.
I have not been particularly proud of my football team in general since Euro 96 and before that 1990. There have been isolated moments of joy from the likes of David Beckham but generally the national side has dealt only in underachievement and disappointment. Why is it so different now?
Southgate was not everyone’s choice of England manager. He’d not set the world alight in club management but he had done all right with the Under 21s. More than all right, actually. I suppose the Premier League’s obsession with foreign managers as well as foreign players has meant that there were few alternatives to Southgate – Fat Sam Allardyce was given the job before him for goodness sake – so we make the best of a bad lot. Except the bad lot appears to be a rather good lot.
If you had offered me a last eight position in the World Cup, I would have bitten your hand off. If you then said we were two games from the final, I might have laughed in your face. What a fool I would have been.
The new manager did something almost unheard of: he picked players on the basis of form and ability, rather than on reputation. He then designed a system designed to cover, if not hide, England’s technical deficiencies. The players and now the country have both bought into it. Southgate has managed the impossible: the English like their national team.
It does not matter that we scraped home against Tunisia, or thrashed a poor Panama or lost to Belgium or ‘only’ beat Columbia on penalties. How Italy and the Netherlands would love to be in our place. And Germany and Argentina for that matter. Nor does it matter that we score so many goals from set plays. It shows we are good at them. What is wrong with creating goals from clever set pieces?
And let’s have a word of praise for the FA, here, who wrote to FIFA complaining about the man-handling of players at set pieces, especially corners. Anyone think they have been listening? I think so, too.
Could we go ‘all the way’? Could football finally be ‘coming home?’ On the face of it, probably not. But wait. How many Swedish players would get in our team? I reckon none. Are Russia really a great side? No way. Are these two sides so much better than us? And if either were to play friendlies or even qualifying games against England, do you think they would be favourites to win? Neither do I.
I am daring to dream, just a little bit. If it all ends this weekend, we can get back to the massive problems facing our country. We had a good ride.
Gareth Southgate has built a squad that is far stronger than its individual parts and he will need to more of the same in future. As England battle gamely on, the squillionaires of the Premier League are still importing more and more foreign players and the opportunities for the likes of Lingard, Rashford, Stones and Loftus Cheek, not to mention all those home grown Arsenal stars, will dry up.
The myth that we don’t care about our national side has been exploded this year. But if our national game doesn’t build on whatever we manage to achieve in Russia, it will prove to have been a waste of time.