IAN LADYMAN: He’s had beers and barbs thrown his way, but Gareth Southgate is ready to bring back the joy at Euro 2024!


One thing that is certain about managing your country 98 times is that it builds within you an instinct of when to push on and when to take a step backwards.

These last few days in Blankenheim have seen England manager Gareth Southgate turn the dial down a little bit. Golf, cricket, cycling, anything to take minds away from the stresses and strains of a major tournament.

‘I’m enjoying being here and I want to be here for another fortnight,’ Southgate said on Saturday. ‘I’ve got nothing to rush back for. I’m in the final of the staff padel competition. The kit man is my partner, it’s the team from heaven.

‘We’re surrounded by science and data in our world now, but sport is about joy and enjoyment.

‘Sometimes in a tournament, football is all you’ve got to think about and you need other stuff to enjoy and focus on.

Gareth Southgate has toned the dial down ahead of the upcoming knockout sage of Euro 2024

He had had beer thrown his way in plastic cups following his side's draw with Slovenia

He had had beer thrown his way in plastic cups following his side’s draw with Slovenia 

The Three Lions boss highlighted the need of things other than football to 'enjoy and focus on'

The Three Lions boss highlighted the need of things other than football to ‘enjoy and focus on’

‘I feel we’ve been through a good week in that sense.’ 

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Whether Southgate and kitman Pat Frost get to see their padel competition through to its conclusion depends entirely on what happens here at the Veltins Arena on Sunday night.

England face Slovakia with a place in the last eight of Euro 2024 at stake. If Southgate steers his team through, he will get to lead his country for the 100th time in Dusseldorf next Saturday. If he doesn’t, he will in all likelihood leave the post he has held for almost eight years.

No wonder the 53-year-old has sought to lighten the mood a little at England’s base camp. Not only has their journey through the group stage been unconvincing, it has taken place amid a cacophony of criticism both from back home and inside the stadiums here in Germany. It has, to say the least, been an unusually stressful fortnight.

On Tuesday in Cologne, Southgate had plastic beer cups thrown at him after his team drew 0-0 with Slovenia. Afterwards, he admitted his presence as England manager was making life difficult for his players.

So on Sunday night, back in the Ruhr Valley where England opened their tournament with a 1-0 defeat of Serbia a fortnight ago, Southgate faces one of the greatest tests of his time with England. This is his fourth major tournament, but the first that has felt as uncomfortable as this.

‘I think the biggest thing is that we know that what we have done over a long period of time works,’ he said when asked to reflect on his spell in the job.

‘When you are a younger manager, you don’t always have evidence from results and you are not certain where the players might be with ideas.

‘But then as you get more experienced, you know where the group of players are, you know when they are with you and you know what they need to do to win football matches.

‘There is no question that you cannot fasttrack that feeling, but that is very much where I feel I am now and am very much looking forward to this next phase of the competition.’

He has been reflecting on his eight-year spell in charge, which could come to an end this summer

He has been reflecting on his eight-year spell in charge, which could come to an end this summer

He has tried a number of different ways to try and guide his team through the tournament

He has tried a number of different ways to try and guide his team through the tournament

Southgate has tried several different ways to guide his team through the difficult early days of this tournament.

He suggested his players were not listening to some of the early criticism, only for captain Harry Kane to reveal they very much had been. Then, after the Slovenia game, Southgate asked that all negativity be aimed at him.

On Sunday night, he simply has to find a way for his team to play better. If he cannot do that, England will lose to the first team that manages to play well against them.

His refusal to make wholesale changes to his line-up points to stubbornness or faith in his players, depending on your point of view. He was also keen to push back against an acceptance that England have landed on their feet in the easier side of the draw.

‘That’s what we’ve been dealing with all tournament really,’ Southgate said.

‘When people say easy draws, I don’t think Germany in the round of 16 last time (at Wembley) was a particularly easy draw, given we’d not beaten them in a tournament since 1966.

‘So we can only deal with our own messaging to the players. We’re very aware of the strengths of the opposition we’re going to play. Tournament football is tough and some of the best performances I’ve seen in this tournament have been from Slovakia, Georgia and Austria.

‘I’ve seen some of Slovakia’s games months ago and was very impressed. They build from the back. In Stanislav Lobotoka, they have a playmaker that can dictate the game. They get their full backs high early, they press very aggressively from the front, so you’ve got to be able to play through that pressure and they obviously have some experienced players and a very settled side.

‘So, yeah, it’s going to be an extremely tough game. We know that and we can’t do anything about what other people think.’

A penalty shootout is a possibility on Sunday, and England have some strong takers in their ranks

A penalty shootout is a possibility on Sunday, and England have some strong takers in their ranks

With a penalty shootout now a possibility, England have some consummate masters of the art in their ranks.

Some, such as Cole Palmer and Ivan Toney, will not start Sunday night’s game, but Southgate confirmed he is prepared to throw them on as substitutes even though such a plan backfired with the introduction of Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford towards the end of the Euro 2020 final. Both players went on to miss spot-kicks.

‘We are always refining that process and we want as much control of that as we possibly can,’ Southgate said. ‘We have prepared over a period of time and we definitely have a lot more regular penalty takers for their clubs than we had three or four years ago.

‘I think in the World Cup final Argentina brought Pablo Dybala on with two minutes to go and he scored. In the Europa League final before our Euro final, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer brought on Alex Telles and Juan Mata in the 123rd minute. They scored but lost the game and he got slaughtered for not changing his goalkeeper. Hindsight is always the master in those moments.

‘You make decisions for the right reasons, but you will be the only one who ends up accountable.’

If Southgate occasionally sounds like a man rather weary of the noise, chatter, presumption and conjecture that follows him — and every coach — through these tournaments, then that is because he is.

When he took this job after the Sam Allardyce fiasco in the autumn of 2016, it was supposed to be for the short term, a solution to a problem that nobody could have foreseen. That he is still here almost a century of games later says everything for what he has achieved. There is an element of England’s fanbase that will never accept him and he has known that for a long time.

The England camp sang happy birthday to Jude Bellingham (left), 21, and Eberechi Eze (right), 26, on Saturday

The England camp sang happy birthday to Jude Bellingham (left), 21, and Eberechi Eze (right), 26, on Saturday

He still takes an innate and instinctive pleasure from the nuts and bolts of the job, though. On Saturday, for example, there were two lots of Happy Birthday to be sung in the team meeting as Jude Bellingham turned 21 and Eberechi Eze 26.

On Sunday night it is back to the touchline for game 99. He has asked the England fans here to repeat their in-game backing of the team from last Tuesday.

Then it is down to the players. Has Southgate found a way to drag their real selves to the surface? Has turning down the dial done the trick?

If England are to move forward there simply has to be something different, something better, on Sunday night. It is as big a test of Southgate’s credentials as there has ever been.



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