England facing battle to win public hearts and minds

England are trying to enjoy the moment after booking their place at the 2018 World Cup but Gareth Southgate’s side know they face a battle to win the hearts and minds of a sceptical public.

The likes of Portugal, Holland and Italy might cast an envious eye at the Three Lions’ qualification with a trip to Lithuania still to go but Thursday’s arduous Wembley win over Slovenia – a grind on the pitch and a trial in the stands – felt anything but celebratory.

Harry Kane’s injury-time effort at least ensured they crossed the line with a victory but with tens of thousands of seats left unclaimed, and those in attendance more entertained by their own paper planes than events on the field, the challenge was to re-engage with a careworn fanbase.

Asked if he was enjoying the tricky challenge of leading his country, Southgate said with a chuckle: “Weirdly, I am. Although I am not certain I am standing here thinking ‘well, isn’t it brilliant to qualify for the World Cup, I am feeling all the love’ but I get it.”

Euro ’96 is held as the high watermark for the national side in the Premier League era, with an entertaining team capturing the wider imagination on home soil before crashing out to Germany in a semi-final shootout.

Southgate, of course, missed the decisive penalty in that match and now finds himself in charge of rekindling the old affection.

“They might find it difficult to find much love for me with my history with England! I’ve managed to shoulder that for 20 years,” he said. “My job, my first objective, is to get the country to a World Cup finals. Then make the team as good as we possibly can and that’s what I intend to do.

“The more we can play football which excites people and score goals, will of course start to win people over. We’re in an era where it must be difficult for the supporters to relate to players because of what they earn and all of the hullabaloo that is around them. But these are good kids, desperate to play for England.”

The treasured status of Euro ’96 relies on many things, including a timeless anthem from the Lightning Seeds, but central to the memory is an England team who conjured Paul Gascoigne’s wonder goal against Scotland and a 4-1 demolition of Holland.

All of which provides proof that England do not need to lift the the trophy in Russia next summer to make their mark.

“I think to go into the latter stages would be looked on as a success if I’m being honest,” said defender Gary Cahill. “I’m not saying let’s go out in the latter stages and then it’s been great. We’ve seen when England reached the semis in 1996, when Gareth was there, and I remember as a boy that felt massive. Yet we didn’t win.”

England reached the last four at Euro ’96 before defeat to Germany (Neal Simpson/EMPICS)

He added: “From the fans’ perspective, if you look at the last time we won anything for England it was a long, long time. So naturally they don’t expect.

“But I’d like to think everyone is positive and behind us.”

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