Gareth Southgate must have thought he had exorcised the ghost of Germany just over a year ago.
Of all the highlights of English football’s 2021 summer of love, his team’s 2-0 win over the Germans at Wembley in the last 16 of the European Championship stands out.
Finally, Southgate had another reference point than the penalty missed on that same plot of land against the toughest opponent of all 25 years earlier.
England’s under-fire manager Gareth Southgate spoke of the importance of togetherness
But here we are again. England and their manager are in a little trouble and certainly under pressure as the World Cup looms against a backdrop of poor form and results.
On Monday night, as Southgate’s England prepare to say farewell to their public ahead of Qatar 2022, Germany are the opposition again. For England the game is a Nations League dead rubber. They will finish bottom of their group whatever happens.
But this is a game that means much more than that. All 90,000 tickets were sold back when England were much fancied to have a real run at the World Cup. Now the mood has changed and if England tank again, there will be plenty of people around to tell them exactly how they feel.
Victory over Germany at last year’s European Championships was one of Southgate’s biggest
Hansi Flick’s Germany have also struggled of late after a 1-0 loss to Hungary in Leipzig
‘Part of the reason we’ve been successful in tournaments has been the feeling of togetherness,’ Southgate said frankly on Sunday night.
‘We can’t succeed with the fans against us, or you guys in the media not feeling warm towards us. It’s harder if we’re having to battle with the opposition and then battle with things on our own island as well.
‘We don’t want the team to be in that type of environment because it is much harder to succeed. Only we can rectify that by performances and results, but that’s the desire.’
Southgate was booed by some England supporters in Milan on Friday night after a defeat that took his team’s winless run to five games. That felt hard on a man who has delivered so much but would nevertheless pale by comparison to what he may receive if things go badly on Monday.
Now 52, Southgate has been involved with England long enough to know how it works. It felt strange to listen to him talk frankly about his own future on Sunday. It was only last summer that people were asking him who he would like to play him in a film about his life. It was only last autumn that he signed a new contract.
But Southgate is pragmatic. He knows the weight of expectation that comes with the job. He says that does not worry him — and he is believable on that subject — but of greater concern is what he calls the ‘outside noise’ may do to his players if they don’t produce something much better against Germany.
‘In one guise or other I have been to 12 tournaments and I have seen pretty much everything,’ he said.
‘I have seen the cycle of war with the media. I have seen the absolute love-in and we are somewhere in the middle of that right now.
‘That is fascinating to observe from my side and it is a life experience I knew, at some stage, would probably come with this job.
‘I want to put things right. I want to win. I want the team to play well and I want the fans to be happy. That is why I took the job. I want to make a difference.
‘The stadium’s sold out for this. People want to see this team play. That’s because the players have done an unbelievable job for six years.
‘We were on the back of a really difficult time, in terms of relationship with the fans, at the start of this journey. Slowly we’ve built.
‘Of course it’s not healthy for the team to have this noise around them now.
‘It’s for me to allow them to go and play. I want them to feel the freedom. We always talk about that. So I would urge the supporters to get behind the team.
‘How they deal with me at the end or on the phone-ins or wherever else, is completely different.
England have already been relegated from their group in the Nation’s League after Friday’s loss
‘But this is their last chance to see the boys before they go to the World Cup. And we’re all in it together. We can only succeed if we’re all pushing in the same direction.’
A goal would help England’s cause. Apart from Harry Kane’s penalty in a 1-1 draw in Munich last June, England haven’t scored since Tyrone Mings did so in the last minute of a pointless 3-0 win against 10-man Ivory Coast back in March.
England were considered one of the World Cup favourites back then. That was always a stretch, by the way. Now the opening game of Qatar 2022 against Iran in November seems ever more difficult.
Reminded on Sunday of the scenes at Wembley after England beat Germany last summer, the opening scorer — Raheem Sterling — was asked if people in football have very short memories. That, after all, was one of the most memorable nights of all our footballing lives.
Sterling briefly smiled and said: ‘Football is brutal at times. That’s why we love it.
Southgate shares a very strong working relationship with Chelsea forward Raheem Sterling
‘Yes it was a great tournament last summer but once you produce like that people expect more and when you go put results like these recent ones on the table, of course they’re going to be asking questions.
‘For me, they are right to do that and we now have to change that and make people realise we are the real deal.’
Germany have had troubles of their own recently. So have France and indeed Spain. England are not alone.
Reputation still counts for something, though, and Southgate’s team will attempt to mend the holes in theirs on the back of a five-man defence once more. Against the big teams, that will not change. Two months out from Qatar, however, the mood suddenly feels more important than the details.
Southgate was not afraid to discuss the end of his tenure on Sunday. The FA continue to hope it does not come to that.