Sitting at a picnic table in the Staffordshire sun one Friday last July, Gareth Southgate was asked who he would like to play him in a film of his life. It was a joke, but only just.
Two days later, Southgate’s England team were to play in the final of the European Championship at Wembley. No England manager’s stock had been as high since Terry Venables led the national team through the 1996 version.
Almost six months later, some have sought to diminish the scale of Southgate’s achievement. One common narrative is that his team had not been positive enough during a final that was eventually lost against Italy on penalties. But caution was not the mood the day before the final.
England captain Harry Kane is mobbed by his team-mates after scoring the semi-final winner
Gathering his players together before the biggest day of their careers, Southgate had broken free from the rather reserved and calm persona his players had become accustomed to in order to deliver an address that had free spirit and courage at its heart. These are the days of your lives, Southgate told his players, and he was right.
The backdrop to last summer’s tournament was one of returning freedoms. The dreadful scenes in and outside of Wembley during the final soured that night. But everything running up to that had played perfectly to the theme of a nation — and a sport — getting back on its feet. It is worth remembering that pandemic restrictions had been such across the UK that only the last two rounds of Premier League games in May had witnessed the return of spectators and even then in small numbers. For the FA Cup final between Leicester and Chelsea, just 20,000 had been allowed inside Wembley.
So England’s progress through a European Championship that — thanks to a kind draw — was played almost entirely at home was a journey accompanied by rare optimism. Not until those three successive missed penalties late on Sunday, July 11, did England stray from the script.
Southgate’s leadership was flawless. His tournament build-up had been chaotic. He was criticised for picking four right backs in his pre-tournament squad, then immediately lost arguably the best of them, Trent Alexander-Arnold, to injury during his first warm-up game in the fog at Middlesbrough.
Luke Shaw celebrates his early goal for England in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley
Two of his most senior and important players, Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson, were long-term injured while Raheem Sterling was searching for his best club form and captain Harry Kane had become unsettled at Tottenham. But one of Southgate’s great qualities in his five years at the helm has been an ability to bring players together for a common cause, enabling them to block out external pressures and leave club issues behind.
In the past, international football with England would too often restrict and inhibit good players. Under Southgate, it has proved to be the opposite.
As one senior player remarked privately at the start of this domestic season: ‘Playing with England used to be spoken of as a problem. With Gareth it can sometimes feel like a release.’
England’s St George’s Park camp was not always an oasis of calm and common ground, of course. No tournament base ever is. Players and staff are simply cooped up together too long for that.
There was some early bemusement within the squad at Southgate’s reluctance to start Jack Grealish. Equally, some players wondered why £73million Jadon Sancho — about to complete a move from Borussia Dortmund to Manchester United — was left on the periphery.
Southgate’s team didn’t quite get over the line as Italy prevailed on penalties in the final
After a 1-0 opening win against Croatia in a Wembley hot-house, Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland gently admonished their players for over-celebrating what was in reality merely an opening step on the road. Nevertheless, England grew into the tournament and took the country with them. That was the beauty of it.
Truth be told, they were scratchy during the group stages. They looked anything but a team capable of going all the way in a goalless draw with Scotland in a Friday night downpour and only a rather functional 1-0 win over the Czech Republic prevented them heading out on the road to the likes of St Petersburg and Copenhagen for a knockout schedule that might well have proved beyond them.
Tournament history is littered with teams who sprang from the traps only to fall over when the really big moments arrived.
England did it the other way round and a 2-0 win over Germany in the last 16 not only opened up an inviting side of the draw but also imbued Southgate’s players with the belief that something special was possible.
Southgate’s decision to reduce his players’ training load and switch to a back three in order to neutralise Germany’s buccaneering wing-backs combined to sweep England’s great sporting enemies aside. A glaring miss by Thomas Muller with the score at 1-0 also helped.
Gareth Southgate consoles England forward Bukayo Saka after the penalty heartache
The Three Lions boss gave us memories to last a lifetime and we are forever in his debt
Sterling erred to provide Muller with that opportunity and he was one composed German finish away from being the villain of England’s summer. As it was, the Manchester City player established himself as England’s player of the tournament, just a free-kick away from where he grew up. Sometimes, when the dice are rolled, they land on your number.
If Sterling was one shining light then Kane was another. Equally, full backs Luke Shaw and Kyle Walker brought form to the table above and beyond anything they had produced for the two Manchester clubs who pay their wages. Maguire, restored to the team for the final group game, was also exceptional and Jordan Pickford finally established himself as an international goalkeeper of repute.
England’s side of the draw was the right one to be on. Ukraine — quarter-final opponents beaten easily in Rome — would struggle to beat most Premier League sides, and Denmark, running on adrenaline following Christian Eriksen’s near-death collapse in game one, finally ran out of steam during extra-time at an electric Wembley.
England clinched that result on the back of a penalty that probably should not have been given. Even then, Kane had to convert on the rebound.
Had England been asked to face either France, Belgium or Spain along the way then a first final for 55 years may well have eluded them. But as Southgate sat at that table that afternoon in July, he carried the air of a man who believed anything was possible and that mirrored the mood of a country that had forgotten what it was like to feel that way.
Ultimately, it wasn’t to be but the nation remains in his debt for what he gave us. When the singer Adele made her big English comeback this winter with an invitation-only concert at the London Palladium, Southgate was not only on the guest list but one of the few chosen to stand up and ask her a question.
Southgate asked her who she would most like to collaborate with and it felt appropriate, for that’s what England’s Euros had relied upon. Collaboration, unity, selflessness and spirit. And some emerging talent, too.
At the start of it all, the 51-year-old manager had sat down with Marcus Rashford and told him his minutes on the pitch would, in all likelihood, be limited. The emergence of players such as Grealish and Phil Foden had forced him down the order. But Southgate asked Rashford for his commitment in and around the camp and knew without waiting for the reply that he would get it.
This is the England that Gareth built. So Southgate’s team didn’t quite get over the line and that felt like a kick in the guts at the time. It doesn’t feel that way now, though.
It feels instead like a return to international relevance for England and, in an uncertain world, it may yet get better from here.