Football: A dream of being the lion of Lyons

Gareth Southgate is ready to finally lay to rest the ghost of his Euro 96 penalty nightmare. By Adam Szreter
Click to follow
GARETH SOUTHGATE has probably had a recurring dream over the past few weeks. It takes place in Lyons, the quarter-final of the World Cup, England versus Germany. The game is all-square after extra time and the penalty shoot-out stands at five apiece with Germany having just missed their sixth. A volunteer is needed by England and up steps Southgate. The other players try to restrain him but there's no going back. He walks purposefully to the spot and places the ball, takes a few paces back, a short run and smashes it high into the top corner of the net past the flailing right hand of Andreas Kopke in the German goal.

Just as the country rejoiced when Stuart Pearce made amends at Euro 96 for his miss in Italia 90, so we would, and perhaps even more so, for Southgate. Many players may not have been able to live with the memory of failure that Southgate has been obliged to cart around with him these past two years. Their ego would have been dented beyond repair. But Southgate, fortunately, does not appear to have much of one to dent.

"It's not really relevant to what happens in this tournament," he said at Bisham Abbey earlier this week. "It's not something that's going to happen until the knock-out stage so I'm more focused on the other 90 or 120 minutes of the game rather than something that was 10 seconds of a 15-year career. You could go on forever but nothing I can do would replace that because the players who were involved, like Pearcey, have missed out on that opportunity so I can't do anything about it.

"I've played my part in us qualifying again, I played my part in Le Tournoi last year, so I don't feel I've anything to prove as a professional. Of course that incident is always going to rankle with me but you have to be positive and look forward and, hopefully, I'll play a big part this summer as well."

Having recovered from his ordeal at Euro 96, where he had been one of England's best players prior to the fateful spot-kick, Southgate is entitled to feel miffed by now that he is still not regarded as an automatic choice for his country - this despite the fact that only Paul Ince has played as many times for England under Glenn Hoddle and that the only qualifying match that Southgate missed, against Italy at Wembley, was the one England lost.

But a difficult season at club level for Aston Villa undermined Southgate's cause, to the point where there was even a slight doubt about his inclusion in the final 22. "I'd have been bitterly disappointed if I hadn't made it," he said. "I've been involved in every England squad now for the past three and a half years and the manager's used me in a fair number of his games. You never take it for granted, especially when you look at the people who have been left out, but I was pretty confident I would be going."

Southgate is not a certain starter against Tunisia on Monday but one theory is that Hoddle will try to stick as close as possible to the team that performed so heroically in the final qualifying match in Rome, and that would mean Southgate playing on the left of a three-man defence alongside Tony Adams and Sol Campbell. He knows there will be fierce competition from Gary Neville, Martin Keown and Rio Ferdinand, but whoever plays will have to be able to deal with the strict new Fifa guidelines concerning foul play, particularly the tackle from behind.

"Paul Durkin [England's World Cup referee] has come in and showed us videos of five or six challenges, but what he showed us was fairly black and white. It may be what was a yellow card before is a red card now but most of the tackles we saw, you'd be in trouble anyway. Maybe it will work to our advantage that we'll have nearly a week to watch other games."

There was one question that simply begged to be asked, but Southgate, quite frankly, is such a decent bloke that maybe no one dared. But just supposing it was the quarter-final, against Germany, in Lyons - would he? We may not have long to wait to find out.