Gareth Southgate is calling on Wolverhampton Wanderers fans to get behind a West Bromwich Albion favourite tonight, as England Under-21s look to Saido Berahino to lead the charge towards the 2015 Euro finals.
England take on Croatia at Molineux in the first leg of the play-offs and Southgate, the head coach, is beseeching the old gold and black faithful to cast aside their parochial differences for one night only – even if they boo him again the next time he faces Wolves at club level.
“I would hope that, in an England shirt, Saido will get a suitable reception and the fans get behind him,” Southgate said yesterday. “Then when he comes back with West Brom, they hammer him – like they should! That’s football. I hope the local fans will be able to put their club allegiance to one side just for one night.”
Berahino, after a troubled latter half of last season with West Bromwich, has hit peak form this autumn, scoring six times as Albion have started to find their rhythm under Alan Irvine, and Southgate is gratified to witness how the 21-year-old is maturing after a winter undermined by a dressing-room fracas with team-mate James Morrison.
“I had to have a chat with him at the end of last year, but we’ve worked quite closely together,” Southgate said. “At times, when he has needed a bit of encouragement and advice, we have talked regularly and I am delighted with how he has started the season. What I like about Saido is when he has dips in form he recognises it, he acknowledges it and he has a desire to put it right.
“People say managers pick teams but in the end players do. They make themselves selectable and put themselves in a position where they make it impossible for them to be left out. Saido’s in great form and long may it continue.”
Berahino has scored eight times in as many games in an unbeaten qualifying campaign since Southgate took charge but Croatia promise to offer a greater challenge in the two legs over the next four days. No team can match England’s record of qualifying for the past four tournaments – although Southgate must do without Carl Jenkinson, the on-loan West Ham United right-back, Nat Chalobah and James Ward-Prowse.
A crowd of around 21,000 is expected at Molineux, where Southgate will continue to push not only for victory but to maintain a playing formula that will enhance his players’ development. “I want them to win with a style that will make them successful to take them to the seniors,” he said. “If I’m making it harder for them so be it, but that’s the benchmark I want to set.”
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