There are Scots who will tell you that they cannot bring themselves to watch events at Wembley on Friday night because of a fear of what might unfold. The gallows humour felt by some around the squad was evident when the England interim manager Gareth Southgate was asked about the possible presence of Andy Murray in the dressing room before the match - and replied to say that “unless he’s playing left back, he’s not going to affect the game.” ‘That’s better than what we’ve got,’ observed one Scot in the room.
If England think things are bad, with their third manager in five months and Terry Butcher describing watching them as “purgatory”, then they have nothing on the pessimism felt by the other lot. Murray is not actually expected to be anywhere near Wembley. He has a ‘tough training schedule’, say his people, though the risk of prefacing a defeat with motivational talk must be about as appealing to him as being dragged into that tired debate about whether he has enough affinity with the English.
The point is that Southgate could not have been designated a more modest opponent against which to demonstrate that he would like to become permanent manager – an appointment that the Football Association seem manifestly keen to make, with no active search for an alternative candidate currently taking place. The intelligence, humour and self-deprecation with which the 46-year-old speaks make that a very palatable prospect. But in this results business, defeat to the world’s 42nd ranked nation, who feel like a side on their last legs under current management, would remove any credibility from a decision to appoint him. The indifference of England’s performances for 45 minutes against Malta and 90 minutes against Slovenia makes that increasingly so.
The laughs Southgate raised in another revealing discussion of his methods and philosophy were well-earned. “I was captain of my school because I was the best player. But then I was captain of my youth team because I was the most sensible, probably,” he reflected. He also returned to the theme of the English nation’s rose-tinted view of how good the national team once used to be, when it has actually been delivering “turkeys,” for years, as he put it. “I don't think every England and Scotland team down the years has been great,” he said. "But it's like the summers of our youth. We remember the hot ones and we don't remember the ones where we were sat in front of the telly, do we? "
But while thoughtfulness and reserve are conspicuous by their absent from the ego-fuelled space football occupies, the question surrounding his fitness for this job is whether he has the force of personality to make England into winners. Quiet men have certainly flourished at the helm of great sides – none less than Sir Alf Ramsay; Bob Paisley, the most successful of them all in his ration of trophies per season; more recently Carlo Ancelotti and Claudio Ranieiri.
But it was the mental ‘brittleness’ that the FA’s chief executive Martin Glenn identified as the weakness at the European Championships this summer. It inherently feels as if something muscular is required. There will be a cerebral, psychological emphasis if Southgate delivers - and it will certainly not be a rejuvenation on the lines that Eddie Jones has instituted in English rugby, which has had an arrogance at its heart.
“We are going to believe we can win test matches and are going to believe that we are going to be the best team in the world. If that is being arrogant, then it is being arrogant,” Jones said earlier this year. “To me, it is belief about what we can do. I am quite happy for the players to talk about that because that is the way we are going to think.”
Football managers talk evangelically about arrogance, too – it’s a core part of Brendan Rodgers vocabulary and Roberto Martinez even pinned up motivational posters about it. But when the word cropped up in the conversation with Southgate on Thursday, it triggered a telling aside to Jordan Henderson, who was sitting beside him. “We don't like arrogance do we?” Southgate said.
During one of the larger team discussions he has staged to overcome some players’ diffidence and encourage a sense of purpose in them all, one of the squad had observed on Wednesday night that “confidence if it becomes arrogance can lead you down a path that is dangerous.” There was apparently a consensus of support for the view.
“I think arrogance suggests you take the opposition for granted, that you can’t be hurt or you can’t lose,” Southgate said. “I think that is the difference. It is great to have huge belief in your ability, which [Paul] Gascoigne’s goal [against the Scots at Euro ‘96] was. That is an example of an incredibly creative mind. I don’t think he was trying to humiliate a player.”
He volunteered the observation that there is a point where the traditional sense of fair play has not helped England. Harry Kane nearly getting “decapitated” by Portugal’s Bruno Alves and then leaping up, for example. “We are on the pitch. We want to win,” said Southgate, his inference being that Kane should have stayed down.
He didn’t disagree that Uruguayan Diego Godin’s foul on Daniel Sturridge at the 2014 World Cup was in the same category. He cited England's World Cup match against Argentina in St Etienne in 1998 where the gamesmanship of Diego Simeone turned the match.
In some respects, there has been too much arrogance in England: that puffed up sense of entitlement that the national team can bring to tournaments was one of the many unattractive aspects of this summer. So, too, the armies of boorish supporters who colonised corners of French cities back then. Doubtless the continentals look at England, post-Brexit, and say the team’s footprint reflected a national mind-set.
But of course, these inflections on sport and the way to approach it are no more than that. The real significance resides in the players’ need to fuse, to understand the plan, to respond to goal-scoring opportunities far more quickly, to defend far more competently; in short: to thrill. It has been many a long day since we have been able to say that of England, though Southgate believes they will. “I’ve had longer to work them now,” he said.
It’s a “complicated business,” as the American president-elect put it on Wednesday, and Eddie Jones certainly understands the shifting definitions that come with the turf. “If you are winning and you are arrogant, it is self-belief,” he said. “When you lose, it is being arrogant.”Reuse content