England’s trip to San Marino carries simple beauty as more complicated issues lie ahead

Victory is essentially a given, but the joy of reaching ‘the biggest show on earth’ should be valued

Miguel Delaney
Chief Sports Writer
Monday 15 November 2021 07:34
"We're here to do business" - Gareth Southgate ahead of San Marino qualifier

While the more complicated questions about Qatar will start to come for England after Monday, a simple beauty shouldn’t be overlooked.

That is the joy of just reaching what Conor Coady giddily describes as “the biggest show on earth”. England are one of only a few countries to have found qualification fairly forgiving in the last few campaigns, but it wasn’t always like that.

You don’t have to go back too far to find a time when the final whistle for games like Monday’s was greeted with jubilation, and celebrated like a league win. You don’t have to look far, either, given the number of countries who are so desperate to be involved.

Consider the last time England had a final qualifier within the Italian borders, albeit over 200 kilometres from San Marino in Rome. The players were vigorously punching the air after a side featuring Gareth Southgate fought out the 0-0 against Italy they needed.

Such scenes were on Coady’s mind as he was asked how he would react to England claiming the point they need against San Marino.

“Ecstatic. Absolutely ecstatic. I think it’ll be a proud moment to say you’ve been involved in these squads and getting our country to the biggest show on earth. That’s a massive, massive achievement for everybody involved. People can speak about what they want, but we’ve had a job to do over the past year and we’ve got to a point now where we can get ourselves over the line with a good performance and a good win to make sure we can get there as calmly and smoothly as we want.

England and Wolves centre-back Conor Coady

“I'll be honest, we speak about it all the time, speak about the excitement. The coaching staff speak about the excitement, the manager speaks about the excitement all the time of trying to get to the biggest show on earth. That’s what we speak about and I think it’s important we speak about it because that’s where we want to be, that’s what we’ve worked so hard for over the last year with the qualifiers we’ve had.

“We need to make sure we finish the job tomorrow. It’s an important opportunity for a lot of people and an important time to make sure we get to where we want to get to. It’s an exciting time and we’re all really looking forward to it.”

Many people might not say the same about what is broadly considered a dead rubber against San Marino, which is one reason there isn’t exactly much excitement about the prospect of qualification. If the group was generally a procession, this match is virtually a given. It can very much be taken for granted.

That can be seen in the pull-outs – with five of Southgate’s regular starters withdrawing – and the team, with Emile Smith Rowe possibly making his first international start and Conor Gallagher ready for a first cap.

Harry Kane doesn’t see it like that, though. He sees it as an opportunity for goals in pursuit of a record, all the more so since he didn’t start the group’s three other fixtures against the minnows so far – two against Andorra, and the reverse game against San Marino.

“Well, he’s quick to let me know that he hasn’t played in those games!” Southgate laughed.

“With Harry, I don’t think it would be right to treat this game any differently to any other by giving you the team. But, for sure, he is keen to play. He wants to play. We have got to make sure we get this game won and we still have to try to qualify for the World Cup.”

Harry Kane moved on to 44 England goals following his hat-trick against Albania (Nick Potts/PA)

Southgate naturally refused to give away the starting line-up, but one comment led to a lot of conclusions being made, as the manager confirmed Coady would not captain the team.

Does that mean Kane definitely starts?

His situation actually lends a little more intrigue to this match, especially given all of the debate about his form before the hat-trick against Albania. Some might naturally dismiss a desperation – for that is almost the case – to play in a match like this as “stat-padding”. It would also be fair to wonder what Antonio Conte might make of this, given players from top-four rivals such as Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Mason Mount, Luke Shaw and Jordan Henderson will not be appearing.

The flip side is that the Italian specifically wants his Spurs players to be much fitter, and that Kane could arguably do with the games more than most to get back to speed. It has been a conspicuously slow start to the season, even more so than usual for the 28-year-old.

There is at least the possibility that Friday represents a turning point, as Kane sharpens up. Another glut of goals would help. If Kane starts, as seems likely, it will come amid a glut of changes. It might also give a vision of World Cups of the future, with Gallagher and Smith Rowe set to feature.

Gallagher’s presence means a fifth member of the squad that won the 2017 Under-17 World Cup will get a call-up, after Smith Rowe, Foden, Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi, further emphasising the success of England’s youth set-up.

It did feel there was the slightest rebuke of the last of those, as Southgate elaborated on the progression of his young players, and how Gallagher made the step up from the under-21s due to drop-outs elsewhere. Hudson-Odoi did not join up with the younger group in this break, although it feels certain now he would have started this game in San Marino had he done so.

Crystal Palace’s Conor Gallagher has received his first senior England call-up

“There are always opportunities for players who are playing well,” Southgate said. “Phil and Jude [Bellingham] weren’t with us at the beginning of the last season. Phil’s first call-up was last September, so he was only a one-year cycle going into a tournament, so there are always those sorts of opportunities. Clearly the process for us is much more straightforward when the boys with the under-21s can come and train with us. They can slide across this for the matches, we know exactly what they’ve been doing all week in terms of their training load.

“So that process is clear, but I think that would be apparent to everybody anyway. I don’t think it’s something I need to re-emphasise. But these two boys have earned their opportunity through both what they’ve done with England but also their club form as well.

“It’s definitely something that was our aim at St George’s Park, to not only have an environment that players could do what they have done this week where they are in with the under-21s and it’s a smooth transition across to be with us. Of course the next bit is the boys have still got to play with their clubs to keep that progress going, so Conor and Emile have definitely been doing that, they’ve played well with the under-21s and they’ve played very well with their clubs and their progress is really exciting.”

Many of the players feel the same about this game, and its possibilities. There is a simple beauty to it, ahead of more complicated issues to come.

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