Ehiogu and Southgate hoping old double act can illuminate England

Euro 2004 qualifiers: Middlesbrough centre-backs may have chance to test well-travelled partnership against Slovakia

Steve Tongue
Wednesday 05 February 2014 02:13
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Thursday afternoons at Middlesbrough's training ground normally mean an extra session for the team's defenders with special emphasis on the back four working together as a unit. Today, however, the two key men, Ugo Ehiogu and Gareth Southgate, will be far away in Bratislava. Against Slovakia on Saturday, they will have every hope of becoming the first Boro pair to start an England international since Brian Clough and Edwin Holliday lost to Sweden in October 1959.

Ehiogu has made four previous appearances, all in friendlies and all as a substitute, during which he and his club-mate have tended to pass like ships in the night, though they did spend about 40 minutes on the pitch together in the 2-0 defeat by the Netherlands at Tottenham last year. Now both are in prime form as Middlesbrough's elevated position in the Premiership testifies; and they are equally convinced about the benefits of a partnership that began at Aston Villa as far back as the 1995-96 season.

Ehiogu had already been introduced to the first team at a young age by Ron Atkinson, who snatched him away from West Bromwich Albion, when Southgate moved to Villa Park from a relegated Crystal Palace team. From their first season together, often abetted by Paul McGrath in a back three, it was clear they complimented each other well. The longer legged Ehiogu picking off the taller men while his partner used natural intelligence and craft to plug the gaps and pick up the runners. So after Ehiogu left for Middlesbrough in the autumn of 2000, it was a clever ploy by England's coach Steve McClaren to unite them again by capitalising on Southgate's similar desire for pastures and challenges new.

Mutual admiration was evident as they spoke about each other at England's training headquarters in Buckinghamshire yesterday. Southgate on Ehiogu: "We've got a better understanding as we've gone along particularly with a back four at Middlesbrough, which is more of a close relationship between us as twin centre-halves. We compliment each other with different strengths – I'm physically smaller than most at this level whereas Ugo has that immense presence that puts the wind up strikers. He's a solid dependable defender who's worked hard at his game to make us a good unit. If he's chosen on Saturday he won't let anyone down.

"You want to be in good form and we are. It's a great benefit to play with somebody you know. When you go into a situation you can react off them and know what they are going to do."

Ehiogu on Southgate: "We seem to read each other's flicks and positionally we put each other right. That's a massive help, if you've got communication like we have. When he first came to Villa I wasn't quite sure because he'd gone from being a midfield player but his stubbornness and willingness to learn were definitely impressive. He's won 50 caps so that's testament in itself."

It was as long ago as 1996 that Ehiogu was first called to the colours by Terry Venables, before being left out of the Euro 96 squad. Later opportunities were limited by the solidity of Tony Adams and Southgate, then Sol Campbell and Martin Keown, plus the emergence of Rio Ferdinand and, not least, a run of injuries at the wrong time – notably in last season's FA Cup semi-final just as he was in line to play against Paraguay at Anfield and stake a claim for a World Cup place.

"It took a long time for me to get over not being involved, being so close and missing out. It used to tear me up, watching squads being announced. I couldn't watch some of the games but I said to myself: 'I'm not going to dwell on that, if it comes again it'll be a bonus".'

Southgate suffered a different kind of frustration during the summer as a substitute who did not kick a ball in Japan: "You train all you life to perform on a stage like that. I've seen how lads who played well enhanced their reputation and I felt if I was there I could do the job. But as soon as the squad numbers were announced, I knew I probably wasn't going to play."

Given a chance to play a part in a new tournament – his fifth, having started with Euro 96 – he is bullish about the prospects: "These are two games we go into expecting to win. They're difficult but if we win them that makes the group much more comfortable."

His team-mate, meanwhile, with 46 fewer caps, is adamant that lack of experience at this level will not betray him.

"It's not daunting. This is why you're in football, for big occasions like this."

Ehiogu was picked for Sven Goran Eriksson's first game at home to Spain 21 months ago and will forever be in the reference books as one of the goalscorers on that famous day. It is now time to rewrite a little piece of local history and to hope it ends on a happier note than Cloughie's second and final England appearance.

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