‘It’s time for Southgate and England to deliver’

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Phil McNulty

Chief football writer in Gelsenkirchen

51 minutes agoComments

England’s Euro 2024 campaign starts in what was once known as the “City of Thousand Fires”, with manager Gareth Southgate knowing his fourth major tournament in charge cannot be a slow burner.

Gelsenkirchen earned its label in the era when it was built on coal mining, and it is here in Germany’s industrial heartland that both England and Southgate get to work on their latest quest to banish the accusations that they fall short when it matters.

And as England begin the quest to justify their tag as pre-tournament favourites against Serbia at the Arena AufSchalke (20:00 BST kick-off), the mood around the camp is one of composure and cautious optimism, as reflected in the words and demeanour of Southgate and captain Harry Kane at their pre-match news conference.

Southgate is well aware of the significance of a fast start, especially as Germany and Spain have made significant early mission statements with outstanding performances in victories against Scotland and Croatia.

He said: “In terms of our standing, we have already seen how Germany and Spain have played. There are some exceptional teams here. We have to be exceptional to progress through the group and our main focus is our first game. It is obvious how important that is.”

The England fans making their way to Gelsenkirchen are doing so with high expectations fuelled by the world-class reliability of Kane and the emergence of Jude Bellingham, the new golden boy and a Champions League winner with Real Madrid.

There is also the brilliance and exuberance of the younger attacking brigade such as Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka, Chelsea forward Cole Palmer, Phil Foden from Manchester City and Newcastle United wide man Anthony Gordon.

And if England were in any danger of forgetting or downplaying their lofty pre-tournament status, Serbia coach Dragan Stojkovic was in the mood to remind them – constantly – when he faced the media.

1 hour ago21 hours ago

Jude Bellingham, 20, is already at his third major tournament with the senior England side

Stojkovic looked to be playing psychological games by repeatedly claiming England were favourites for Euro 2024, adding: “My players can hardly wait for the match to start. We are going to be ready for the great challenge called England.”

Kane was comfortable with the weight of expectation accompanying England out here in Germany, with anything less than triumph in Berlin on 14 June likely to be viewed as a major disappointment.

“I think every tournament possesses different expectations,” said the Bayern Munich striker. “We have earned the right to be classed among the favourites. Looking at ourselves both individually and as a team, we have done lots of things well at previous tournaments but ultimately we are here to win.”

England’s recent performances have been mixed – including a desperately poor loss to Iceland at Wembley in their final friendly before travelling to Germany – but the excitement surrounding the attacking talent in this squad is arguably greater than at any time under Southgate.

He enters his fourth and potentially final major tournament as England manager with varying schools of thought still providing the narrative to his time in charge.

One argument is that Southgate deserves huge credit for changing the temperature around the England team after inheriting a post-Sam Allardyce shambles from the Football Association in November 2016, putting together the best managerial sequence since Sir Alf Ramsey. He is sometimes viewed as a manager who does not get the credit he deserves for his rehabilitation of the national team or his tournament record.

The other point of view paints him as a conservative nearly man presiding over missed opportunities in the World Cup semi-final against Croatia in Moscow six years ago, and the Euro 2020 final against Italy at Wembley, games lost after his side took an early lead before losing direction and, ultimately, both matches.

Some would say the truth resides somewhere between the two. No-one can deny the progress but the failure to get over the line will linger until England actually cross it.

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Southgate and Kane have worked together as manager and captain for four major tournaments now

Southgate smiled as he addressed that question, saying: “I’ve been in the job eight years. I understand the landscape. Everybody who has been in this job has experienced the same thing. I just try to prepare the team in the best manner possible.”

In the next month, he and his players can answer the questions in the most emphatic manner possible by winning the tournament. If this does not happen then long-standing criticisms will be aimed at them and, as even suggested by Southgate himself, the manager may well leave.

Asked about the possibility of this being his last tournament as England manager, he smiled again and added: “I don’t want to put pressure on the other coaches here but it could be the last tournament for all of them as well. This is the world we live in.

“I’m probably more relaxed about it because I have had previous experience of three before this one. I know the issues we have to deal with and the pathway we have to navigate. I’m very fortunate to have great players and a great staff and I’m really looking forward to the start of this tournament.”

The time for talking then stopped and Southgate and Kane strode away with the sort of purpose they hope England will bring to the Euro 2024 stage in Gelsenkirchen on Sunday night.

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