You might have heard this once or twice before: England is home to The Best League in the World. It’s where the best players and managers are. It’s enriched by historic, bitter rivalries. A team from your country wouldn’t survive in the Premier League pool; it would be gasping for air in the relegation zone – getting dunked by Norwich City while Everton and Burnley rummage in its locker – before the season reaches its midway point.
Oh, and football was invented in England, don’t you know?
That perceived arrogance is what the rest of the world – or at least a good chunk of it – sees. And add to that the stereotype of how an English tourist treats the places that host the England men’s national team, and you have the main football-related reasons why so many people enjoy watching the Three Lions slump at major tournaments.
But change is happening. The Football Association only brought in Gareth Southgate to steady the ship after the Roy Hodgson-led collapse at Euro 2016 and Sam Allardyce’s subsequent 67-day reign, but the appointment has unwittingly heralded what could be the greatest public relations exercise in the history of the men’s side.
Less than five years later and with the team just two matches away from Euro 2020 glory, it’s getting harder to dislike England.
One of Southgate’s biggest tasks was to fix the chasms in the England squad. National team members were previously consumed by their club goals, and this mindset led to distrust between players belonging to different Premier League rivals.
“I think the divides were detrimental,” ex-England striker Dean Ashton told RunSportBet during the 2018 World Cup. “When you get to crucial moments in games and in tournaments, I think that’s when that togetherness and being able to trust your teammates is crucial. You get through difficult moments as a group, not as individuals.”
There have been questions about Southgate’s selection policy and tactics, and plenty of them are legitimate. Jadon Sancho, a winger who habitually dizzies defenses in the Bundesliga and Champions League, deserved more game time before he eventually started in Saturday’s resounding quarterfinal win over Ukraine, and the midfield sometimes seems too clogged, disrupting the flow to England’s phenomenal riches in attack. But as a man manager, Southgate has proven himself to be among the best in his field.
He’s empathetic, expressing genuine interest in his charges’ lives away from the confines of football. He regularly holds informal one-on-one talks with players to explain team matters, such as discipline and omissions from starting XIs, and discuss any concerns outside of England duty. Southgate’s regime is built on transparency and respect, and it’s melded a previously divided camp. England’s St. George’s Park base has turned into a place for his players to grow, both as footballers and men.
“I think it is important to listen and I think it is important to get a feel of what motivates the individual,” Southgate has said of his coaching philosophy.
The change has been noticed by the many players who straddle both England generations. Luke Shaw, an influential figure from left-back at Euro 2020, ended a three-year wait for another England start when he was named in the starting XI for a Nations League game in September 2018.
“When I was in England squads when I was a bit younger, it didn’t feel as close as it is now,” Shaw told The Athletic. “Everyone gets on so well – no cliques, four here and four there. Everyone’s together. Everyone wants to push on. And so much of that is down to what the manager does around the place. The unity is down to him.”
Players with a voice
In addition to the respect within the England camp, there is also a strong feeling of trust. Southgate has encouraged his squad to have a say in how the team operates during games and in training. He wants them to understand his choices, to make well-informed calls of their own when they’re on the pitch, and to even help shape some of his future decisions. The leadership group fronted by captain Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson is key in ensuring the bonds between the coaching and playing staff remain strong.
The players call him Gareth, not “Gaffer.” He doesn’t run a dictatorial regime that younger generations tend to withdraw from.
Southgate’s trust and the values he’s instilled in his squad are exemplified in the players’ decision to a knee ahead of matches. As a self-described patriot and a former English international with 57 caps, he’s explained to his squad the importance of representing your country, how they can create moments that last forever in the nation’s memory, and he’s given them the confidence to thrive as role models and stand up for what they believe in.
His players strongly believe in making the anti-racism gesture before kickoff, and Southgate has supported them despite it drawing boos from a section of England’s fan base and other teams not following suit at the tournament. The squad’s determination to deliver this message shouldn’t be overlooked.
“I have never believed that we should just stick to football,” Southgate wrote for The Players’ Tribune before Euro 2020.
“It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity, and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness, and educate,” he added.
Discontent used to bubble beneath the surface of the England squad, and relations between the supporters and their team were damaged before Southgate took over. Now, the tight bonds that exist in the camp – players from the northwest powerhouses and London’s giant clubs openly mingle – and the message the team wants to deliver is at the forefront. There’s not an exclusive feel to the Three Lions anymore. The arrogance, at least from a team standpoint, has lifted.
And when you combine the genuinely impressive figureheads of this squad – like the philanthropic pair of Henderson and Marcus Rashford – with the young entertainers that can illuminate matches, like Jack Grealish and Phil Foden, you’ve got a team that can be very easy to root for.