Just for a moment, Gareth Southgate’s mood darkened. It isn’t all unicorns and skittles inside the England camp. Southgate had been taken back to the autumn, when England lost to Denmark and his management and methods were under greater scrutiny than at any time before.
‘It was a definite shift in how we were viewed,’ he said. ‘It was the first time I’d experienced that since Russia.
‘The games against Denmark were tough. We tried something with the formation of the team. We gave out five or six new caps. Conor Coady, Kalvin Phillips, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reece James; a lot of debuts.
‘It was a very difficult period for us. So many things we had to deal with, events that happened during the games, or just before the games, the lack of availability of players — we hardly ever had the opportunity to field our strongest team.
Gareth Southgate has said that defeat by Denmark last year was a dark time of upheaval
The England manager places so much importance on togetherness and squad harmony
‘It was the start of a period where I felt a high level of criticism and judgment that has existed, really, until the last game or so.
‘I knew when I took the job what it was like. I was a kid watching Sir Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor. I played for Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan, Sven Goran Eriksson. I was under no illusions.
‘We were in an interesting period — midway through the pandemic, no fans in the stadiums. It was a very different experience. I can’t say I enjoyed those autumn matches at all.
‘The Covid restrictions on the camps were really inhibiting, with lads not even able to sit together and chat. So much of what we are about as a team is the social part and making this connection with each other.
‘I thought it was a miserable experience, just fulfilling fixtures rather than looking forward to them. Then, on the back of all the other issues, in September we’d had eight lads with or around Covid, so everything was geared to not losing players rather than performing.
‘We’re asking them to perform freely on the pitch when every other part of their life is totally restricted — back to their rooms, masks in their meetings.’
And there it is.
The mood in camp is hugely upbeat and Southgate is the man for the job, even if England lose
The significance Southgate puts on team relationships, the essence of his quiet revolution. Juxtapositions around the breakfast table are as important as those on the pitch.
Yet on Wednesday night, all that investment, all that meticulous planning and man management, may boil down to one mistake or a referee’s call, a missed penalty or a lapse of concentration.
And if it doesn’t go England’s way, this run to a second semi-final of a major competition will be reimagined in some quarters as failure.
Home advantage, an easy path to the final — it wasn’t and isn’t but people have short memories — and England still couldn’t make it.
The many strides taken this summer and in 2018 will be dismissed. Increasingly, only results matter.
For a manager who has always looked to the future, right from the time when he was instrumental in the Football Association’s decision to reduce pitch and goal sizes in the youth game, it must be frustrating.
‘I hope a lot of people will have context,’ added Southgate. ‘I have context, in that I’m thinking about the team in eight years’ time, when maybe Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham are still in and they’ve had incredible experience of England doing well.
‘That is the standard for them, the benchmark now, where perhaps in the past youngsters coming in might have been inhibited, fearing some of the barriers that were perceived to be there.
‘There’s no question that reaching the latter stages of tournaments on a consistent basis is where we want to be.
‘The flip side is that the rest of us who were in Russia and got to this point and lost, can’t go home content if we don’t win. There’s no avoiding that.’
The club loyalties of the players have been put aside and England are united as one group
There is also no avoiding that some would make this solely about one scoreline. Another audition in a never-ending run of them.
So let’s say it now. Even if England lose to Denmark, Southgate’s still the man for the job. There is absolutely no better manager out there for England at this time, certainly not an Englishman, and the manager of England should be English.
This is not just about a win over Germany or Ukraine, this is about the way he has changed the culture of the national team, removed the fear and the animosity and created an environment that brings the best out of men.
It was not so long ago that Harry Redknapp revealed England players would come to their club managers asking to be sprung from international duty.
‘I know from some of the players that it is not an enjoyable experience,’ Redknapp wrote in 2013. ‘I’ve heard a great many wonder about carrying on in international football because they get slaughtered if the result isn’t right or they don’t play well.
‘They leave clubs they love where everybody is together, go and play for England and find that this faction doesn’t like that lot and after one off-night everybody gets ripped to pieces.
‘When I was at Tottenham I had plenty of players who said, “I don’t want to play, pull me out of the squad, I don’t want to go”.’
So that is the culture Southgate has changed.
Harry Kane understands that England will need to be at their very best on Wednesday night
Club England is no longer just a marketing slogan. The standards Southgate has set, the values and ethos he insists upon, have changed the way the national team feels and is perceived. And that alone would be success.
But he has done it while also beating Germany in a tournament eliminator for the first time since 1966, winning the first European Championship knockout game in history, winning a European Championship quarter-final 4-0 and reaching the last four of consecutive major tournaments for the first time in 53 years.
So, no, all of this will not become irrelevant if one result goes awry.
It is still possible to be hugely disappointed if England are not in the final on Sunday while acknowledging the progress made under this manager.
And, yes, it was daft when the FA started talking about extending his contract until 2024 when England had only made it out of the group stage. There is a World Cup between this European Championship and the next and England need to move on in Qatar, too.
But is this England in a better place than in 2018? Undoubtedly. Then Southgate is still the man.
‘In 2018, you couldn’t help but come away from the tournament feeling we had progressed, so a large part of my feeling was that, given where we were in our timeline, we had achieved a good outcome,’ explained Southgate.
‘Of course, when you’re in a semi-final and so close to a World Cup final you can’t help reflecting on everything that happened and trying to learn from it.
‘Lots of the things you’ve seen implemented in the way we play, the tactical formations, the style of play, comes from that.’
Southgate lavished praise on Denmark and urged England to respect their opponents
Like playing Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips as a double pivot, rather than just Jordan Henderson, who was overwhelmed by Croatia’s Luka Modric and friends in Moscow. That mistake won’t be made this time.
‘If we get it right and we’re on it in all aspects, it’s a game we can win,’ said Harry Kane of tonight’s semi-final and that is indeed the bottom line.
England can beat Denmark at Wembley — even if they didn’t last time — but that does not mean they can afford the slightest drop in standards.
Sir Clive Woodward, who knows about international success, says that deep into tournaments, a five per cent differential is all it takes. Lower your game by the smallest margin and you’ll lose, certainly if an opponent finds any level of improvement.
Denmark have been on a mission since a horrific near-death experience befell their colleague Christian Eriksen. This is more than just an emotional journey, but a combination of factors make them dangerous opposition — if Southgate did not already have the autumn defeat to remind him.
‘Looking back now, as a team you go through those experiences and we came out having even more respect for Denmark,’ he said. ‘We know the level of the team, we know the level of the individuals. We’ve got an understanding of the coach and his tactical awareness.
‘I’ve always had a high regard for Danish football. I think this is their third appearance in the semi-finals and they’ve also won the tournament. We have to respect what they are as a country and what they’ve achieved.’
Of course, he spoke respectfully about Croatia in 2018, too, and after the game England were still accused of arrogance.
So let’s say it. England should be hopeful of defeating Denmark at Wembley on Wednesday night. If they do not, however, there is no need for revolution. They’re in the midst of one of those already.