Top ten moments that led to England actually being good

Date published: Wednesday 7th July 2021 8:30 - Matthew Stead

Raheem Sterling

England have not reached a second semi-final in as many tournaments by accident, although not all of their journey was so meticulously planned.


10) Phasing out Rooney and the culture of crowbarring
“My mind is made up. Russia will be my last tournament,” said Wayne Rooney in August 2016. There was no reason to see the statement as optimistic or presumptuous, the 30-year-old having retained the England captaincy and backing of a new manager in the aftermath of a disastrous Euro 2016 campaign. He would earn his 116th cap less than a week later as a nominal No.10 in the stodgiest of World Cup qualifying victories against ten-man Slovakia – although Rooney “played wherever he wanted to” because the actual head coach obviously “can’t stop” him doing as such.

Rooney played each of the next three England games over the subsequent two months but was pushed into effective international retirement thereafter. Gareth Southgate, unlike his predecessors, sought to underline how his team selections would not be based on reputation alone and the most-capped outfielder in the nation’s history was his sacrificial lamb, omitted from the squad in March 2017 and only returning in November 2018 for the Wayne Rooney Foundation International against the United States. As hilarious as it would have been to overlook him for that, Southgate had long since made his point: the days of crowbarring in players regardless of form and suitability purely on name value were over.


9) Handing Premier League virgin Phillips his debut
Few countries used the enforced delay of Euro 2020 to greater effect than England. Ten of the 26-man squad chosen for this summer’s tournament had not made their debut until after the competition was initially scheduled, with Southgate not blooding anyone new into his squad from Fikayo Tomori and James Maddison in November 2019 until six fresh faces were introduced in September 2020. Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Conor Coady have all established themselves since, Mason Greenwood might have done the same were it not for injury and Ainsley Maitland-Niles is perhaps one positive career move from coming back into the fold.

Kalvin Phillips was the true wildcard, called up despite not having made a single Premier League appearance. Leeds supporters had extolled the central midfield virtues of a player integral to their promotion but many just treated those as the biased ramblings of a blinkered fanbase. He has lost just one England game in his 12 caps since: against Denmark at Wembley which is absolutely fine and no I’m not panicking because that means absolutely nothing shut up you’re sweating profusely.

Phillips made his England debut on September 8, his top-flight bow coming four days later. As a player with no prior Premier League experience and someone who had never been part of the Three Lions youth set-up, it dispelled any fears that Southgate might favour those from the more dominant clubs or simply promote from the nation’s age groups. Everyone would get a chance if they were good enough. He has made it this far with a central midfield contracted to West Ham and Leeds, who have more combined caps for the Republic of Ireland than England U21s.


8) Euro 96 semi-final heartache
Seven men have both played for and managed England. Some had only fleeting spells wearing the shirt on the pitch before donning the suit on the touchline, with Terry Venables and Don Revie earning just two and six caps respectively. Others performed both roles with distinction, such as Sirs Alf Ramsey and Bobby Robson. Kevin Keegan scored more goals than he managed England games. And Glenn Hoddle the coach revelled in doing things that members of his own squad were not capable of, much to their understandable chagrin.

Southgate has mastered that dynamic better than any of his predecessors, channelling and harnessing past experiences to the benefit of the current crop. The media continues to overplay any desire to ‘exorcise the demons of Euro ’96’ but his semi-final penalty miss against Germany prepared him for the private pitfalls and public challenges posed by representing your country. He is the ideal leader to pass those lessons down, while no-one can relate to the weight of expectation, disappointment at missing out and sheer tournament boredom quite like a former international who went to four European Championships and World Cups and made just eight appearances across them all.

Gareth Southgate


7) The World Cup 2018 journey
A penalty shootout victory
. A Golden Boot winner. A potentially difficult knockout tie navigated comfortably and professionally. A group of players increasingly easy to admire and relate to. A manager that could sodding well pull off a waistcoat and still turn us on. A media won over because they got to play some darts and had a little more access. A third semi-final ever on foreign land. A major high after consecutive tournament lows. A country united once more. A billion pints lost to the air in celebration.

England went into the 2018 World Cup as seventh favourites with a disaffected fanbase and persistent questions over their infrastructure; they emerged from Russia with individual and collective reputations significantly enhanced. Football did not come home in the form of the trophy itself but rather the realisation of community and togetherness as the sport’s true meaning. The foundations were laid three years ago for whatever success England might enjoy in the near future.


6) Victory over Croatia in the Nations League
Croatia curtailed those hopes, of course. A small measure of revenge was exacted four months later as England flipped the scoreboard and turned a 2-1 defeat having led in the World Cup semi-final into a 2-1 victory having trailed in the Nations League. Wembley erupted as Andrej Kramaric’s opener was cancelled out by Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane in the closing 12 minutes.

The celebrations in the stands and on the pitch were vociferous but it was difficult to gauge what the win meant when the dust had settled. It was the last game in England’s Nations League group, victory securing their place in the following summer’s inaugural finals. Like a Community Shield win, it was as significant, relevant and important as they wanted it to be. The identity of the opponent – and the fact both goals came from set-pieces – only helped the sense that England had captured the moment and built on the progress they had made at the World Cup rather than typically wasting the opportunity presented to them.

“People can see the spirit and I have not heard Wembley like that for a long while,” Southgate said after a game and occasion he has specifically outlined as a reference point numerous times since. Those were tangible steps forward precisely when there was a danger of standing still.


5) The November 2017 international break
It sounds peculiar but one particular international break just under four years ago was crucial in providing the framework for consecutive tournament semi-finals. Southgate celebrated 12 whole months in permanent charge of England with a pair of foreboding friendlies in November 2017: at home to Germany and Brazil, the top two nations ranked by FIFA at the time. A side that had scraped past Lithuania and Slovenia by a single goal in World Cup qualifying, conceding five times against France and Scotland in June and losing to Germany themselves in March, stood little chance.

Southgate switched to a back five in a real showcase of the pragmatism that many still feel plagues his style. But it was the perfect solution: two goalless draws proved England could hang. Jordan Pickford made his debut against Germany and Harry Maguire was handed his second and third caps by Southgate, who has sought to train with both a four and three-man defence since. Tammy Abraham and Dominic Solanke almost scored in either game.

“They’re not going to face more difficult tests than they have in their last two matches,” Southgate said then. “The system has worked well. We are in the early stages of piecing this team together and it gives me huge heart. We couldn’t get hold of the ball and keep it. Tonight we just showed resilience, guts and some outstanding defending and I’m incredibly proud.”

That was the blueprint from which England have worked, gradually learning how to establish control and take chances from a base of defensive solidity and organisation, even against elite opposition. They faced Netherlands and Italy in the subsequent international break and deployed the same formation, conceding just once when Lorenzo Insigne converted an 87th-minute penalty. That week in November 2017 was the genesis of much we see now, plus it gave Jake Livermore something to tell the grandkids.

Neymar and Jake Livermore


4) Guardiola dropping Laporte
The other aspect of postponing Euro 2020 that weighed in England’s favour, aside from the debutants, was the extra year afforded to players out of the reckoning altogether. Southgate had seemingly banished a select few on the basis of their struggles at club level: John Stones, Kyle Walker and Luke Shaw all spent long months out of international consideration altogether but managed to earn their places back through determination and fortune.

Shaw has been impeccable so far and Walker’s importance is obvious but the return of Stones was integral. He missed nine England matches between November 2019 and March 2021, with Southgate deploying a three-man central defence in seven of them. It was not a particularly successful system with the available personnel – England scored ten goals, conceded six, lost twice and drew once – but it was only when Pep Guardiola reintegrated Stones into his Manchester City team over Aymeric Laporte that reverting to a back four became viable again at international level. Had Joe Gomez not suffered a long-term injury then things could perhaps have been different in a partnership with Maguire, but few would suggest that reuniting the Manchester United captain with cross-city rival Stones has not paid dividends.


3) Sterling v Spain
Before his current run of 15 goals in 21 caps, Raheem Sterling was in the midst of a three-year drought that lasted 27 matches, two major tournaments and one sustained media campaign designed to destroy him. When he netted against Estonia in October 2015 it was three months after his transfer from Liverpool to Manchester City, an effort assisted by Jamie Vardy in a victory which featured Nathaniel Clyne, Chris Smalling, James Milner, Adam Lallana and Theo Walcott, with Kieran Gibbs, Phil Jagielka, Andros Townsend and Jonjo Shelvey watching from the bench. It was a different time.

Sterling retained his place as a guaranteed starter – to the frustration of many – despite such a notable barren run. Southgate kept absolute faith in the forward, predicting in October 2018 that “I think it is going to be a confidence thing that when the goal comes he will go on a scoring run”. Sterling scored his third England goal the next day, followed by a fourth 22 minutes later in a breathtaking Nations League performance away in Spain. The 26-year-old has not looked back since and England are all the better for it.


2) The Allardyce fiasco
If England manage to win Euro 2020, the nation should feel compelled to purchase every copy of the following morning’s Daily Telegraph in appreciation and recognition of their part in this glorious quest. Without them it simply would not have been possible and Steven Nzonzi would be patrolling the midfield behind lone striker Michail Antonio.

Sam Allardyce was soon officially cleared of any wrongdoing, with a director for the FA pointing out that the comments he made to undercover reporters posing as fictitious Asian businessmen were “a factual, correct statement around the laws of the English game and having third-party ownership”. He was guilty of, at the very least, stupidity, naivety and drinking a pint of wine, thus his position as national-team manager was untenable and he left the role by mutual consent after one game and 67 days and a quite substantial self-confessed “error in judgement”.

Alan Pardew, Steve Bruce, Eddie Howe, Jurgen Klinsmann, Arsene Wenger and Laurent Blanc and Hoddle were all backed in various eclectic circles to take over an England team in utter turmoil. Southgate was seen as a safe pair of interim hands and the Under-21 manager soon assumed complete control despite his initial reluctance.


1) Euro 2016/Iceland
Coming as it did in the months following Euro 2016, England found themselves at their lowest ebb in modern history when the Allardyce situation unfolded. The 2014 World Cup had been an unmitigated disaster, finishing bottom of the group with a single point. Roy Hodgson at least managed to guide them into the knockout stages two years later but he really needn’t have bothered. England played teams ranked 24th, 26th, 29th and 34th and led for a total of 22 minutes.

The defeat to Iceland in the last 16 was most chastening of all. For all England’s years of hurt, their major tournament exits were at least inflicted by teams of a particular stature. From the 1970 World Cup to Euro 2012, they were beaten in the knockout stages by Germany four times, Argentina and Portugal twice and Brazil and Italy once apiece.

Never before had this supposed Goliath really fallen to a comparative David in such a game. That perhaps transmitted too strongly to Hodgson, who chose to accompany Ray Lewington on a boat ride down the River Seine instead of watching Iceland face Austria because his assistant manager had never visited the French capital before.

He defended that stance by saying that five England representatives had been sent to the match, including a couple of scouts and coach Gary Neville, who would later state that he “had complete belief in what we were doing until the last 60 minutes against Iceland”. But Hodgson also rejected the opportunity to watch potential last-16 opponents Portugal live, instead tuning into their 3-3 draw with Hungary on the television from the team’s Chantilly hotel.

Jamie Vardy has since admitted that England “didn’t know what to do” and were not “prepared for every eventuality in 2016”, while Danny Rose said that “what we were doing in training was completely different to how Iceland played in the game”.

England seemed surprised at the long throw as Rooney was left marking key aerial threat Kari Arnason, whose flick set up Ragnar Sigurdsson to equalise early on. The response when Joe Hart let a Kolbeinn Sigthorsson shot through his hand and Steve McClaren’s heart was to just throw on as many forwards as possible and see what happened. It did not work.

Hodgson picked half-fit players, put Kane on corners, persisted with Rooney’s positional muddle and seemed to reject the notion of basic research. This was England at their most arrogant and hubristic, a country that had to hit rock bottom and excavate further before dusting themselves off, climbing back out and scaling new heights.

England players look dejected

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