England boss Gareth Southgate has told his players they can go to Qatar knowing they will never be under as much pressure to win a tournament as they were last summer. The Three Lions’ achievement in reaching their first major final since 1966 has shown them the way going into this November’s tournament.
And without the additional expectation of playing in a predominantly home tournament, he is confident that his side has the best chance possible of finally lifting a major trophy once more. “I said this to the players the other day,” he revealed. “They’ll never experience pressure like they felt last summer.
“To be in a European Championship where the majority of the games were Wembley and never been to a final for 50 years… they’ve lived through enormous pressure so that should give them tremendous confidence in what they’re capable of.”
World-class players such as Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling will be in their 30s by the time of the next World Cup, but Southgate refused to see this as a once-in-a-generation chance to end all those years of hurt.
“For some players, of course, the chances are there will be less likelihood of a lot more tournaments – although all of them could go to the next European Championship,” he said. “For some of the younger ones, though, they could have another four or five so that immediacy won’t feel the same to them.
“Of course you have no way of knowing as a player whether the next one is your best opportunity or the one in three tournaments’ time so you’ve got to cherish every moment of it that’s for certain.”
Back in pride of place on the wall in one of the offices on the second floor of the football centre at St George’s Park, the countdown clock ticks down another second. Born from a historic parallel, it quickly became a challenge.
Then in the darker recent days of English football it became more of an embarrassment and was unceremoniously tucked away in a draw. Since Southgate breathed fresh belief into the national game, it has become more of a gentle reminder that there is nothing wrong with daring to dream.
Yet through all that time it has always pointed towards the start of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Clairefontaine was established in the leafy fields southwest of Paris in 1988 and 10 years later France finally lifted the World Cup for the first time in its history.
So shortly after the inauguration of St George’s Park in 2012, former FA chairman Greg Dyke identified this year’s tournament as the occasion when all the investment should pay off. Brazenly, those involved in the project almost immediately rose to the challenge and funded a countdown clock to keep those at England’s heart of football focused on the task.
At the same time, other significant events were occurring in English football. Kane was beginning a series of loan spells as he built his career at Tottenham and Sterling that year first pulled on a senior shirt for Liverpool. They would both be among the first few players to benefit from being called away on international duty to this newly-developed centre just outside Burton to feature in the junior England teams.
By November this year – and yes, the clock needed a swift reset when FIFA decided to make this a winter tournament – both players will be hovering close to their 30th birthdays. While Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham hint at successful tournaments to come, this has not felt more like the coming of age of a golden generation since the disappointing 2006 World Cup. It was shortly after that disaster that the Countdown clock was first hidden away.
The trouble was, Sven Goran Eriksson never seemed to know how to make the best of talents such as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen. These days, though, if that countdown clock suddenly went into overdrive and the World Cup started tomorrow, Gareth Southgate would know exactly what to do. “Well we would always know whatever 11 would be if we played tomorrow,” Southgate said.
“At any point over the six years we’ve been in charge if we had a game we had to win tomorrow we would know what our best 11, would be and if we had to play tomorrow we would know what that would be.”
The point of the friendlies against Switzerland today and the Ivory Coast on Tuesday is to look at some of the “what ifs”. With the Nations League giving a more competitive edge to the last six internationals before the World Cup, this is the last chance really to experiment, and the final opportunity for the genuine outsiders to stake a claim.
Sterling, playing an ambassadorial role in Jamaica this week, is unlikely to start, but Southgate also has to focus on giving that first eleven a chance to tick. Not all of it will go like clockwork. But England’s players will be in no doubt that time is now very much of the essence.