Gareth Southgate bristled at Swedish suggestions that England are a “team of entitlement” as his group of fighters and grafters prepare to grab their chance of a lifetime.
All eyes will be on the stunning Samara Arena this Saturday as the Three Lions line-up in a hotly-anticipated World Cup quarter-final against fellow surprise package Sweden.
After dealing manfully with Colombia’s rough-housing, England are in for a tough time against a side whose players, staff and greats have called into question aspects of their opponents’ aptitude and attitude in the build-up.
Former midfielder Hakan Mild has been the most bolshie and claimed England do not have the determination required to triumph as they are “spoilt children who earn a lot of money” – comments that appear to have got under Southgate’s skin.
“I’m a football person,” the England manager said.
“It’s nice within football to affect some things and the players have that opportunity as well because they have a voice and they have influence on young people, especially the young people from the areas they came from.
“They can give hope to them and, like I said the other day, we’re not a team where we just turn up and we’re waltzing around strolling around and we’ve got an entitlement.
“We’re lads who have come from Barnsley and Leeds and Bolton and Blackburn.”
“That’s so important for us on Saturday because I always think Sweden like to point we’re paid this and that, and we’re the team of entitlement, when I don’t think that is the case for this group.
“It’s important we remember Steve (Holland) was at Crewe. I was at Palace when they weren’t quite as good as they are now. We’ve scrapped and fought our way.
“Most of our boys have played in the Championship or lower, whether they started there or played on loan there. They are really important messages for us.
“We are having success because we are really grafting for each other, we are playing some good football but we are really working without the ball.
“No passengers, nobody failing to close down, nobody strolling around. That’s the bedrock of why we are getting some decent results and we have to continue doing that.”
There was no clearer display of that character than England’s recovery from their stoppage-time gut-punch against Colombia, before ripping up the script to win a penalty shoot-out.
“If Carlsberg did development games” was the take of one of the Football Association’s national coaches after a display of skill, smart and maturity that points to an exciting future – and maybe an extraordinary summer.
“We’re far from perfect,” Southgate said. “We’re in a really good position, and we’ve made progress, but we’re still a team which is learning
“I think the players will like the fact that they’re still recognising there’s still a long way for them to go, that they’re still a long way away from their peak.
“But also, this might be one of the best opportunities we ever have and we don’t want to fall short by not being prepared or committed to what we’re doing.”
Southgate could never have imagined being two matches from the Luzhniki showpiece after Euro 2016, when his reluctance to fill the void left by Roy Hodgson was swiftly followed by having to answer his nation’s call.
The former defender was beginning to moot a return to club management until Sam Allarydce’s ignominious exit, finding the job a good fit and feeling emboldened by a confidence he lacked during his time at Middlesbrough.
“I suppose deep down I’ve always held those beliefs and held my own values,” Southgate said.
“But not being confident enough to impose them. Certainly, I compromised a lot of that when I was with Middlesbrough. I wasn’t confident enough.
“You don’t have evidence it works until you’ve achieved results and then going through relegation and the problems that causes is a reminder, hang on a second, there are things there I don’t truly believe in.”
Southgate’s ability to bring together a coherent group and his leadership style has brought widespread admiration at home, where it has been joked he should lead Brexit negotiations.
The England boss refused to get dragged into political chat and laughed off the social media hashtag #GarethSouthgateWould – England’s tailors have also declared Saturday ‘National Waistcoat Day’ in his honour – but he was far more forthcoming when it came to leading his country – what has often been called ‘an impossible job’.
“I think there are really complex, difficult jobs,” Southgate added.
“And also, in life when you look around inventions and records that have been broken that you have to tell yourself that anything is possible but some things are more complicated and difficult than others.
“And I think what’s impossible about it is to keep everybody happy. You know, governments get elected on 38 per cent of the vote.
“We win the other night but I still had a couple of emails – I’ve got to change my address, by the way! – saying ‘really good, but you should be picking this one and that one’.
“So, I think right OK, it’s impossible to please everybody all of the time but you’ve got to just believe that you’re making decisions for the right reasons.”