Gareth Southgate has expressed pride in the unifying power of England’s World Cup adventure, which has reconciled him with terrace favourite ‘Three Lions’ after 20 years of hurt and brought respite from political divisions back home.
On the eve of the World Cup semi-final against Croatia, the Three Lions manager gave another masterclass in easy-going charm in a packed media conference at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium – cheerily answering on a range of topics.
They included his team’s use of a rubber chicken during Tuesday’s training session in Repino, the cultural phenomenon that his waistcoat and the inescapable chants of “it’s coming home”.
But he was also eager to embrace the serious side of England’s unlikely achievement.
Southgate’s measured authority throughout the tournament has seen him light-heartedly tipped for political office on social media and he made a thinly-veiled reference to the bitter societal splits over Brexit as he surveyed the joyous scenes of celebration which have taken place up and down the country.
“Our country has been through some difficult moments recently in terms of its unity, and sport has the power to do that (unite people),” he said.
“Football in particular has the power to do that. We can feel the energy and feel support from home and it’s a very special feel, a privilege for us.
“We’ve had the chance to make a difference. Our supporters, our country has had a long time of suffering in terms of football.
“The enthusiasm they have for these players, not only because of the way they’ve played but how they’ve conducted themselves…they’ve been brilliant ambassadors for our country, everybody can see they are proud to wear the shirt.”
Southgate, of course, was equally honoured to do so over nine years and 57 caps as an England international.
Yet when his own chance at semi-final glory came it ended in despair from the penalty spot at Euro 96. Then, as now, England fans spent much of the summer belting out “football’s coming home” – the refrain of the anthemic track by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and The Lightning Seeds.
While most supporters cherished the song as a slice of nostalgia or pop-inflected optimism, Southgate admitted he found it too painful to hear for the past two decades – perhaps understandable given the 1998 re-release begins with the commentary of his miss from 12 yards.
Now, along with the rest of the country, he has found a reason to believe again.
“Football’s coming home…I couldn’t listen to it for 20 years, frankly,” he said.
“It has a slightly different feel for me, but it’s nice to hear people enjoying it again.”
Southgate drew parallels between the class of ’96 and his current generation, noting similarities but also the current squad’s relative inexperience.
Whether or not they can outstrip their predecessors – Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams et al – by reaching a major final remains to be seen but Southgate is sure they will give a good account of themselves regardless of the outcome.
“The feel of this group of players is very similar to the players we had then,” he said.
“But that team was a lot more experienced in terms of its age and experience of big matches. We have emerging leaders. At that time, the team had six captains of their clubs. There was a lot of leadership in the group.
“But we’ve approached it the same way, a lot of guys enjoying our football. That is what these guys have done. It’s another step in a journey. We feel we’re in a good place playing well.
“Football is a low scoring game with random events that can happen, but I’m certain our team will play well. I have complete trust they’ll go and play in the way they have throughout this tournament.”