Southgate spoke to the media for probably the final time this summer with the Three Lions’ first European Championship final still fresh in the mind – too fresh, he stressed, to draw firm conclusions. England had been beaten 3-2 on penalties by an Italy side who drew 1-1 with them over 120 minutes at Wembley.
It was a disappointing end to a tournament England performed so well in – uniquely so in some aspects – but another step forward for a team who were fourth at the 2018 World Cup, third in the 2019 Nations League and second in what was supposed to be Euro 2020. The next World Cup, in Qatar, is just 17 months away and with the oldest player being 31-year-old Sheffielder Kyle Walker, age will not be a barrier to any putting the lessons learnt at this tournament into practice there.
Southgate was torn between the positivity and logic of that, and the reality of how it feels to come so close and lose the chance of what would have been only England’s second major trophy.
“I know in time we will have an appreciation of that but when you’re in sport and you get to finals, those opportunities are so rare, so to be close, it’s very hard the day after,” said the former Middlesbrough player and manager. “You have given everything and the emotions are drained.
“It’s too easy to say we can go to the World Cup in Qatar and win – that’s a bit glib. We still have to qualify. You have to start the cycle again.
“But to be able to work with these players every day has been fantastic, really embed the culture and our way of playing, so when it comes to the end like it has now, it’s very difficult.
“If you want sustained success as a team you have to be constantly improving, constantly in those latter stages. France went through what we’re feeling now, Germany, Spain – that is normally part of the process. The fact we’ve had the first signs of consistency is progress.
“It’s not ultimately where we want to get to and when you are so close that’s even more painful, of course, it feels like my stomach has been ripped out this morning.
“I know when my logical brain comes back into life that’s what we have to keep going.”
Southgate’s innate conservatism perhaps worked against England on Sunday evening when they were unable to build on a second-minute lead given them by Luke Shaw but it was also what got them to the final in the first place, and possibly what allowed them even the chance of a penalty shoot-out once an impressive Italy side seized the initiative.
Strange though it sounds for the only manager alive to have taken England to a World Cup semi-final, the tournament as a whole greatly enhanced Southgate’s reputation, and during it the Football Association made it known they wanted to extend a contract which runs until Qatar.
Although the 50-year-old was reluctant to commit beyond that before heading home to Harrogate to recharge his batteries, his initial thought was that he wanted still to be in charge for the first winter World Cup.
“I don’t think now’s an appropriate time to think about anything,” he said, batting away a question about his future.
“We of course have to qualify for Qatar. I need some time to watch Sunday’s game again, to reflect on the whole tournament.
“I need a rest. It’s an amazing experience to lead your country in these tournaments, but it takes its toll.
“I said at the time it was great to have that internal support, you hugely value that as a manager but there’s a lot to think through. It’s not about finance or commitment.
“I don’t want to commit to anything longer than I should and I don’t want to outstay my welcome. But as I sit here today, I want to be taking the team to Qatar.”
Southgate’s early thoughts on the game were that: “I think we picked a team because of a tactical problem that Italy pose.
“For the first 45 minutes everybody would agree that worked. We didn’t keep the ball well enough for a 15-20 minute period (at the start of the second half) and we know that with midfield players of the quality of (Marco) Verratti, Jorginho, that’s always going to be a strength with Italy.
“We changed the shape (from 3-4-3 to 4-2-3-1), which I think gave us a little bit more control but it did open up spaces elsewhere.
“And we didn’t quite create the chances that we would’ve liked to but you’re against a team who are incredible in terms of the defensive power, as a team, not just the two centre-backs.”
The end of international tournaments often bring resignations, retirements and the end of cycles, but the profile of England’s squad and manager should give hope they can continue theirs to its natural conclusion.
Tainted memories of Euros: Page 22