MANAGER Gareth Southgate last night revealed the excitement at working with England’s blossoming generation of youngsters was a big factor in his decision to sign an extended contract to the 2022 World Cup.
The Three Lions kick off their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign tonight at Wembley against Czech Republic.
Hopes are high that Southgate, buoyed by a superb 2018, can inspire England to glory in a tournament that will climax on home soil next year due with both semi-finals and the final being played at the national stadium.
Teenage duo Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi are vying for a starting place in a squad including newcomer Declan Rice, who yesterday became embroiled in controversy over a social media post from four or five years ago that appeared to support the IRA.
“First and foremost it was just pride in doing the job,” said Southgate when asked about the four-year deal he signed late last year.
“But certainly when you were looking at what the next few years could look like – and you knew that the team that had won the (Under) 20s World Cup and the team that had won the (Under) 17s and the (Under) 19s Euros – there are some really exciting players.
“Whether they were going to be ready to win in the period of four years was another question because, although I am saying they are ready and I know they will play well, they have also got to learn how to win and they have got to learn how to manage games.
“And that is where the more senior players are really important.
“They are able to influence them on the pitch as well. So the balance has got to be right.
“But in terms of talent, (it is) hugely exciting.”
Southgate’s optimism for the future is shared by a country who relished last year’s achievements of reaching the World Cup semi-finals and qualifying for the inaugural UEFA Nations League.
Now, though, such encouraging progress has to be built on, starting with a qualifying double-header that also sees England travel to Montenegro on Monday.
The ankle injury behind striker Marcus Rashford’s return to Manchester United for treatment will hand a starting place to either Sancho or Hudson.
Sancho, a regular at Borussia Dortmund, is expected to get the nod over his fellow Under-17s World Cup winner from Chelsea, who is yet to start a Premier League game.
Rice, such a revelation for West Ham United this term, is also pushing to be involved after committing his future to England rather than the Republic of Ireland.
The 20-year-old’s first call-up, however, has come against the unwanted backdrop of posts on Twitter he made as a young teenager, which appeared to support the IRA.
Bearing in mind the lengths the Football Association have gone to in recent years to eradicate ‘No surrender to the IRA’ chants among the national team’s travelling fans, the controversy surrounding Rice is something England could have done without.
Nevertheless Southgate does not expect Rice to face a backlash from the stands.
“I think people understand,” said the Three Lions’ chief. “He has apologised. It is not representative of what he believes and feels, and his views.
“Most people will have children of those sorts of ages and people are still maturing at that age. You are in conversations with friends that you can get giddy and you can say things that maybe you don’t even know enough about or you don’t understand the context.
“So I think our fans and our public will recognise that fact.”
Jordan Pickford will start in goal tonight, Southgate sticking with the Everton man despite a couple of mistakes recently and a trip to Newcastle United that saw the lifelong Sunderland fan targeted by the home fans.
He admits to allowing the abuse from the St James’ Park crowd to affect him but insists it was a one-off.,
England’s goalkeeper said: “With me being a Sunderland lad, in front of 52,000 Newcastle fans hurling abuse at you for the full game, maybe it did get to me a little bit too much.
“But I am only 25. As a learning curve for me I think that is how I can improve. Next time I go there I won’t be getting involved as much.”
Pickford came in for plenty of criticism on social media after that defeat to Newcastle, but he insists the flak will not affect him.
“You see it all on Twitter and stuff and if you don’t laugh you cry, don’t you?” he said. “But it is about me becoming better as a goalkeeper.”
A minute’s applause will be held ahead of tonight’s game in memory of Sheffield-born World Cup winner Gordon Banks, who died last month.
Pre-match analysis: Page 25