Richard Sutcliffe – England and Gareth Southgate ready to maintain momentum

England's players celebrate Marcus Rashford's goal against Costa Rica at Elland Road last year. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA
England's players celebrate Marcus Rashford's goal against Costa Rica at Elland Road last year. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA
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ELLAND ROAD, almost exactly a year ago.

England’s final warm-up friendly before the World Cup and Costa Rica were the visitors. The hosts were unbeaten in nine games, but expectations surrounding the national team were low.

Leading the way: England manager Gareth Southgate.

Leading the way: England manager Gareth Southgate.

Not only were memories of the previous two ignominious exits from major tournaments still horribly raw, but Gareth Southgate’s side had hardly clicked into gear during recent outings.

A 2-1 victory over Nigeria five days earlier at Wembley had been functional rather than fantastic.

There were also more questions than answers surrounding Southgate’s squad, not least whether Harry Maguire or Gary Cahill should start in defence.

Who should get the nod in goal was also up for debate, while Marcus Rashford’s cause was being pushed by many in preference to Raheem Sterling after his scoring drought at international level had been extended to 20 games via several spurned chances against Nigeria.

There can be no escaping the sense that something special is building. The 23-man squad in Portugal this week seems not just capable of excelling at Euro 2020 but also four years down the line.

Richard Sutcliffe

A 2-0 win for England on their first visit to Leeds in 16 years, secured by a spectacular opener from Rashford and a late header from Danny Welbeck, did little to settle those arguments.

Neither did the manner of the performance suggest a golden summer lay ahead. By the time England returned from Russia, however, that June 7 friendly had proved a useful gauge as to the national team’s change of fortunes via how the jeers that greeted Rashford’s name before kick-off at Elland Road had given way to rapturous cheers for the Manchester United striker by the final whistle.

Post World Cup, Southgate was rightly hailed as a hero and the country had fallen back in love with its football team.

Another season down the line and that affection has only grown. England expects and silverware once again seems an attainable goal.

Of course this country has previously been guilty of prematurely hailing golden generations – and in the not too distant past either.

But there can be no escaping the sense that something special is building. The 23-man squad in Portugal this week seems not just capable of excelling at Euro 2020, but also four years down the line.

Most will still be in their twenties come Euro 2024 in Germany and, barring injury, firmly into their peak years.

A tantalising prospect and one that rightly excites the nation, even allowing for the next World Cup being held in conditions barely suited to anyone reared on English winters.

Before those dreams of ending all those years of hurt comes Europe’s newest competition.

The UEFA Nations League may be the new kid on the block. It may also be yet truly to convince those supporters who point to the absence of World Cup holders France as proof that the format does not necessarily mean the very best prevail.

But victory over Holland in tomorrow’s semi-final and then seeing off either Switzerland or hosts Portugal on Sunday would still be a notable achievement.

It would also leave Southgate’s men in fine fettle a year out from Euro 2020, a tournament that climaxes on home soil thanks to the final and both semi-finals being staged at Wembley.

As was proved in 1966 and again 30 years later, this can be a big advantage. As, of course, can be a draw as favourable as the one that opened up in front of the Three Lions in Russia.

The latter is out of Southgate’s control, but what he does have is the total support of the country.

Success in Portugal – and a first piece of silverware since Le Tournoi in 1997 – will only cement that backing and fuel belief among the players that 2020 really can be England’s year.