AFTER a year that has seen England reach two major semi-finals and reconnect with previously disillusioned supporters, manager Gareth Southgate admits his side are in “a really good place” as 2018 moves towards its end.
What the one-time defender will not tolerate, however, is anyone inside the Three Lions’ camp starting to believe the national team is anywhere near the finished article.
“In life you can never say you have made it because that is the day you stop progressing and improving,” said Southgate, a little under 48 hours on from England booking their place in the last four of the inaugural UEFA Nations League.
“But what we have done is put a consistent year together. We have leapt up those rankings and started to beat some of those top teams. That is where we have got to be.
“We want to be in these games that matter. The more of those games that you are involved in, the more chance you have got to get over the line in them and to test yourself against the very best players.
“All of that team, all of our team, test themselves all year and have shown themselves what is possible and so they are starting to believe a bit more.”
Sunday’s thrilling 2-1 victory over Croatia, coming on the back of a wholly unexpected run to the World Cup semi-finals during the summer, means England may yet end the year even higher in the FIFA rankings than their current standing of fifth.
Southgate’s men began 2018 sitting 16th, a position few could argue with at the time after a barren few years on the international stage.
If, as seems likely, England leapfrog Croatia into fourth place when the new rankings are released next month it will be recognition of how the players negotiated what their manager believed to be the toughest Nations League group of all in a hugely impressive manner.
As Southgate readily acknowledges, the priority is to ensure similar progress is made during both next year’s Euro 2020 qualifiers and the Nations League finals in Portugal.
Performances in the last two months have been really top. We believe in what comes through the system, I think everyone can see what is happening at youth level.Gareth Southgate
The draw for the latter will be made on December 3, 24 hours after England, as one of the top seeds, find out the identity of the other four nations in their European Championship qualifying group.
Two teams will automatically qualify for finals that will be held all over the continent, starting in Paris and ending at Wembley.
After admitting he is looking forward to a long overdue rest either side of those back-to-back draws in Dublin, Southgate is relishing the challenge of proving that this year is only the beginning of the strides forward that England can make.
“There are two routes you can take once you have had a summer like ours,” he added. “September was difficult for everyone, I know (World Cup finalists) Croatia found that.
“We found it difficult because, on the back of such a high, everyone had to start again.
“We had to find the energy and the motivation at a time we were not sure what this tournament (UEFA Nations League) was going to be.
“The game against Switzerland (England won 1-0 at Leicester’s KP Stadium) was important for us. It was not maybe the first XI at that time, but players who needed to play. They got us a win that sort of lifted where we were.
“Performances in the last two months have been really top. We believe in what comes through the system, I think everyone can see what is happening at youth level.
“To build on a semi-final in the summer and have those players coming through is a really good place to be in.”
Southgate and his staff deserve their holiday. England played 17 times in 2018. The only other time the national team has had as many outings was in 1966, Alf Ramsey’s side winning 14 and drawing three of their 17 games.
This year’s record does not quite compare to that of the heroes of ’66 with 11 wins and four defeats, but there can be no doubting the affection that the country now holds for its football team.
Southgate believes a key factor has been the public being able to see for themselves what a tight-knit and down-to-earth group his squad has become.
“We want them to enjoy wearing the shirt,” he added, “any time you go in the dressing room or walking around the hotel. On Saturday night it was like a youth club.
“You can hear them laughing and joking and having fun and they are relaxed and they are enjoying being together and enjoying playing.
“When you see such young players playing with that expression and freedom, that is what we want to create.
“It is not a case of what we say. It is how they feel about coming and being a part of it. When they feel the support of the fans that then makes it extra special for them because it really means more.”