England’s players and coaching staff fly out to Russia tomorrow to begin preparations for their Group G opener with Tunisia in Volgograd next Monday, intent on providing some recompense to long-suffering supporters after two hugely disappointing World Cup performances in Brazil in 2014 and South Africa in 2010 – alongside the nadir of Euro 2016 elimination at the hands of Iceland two summers ago.
England’s much-changed squad is the youngest to represent the nation at a World Cup since 1962 and contains just five players who were part of squad four years ago Brazil in Gary Cahill, Danny Welbeck, Jordan Henderson, Phil Jones and Raheem Sterling.
Southgate remains confident that a refreshed and revamped looking squad, who have earned kudos following some positive recent performances – allied to an expansive style of passing football which preaches playing out from the back – can continue its development in Russia and win more admirers along the way.
Southgate told The Yorkshire Post: “At the moment, it feels that we are improving as a team and people want to see signs of that improvement all of the time.
“We are starting to establish the way we want to play and I think people are warming to the younger players who are coming into the side.”
Southgate will swap the white shirt of England for an immaculately cut navy blue suit jacket for his latest World Cup appointment with Tunisia in seven days time – some two decades on from lining up against the North Africans in the Three Lions’ World Cup opener in Marseille on June 15, 1998.
That represented Southgate’s only start in two World Cups, a competition whose majesty first enchanted him as a child growing up in the late seventies and early eighties.
On his deep sense of honour in managing England at their latest World Cup finals, Harrogate-based Southgate commented: “I will have huge pride.
“To have the chance of playing for my country was my only goal as a kid and to achieve that was massive for me.
“I cannot say my goal was to manage as I did not think about coaching until I was an older player.
“But once you have taken that step to lead your country, it is a huge honour.
“I am excited by it, but also I am not there (in Russia) as a tourist. I am there to do a job and make sure I prepare the team to the best of their ability.
“The World Cup is the pinnacle. My first memory was 1978 –England had not qualified and I remember all the ticker-tape in Argentina.
“I remember Scotland versus Peru and the final. But the first one I really followed in terms of having the wallchart and everything else was 1982.
“I remember coming home from school and seeing Bryan Robson score against France in the first game for England. That was the first tournament where I watched all of it and you remember the great Brazilian team of that era with the likes of Zico and Socrates and it was a great tournament.”
Southgate is acutely aware that England start off from a fairly low base in Russia, but believes the success of the Under-20 and Under-17 sides in winning their respective World Cup competitions last year has given the senior squad a growing audience.
Certainly no-one can accuse Southgate of picking the usual suspects either, a common refrain when England fail at tournaments from supporters.
In that regard, Southgate should be applauded, but equally he acknowledges that the balance between looking to the future and securing progress in terms of results in the here and now is a fine and delicate one.
On the challenge ahead, Southgate added: “People want to see us play with style and play exciting football. But in the end, you have got to win matches and when you are in charge of England, you have to got to hit all of those targets.
“It is like being at a big club. It is not enough just to win; you have got to win in a certain way and there are the challenges.
“But that is what we are aiming to do and we want to progress the team as we feel there is some good work going on.
“There are also some signs of progress with the younger teams and the next few years are really exciting for England. That success will breed belief and when those guys come up to the seniors, they will have played against these other (major) countries and had experiences of beating them, which is important.”
Acceptable improvement for England at senior level would be a quarter-final appearance, offering hope ahead of the next tournament in Qatar in 2022.
It remains to be seen how England fare in the heat of tournament battle from a tactical and technical perspective, but they head to Russia as a happy, open and humble camp and the splinter groups, divisions and egos prevalent among some tournament squads of the past are thankfully nowhere to be seen.
Given the lack of true world-class players among their ranks, it is just as well. For England to achieve success, the team must be greater than the sum of their parts and the penny seems to be finally dropping with the players.
Short shrift is now given to those who luxuriate in their own importance, with the egalitarian nature of the current England squad bearing testament to the perceptive work of Southgate.
Southgate added: “We are trying to build something that we think it is important.
“With St George’s Park now, a lot of these lads have played together at young ages and come through together. In the past, you may have had situations where things were a bit cliquey.
“But you do not have that with this group. They all come down for dinner and will be sat at different tables and mixing with different lads. Of course, you have some closer friends than others, but they all mill around and really get on.
“That is a good starting point for a team. It does not mean you win; as you have to be comfortable enough to have a go at each other at the right time, but it is better that the lads are talking about the game and are socialising together. You look at all the teams who win things and that togetherness is a common trait.”