Richard Sutcliffe: No standing still as England look to cap a year of progress

A YEAR ago, any look ahead to a visit by Croatia to Wembley would surely have included a weather forecast.

Future's bright: England's Trent Alexander-Arnold (2nd left) celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game with team-mates Dele Alli (left), Jadon Sancho (2nd right) and Harry Winks during the International Friendly with the United States: (Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire)

The merest hint of rain being in the air and those ‘wally with a brolly’ headlines could then be dusted off to give everyone but Steve McClaren a chuckle during a fortnight that supporters of clubs from the Premier League and Championship view as little more than an inconvenience.

Some may still see this hiatus – the third in as many months – as an unwelcome distraction.

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For the wider footballing public, however, there does seem to have been a palpable shift in mood thanks to not only last summer’s World Cup exploits but also a revamped international schedule that has brought a much-needed competitive edge to the autumn calendar.

No longer is a meeting with Croatia merely an excuse to wallow in the failures of the past by bringing to mind the image of McClaren, coffee cup in one hand and umbrella in the other, staring out across a sodden Wembley pitch as the Three Lions’ hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008 crashed via a 3-2 defeat. Instead, the talk ahead of tomorrow’s sell-out clash is of beating a World Cup finalist, of securing a place in the last four of the UEFA Nations League and of – whisper it very quietly – possibly lifting silverware next June.

Heady days, indeed, for a team who a little under 12 months ago looked to be going nowhere fast.

Sure, the curtain had come down on 2017 with back-to-back goalless draws at home to Brazil and Germany. A number of youngsters had also been blooded amid a quiet cull elsewhere that had seen Wayne Rooney, Chris Smalling and a couple of others exit stage left.

The country, though, remained far from convinced with even the subsequent kind draw for the group stages of the World Cup eliciting little more than a shrug of the shoulders along with the warning, ‘People said that about Iceland in Euro 2016 and look what happened’.

England's Callum Wilson celebrates scoring England's third goal against the USA (Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire)

Gareth Southgate and his men, of course, confounded those sceptics – including yours truly – by going further than even the likes of Germany, Spain and Argentina.

Croatia ended dreams of reaching the final but the upwards trajectory has continued, albeit with an early stumble in the road via defeat to Spain in September.

Triumphing in the return a month later in Seville was an important marker, as it shook off in an instant the accusation that England cannot beat a major nation in competitive action.

That this win came following an overhaul of the set-up that had taken the Three Lions to the last four in Russia meant Southgate had also passed a big test of his own with flying colours.

England manager Gareth Southgate shakes hands with Wayne Rooney (Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire)

“To stand still is to go backwards,” is a phrase credited to umpteen figures in sport, business and politics down the years. Southgate’s actions since the World Cup prove he is a man with no intention of resting on his laurels. He ruthlessly ditched the three-man backline that in the summer had been designed to protect a defence largely untried at the top level.

In its place came a set-up that not only underlined the manager’s faith in Harry Maguire and John Stones to operate as a defensive pair but also got more bodies into midfield, the area where the World Cup semi-final against Croatia had been lost.

England’s dominance in Rijeka last month – only the profligacy of Marcus Rashford allowed Zlatko Dalic’s men to escape with a point from a goalless draw – suggested Southgate had got it right again.

Just, it should be said, as he had in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup by failing to bow to calls for his players to be afforded a homecoming parade similar to the one that greeted Bobby Robson’s squad after Italia ’90. Leaving aside the unlikelihood that any of the current crop would don a pair of plastic breasts a la Gazza 28 years ago, Southgate’s thinking was sound.

By all means be proud of what England achieved but don’t let that be the pinnacle.

A simple message but one that clearly resonates with a group who are tomorrow expected to step out at Wembley shortly before 2pm in sunshine as bright as the future is shaping up to be for Southgate’s Three Lions.