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Ken Early: Gareth Southgate becomes the new Churchill as England dreams

A jubilant and delirious nation is expecting its superheroes to take it to the final

Four years ago, as England prepared to face Uruguay in a decisive World Cup match in São Paulo, the England captain Steven Gerrard gathered his players together for a team talk. The content of his message to them was revealed in his 2015 autobiography My Story.

“I kept it brief. Looking around me, I said if we didn’t get it right against Uruguay on Thursday, then each and every one of us faced a terrible summer. It would be a long and frustrating month where, away from each other, we’d mull over everything that had gone wrong again and again.

“I explained how I had suffered in the past – and how much all England players suffer when you leave a tournament earlier than expected. We could go anywhere we liked on holiday but there would be no hiding place. I was not out to scare anyone. But we had a lot of young lads in the squad, and it was important that they understood the importance of the game against Uruguay.”

“I was not out to scare anyone . . .” Gerrard says, but if that was not the intention you wonder why he decided that what the team needed at that point was a long brooding rumination on all the ways in which failure could be about to devastate their lives. In the event, England lost 2-1 to Uruguay, and they became one of the first sides to be knocked out of the World Cup.


Gareth Southgate has tried a different approach. It's a bit like the answer Javier Hernandez gave earlier in the tournament when a Mexican journalist tried to tell him Germany were destined to finish top of Group F. "Hey, we could be like Greece in the Euros, we could be Leicester in the Premier League. Let's imagine cool things!"

Instead of centring the idea of failure, Southgate has encouraged his players to think about success. “Probably 18 months ago, I said to them that having success with England would be so much bigger than any success with their clubs.”

This might be the truest thing Southgate has ever said to the England players, and you can see why when you look at the coverage of the squad in the lead-up to Wednesday’s semi-final. Bathed in the golden glow of sudden success, these players have been transformed into superheroes, whose backstories are now being filled in for a nation eager to dote on its idols. Their flaws have melted away, and each player is celebrated as a paragon of some of humanity’s noblest qualities.

Jordan Henderson is no longer merely a willing midfield workhorse, but a man of steel whose selfless indomitability epitomises the side.

Unless you feel the side is epitomised even more by the cool composure of John Stones – so calm, so elegant – or the colossal strength of Harry Maguire – so natural, so unaffected – or the berserker energy of Jordan Pickford, or the electric running of Raheem Sterling, or the Golden Boot-winning golden aura of Hurricane Harry Kane.

Presiding over all this – or rather, standing discreetly to one side, modestly leaving the limelight to the players – is Southgate, two years ago unveiled as a slightly apologetic replacement for the scandal-hit Sam Allardyce.

Four weeks of World Cup success, and England, once blind, now sees in Southgate the leader they’ve been waiting for all along, a 21st century Churchill with none of the whiskey-sodden imperialist bluster or embarrassing historic quotes about using poison gas on uncivilised tribes.

Acclaim for the thoughtful, considerate, respectful, reassuringly competent, quietly passionate Southgate is now universal, pouring forth even from the left-wing political site Novara Media, not usually a hotbed of football opinion. Co-founder Aaron Bastani described Southgate as a role model for millions of adult men, and suggested that in an age defined by the domineering ignorance of Thatcher and Trump, "the emotional intelligence of Southgate seems like the leading edge of something new. And better."

It was remarkable to see a site like Novara hailing a figure who is essentially a centrist Dad in a waistcoat, but such is the intoxicating effect of a run to the World Cup semis.

The intoxication of the people of England, captured in millions of social media videos, has started to look like something from a JG Ballard fever dream: the mass jubilation in packed streets and squares, the plastic beer glasses flying through the air, the bouncing up and down on cars, the trashed Ikeas, the leaping onto tables and shouts of “do you want some”, the spectacular sucker punches, the naked arses raised aloft and spread in triumph, the celebration of chaos, the days of joyous abandon under the baking sun of a heat-wave summer.

The euphoria contrasts with the calmness that reigns in Russia, where the World Cup already feels over and everything has gone back to normal. That’s how it always goes with the World Cup when you are actually there; after the second round you feel it rapidly dwindling away to nothing. The carnival-of-nations bit – which is the best bit – is over, most of the teams and their fans have gone home, and all that remains is to see who wins the football competition.

There are only three countries where the emotion of the 2018 World Cup lives on: France, Croatia and England, and the English yield to nobody in the intensity with which they are determined to experience this moment. A Moscow-based friend has flown home to England for the semi-final, and, he hopes, the final, because he felt that to stay in Moscow where the matches are actually happening would be to miss the whole thing.

If England beat Croatia on Wednesday night, Donald Trump will fly in for his visit on Friday to find hardly anyone left paying attention to him. It might seem as though the English couldn't possibly ratchet up the delirium any further, but it could also be that we haven't yet seen the half of it.