No room for regrets as England face last test against Belgium

One more fixture to play but there has been precious little time in which to prepare

England coach Gareth Southgate talks to midfielder  Fabian Delph during a  press conference ahead of the World Cup third-place playoff against Belgium in St Petersburg on Saturday. Photograph:  Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

England coach Gareth Southgate talks to midfielder Fabian Delph during a press conference ahead of the World Cup third-place playoff against Belgium in St Petersburg on Saturday. Photograph: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

 

Three days on the sense of regret is just as raw. Gareth Southgate has done all he can to re-energise his England squad for the third-place play-off, such a cruel commitment in the context of what might have been, but he still found himself squinting at his laptop in the small hours of yesterday morning, poring over yet another re-run of the defeat by Croatia, wincing through that period in the second half when, for the first time in Russia, his side appeared to panic and their style slipped. Cursing Ivan Perisic’s “bizarre” volley and the spasm of indecision which gripped his team’s backline to shatter a dream.

The manager has attempted to retain a modicum of perspective. His painful memories of Euro 96 have never really dimmed, though that semi-final defeat by Germany 22 years ago was endured by a team he acknowledges now were far closer to the finished article. Many of their number knew their chance came and went that night, whereas the buzz- words accompanying the current crop revolve around youthful energy, long-term vision and this being the start of something special. “But we were still 20 minutes from a World Cup final, and then, in extra time, 10 minutes from a shootout to get to a World Cup final,” he said. “That is going to live with me forever, no doubt about that.

“I’m old enough to know I don’t have to beat myself up unnecessarily. When I was a player I had a very simplistic mind- set: win I was good, lose and I was an idiot, nothing in between. I’m a lot more rational now. I can see what we have achieved, though when you are so close you look back at what we might have done. I’m conscious I’ve had to try to raise everybody. But, that said, I’m still up watching the game again at four o’clock this morning.”

Hint of darkness

It will have pained him just as much on the third, fourth or fifth viewing. The past few days have demanded a different kind of management. Southgate’s body clock was always likely to have been scrambled at this point, whether by the white nights of Repino – there is a hint of darkness now with midsummer passed – or that flurry of post-match flights shuttling the squad back to the Gulf of Finland. They touched down at 6.30am after the agony at the Luzhniki Stadium. But there is one more fixture to play and there has been precious little time in which to prepare.

The manager had called a meeting of staff and players in the gym at the ForRestMix Club on Thursday afternoon with all 58 of the travelling party in the room and the captain, and prospective Golden Boot winner, Harry Kane, perched on one of the barbells. The message had been about ending on a high, beating Belgium at St Petersburg Stadium today to secure the second-best finish in the nation’s history and claim a bronze medal as tangible reward of sorts for exceeding expectations.

All 23 players trained yesterday to suggest a focus remains, even if the selection will be much altered. Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard have been ill. Kieran Trippier and Jordan Henderson are carrying injuries. Kane, desperate to start, looked jaded in Moscow. Those who replace them will be fresher, eager to make their own mark. Yet the sense of anticlimax will be no less numbing for them.

Fabian Delph will start and recounted the extremes of the past few weeks. “Everybody was screaming: ‘It’s coming home,’” he said of his four days in England. “On the school run even the teacher seemed to like me a bit more now, asking me to take shirts back to get signed. I’ve had kids coming up to me – the parents were kicking them [forward] – saying: ‘Go and get his autograph.’ We had a home birth and the midwife was asking for a picture. She told me it is coming home, too.

“We are in a bubble. We don’t get to feel what it’s like outside so, honestly, the support I felt was phenomenal. I did think that we would go back as super- heroes, because I genuinely thought we were going to win the World Cup. So it was an awful feeling in that dressing room [at the Luzhniki]. ‘What have we done?’ There was quite a long silence, the manager spoke and said his piece, but in times like that you need to be left alone to come to terms with what’s happened. It’s so important we raise ourselves against Belgium and go home with a medal.”

Southgate pointed to the group game defeat by the same opposition as motivation, though that duel in Kaliningrad had been competed in by reserve teams. Belgium seem more intent on selecting a stronger lineup this time. Their golden generation will depart Russia saddled by a different kind of disappointment: they were contenders. Yet, regardless of today’s result, the England manager will encourage his squad and staff post-match to let their hair down on their last night back in Repino with the next stage of this team’s evolution sure to mean that, by the time the Uefa Nations League kicks off against Spain in September, there will have been changes to personnel.

Things always change

“That group of people will never be together again,” he said. “That’s why you’ve got to enjoy those moments. You have to balance everything with: where do I think this team is, realistically? We’ve got a huge amount out of this group of players, and they deserve massive credit. If I look at Pickford, Maguire, Trippier . . . they had a handful of caps each coming into the tournament, and they have all performed unbelievably well. As have so many others who don’t have huge experience.

“But the reality is players, staff . . . things always change, for whatever reason. We never close our mind to people, and there are some younger players we’re excited about and who could get Premier League football this year and start to push. But they’ve got it all to do now. It should be harder to get into the group than it has been this time.”

He will have to wait to switch off. Southgate and his players fly back to Birmingham tomorrow with the new Premier League campaign less than a month away and with a meeting pencilled in back at St George’s Park next week to plan for the September internationals.

He also has letters to write to all those involved in Russia, a self-imposed task – “It’s quite nice to receive a letter in this day and age, and there’s something special about that” – thanking them all their efforts.

The holiday will have to wait and, even then, he admitted his thoughts will rarely deviate from football. – Guardian

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