Southgate and England facing their biggest fear: a penalty shoot-out with Germany

England manager may well be haunted by memory of missed penalty in 1996 Euros

Is Gareth Southgate the saving grace of English public life? Set against the megalomaniacal strangeness of Boris and the other political stars of Brexit, the England football manager has cut a sharply dignified and restrained figure through thick and thin. He has already achieved the impossible, managing the English national team without turning barmy or being dragged into the pantomime of tabloid fun and humiliation.

Southgate has been measured in more than just sartorial elegance, a smoothly unruffled and authentic presence as he sails the good ship England into the waters of genuine contention. World Cup semi-finalists in Russia three years ago, England have topped their group in the European championships with very little drama – if equally little by way of goals.

Still, who could blame Southgate for tossing and turning a little uneasily over the next few nights? Sooner or later, he was going to have to face the occasion that will probably define his managerial life. There are many football nations in the world but, for England and football, it always and inevitably boils down to Germany. The boy Southgate's moment has arrived.

"Football is a simple game," Gary Lineker immortally noted in 1990, after the England-Germany relationship had been reduced to that traumatic penalty shoot-out in Turin. "Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, at the end, the Germans always win."


Lineker has developed such a glossy TV persona – Des Lynam’s dream child – it is often overlooked that he harbours the gloomy and mordant spirit of Larkin. He knows a good line even as he coins it, but you can bet he regrets ever uttering those words because they are too close to home.

There seems to be some unwritten law that when it comes to these national occasions – all of England and Germany locked in front of their television screens, all that history and shared bewilderment at how the other crowd lives – that the Germans must find a way to win. Or, that England must find a way to lose.

It's a full 11 years since they met in a knockout tournament match, and the 4-1 tanking which Germany inflicted on Fabio Capello's hapless and unhappy England team in South Africa wasn't even the full story. That day marked the end of the golden generation – of Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard, Terry – and their solitary goal was delivered not by any of those garlanded names but by... Matthew Upton. It has been forgotten that when the game was rescuable at 2-1, Lampard fired a thunderbolt which hit the underside of Manuel Neuer's crossbar and crossed the line in an uncanny reflection of Germany's goal-that-wasn't in the 1966 World Cup final. And that "Lamps" later hit the post with another piledriver. All that remained was the humiliation and the exit.

Cool Britannia

But it is the era of Cool Britannia which will feature as the build-up to Tuesday's five o'clock England-Germany encounter at Wembley intensifies. A quarter of a century has passed since their meeting at Wembley in the Euro '96 semi-final, a perfect anniversary timespan for the '90s generation to wallow in the nostalgia of what was a hot and hugely optimistic summer. None of it has ever really gone away – not the anthemic Three Lions song; not Tony Blair, the rising star who hijacked the lyrics for his Labour conference speech that autumn ("Seventeen years of hurt never stopped us dreaming/Labour's coming home"); not the bittersweet replays of Gascoigne's goal against Scotland and not the tantalising sense of what-if.

The then prime minister, John Major, was among those who offered his consolations to Southgate, who had the monumental misfortune to be the player to miss the spot kick which sent England out after another gruelling penalty shoot-out against Germany at Wembley. Thirty years of hurt and counting. The only bright spot was that Southgate had the temperament to absorb and recover from the psychic wound of the moment – even if he could never fully escape it.

On Wednesday night, during the half-time studio coverage of Germany's riveting game with Hungary, BBC Two ran an odd and fascinating report on England's tortuous history with the penalty shoot-out. It was as if they had prepared it for the delectation of Jürgen Klinsmann, the nerveless German striker and former manager appearing as a studio guest, who offered a sympathetic chuckle as he admitted that yes, the Germans practice for penalties but, really, they believe in their mental strength.

The Germans were in a pickle against Hungary that night and trailed for much of the game; they might have crashed out of the tournament. Klinsmann had the good grace to pretend he was worried but, even as England's possible opponents chopped and changed – Hungary one moment, Portugal the next – there was an uneasy inevitability about the fact that of the 16 nations destined to progress, England and Germany yet again managed to seek one another out.

Old ghosts

Straight away, the old ghosts were raised. "What happened with the pizza ad?" England's Jordan Henderson wondered at a press conference this week when asked about a long-buried television advert in which Southgate had starred. None of the current England squad would have seen it - until now.

The advert features Southgate sitting at a Pizza Hut wearing a brown paper bag over his head as he eats with Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle – the two men who missed penalties against Germany in 1990. It was a clever 30 seconds of advertising and must have made sense to Southgate beyond the appearance fee: what better way to deal with a catastrophic sporting moment than to mock it and send yourself up? When Southgate removes the bag, he looks, from the distance of 25 years, shockingly young, more school prefect than future England manager.

He did the right thing, then, laughing in the face of his own bad luck and perhaps hoping that a naff advert could help to demythologise whatever role the German football team holds in England’s national imagination. Because it is a one-sided obsession, this; the Germans have always seemed both amused and perhaps a little touched by England’s undisguised dread of the penalty shoot-out.

And, as the match clock starts on Tuesday night, every scoreless minute will drag England and Southgate back towards that future when the game is over and the evening, the era, has been whittled down to an awaiting battle of nerves and mental discipline and, perhaps, the lack of imagination it takes to not miss penalties.

Southgate is a good egg. You can even hear the note of affection or respect in the voice of Roy Keane when he constantly refers to the England gaffer as "Gareth". The pub and punditry debates over his tactical limitations continue to rage and, as with all England managers, he is only a few bad results away from a savaging and banishment.

He has carried the cross of that penalty miss with considerable grace. Now he faces a Germany team which has regressed since winning the World Cup in 2014. The Joachim Löw era will end as soon as Germany exit these championships. England have yet to concede a goal in this tournament, and host a fitful Germany at home in Wembley. Tuesday – the teatime kick-off, the country at a standstill – looks like England’s golden chance to atone for all of those old hurts and fears – which is also what makes it so treacherous.