England v Slovakia: Gareth Southgate confident his players can meet the challenges ahead

England manager Gareth Southgate.
England manager Gareth Southgate.
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GARETH SOUTHGATE accepts there is no “Messiah” on hand to transform England into world-beaters in quick time but is proud his squad do not shirk the challenge of turning out for their country.

Southgate was honest enough to admit the side he manages do not have the pedigree to match the likes of Spain, who thrashed Italy 3-0 on Saturday, but suggested they were more committed than some of his former international team-mates, who ‘ducked’ their duty.

How could we possibly compare ourselves to a team who have Champions League winners throughout, have a World Cup win and a European Championship under their belt? We’re a work in progress.

England manager Gareth Southgate

The question of pride in the shirt has resurfaced following a laboured performance against Malta on Friday, when a 4-0 scoreline was burnished by three goals in the last five minutes.

Southgate has seen and heard it all before, going back to his own playing days, and was happy to confront some awkward truths ahead of tonight’s potentially decisive World Cup qualifier against Slovakia.

Asked if his side were capable of matching the Spanish performance in Madrid, he said: “No. How could we possibly compare ourselves to a team who have Champions League winners throughout, have a World Cup win and a European Championship under their belt? We’re a work in progress.

“If we’re looking for some sort of Messiah to change things, I don’t think that’s realistic.

“We have some exciting young players who can be really good going forward, but will have to go through some of the hardships those Spaniards had to get through to get where they are.”

He was even more blunt on whether other top nations handled the pressure and public scrutiny of the international game better than England appear to.

“Maybe they’ve had better players over the years,” he offered.

Although aware of a possible gap in quality, Southgate is at least reassured there is no such chasm in commitment.

In stressing the point he also appeared to take aim at some who were not always desperate to do their international duty.

“I’ve played in teams where people were there every time, and others weren’t,” he said.

“Absolutely. That’s why some people get 50, 60 or 70 caps and others, who may be good players, don’t. The important ones are those who get the 70 caps.

“I guess what I’d say to the supporters is every team has new players. Whatever your feelings have been about the team, can you give the next generation of players the support that any English sports team craves?

“We’re not demanding (the players) are here. They want to be here. The easiest thing in the world would be to pull out, but we picked 28 players and 28 turned up. That’s a really good sign, and it hasn’t always been the case. It’s a shame the guys who come get stick, and the guys who duck out escape.”

Southgate was speaking on the occasion of his 47th birthday and, although there was no cake, there was also a promise not to react with Yaya Toure levels of disappointment.

That places him much closer in age to his squad than predecessors such as Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson, Fabio Capello and Sven Goran-Eriksson, and his England career is recent enough for him to place talk of a divide between players and fans in its proper context.

“The notion the players aren’t proud to play is outrageous, really,” he said. “They’re unbelievably proud to play.

“It’s the same narrative I heard when I was playing. I’m able to contextualise and rationalise it. Every England team I played in, the lads could never quite get their heads round why that was.

“When you’re having a bad day as a player, sometimes it looks as if you can’t get to things, you’re not as sharp, so people perceive you’re not trying. The easiest, basest reaction is to say, ‘They don’t care’.

“More often than not, players have cared too much and been wrapped up in the experience too much and not been able to give their best for that reason.”

Southgate, a veteran of the heady days of Euro ‘96, knows how important the crowd can be in big games like tonight’s but realises it works both ways.

“It’s not for the fans to pull their weight – it’s for us to do that,” he added. “We don’t have the game without the fans. Would we rather the fans are with us? Absolutely. If we play in front of no fans, it means nothing. If we are able to inspire everybody and excite everybody, then it means everything.”

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(Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe)

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