England manager Gareth Southgate found out a long time ago that being superstitious was not the way for him, and is trusting his side to reach the World Cup final tonight without having to rely on luck or rituals.
The Three Lions have the chance to reach just the second major tournament finale in their history as they take on Croatia in a mouth-watering semi-final at Luzhniki Stadium.
Following in the footsteps of the heroes of 1966 had looked a pipe dream this summer, but Southgate has created an impressive bond and shaped his promising team into World Cup challengers.
The former defender suffered disappointment when England last reached the last four of a major tournament, missing the crucial spot-kick as Terry Venables’s men bowed out of Euro ’96 in a penalty shootout.
That pain still haunts the manager, but years of English disappointment are not being felt by players ahead of the biggest match in a generation.
“I think we feel that is of no bearing to this team,” Southgate said. “We’ve been consistent about that. From the off that was my problem because I’m part of that history.
They’re getting blamed for what my generation and generations that followed did. But these guys had an opportunity to start from scratch and create their own history. That’s what we’re focused on.Gareth Southgate
“They’re getting blamed for what my generation and generations that followed did. But these guys had an opportunity to start from scratch and create their own history. That’s what we’re focused on.
“Most of them weren’t born when a lot of the stories we’re talking about happened, so why as a coach would I try and put that at their door?
“They should be judged on them as a team. I think, to be fair, the public have done that. They’ve seen we’ve got good lads who are incredibly proud to play, and are playing in a slightly different style to the one we’ve seen for a few years – playing with confidence on a big stage. So, they should – we’ve got trust in them doing that.”
Southgate praised his players for their diligence and commitment ahead of a game that he believes his players approach as well prepared as possible.
It might be tempting to hope for good luck at such a crucial juncture, but the only superstitious spell in the England manager’s coaching career was fleeting.
“I’ll tell you a story about me and superstitions,” Southgate said.
“When I was managing at Middlesbrough we had a game at Reading and I was under a bit of pressure. When I went to get changed at the hotel I’d forgotten my socks. So, I went to the kit-man and I borrowed a pair of black goalkeeper socks. Anyway we won and the staff made this big thing about my lucky socks, saying I had to wear them next game.
“So we were at home and I went to get changed and I thought, ‘Hmmm, shall I wear those socks?’. We still needed the win but I thought, ‘No, it’s ridiculous’. So we lost the game and then on the Tuesday we were playing again, so I thought, ‘Well, I’d better put the socks on’. So, I did and we won 2-0. And then I went upstairs and got sacked.
“So, really, from that moment superstitions have rather gone out the window.”
Southgate laughed as he regaled his audience, with his relaxed demeanour slightly surprising ahead of the biggest match of his managerial career.
“Let me tell you, whether we win or lose the game, my life will not change,” the England boss said with a smile. “I will go home, take the dogs for a run, disappear to Yorkshire, but it is of course a chance to be involved in something incredibly special.
“I have been in sport in different areas for long enough to know what my life is day to day.
“I will get more attention and it won’t be easy to go out for meals if I am in certain places, but it won’t change my view on the world or the things I attempt to do.”
But the odds on Southgate receiving a knighthood are sure to shorten further if England reach the World Cup final.
“They [Croatia] will be the best team we’ve played in terms of what they’re capable of doing with the ball, and what individuals are capable of, definitely,” the Three Lions boss added.
“For us as a team, yes, it’s another chance to create a small piece of history.
“We’re only the second team to reach a semi-final out of our country, and that’s quite significant. In 1996 we had every game at Wembley and that was an advantage for us.
“We’ve got to keep getting over those hurdles and I know we talked about the success of the younger teams, but this is a much harder, much bigger levels for the players and the belief is building as things are happening.
“The more of these tests we can come through, the better, not just for now, but moving forward,” he added.